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New lamps for old: the Assyrians settled near the Battlefords more than 100 years ago

Assyrians, North Battleford drama group, 1933. Left to right: Robert George, Sargis George, Solomon Backus, Samuel Robin, Joseph Backus, Elia Backus. Photo submitted

ishtartv.com - newsoptimist.ca

May 3, 2017


Recently, long-time North Battleford resident, Margaret Beach – a direct descendent of the original Assyrians who migrated from the Middle East to Battleford in 1903 – suggested that 114 years after they arrived in this area might be a good time to write an article for the general public about their early struggles, dauntless courage in the face of overwhelming obstacles, wonderful successes, and many contributions to the Battlefords social and economic life. And, on the occasion of Canada’s 150th  birthday, that we should reflect on the many advances made by the Assyrian people in our communities and nation. I agreed. Here is their story: 

The News-Optimist (June 22, 1979) noted that, “The Canadian West has no greater settlement story than that of the Assyrians who landed on Canadian soil on January 1, 1903.” They were interviewed by officials at Pier 21 in Halifax (as were all newcomers to Canada) before they were permitted to leave for their destination thousands of miles across a largely primitive and unbroken land in the interior – to Battleford (North Battleford did not yet exist; it was granted village status in 1906), North West Territories.

The Assyrians were among Battleford’s very first settlers. Their stalwart leader, the Reverend Dr. Isaac Adams, organized two resettlement projects in Canada, one in 1903 near Battleford, and one in 1906 about eight miles northeast of the first settlement. Importantly, unlike many other ethnic groups, these settlements were composed of families, not men only. The goal was permanent settlement. But the story of our Assyrian brothers and sisters begins long before their arrival on the shores of our great nation. It begins in the old country – in Turkey and Iran. “The name of the Reverend Isaac Adams will always be cherished here (in the Battlefords). He is enshrined in their hearts as one who gave them ‘new lamps for old’ on these Western Plains, and guided their footsteps in the strangers’ land” (North Battleford News Optimist, June 22, 1979).

Isaac Adams was born in the village of Sangar, near the town of Urmia, in 1872. At the age of six, his father passed away, so his mother and five siblings were left in the care of relatives. Early in life Isaac came under the influence of the Presbyterian mission where he attended school. At the age of sixteen, he made his way to the United States, and with the help of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, studied to become a minister. After graduating, Isaac traveled throughout the United States on a 45-day lecture tour dressed in his ‘exotic’ native costumes. He gave lectures and sold his photographs and used the money to open schools in various Assyrian towns in Iran. In 1897, Rev. Adams entered Grand Rapids Medical College and graduated with a degree in medicine three years later. He promptly returned to homeland and married Sarah, the daughter of a prominent physician. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Adams began to organize groups of his countrymen for settlement in North America. Their primary motivation to emigrate was to escape religious persecution. But where to settle? Canada’s immigration policy was to settle and develop Western Canada into a major wheat- and cereal-producing region. The government did not discriminate against immigrants of a different ethnic background or creed. It was interested primarily in settlers who had agricultural skills and a strong work ethic. The Assyrians had both.

In the fall of 1902, the Adams led a column of six horse-drawn carts with 36 men, women and children from Sangar (near Tehran, Iran) towards the Turkish border. Their destination: Canada, the North West Territories, and Battleford. The family names of these remarkable adventurers included Adams, Backus, Shabaz, Odishoo, Jacobs, George, Baba, Badal, Robin, Lazar and Tamraz. The wagons made it across the robber-infested Turkish-Iranian border without incident (the prayers of Reverend Adams and his followers were answered). From Turkey, they took a train to Hamburg, Germany where they boarded a steamship, the “Assyria,” and sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia. From there, the settlers  took a train to Winnipeg where they spent the winter. In the spring, they travelled by train to Saskatoon. After purchasing carts and oxen to pull them, and other necessary pieces of agricultural equipment, they followed the old Battleford Trail along the south side of the North Saskatchewan River  to Battleford, at which point they ferried the river to the North Bank. Reverend Adams and his congregation knelt and gave thanks to God for His bounties and mercies, and for preserving their lives during their arduous journey.

The Assyrian settlers had travelled thousands of miles. They were home, even if home was only an encampment of tents where today stands the Saskatchewan Hospital. To house them through the winter, the settlers built a one story stone structure 30 by 50 feet, with two-foot-thick walls on Dr. Adam’s homestead. The settlers lived here communally as one large family during the winter of 1904-1905. Construction began on individual houses the following spring. 

The Assyrians filed for homesteads shortly after their arrival. A quarter section could be purchased for $10. In 1903, the area was sparsely populated. Battleford, the closest town, was a few miles away from the Assyrian settlement. For the first few years, the Assyrians engaged in subsistence farming to provide for their basic food requirements. To bring in cash, the men worked in town at any labour jobs they could find. The colony prospered during the first few years. The land was virgin and gardens produced much more than the farms in the old country. Sarah Adams remarked that the cabbages grew so large that they could not fit within a person’s arms. Moreover, a workman’s wages in Battleford were considerably higher than they were in Persia.

When it became apparent that that the Canadian Northern Railway would build a rail line north of the river (to the dismay of the citizens of Battleford), settlers, businessmen and speculators (largely Anglo-Saxons from the United Kingdom and Eastern Canada) poured into the area. In March of 1906, North Battleford acquired the status of village. Four months later, it became a town (it gained city status in 1913). All of this meant more, and better, work opportunities for the Assyrians, particularly on the railway and in the booming construction trade. 

By 1906, the settlers  had saved enough money to bring their relatives to Canada. In the same year, Dr. Adams went to Persia and returned with forty Assyrians. The new settlers purchased homesteads in the White Wood area about eight miles north-east of North Battleford. The soil was excellent, and the land was flat and free of rocks. But good land was not a sufficient remedy for the Canadian farmer’s situation in those days. Quarter-section farms were inadequate for dry land farming; half-sections were viable but often needed more labour than one family could muster. On top of that, crops were hit by frost year after year before farmers could take them off. As a consequence, six out of ten farms failed. The Assyrian farms were no exception. By 1914, most Assyrian farmers and their families had moved off their lands and settled in a section of North Battleford referred to as “Chisholm Town.” In subsequent years, more Assyrians joined the colony in North Battleford, either on their own, or with the help of relatives already established. 

The Assyrians worked hard and with determination and perseverance, they farmed, established businesses, and educated their children so they could enrich the fibre and strength of their adopted homeland (The News  Optimist, n.d.)

They were in possession of an entrepreneurial spirit and had a talent for business. For example, the founder of the candy industry in North Battleford was Esakan Shabaz, who opened the Olympia Candy Store where he made his own candies. There were many other Assyrian-owned and operated businesses in the Battlefords. These included: Madison Billiards (owner Moses Backus and sons Joseph and Donald); Picadily Grill (Eli Backus); Bob’s Barber Shop (Robert Backus); Patricia Confectionary Owner (Sam Esaw); Lazar Dry Cleaning and Tailor Shop (Daniel and Sulton Lazar); North Battleford Tannery (Fred Lazar); Beaver Billiards (Tom Yonan); Modern Billiards (Bob Shabaz); Battleford Furniture (Richard and Chris Odishaw); People’s Cab (William and Albert George); J. R.’s Distributors, Dispensing and Catering (Robert Odishaw); Korner Store (Shirley Robin) and Capital Grocery Owners (John and Thirza Odishaw). Finally, Margaret Beach noted that her brother, Edward Robin, refereed hockey in North Battleford. He relocated to Knoxville, Tennessee and refereed hockey there for 30 years. After he passed away, the organization raised a banner in the coliseum with his name on it. It was a great honour.  

Assyrians also contributed in other important ways. Johnny Esaw was vice-president of sports for the CTV television network. Moe and Jeep George coached and managed some of the most successful hockey teams in North Battleford’s history. They also assisted many young hockey players with their hockey careers. Mike Odishaw was reeve of the Rural Municipality of North Battleford for many years. Dick Robin was a member of the North Battleford Public School Board for many years. Chris Odishaw served terms as President of the Battlefords Chamber of Commerce and as Mayor of Battleford. David Odishaw was a director with the Chamber of Commerce. This list is by no means exhaustive.

A fundamental defining point of the Assyrians was their religion, which sustained them when they left their homeland and during the hard, early years of settlement. The Assyrians, led by their minister, were the first Presbyterians in the region. When Dr. Adams left for California, they brought in a new minister, Reverend Eshoo, who provided church services in the Assyrian language well into the 1940s. At this point, the Assyrians joined St. Andrews Presbyterian Church and have remained its backbone throughout the years. They served in various capacities as treasurers, ushers and elders of the church. There were many Assyrian youth in the church. Assyrian women were active in church work as members of the church ladies auxiliary and their handiwork and baked goods were in high demand. In a special church ceremony on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the arrival of the Assyrians to the Battlefords, Lieutenant-Governor C. Irwin Mcintosh noted, “It is a matter of record today that almost half of the elders of St. Andrews are descendants of those first settlers. They have made a contribution to our city that belies their numbers” (The News Optimist, 1983). 

Like so many of  our pioneers, the Assyrians came to Canada to escape religious persecution and oppression. The idea of freedom and owning their own land was irresistible. They were willing to endure any hardships to attain the promised land. The Assyrians contributed much to their new  land. They were solid, law-abiding citizens. They were talented and hard-working and added much to the social and economic fabric of their adopted country. Finally, they remained steadfast in the support of their Christian faith. (Sources: Dr. Arianne Ishaya, Margaret Beach, The News Optimist).

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