David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Reflections on “Brandon’s Ghetto”

Brandon Sun, October 27, 2014 - David McConkey

I had a great time this summer hosting a walking tour of “Brandon’s Ghetto.” The tour was a one-kilometre, one-hour reflection of the city’s North End in the early 1900s. The tour resonated with many people and their family immigrant experience. 

The tour was sponsored by the Municipal Heritage Advisory Committee and was part of “Doors Open Brandon.” As in previous years, a leisurely stroll is a wonderful way to notice the city with fresh eyes.
 
The title for the tour was coined in June 1902. A Brandon Daily Sun reporter went to “the flats” and wrote about “the foreigners” he found living there. The reporter was quite surprised to discover that this “slum” was in “the clean little city of Brandon.” The paper headlined the story “Brandon’s Ghetto.”

“It would hardly be imagined,” the Sun reporter wrote, “that there would be such a class of dwellings, but nevertheless there are many houses on the flats, the interior of which would make an uptown resident wonder for the time being if he lived in Brandon.”

The North End, from the founding of the city in the early 1880s, was regarded as the less desirable part of town. It was the “wrong side of the tracks.” It was “the flats,” the area most prone to flooding.
 
At the turn of the last century, Brandon also saw another flood: immigrants from eastern Europe. Their journey had a Brandon connection. Brandon’s M.P., Clifford Sifton, was a member of Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier’s cabinet. Sifton saw the potential of attracting immigrants from beyond the traditional source, the United Kingdom. He looked to places like Galicia in Austria-Hungary, with its “hardy peasants who were anxious to leave Europe and start life under better conditions in a new country.”

These newcomers spoke Ukrainian or Polish. But they were identified by where they had come from. So, they were often called “Austrians” or “Galicians.” (As well as “foreigners” and other more impolite words!) Another term: “Ruthenians” – what would now be considered the most “politically correct.”

The immigrants experienced not only economic hardship and the difficulty of adjusting to a new home. They also faced discrimination from the existing population of Brandon, who had mostly come from eastern Canada or the U.K. 

The “foreigners” were widely thought to be unruly drinkers and fighters. As G.F. Barker, the chronicler of Brandon history, wrote: “Newly-arrived North Side residents of European extraction, given to both bottles and battles . . .” An article in a May 1913 Brandon Daily Sun mentioned that there were no cases before the magistrate, “not even a Galician drunk.”
 
Among the misfortunes suffered by the immigrants was the impact of the First World War. Many found themselves branded as “enemy aliens.” This was because they were technically citizens of Austria-Hungary, with which Canada was at war. Men were rounded up and unjustly imprisoned in internment camps. One such camp was in Brandon, at the Winter Fair buildings on Victoria Ave. between 10th and 11th streets. 
 
Today there are two plaques honouring the memory of those held in the Brandon internment camp. One plaque was placed in 1997 at city hall. Another plaque was placed just this summer at the actual site of the camp on Victoria Ave.
 
The immigrant story is remarkable: from poverty and prejudice to achievement and acceptance in a generation or two. Notable community leader Rick Borotsik reflected on this when he spoke at the unveiling of the city hall plaque.
 
“Just think,” Borotsik said, “my ancestors were put in an internment camp and now I can stand here as a Member of Parliament.”

Universal themes of immigration are echoed in the Brandon Daily Sun story from a century ago. How children adapt the most quickly to a new land. How hard work overcomes adversity. And how each wave of immigrants becomes part of an on-going saga.

“They form almost a village by themselves,” the Sun reporter wrote in 1902, summing up his description of “Brandon’s Ghetto.”

“Children ranging from crying infants to cheeky ten-year-old boys are to be seen in large numbers in the neighbourhood. The young ones talk English almost as well as their mother tongue and as they grow old enough they are sent out to find work . . .
 
“The condition of these people, although apparently living in filth, is on the whole improving . . . As soon as they have sufficient cash, they move to larger and cleaner quarters; their place being filled by new arrivals.”  

* * * *
See also:  

“Brandon’s Ghetto” Walking Tour Notes

Reflections on the Great War 

Take a Brandon Ghost Walking Tour

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation

 



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David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
204-726-9440
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