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.

The Pakan area was a hotbed of Methodist evangelizing. There was a Methodist school for Ukrainians and the local doctor, C. H. Lawford, was also a Methodist missionary. The first of his few converts was Metro Ponich, who converted in 1909. Presumably his old friends the Rusnacks were among those whom he converted the following year. Perhaps this conversion indicates a desire to prove their Canadian-ness. It certainly exposed Stephen to more enlistment rhetoric than traditional Ukrainian churches would have, and may have motivated Stephen to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Methodist ministers from pulpits all across Canada pushed their flocks to enlist, including in Pakan. After conscription was enacted, Rev. Dr. Lawford would be appointed to the exemption tribunal. Of course, Stephen did have plenty of other reasons to enlist.

For one, while being naturalized citizens would have protected the Rusnacks from registration and internment, it would not protect them from xenophobia. Stephen was living and working in Fort Saskatchewan when he enlisted; he would have been well aware that he was seen as a threat and would have experienced more xenophobia than his family who lived in the Ukrainian bloc settlement area. In Fort Saskatchewan, he would have also experienced more pressure to enlist than in a rural community, where men could also contribute to the war effort by producing food. By joining up, he was doing exactly what a young Canadian man in the city should be doing and was therefore proving himself as a young Canadian man.

Rusnack enlisted in the 151st Battalion with a number of other men from Pakan, some of whom had also been working in Fort Saskatchewan. The men he enlisted with, and his recruiter, would have known that he was not born in Canada; it is odd, then, that he listed Pakan as his birthplace. As a naturalized citizen, he was eligible to enlist. Perhaps he was unclear about that and wanted to be on the safe side, or he wanted to emphasize his Canadian identity. However, the degree to which he succeeded in deemphasizing his foreignness is unclear. He spent five months in the 11th Reserve Battalion and was then taken on strength (a military term for joining a unit) by the 107th Pioneer Battalion. The other men from Pakan were all sent to infantry battalions—perhaps Rusnack’s different placement in the army was because he was the only man among the group from Pakan to be listed as a labourer.

View a collection of Stephen Rusnack’s military records.

During his time in the 107th Pioneer Battalion, Rusnack would have spent a lot of time digging trenches, burying cables, building railways and performing manual labour similar to what he was doing in Fort Saskatchewan. The only difference was that this time, he was under enemy fire. On August 11th, 1917, he, “fraudulently obtain[ed] Government rations in that he fell in for the second issue at breakfast time,” and was punished by losing three day’s pay. A week later he was gassed during the Battle of Hill 70. He was sent to England and transferred to the Canadian Convalescent Depot, and then to the Canadian Engineering Reinforcement Depot. On June 20th, 1918, he was transferred to the Canadian Engineering Reinforcement Battalion, but he never returned to the field. He was discharged April 5th, 1919 and put his proposed residence down as Edmonton.

In 1921, he robbed a Chinese man of $35 at gunpoint in Mirror, Alberta. When arrested in Bremner, he gave a false name, but evidently, he couldn’t lie to the Alberta Provincial Police as he could the CEF. He was convicted and given five years in prison.

Is Rusnack in the photograph of Pakan boys going off to enlist? It seems likely, since Rusnack was the witness on another Pakan recruit’s attestation papers. However, when Metro Ponich annotated the photograph of the group of CEF volunteers from Pakan, he listed one of them simply as, “Ukrainian boy.” If this, “Ukrainian boy” was indeed Rusnack, he evidently did not keep in touch with Ponich, since Ponich could not remember his name.

Rusnack’s life raises a number of questions specific to Pakan, although these questions could be asked of many other Alberta towns of that time. Why was Rusnack, and quite a few other young men from Pakan, working in Fort Saskatchewan? Were there limited job opportunities in Pakan, or did they have ambitions best achieved elsewhere? Why did these men go overseas? How did that affect their feelings of belonging and acceptance in Canadian society? How did it affect their families at home? Why did Rusnack in particular go, and what can that tell us about the Ukrainian experience during the war? And, especially in light of Rusnack’s post-war criminal behaviour, how did the experience of war affect the later lives of these young Albertans?


The Edmonton Bulletin, September 3, 1921 (CITY EDITION), Page 13, Item Ar01306 (

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