When the first known male of my family landed at Ellis Island in the late 1890s with his wife and young children in tow, the administrator who recorded their landing wrote “Rusyn” (ROO-SIN, which is the name of a Slavic Western Ukrainian ethnic group) instead of his family name. There is no known history of my family before this.
Names are important as signifiers of who and what we are. They are also indicators of a historical trajectory of which we — whether acknowledged or not — are all set upon together. We’ve decided to name our firstborn of this new generation Russin, and the following is a brief history — cobbled together by insights from my father, nana, great aunts and an admittedly amateur interest in our country’s history — of that name. In thinking hard about how he or she will find meaning in what others call him or her, I argue that this name, like so many other European settler names, is inherently linked with the cultural and legal foundations of Canada. Furthermore, if there are modern inequities that result from historical injustices, that we are obligated to right them.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, less than one hundred years before I was born, a mass British-engineered industrialization plan was executed for what we now know as Western Canada. Steam-powered ships were shortening the trip across the Atlantic, the Last Spike in a trans-Canadian Pacific Railway line allowed for mass land travel of people, goods and services. European immigrants were encouraged in droves to settle the Canadian prairies and industrialize its economy as a contributing Dominion of Britain.
Treaty 1 had been signed with First Nations not thirty years prior to allow for the settling of lands around what we now know as Winnipeg. These were treaties that were signed the year after Canada, as a new confederation of British colonies itself, recognized a provisional Indigenous government that named this “postage stamp province” Manitoba. Following this recognition, Canada almost immediately dispatched a military expedition (led by a man named Wolseley) to oust it. Names, again, are important cultural signifiers.
There are other families’ stories of trade company agents travelling to Europe with promises of frontier land, of Slavic neighbours fleeing religious or ethnic persecution from Russification of the region, or avoidance of repercussions for civil disobedience or criminal activities. Whatever the reason this Rusyn family left the Eastern Carpathians, they somehow (there is no record of the trip from New York) arrived in Stonewall, Manitoba by train around 1898. Stonewall was then a major producer of concrete, well connected by CPR lines.
The primary economic activity in Manitoba was centred around the railway — much like the rest of Western Canada. In addition to providing loans, the government awarded the completion of rail lines by CPR with land as payment, which could then be leveraged. Railway companies were primarily interested in establishing networks for trade of newly accessible raw and processed materials, but they also sought out destinations for tourism for its rapidly growing, yet sparsely scattered, urban centres.
In 1901 the town of Winnipeg Beach was incorporated by railway executives after CPR acquired dozens of acres of its shoreline. The planning of the town required farmland to be developed in its surrounding quarters to support the township, as well as the dance hall and the hotels it would construct. Standard-sized 160-uacre land patents were issued by survey, exploration, and trade companies hired by the Canadian government under the Dominion Lands Act of 1872. Once a small portion (about a tenth) of a quarter section was cleared, the survey agent issued the patent and the homesteading family owned the land.
Upon arrival to the Interlake, the Rusyns were issued a standard canvas tent, shown how to dig a hole in the ground, construct the tent around it, and keep a low fire smoking to keep the insects away. After being given tools and other provisions, they were shown to a small, unworked patch of land near where the town of Komarno (from “mosquito” in Ukrainian) Manitoba is now. That autumn, my Great Great Uncle was born in that dirt hole and the next year, in 1899, the Rusyns were issued a land patent on which they built up a small farm.
The general store, which was also the post office in Winnipeg Beach, issued milk contracts for the town’s hotel around 1903. My Grandad’s father changed his name to the more anglicized “Russin” (RUH-SIN) to appear less foreign to British businessmen, in order to sell milk from the Rusyn farm. He also often travelled south to North Dakota to run horses North to the Interlake for trade. Eventually, “Grandpa Russin” (as my father has always referred to him) would find a business partner and purchase the town’s general store and operate it under the name “Walzcuk and Russin.” That store burned down while my Grandad was overseas during the invasion of Normandy. My father ran a small insurance agency in the town for nearly thirty years.
The history of a nameless immigrant family that built a new life by contributing to a massive industrialization project has always been thought of as a feat of meritocratic value by my family. No doubt, there was hard work and sacrifice made in seizing opportunities in the region, but these were also opportunities created by larger and intentional economic forces far outside their input. We often forget the details and context in which this was all made possible.
A nameless immigrant family was actively recruited and able to secure land to fulfill the economic intentions of a new government. A nameless immigrant family was able to appear both on and off paper as an acceptable partner to British business. If names are so important in our understanding of historical place, what other concessions were made to appeal to economic authority? Europeans were able to practice their own religions and speak their own languages, and although competition or alienation of ethnic groups was common, they were largely Christian derivatives.
Today, the modern economic amenities we all enjoy in this country are undoubtedly a result of this project. But what inequities experienced by Manitobans today are a result of injustices then? Compare this family’s story and the history of Winnipeg Beach and CPR lines, to the land development and economic opportunities of First Nation Treaty 1 territories, and the systemic and intentional erosion of Indigenous language, religion and culture by its government.
When we ask ourselves who we are, and where we come from, let us not forget that the majority of our history is inherently linked with those first years of our history. It was made possible by an Indigenous provisional government, made possible by partnership with Treaty 1, made possible by massive industrialization. Let the names we have be reminders of our position in this historical trajectory, together. Let them compel us to work toward reconciliation in an honest and open way as partners — ready to commit to a relationship.
Aaron Russin is probably not several children sitting on each other’s shoulders wrapped in a trench coat wearing a bowler cap. Follow them — I mean — *HIM* on twitter @aaronrussin.