Swedes In Canada: Invisible Immigrants

Swedes In Canada: Invisible Immigrants

By Elinor Barr

University of Toronto Press, 2015, Softcover, 555 pages, $35.95


Elinor Barr has published a half-dozen books exploring local and regional history. They include histories of the Pee Dee Railway, White Otter Castle and the best book written about Silver Islet. She has established herself as one of Canada's preeminent published historians.

Elinor was born in Ignace from Swedish parents. She was raised in Northwestern Ontario, married a man from Port Arthur, raised two sons and graduated from Lakehead University as a mature student, where she is currently a research associate of The Lakehead Social History Institute.

Swedes in Canada may be the crown on her life's writing.

It is a thoroughly researched (she has been working on it for more than a decade), well organized, engagingly written history of Swedish migration to Canada and their lives and integration into Canadian society. It is also an engaging, accessible and friendly read.

She chronicles more than three centuries of Swedes coming to Canada, beginning with the first wave of migration in the 1800s.

Elinor subtitles her text "Invisible Immigrants" as she documents how, unlike other highly visible European migrations to Canada, the Swedes kept a relatively low profile and tended toward a moderate assimilation into Canadian culture and society.

She chronicles chapters that include Settlement Patterns, Religion, World Wars, The Depression, Strikes and Unions, and Earning A Living.

There is a significant chapter on women immigrants. From housewives to midwives, Swedish immigrant women worked hard and demonstrated their resiliance in this new country.

Here is a passage about childbirth:

"Wherever they lived women were responsible for acting as midwives until the 1920s because most births took place in the home, attended by one or two female relatives or neighbours. The high rate of death in childbirth meant that a woman risked her life every time she got pregnant. Few midwives had formal training; proximnity was the key element. In New Stockholm Bill Pearson was one of the many babies delivered by Svea Stenberg. 'I was born March 25, 1893, I have been told, and the day weatherwise was far from nice. The midwife, Mrs. Stenerg, had made the trip two and a half miles on a stone boat with the old grey horse Grolle wading through the drifts. . . . A little joke of Mrs. Stenberg's was that I looked so miserable that she hesitated to give me the slap so necessary at birth to have you draw your first breath! The Stenbergs became my Godparents.'"

There is even a special chapter written by local author Charles Wilkins titled The Swedes in Canada's National Game.

Barr chronicles other Swedes who made a name for themselves in Canada, of the non-hockey variety, in professions such as music, art, filmmaking and Northwestern Ontario's Linda Lundstrom who created her own company designing women's clothing, including the famous Laparka coat.

The book includes historical photographs, maps and a generous bounty of appendices, indexes and notes. This is a monumental addition to the history of Scandanavian contributions to this country.


Michael Sobota is a Thunder Bay-based writer.

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