Hidden by mist, the towering Welsh mountains of Snowdonia have captured the imagination of storytellers throughout the ages. The legends of King Arthur and Merlin the Magician are rooted in the Welsh folk tradition, and writer Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) created with words heartbreakingly beautiful descriptions of the Welsh countryside and people. However, then story of Wales as a nation is filled with battles and many hardships. Throughout her history a long-standing struggle for independence and economic survival has led to the immigration of Welsh people to Canada.
The first Welshman to arrive in Canada is believed to have been Sir Thomas Button, who led an expedition to find the Northwest Passage in 1612. Other early Welsh in Canada came after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763 and following the aftermath of the American Revolution (1775-1783). Welsh mapmaker David Thompson was one of the great explorers of the North West Company in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and is often called "Canada's Greatest Geographer." He covered 130,000 kilometres on foot and surveyed most of the Canada-United
States border in the early days of exploration.
One of the first efforts to encourage Welsh emigration to Canada began in 1812, when Welsh native John Mathews endeavoured to bring his family to Canada. Mathews left home at a young age and went on to become a successful businessman in America. When he returned to Wales, he found his family living in poverty and became convinced they should emigrate to Canada. In 1817 his family settled in the township of Southwald, near what is now London, Ontario. By 1812 he had brought over more relatives who built homes on the 100-acre lots granted to them by Colonel Thomas Talbot. The colony attracted 385 Welsh settlers by 1850 and retained its predominantly Welsh character until the late 1870s.
Early Welsh immigration to Canada was also spurred on by the Cariboo gold rush in British Columbia in 1858. The development of underground mining provided employment for many skilled Welsh miners who decided to remain in the area.
In 1902 Welsh immigrants arrived from Patagonia, which had been incorporated into Argentina in 1881. Compulsory military service and a series of floods that ruined Welsh farmers' crops led to the resettlements of the emigrants in Bangor, Saskatchewan, where they once again took up farming. A community of Welsh farmers was also established at Wood River near Ponoka, Alberta.
Many Welsh came to Alberta from their home country during the peak homesteading years after the turn of the century. Most came from the mining and industrial regions of Wales to work in the coalmines around Edmonton, where they soon became active in the trade union movement. David Milwyn Duggan, a Welshman, was the mayor of Edmonton from 1921 to
1923, who came to Edmonton from Wales in 1905.
Welsh cultural society meetings during the early years were often conducted in the Welsh language, a Celtic language related to Breton and Cornish. These meetings also included group singing, parlour games, as well as Welsh cakes and tea. Picnics were held during the summer months.
Today the Welsh community in Alberta is served by three main organizations: The Calgary Welsh Society,
St. David's Welsh Society of Edmonton and the Ponoka Welsh Society. These associations function primarily as social clubs, featuring lecturers, films and dinner meetings on a regular basis. The St. David's Welsh Society of Edmonton is a regular participant in the city's Heritage Days event, and in 2005 the group will celebrate its centennial anniversary. The Welsh are renowned worldwide for their singing ability, and choirs are often a part of or sponsored by Welsh community associations. This stems from a choral tradition rooted in church and chapel, and still deeper in the folk tradition of Wales. The St. David's Welsh Male Voice Choir of Edmonton has existed for over 75 years and performs several times throughout the year.
Welsh festivals today include the Eisteddfod, the oldest Welsh celebration and competition involving the recitation of poetry and music. Another popular Welsh event is the Gymanfa Ganu, a song festival focusing on hymns. The Welsh in Canada celebrate St. David's Day on March 1st. St. David, reputed to have lived in the country, is the patron saint of Wales and has been instrumental in the Christianization of the country. St. David's Day celebrations include storytelling and singing; banquets are also held in Lethbridge, Ponoka, Calgary, Red Deer, Edmonton and Fort McMurray.
A newsletter serves the Welsh communities in Calgary and Lethbridge, while in
Edmonton the St. David's Society issues a bulletin twice a year informing its members about upcoming events. Some Welsh Canadians subscribe to
Ninnau, the Welsh national newspaper published in New York.
Since political union with England in 1536, Wales has been heavily influenced by English culture. One consequence of this association was the gradual decline in the number of Welsh speakers. Recently, however, a revival of the Welsh language has been taking
place. In Alberta, it is easy to find Welsh language seminars in-person and online and attempts to teach the Welsh language are being made across the country.
According to statistics from 2001, there are 60,000 Canadians of Welsh origin in Alberta.
Welsh-Canadians have been active in the country's cultural life supplying Canada with some of its more lively characters
including novelist Robertson Davies, Powys Thomas, co-founder of the national theatre
school, and Robert Harris, painter of the Fathers of
This digital collection was
produced with financial assistance from Canada's Digital
Collections initiative, Industry Canada.