Stephen Rusnack: Homesteader, Soldier, Thief

Editor’s note: The banner image above is courtesy of Victoria Settlement Provincial Historic Site.

Written by: Alison Thomas

Stephen Rusnack—also known as Rusnak, or Russnack or Rousnack—was a homesteader, a soldier and a thief. He came to Pakan, Alberta in 1899, enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1916 and was arrested for robbery in 1921.

Rusnack’s colourful history may be just the story of one man, but it is also a part of the larger experience of immigrants to Alberta at the beginning of the 20th century. Although Rusnack’s choices (and mistakes) were uniquely his own, the situations and social pressures he faced would have been familiar to immigrants throughout the province. 

The Rusnacks came to Canada from Toporvitsi, Bukovina as part of the first wave of immigration to Canada from Austrian Ukraine. Stephen was only a toddler, and wouldn’t have remembered their melancholic goodbyes, the cramped train ride to Hamburg, or getting sick on the third-class voyage to Halifax. He might have remembered those early summers, when he and his family lived together with the Poniches and Nykolaychuks while the men were off working the railways. Although they built their house early, the Rusnacks do not seem to have become part of the emerging Ukrainian middle class. The older Rusnack children did not attend much school, although by 1916 the younger ones were probably enrolled.The family was finally naturalized in 1913, after applying sometime before 1901. They were also assimilating to Anglo-Canadian culture in one major way: they had converted from Orthodoxy to Methodism.

Pakan Victoria boys off to enlist for service in first World War. Photo donated to Victoria Settlement Provincial Historic Site by Metro Ponich.
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The Place of Frozen Smoke: Cultural Landscapes of M’behcholia

Editor’s note: Banner image of Dene Tha’ First Nation drummers at M’behcholia courtesy of Laura Golebiowski.

Written by: Laura Golebiowski (Indigenous Heritage Section) in collaboration with Dene Tha’ First Nation and Matt Munson (Yves Claus Didzena)

It was known as The Place of Frozen Smoke. Where, on cold winter days, the smoke from countless campfires could be seen rising high above the lakeshore. A landscape that has sustained Dene Tha’ First Nation since time immemorial. It’s name is M’behcholia, translating to Big Knife, or Bistcho Lake. The name of the lake itself is M’behcho. Multiple English spellings and translation attempts exist for these names.

For many, it is an ancestral place where all living Dene Tha’ First Nation members have a connection. Elders and knowledge-keepers tell us there are trails all around, extending from the lake. The Dene Tha’ used horses, canoe and dog teams to travel the vast expanse of shoreline, pitching tents and tipis to camp and make dry fish and meat along the way. The lakeshore was dotted with permanent settlements, seasonal camps, fishing spots, gravesites and sacred places. Each place had a Dene name, inspired by the activities that occurred there.

M’behcholia in the fall. Source: Laura Golebiowski.

It was the birthplace of several Ndátin—dreamers or prophets—including Gochee (Brother), Mbek’ádhi (He is Recovered) and Nógha (Wolverine). These spiritual leaders were trained by listening to the stories of animals and powerful ancestors, and would relay visions of the future to the Dene Tha’.

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The English Colony and ‘Ready-Made Farms’ in Alberta

Written by: Allan Rowe, Historic Places Research Officer

On March 25, 1910, a party of emigrants embarked from Great Britain to settle on 24 “ready-made farms” in the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Irrigation Block in Alberta. The farms were clustered together in a colony located approximately 50 kilometres east of Calgary, in an area that came to be known informally as the “English Colony” (officially named Nightingale in 1911). While the English Colony was not a long-term success—the majority of the original immigrants had moved on by 1912—the history of the colony offers a fascinating window into different aspects of early agricultural settlement in Alberta.

The story of the English Colony begins in 1904 with the CPR’s acquisition of nearly three million acres of land in Treaty 7 territory between Calgary and Medicine Hat (south of the Red Deer River and north of the Bow River). While this area had generally been viewed by settlers as too dry for farming, the CPR believed that irrigation would transform the land and make it suitable for agriculture. In the language of the time, irrigation would, “make the desert bloom.” The company began construction on the irrigation system in 1904, which diverted water from the Bow River just east of Calgary and delivered it to a reservoir (now Chestermere Lake). From there water was distributed through a series of secondary canals and ditches to farms throughout the western third of the Irrigation Block. By 1910, the CPR had already sold nearly 70,000 acres of irrigated land in the western section.

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Fighting the 1918 influenza crisis with household chores

Editor’s note: This blog post is small taste of a recent article by Suzanna Wagner: “Households Large and Small: Healthcare Civilians and the Prominence of Women’s Work in the Edmonton Bulletin’s Reporting of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic” published in the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association (vol. 32, no.2, 2022). Published with permission of the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association.

The banner image above is of Oliver School in Edmonton, which served as one of the headquarters for neighbourly help. The blackboard here listed names of women who were willing to take in children whose parents were ill, and the kitchens in the home economics department cooked soup to send out by automobile to households with the flu. Image courtesy of Prairie Postcards Collection, Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Written by: Suzanna Wagner

March is Women’s History Month. What does that mean? What’s unique about women’s history? Isn’t it just regular history, but about women? Well, sort of. Studying the experiences of women in the past has some specific challenges: the ordinary parts of historical women’s lives have a tendency to get ignored, glossed over or just plain forgotten. Why? Often, it is because there are few records that preserved the everyday realities of women’s work and lives. Other times it’s because the everyday substance of historical women’s lives was considered unimportant, uninteresting or inconsequential and not worth examining closely.

And yet, when we dive deeply into the history of the 1918 influenza epidemic in Edmonton, we see not just how desperately important “women’s work” was, but how, in a rare historical moment, the details of women’s work were carefully recorded and published in the newspaper.

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The Archaeological Survey in Numbers – 2021 Update Part Two

Written By: Colleen Haukaas, Archaeological Survey

This week’s post highlights archaeological sites recorded in 2021 under archaeological permits issued by the Archaeological Survey. Part One of this post discussed archaeological permits, archaeologists, and archaeological field activities from 2021.

More than 40,000 archaeological sites have been recorded in Alberta, and archaeologists record 500-700 new sites per year. Sites can include a few artifacts or complex, multi-site areas like Áísínai’pi/Writing-on-Stone. Most sites in recent decades are recorded by archaeologists working in the cultural resources management (CRM) industry. CRM archaeologists work with developers to avoid potential impacts to known or potential archaeological resources in Historic Resources Impact Assessments. Sites are also recorded by researchers at universities, museums, and other institutions, who tend to conduct detailed research at the same sites year-to-year. Site records are managed and archived at the Archaeological Survey’s Alberta Archaeological Sites Inventory.

You can explore previous Survey in Numbers to compare statistics year over year.

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Stage and screen: Black entertainment history in Alberta 1900-1920

Written by: Jeremy Kuipers-Witten


The changing landscape of mass entertainment between 1900 and 1920 was just as evident in Alberta as it was anywhere else in North America. February is Black History Month and when one examines Alberta’s entertainment history from 1900 to 1920 through a Black history lens, numerous interesting stories emerge. During this time frame, the popularity of minstrel shows and vaudeville theatre was beginning to diminish. Recorded music and film emerged as new markets for mass entertainment. Black actors and musicians who had formerly appeared on theatrical stages began to appear on recorded media that could be mass produced and shipped all over the world. Additionally, even though the popularity of minstrelsy and vaudeville was dwindling, a genre of black musical performance called jubilee singing remained popular throughout the teens and twenties. Still, despite the fact that African-American and African-Canadian musicians between 1900 and 1920 were participating in all genres of music, the recording and entertainment industries of the time mainly relegated these performers to stereotypically “Black” genres — namely the 19th century genres of minstrelsy and jubilee singing and the new 20th century genres of jazz and blues.

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The Archaeological Survey in Numbers – 2021 Update Part One

Written by: Colleen Haukaas, Archaeological Survey

This week’s post is an update on the permit management system from 2021 from Alberta’s Archaeological Survey. Archaeological research in Alberta in Alberta that involves surveying and testing land or excavating archaeological sites must be conducted under an Archaeological Research Permit. Permits must be held by an archaeologist who meets professional qualifications. The infographic notes that 58 professional archaeologists held permits in Alberta in 2021; however many other archaeologists work in Alberta archaeology in addition to permit holders, such as field and laboratory technicians.

Most archaeologists in Alberta work in the cultural resources management (CRM) industry, where they work together with the Archaeological Survey and industry partners to avoid impacts to historic resources from proposed developments. CRM archaeologists working under mitigative archaeological permits assessed more than 200 projects in 2021 in all areas of Alberta. Archaeologists dug an astounding 37,000+ shovel tests in 2021 alone, on top of the excavations, backhoe tests, and other inspections they carried out that year.

Most permits were issued for Historical Resources Impact Assessments (HRIAs). Under this type of permit archaeologists determine whether a proposed development will impact archaeological resources. Many tests used in initial HRIAs are negative (shovel tests, sediment exposure examination, backhoe tests). This result is expected- tests are used to expediently locate the presence of cultural materials. After sites have been located, more detailed site evaluations (e.g. test units, excavations) are used for further assessment.

Part two of this post will discuss the archaeological sites recorded in 2021.

You can explore previous Survey in Numbers to compare statistics year over year.

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Violet King Henry: trailblazing Alberta lawyer

Written by: Allan Rowe, Historic Places Research Officer

Violet King Henry was one of the most significant figures in Alberta’s legal history. She became a lawyer at a time when it was very rare to find either a woman or a person of colour in the legal profession. When she entered the University of Alberta’s Law School in 1950, she was one of only three women in the program (a fourth had enrolled in the faculty by the time she graduated in 1953).  She was the first Black Canadian to earn a law degree in Alberta and would become the first Black woman to practice law in Canada when she was called to the Alberta Bar in June 1954. It was the start of a remarkable and varied career that took King Henry across Canada and the United States.

Violet King Henry called to the Alberta Bar, June 1954, (CU1140946) by De Lorme, Jack; Calgary Albertan. Courtesy of Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.

Violet King Henry was born in Calgary on October 18, 1929. Her grandparents had arrived in Canada in 1911 as part of a large group of Black settlers fleeing racist violence and discrimination in Oklahoma. At that time, the Canadian government was aggressively promoting the Canadian Prairie West as an ideal field of settlement for land-hungry American farmers. The arrival of hundreds of Black settlers from Oklahoma starting in 1908, however, quickly exposed the racist foundations of Canada’s immigration policy. The Government of Canada considered multiple strategies to discourage Black immigration from the United States to Canada, including legislation to ban Black immigration from the United States altogether (the legislation was never passed into law). Despite this hostile reception, approximately 1,000 Black settlers came from the United States to Alberta between 1908 and 1911 and established vibrant communities such as Amber Valley and Keystone (now Breton). 

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Borealopelta: A Selective Herbivore

Editor’s note: Alberta’s rich fossil history, including the field of palaeontology, is recognized around the world. RETROactive is now pleased to be sharing stories of discovery from the world-renowned Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.

The banner illustration above is courtesy of Julius Csotonyi.

The nodosaur Borealopelta markmitchelli is the world’s best-preserved armoured dinosaur. This amazing specimen has helped answer many important questions about dinosaur biology and behaviour. Now, new research supports the theory that the nodosaur was a picky eater.

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Alberta’s heritage places need your voice

Alberta is known for its abundant heritage places, from traditional cultural sites to architectural heritage to the heritage values enshrined in our cultural and natural landscapes. 

With this in mind, a project has been started to examine the creation of an inclusive provincial network for Alberta’s heritage places and to consider the re-establishment of regular Alberta forums for historic places, cultural landscapes, built heritage and related concerns. Such a network and forum could create an environment where individuals can come together as peers to share knowledge relevant to each other’s work while providing mutual support when needed. This style of collaboration could achieve far more than any single entity could accomplish alone.

Through this initiative, the committee aims to ensure that Alberta protects and preserves its heritage resources for future generations. Your feedback is essential to understanding the initiative’s viability and the heritage communities’ greater needs. Please help the committee by completing their survey.  The survey will only be open a limited time – from January 4 to January 18 – so please follow the link today.