ON THE PRAIRIES, 1890-1920:
THE FREDERIKSENS OF NOKOMIS
Danes, Swedes, or Norwegians, when they appear in the annals of the Canadian prairie West, are instantly recognizable: they are "the good immigrants" who settled in with remarkably little dislocation for themselves, and with scarcely a tremor to disturb the social environment of their new homeland. Not for these immigrants the pejorative epithet "foreigner", nor the labels "illiterate" and "unassimilable". Moreover, these modern land-seeking Vikings practised the choicest virtues enshrined in their religious heritage—sobriety, frugality, and industry—and they brought with them a responsible, moderate progressivism in matters political, economic, and social. 1 A true account? Perhaps. But I would suggest that this is an interpretation that has had a ready acceptance rather than careful scrutiny based on solid historical evidence.
I propose a limited re-examination of the foregoing picture, basing my discussion primarily on the letters of the Frederiksens —a Danish family who settled in Nokomis, Saskatchewan, before the First World War. In particular, I wish to respond to suggestions that our view of Scandinavians (and other immigrant groups) too seldom takes into account the perceptions of those on the "inside". As a case in point, Michael Karni recently asked historians to discard "the threadbare controversy over assimilation," remarking that we knew a great deal about "the external facts of the immigrant workers' ... living conditions, [but] ... of their internal lives, of their perceptions, attitudes, and aspirations, we know very little ...." 2 Similarly J. E. Rea has suggested that conventional assumptions about our "Images of the West" might have to be qualified, that our views perhaps should be reconsidered in light of what a novelist like Adele Wiseman, for example, had said about the immigrant in the Canadian West