Manitoba History: Review: Ronald A. Wells (editor), Letters from a Young Emigrant in Manitoba: A Record of Emigrant Life in the Canadian West
by Daniel S. Lenoski
Letters from a young emigrant in Manitoba is a second edition of a series of letters written by Edward ffolkes [sic] from Southern Ontario and Manitoba between October 7th, 1880 and September 23rd, 1882. In his scholarly introduction to this edition, editor Ronald A. Wells sets the letters in the context of British emigration to North America at the end of the nineteenth century. He examines why Britons frequently switched their destinations so substantially from the United States to Canada during this period and why the rate of migration to Canada from Britain accelerated so greatly immediately before World War I. Discounting the role of emigration agents, he suggests that the availability of good land and the advent of the railway made Western Canada more attractive. The American frontier had “closed,” and with its new cities the Canadian West offered exciting economic opportunities. After 1885 an intensified imperial consciousness was also a factor. In addition, the English economic climate was worsening and Western Canada provided hope, not for those who were already destitute, but for those who had some capital yet feared the volatility of the English economy. However, Wells implies that one consideration perhaps underestimated as a motive for migration to Western Canada was the expansion in Britain of popular knowledge of the region produced by an increase in both the relevant literature and in literacy.
Published in 1883, Letters from a young emigrant in Manitoba was one of the flood of late-nineteenth century books and pamphlets that augmented the popular knowledge about Canada. Much of this literature focused on Manitoba. Wells divides it into three categories: that by settlers and serious travellers; that by organizations with vested interests such as the CPR; and that by holidayers interested in writing a light account of their travels. His examination and assessment of the three—not to mention the detective work revealed by his seventy-one endnotes—are among the highlights of his essay and help us correctly judge the historical significance of Letters from a young emigrant. Especially interesting is the research on a CPR pamphlet, What Woman Say of the Canadian North West (1886).
On the other hand, Wells neglects the significance of the letters as the story of an emigrant’s personal attempts to deal with the experience of changing culture and geography. To be fair, he does point out that such analysis is beyond the scope of his essay and will be left to his colleagues. Unfortunately, neither this nor other scholarly approaches will be aided by the map and the tiny, cluttered, line drawings by Norman Schmidt. The map—printed in beige against a lighter beige background—is almost unreadable, while the artwork seems unfaithful both to the region and to the experience of ffolkes. Schmidt’s illustrations are incapable of evoking the empty, immense, horizontal space so apparent in southern Manitoba even today. Does Schmidt see Manitoba through European eyes like many nineteenth century Canadian poets or painters? One is reminded of Frederick Philip Grove’s sometimes inaccurate renderings of Canadian sky and vegetation.
Despite the problems in his historical eyesight at times, Grove, however, can be seen as a paradigm for the emigrant to Western Canada. Robert Kroetch has said: “Felix Paul Greve he departed Europe; in mid-Atlantic he uninvented himself, unwrote his history, arrived in Canada a new self, Frederick Philip Grove, about to invent new ancestors.” Settlers of the Marsh (1925), Grove’s first English language novel—set near the district in which ffolkes settled—reveals the consequences of the pioneer’s inability to “uninvent.” Because he has difficulty forgetting his European moral perspective and improperly adapts to the language of the region, the hero of Settlers, Nils Lindstedt, fails in his initial attempt at settlement. The norm by which we judge him is his hired man Bobby—who has virtually no past, accepts the pioneer morality and understands its language.
It is enlightening to view the ffolkes correspondence from such a perspective. During the roughly two years covered by the letters the young writer changes a great deal. First, he enthusiastically learns the necessary technical and practical knowledge to be successful as a farmer in Manitoba. For example, the letters contain extensive references to land prices, interest rates and legal procedures—references which, for the critic with literary prejudices, establish the accuracy of the passages in Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh (1925), Fruits of the Earth (1933) and The Yoke of Life (1940) dealing with the economic problems of Manitoba pioneers, especially those with insufficient or no capital. Second, he becomes physically tougher—one of the most interesting things about ffolkes’ letters is how much they reveal about the toughness demanded of pioneers. Third, much more quickly than Grove’s Lindstedt, ffolkes acquires a less ‘fastidious’ and ‘polite’ view of women than he had possessed. The letter of May 18, 1881 written in Eastwood Ontario before he decides to head to the West, reveals him easily accepting the European judgement that the frontier is too rough for a woman. But by December 15, of the same year, he writes from Cyprus Lodge, Manitoba:
The same letter speaks of a man who is forced to give up his farm because his prospective wife will not move to Manitoba. The need for a woman in order to settle the land effectively—lessen the vastness of the horizon and help with the work—is a subject which recurs in subsequent letters. Such sentiments render more authentic the words of Ellen Amundson in Settlers of the Marsh: “During the first few years it is really the woman that makes the living on a pioneer farm. She keeps chickens, cows, and pigs. The man makes the land ... Then there are children; and the house takes a fearful amount of time. Nobody thinks of relieving her of any work.”
What the ffolkes letters reveal is the process of Canadianization taking place in the author. His language becomes more informal and more rooted in the Canadian space. On May 31, 1881, for example, he points out to his mother that he is not only too tired at night to write newspaper articles about Ontario, but also that “From continued intercourse with the working class, [he] find[s] it hard enough to speak the Queen’s English.” By the time he is writing from Manitoba we discover words like “baching it” (for living as a bachelor) and “bulldogs” (“large flies”), “belly” (“a vulgar but popular term [for a horse’s stomach]”), “jump-it” (to acquire the right to another’s homestead through a legal procedure proving he has not fulfilled the regulations), “Cannock” (Canuck), and “launks” (“good-natured, oblidging [but common] fellows”). The class distinctions which appear in the earlier letters and which were so much a part of the British mentality at this time, especially for a clergyman’s son, also begin to be eroded by ffolkes’ Canadian experience.  By the end he sees himself not as an English gentleman farmer, but as a farmer.
His very first letter reveals his uncritical acceptance of Mr. Smith’s assessment of Canadian farmers as “low, mean selfish men.” Six months later he can still admire Smith as an English gentleman (March 2, 1881). By May 31 of the same year, however, ffolkes has apparently learned that “English gentlemen .. . are generally lazy and proud and do little work.” In contrast, in one of the last letters he views the ordinary work-a-day Canadian farm dweller as admirable: “The fellows round here are mostly sons of English clergy, and a rough lot at that; the nicest fellows being the common rough ‘launks,’ always good natured and ready to oblige which the former by no means are” (May 18, 1882). And in his second last letter, written on August 17, 1882, he criticizes those with whom he co-habits for their “airs” and their inability to forget English ways and adapt themselves to the Canadian pioneer environment.
The measure of ffolkes’ Canadianization is his ability to adapt to the climate and geography. It is appropriate to discover him trading his English revolver for a pair of Indian snowshoes. He rarely complains about the severity of either winter or summer and on the four occasions on which he is injured by the cold, he blames his own imprudence, rather than the climate. As Wells points out, by the time the young English apprentice farmer is on his way to Manitoba, he has learned to consider it normal to tear up the boards of a railway station platform to fuel a fire for stranded passengers in the winter. Praise of the environment of both Ontario and Manitoba is also frequent and sometimes elaborate. Witness the following typical, rather poetic passages driven by the excitement of a young man in a beautiful place about to embark on a formidable life’s voyage:
It is important to remember here that in the 1880s both the electric light and the Indian name would have been new, exciting, mysterious and extraordinary to the immigrant speaker. One recalls the new European industrialized society from which ffolkes originates; the other echoes of a heroic society about to pass away.
It is remarkable to see this young nineteenth century Englishman committing himself so firmly to the Manitoba landscape and allowing it to speak through him. In contrast to such Canadian writers as Richardson and Heavysege who viewed the “great lone land” from an alienated mental garrison,  ffolkes learns to see it from a perspective similar to that of Rudy Wiebe or Margaret Laurence, as something to be loved or revered, not merely tolerated, or exploited.
Wells’ edition of Letters from a young emigrant will no doubt prove interesting to social historians of Manitoba. However it will prove no less interesting to those who recall that the word “history” and the word “story” are derived from the same Latin root.
Page revised: 27 October 2012Back to top of page