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.