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Jeff Keshen
Sylvie Perrier

10 – Revisiting Quantitative Methods in Immigration History

Immigrant Files in the Archives of the Russian Consulates in Canada

Vadim Kukushkin

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  • 1 For good, albeit now somewhat dated, overviews of the achievements of the “new social history” in (...)
  • 2 A thoughtful discussion of the merits of statistical analysis can be found in Eric Sager, “Employm (...)

1In the last two decades, quantitative methods of analyzing historical sources seem to have lost much of their appeal in Canadian and American immigration historiography, reflecting a trend common to social historians in general. Historians on both sides of the border have largely abandoned analyzing international population movements from a macrohistorical perspective in favour of studying local immigrant neighbourhoods through the prism of ethnicity/race, class, and gender.1 Influenced by the postmodernist critique of historical objectivity and the knowability of the past, academic scholars are becoming increasingly sceptical of seeing population statistics and other serial datasets as windows on past reality. It seems, however, too early to pronounce quantitative analysis dead for the purposes of immigration history. While the post-structuralist critique has raised our awareness of the problems and pitfalls behind the study of serial data, it can hardly be said to have rendered them hopelessly obsolete or redundant.2 One does not need to be a hard-core quantifier to recognize the fact that as long as immigration history remains (as it should) interested in broader patterns of population mobility, it will not be able to do without resorting to statistical data generated by both donor and recipient societies.

  • 3 For a historiographical exploration of recent Canadian and American immigration scholarship using (...)
  • 4 Eric Sager, “Immigrants, Ethnicity and Earnings in 1901: Revisiting Canada’s Vertical Mosaic,” Can (...)
  • 5 See, for instance, Franca Iacovetta, Such Hardworking People: Italian Immigrants in Postwar Toront (...)

2Obviously, not all sources used by immigration historians can or should be analyzed using large computerized databases. Census forms, shipping manifests, or border entry records lend themselves to the use of quantitative methods more easily - one could say, “naturally” - than other types of records. Over the last three decades, Canadian historians have successfully probed many of these serial sources, though quantitative analysis has been practised primarily by students of eighteenth and nineteenth century immigration.3 Eric Sager’s recent work on the 1901 Canadian census and the excellent study of emigration from Canada to the United States by Bruno Ramirez, however, show us how statistical analysis can be made to work for historians of Canada’s twentieth century.4 That historians of ethnic groups that came to Canada in more recent times have remained less interested in the use of quantifiable serial records is, of course, not wholly their fault: the battle for public access to the post-1901 federal census records - the most complete source of demographic and other data on twentieth century immigrants - is still not over. However, the choice of sources and methods by a historian is also a matter of his or her conceptual preferences. In this respect, the historiography of twentieth century immigration stands as a notable contrast to the work of those scholars who study earlier (primarily Anglo-Saxon and Irish) immigrant populations and who have been the primary compilers and users of serial data. For reasons too complex to discuss here, most of the recent work on twentieth century Canadian immigrants has been written within the matrix of ethnic (not migration) history, which aims primarily at reconstructing the lived experiences of its subjects (usually after the migratory move has been completed) and studying societal discourses surrounding ethnicity and race - things that are obviously difficult to measure in numerical terms.5 While the contribution of these studies to our understanding of immigrant culture is indisputable, they seldom pay much attention to what may be termed the structure or “anatomy” of migration - the geography and chronology of the migration process, the demographic, social and occupational profiles of the immigrants, and migration trajectories and chains. In these studies, chapters on the Old-World backgrounds of the immigrants often serve as mere prefaces to the Canadian part of the story.

  • 6 Marcus Hansen, The Atlantic Migration, 1607-1860: A History of the Continuing Settlement of the Un (...)

3The history of any immigrant group, however, must begin by answering the basic questions, first posed over sixty years ago by Marcus Hansen: who emigrated and why, what routes did the migrants take, and where did they settle in the new country?6 Contrary to what one may think based on the quantity of academic literature on immigration and ethnicity produced in the last several decades, we have made surprisingly few advances in producing detailed answers to these questions, especially as far as urban immigrants are concerned. While oral accounts, the ethnic press, memoirs and autobiographies can give us glimpses of this information, they alone cannot reveal the broader patterns of a migration movement. For this we need to turn to serial sources, including those that have been available to historians for years but nonetheless attracted little interest. Among such largely neglected sources are the records of the three Russian imperial consulates that functioned in Canada between 1899 and 1922, known as the Likatcheff-Ragosin-Mathers Collection (also, for the sake of simplicity, dubbed Li-Ra-Ma Collection).

  • 7 See Vadim Kukushkin, “Protectors and Watchdogs: Tsarist Consular Supervision of RussianSubject Imm (...)
  • 8 Library and Archives of Canada (hereafter LAC}, MG 30 E406, Likatcheff-Ragosin-Mathers Collection. (...)

4The collection is a treasure trove for any historian interested in the background, ethnic and social composition, and patterns of early twentieth century Canadian immigration from the easternmost reaches of Europe, although its use requires an advanced knowledge of Russian, including an ability to decipher peasant handwriting. The history of these papers goes back to 1899, when the Russian imperial government first established its consular missions in this country, largely in response to the growing number of Russian subjects living within its borders. In 1900, Nikolai Struve, a career diplomat, was posted to Montreal to serve as the first Russian consul (later consul general) in Canada and Halifax businessman Henry Mathers, was hired as honorary Russian consul in that city. After Struve’s departure from Canada in 1912, the position of consul general was held for various periods of time by three other men, including Sergei Likatcheff (Likhachev), an energetic and efficient diplomat, who ran the office from 1914 until late 1920. The establishment of a Russian consular service in Canada was completed in 1915, when Konstantin Ragosin was appointed as consul in Vancouver. After the Bolshevik coup of 1917, the consuls refused to serve the Soviet government, as did most Russian diplomats stationed abroad, and the consular missions were forced to close in 1921-1922.7 Their archives eventually found their way to the United States and were amalgamated with the papers of other former Russian consulates in North America, which were subsequently deposited at the U.S. National Archives in Washington. In 1983, the then Public Archives of Canada obtained a full microfilm copy (89 reels) of the Canadian part of the collection.8

5During the two decades of their operation, the consulates served thousands of Russian immigrants, generating a mass of administrative documentation in the process. In their present state, the consular papers are divided into two main parts: the operational records of the consulates and the so-called Passport/Identity series. The first part includes the correspondence between the consuls and their superiors in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Canadian government and private agencies, on various issues including Russian immigration to Canada. Of particular interest is the correspondence with hundreds of individual immigrants who sought assistance in their dealings with Canadian officials, laid complaints against employment agents and contractors, asked permission to enlist in the Canadian military forces, applied for Russian identification documents, or had other business with the consulates. In bringing to us the voices of these immigrants, many of them transient labourers who left few other traces in historical records, this correspondence has few equivalents in Canada.

6Our focus here will be on the second part of the Li-Ra-Ma records - the Passport-Identity series, which comprises some 11,400 case files created by the consulate general in Montreal and the consulate in Vancouver for Russian-subject individuals who contacted these offices for various identity documents. So far this series has been used primarily by genealogists searching for Russian family roots. What follows below is a discussion of the provenance and content of these files and their utility as a statistical source on early twentieth century immigration from Russia to Canada. The last part of the paper presents, in a concise form, selected results of a case study of about 750 Russian-subject immigrants in early twentieth century Montreal based on the data obtained from the files.

  • 9 There are a limited number of files that do not quite fit this classification, either because they (...)

7The majority of the files that constitute the series are dated 1917-1918, although there are smaller subsets created as early as 1916 and as late as 1921-1922. Depending on the purpose of their creation, they fall into two main categories. The first contains applications for Russian entry permits, submitted to the two consulates at various times, but mostly in late 1917 and early 1918, by individuals desiring to return to the homeland.9 With some exceptions, all of these files owe their origin to the new passport regulations adopted by the Russian government on 25 October 1916 and put into effect in July 1917. These regulations annulled all passports and other travel documents then in possession of Russian subjects abroad and replaced them with a uniform entry permit (prokhodnoe svidetel’stvo), which was issued by Russian consular missions. To apply for a permit, one was required to provide detailed personal information on a special “interrogatory form” (oprosnyi list), which could be obtained by mail or in person from the nearest consulate, attach two recent photographs of oneself and one’s accompanying dependents, and any documentary proof of Russian citizenship the applicant possessed. Such proof might include an old passport, an internal pass (issued by local Russian authorities to peasants wishing to travel beyond their parish), a certificate of military standing, a copy of a baptismal or marriage record or postmarked family letters from Russia. The “interrogatory form” contained twenty-one questions: given names; surname; rank (zvanie); occupation; place of registry and social estate (soslovie)\date and place of birth; marital status, the number of children (if any) and their names; military standing; year of summons to military service; current place of residence (and number of years there); names of parents and their places of residence; all places of residence during the last five years; religion; nationality; citizenship; citizenship of parents; changes of citizenship (if any); return destination in Russia; purpose of return and a list of documents proving identity; relatives in Russia and their places of residence; and journeys outside of Russia during the last three years and their purpose, including dates of departure and return. After it was completed, signed and dated, one copy of the form along with the attached documents was forwarded to the Second Section of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for verification of the applicant’s identity. With minor modifications, the form remained in use until April 1919, though shortly after the Bolshevik coup the sending of the files to Russia came to an end. Along with completed “interrogatory forms” and photographs, most files also contain correspondence between the applicant and consular officials. A large portion also holds originals of passports and other documents submitted by the applicants as proof of citizenship.

8The second group of the Passport/Identity files consists of applications for certificates of Russian citizenship. During the First World War, which made Canadians even more aware of the presence of a large “foreigner” population in their midst, such certificates were sought by hundreds of Russian-subject immigrants, especially after the introduction of conscription, when many Russian labourers who could not prove that they were not British subjects were forced to register and enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Any individual claiming to be a Russian national and wishing to obtain a certificate was required to produce a Russian passport, which was stamped and signed by the consul. When no passport could be produced (as was usually the case), the seeker of a certificate had to swear an affidavit on a special form, supplied by the consulate and containing the following items: name; religion; native province, district, parish, and town/village; marital status, names and address of wife and children; names and addresses of closest relatives in Russia; military standing; criminal convictions in Russia and the nature of the offence; identity documents in possession; time, place, and mode of crossing the Russian border; direct or indirect entry into Canada and port of entry; criminal convictions in Canada and the offence; occupation in Canada; and real estate ownership in Canada.

  • 10 General information on Russia’s passport system can be found in Mervyn Matthews, The Passport Soci (...)

9The extensive character of both documents-the “interrogatory form” and the affidavit - demonstrates that during World War I the Russian state became increasingly concerned with maintaining a record of its emigrant subjects and their movements.10 The creation of the files should therefore be seen in the context of expanding supervisory functions of the modem state - a process greatly accelerated by the First World War. Outdated and inconsistent Russian passport regulations that were-contrary to a common stereotype - easily circumvented by the emigrants and led to a large amount of illegal traffic across the empire’s borders, were to be replaced by a better organized system of record-keeping designed to prevent individuals whose Russian citizenship was in doubt from entering Russia and reduce the possible damage to Russian interests that might occur from Canadian residents of “enemy origin” posing as Russians. The fall of the Russian monarchy in February 1917 did not stop this process, for the new Provisional Government claimed no radical break with the external policies of its predecessor and left the Foreign Service bureaucracy of the Tsarist state largely intact. Even after Petrograd and much of the country fell to the Bolsheviks, the doggedly anti-Communist consuls, faithful to the letter of the law and hoping for the eventual establishment of legitimate authority in the home country, continued to enforce the 1916 regulations, trying to filter out illegitimate claimants of Russian citizenship despite the fact that all reliable channels of verifying the applicants’ identity were lost.

  • 11 See Iacovetta and Mitchinson, On the Case for an excellent collection of recent work using case fi (...)

10The provenance of the Li-Ra-Ma files puts them in the large and diverse class of personal case records created by government or private institutions that served, supervised, or controlled large groups of people. In recent years, Canadian historians have uncovered and analyzed many types of such files both as textual documents and (less commonly) as sources of quantifiable data.11 While similar in many ways to other institution-generated records, the Li-Ra-Ma files also have characteristics that make them stand out. Although they owe their origin to the operation of particular government agencies, the bulk of the documents they contain were not “physically” created by officers of these agencies. Information that appears in these documents is by and large unmediated by the voice of an interrogator, translator, professional expert or a government official (illiterate persons, who dictated their answers to a friend or had their forms completed by a clerk at the nearest steamship or labour agency are something of an exception). To be sure, the reporting of personal data occurred within officially prescribed parameters, but the consuls had neither the time nor the administrative resources to intervene in the completion of the forms in order to ensure full uniformity of the provided information or greater compliance with the letter of the instructions. A textual analysis of the files shows that, as long as the essential data were supplied, the applicants were allowed much freedom in the way they phrased their answers and the amount of detail they cared to report. This led to significant variations in the level of assiduousness with which “interrogatory forms” and affidavits were filled out. As a result, files rich in personal detail are interspersed with those containing a bare minimum of demographic and personal data and having only limited historical value.

11Dealing with the Li-Ra-Ma files as a source of statistical information on Russian-subject immigrants presents the researcher with several methodological issues. Because the files were compiled neither by a systematic count (unlike censuses) nor by scientific sampling (unlike modern-day sociological surveys), the question of their statistical representativity inevitably comes to the fore. Even a perfunctory analysis of the series shows that it should not be used as a cross-section of Canada’s entire immigrant population of Russian extraction. As might be expected, I found only a handful of files belonging to immigrants who had been naturalized in Canada purposely severed all connections to the Old Country or simply lived in Canada too long to feel any affinity with the Russian state or need for its protection. Therefore, the representation of certain ethnic, religious, and social groups in the files is inversely related to the likelihood of their falling into one of the above categories of individuals. There are, for instance, few cases of religious dissenters such as the Doukhobors, Mennonites, and Baptists or those of German and Jewish immigrants who came to Canada before 1900. Farmers are another underrepresented class of immigrants. Obtaining a title to land required naturalization, which usually brought permanent settlement in Canada and the cutting of ties to the state of origin. While the files have less to offer to the student of what historians refer to as “permanent immigration,” they are a priceless source for the analysis of temporary labour migration from Tsarist Russia to Canada (and, contrary to the well-entrenched stereotype, it was immigrant workers rather than farmers or religious dissenters that dominated the flow of population between the two countries after the mid-1900s). The vast majority of these labour migrants were sojourners – “birds of passage” who came to Canada without an intention to stay. If they became naturalized in Canada at all, it was usually after five, eight, or even ten years of residence in the country, normally after the last hopes of returning home had faded away. During all this time, these immigrants not only remained Russian nationals and continued to maintain close ties with the home country, but also held on mentally to the world they had left behind.

  • 12 Li-Ra-Ma Collection, vol. 25, files 849-850.

12The reliability of personal information contained in the files is another important question. Can we be sure that some immigrants did not have a reason to conceal or misreport biographical data or perhaps tell the consuls what they presumably wanted to hear? While such a possibility cannot be totally excluded, the reasons that compelled the immigrants to seek out the consuls were far too important and the cost of being denied an entry permit or a citizenship certificate too high to justify the risk of lying. Moreover, distorting personal data brought no real advantages, for the bulk of the applications were submitted after the fall of the Tsarist monarchy, when the consuls’ primary concern in processing them became to filter out persons falsely claiming Russian citizenship, not monitor the immigrants’ political orientations or punish individuals who had past troubles with the Russian law (such as military deserters or illegal emigrants). Moreover, shortly after the revolution of February 1917, Russian consular missions around the world received instructions from the Provisional Government to provide assistance to any former political émigrés wishing to return to the homeland.12 On the whole, there seems to be no reason to doubt the veracity of personal information found in the Li-Ra-Ma files more than one would question the reliability of such data in the census or other serial records commonly used by immigration historians.

  • 13 In using the spelling “Belarusan” rather than one of the other commonly used versions of the term (...)

13The files include persons of virtually every nationality represented in the migrant stream, but it is difficult to determine whether they accurately represent the ethnic composition of Canada’s large population of Russian-born labourers. Even if one examines the entire Passport-Identity series in an attempt to identify the ethnicity of every one of its subjects, there are no reliable statistics of the ethnic makeup of early twentieth century immigration from Russia with which these findings could be compared. The random sampling of the series shows that Ukrainians, Belarusans,13 Poles, Lithuanians, Finns, Germans, and Jews constitute the majority of individuals represented in it. There are also some nationality groups very little known to historians-such as Ossetians and Georgians from the Black Sea littoral, who began to emigrate to Canada as labourers around 1909, heading primarily to British Columbia. One also comes across a significant number of ethnic Russians from the Volga region (the provinces of Saratov and Samara), who followed in the footsteps of the local German emigrants. The files show that, contrary to the established stereotype, many Volga Germans went to Canada not as agricultural settlers but as labourers and remained Russian subjects long after arrival.

14In my own research I have been interested primarily in persons of Ukrainian and Belarusan origin, who constitute approximately half the total number of cases (about 5,700) and have the highest degree of representativeness among all the ethnic groups. According to my estimate (tentative at best, given the aforementioned unreliability of Canadian immigration and census statistics), the Passport/Identity series may encompass as many as 15-20 per cent of all Ukrainians and Belarusans that came from the Russian Empire before 1914. This conclusion is justified by the fact that mass emigration of Ukrainians and Belarusans from the Russian Empire to Canada began relatively late (around 1910) and consisted almost exclusively of labour migrants.

15What can the files tell us about Ukrainian and Belarusan immigrant workers in early twentieth century Canada and what are some of the pitfalls the researcher should be aware of? They clearly are a priceless source on major emigration areas within the Russian Empire, migration routes, locally specific migration chains, the social and occupational status of the immigrants in Russia and Canada, and their religious affiliations and demographic profiles. Since most of the migrants’ individual characteristics (place of birth, age, marital status, family size, literacy, occupation, etc.) had little or no relationship to the motives which brought them to the consulates, there is no reason to expect a significant over-or under-representation of persons sharing one or another of these characteristics. Some exceptions do apply, however. The collection may be somewhat less useful for analyzing the territorial distribution of the migrants in Canada because of the possible over-representation of persons who lived closer to the consulate sites, but it can still be used to determine major transatlantic migration chains. One should also be careful in using the files to establish the chronology of Slavic immigration from Russia, because the very likelihood of a person’s appearance in the files may be inversely related to the number of years he or she lived in Canada. The use of the files to estimate the gender composition of the immigrant stream requires controls for the type of document. Because the ratio of women as primary applicants for entry permits or citizenship certificates is negligible (less than one per cent of the total), one has to search for them inside the files. The “interrogatory forms,” however, have to be discounted as a source of data on the presence of women or children among the immigrants, for there is no way of establishing whether family members reported on these forms resided in Canada or remained in Russia (with the exception of those few cases when the male head of the family voluntarily gave such information). The extent of family migration for various groups of Li-Ra-Ma subjects can be estimated only from the affidavits, which required immigrants to report the current whereabouts of their immediate families.

Research Methodology

  • 14 I would like to thank Myron Momryk, a Project Archivist with the Social and Cultural Archives Divi (...)
  • 15 For a good discussion of random sampling in historical research, see Konrad H. Jarausch and Kennet (...)

16The research project that I have been engaged in for the last three years has involved an extensive use of the Li-Ra-Ma files with the goal of reconstructing the picture of pre-1914 migration of Ukrainians and Belarusans from the Russian Empire to Canada. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) provided me with an unfinished electronic database, which included file numbers, personal names, and sex of all individuals represented in the Passport-Identity series and in some cases also their date and place of birth, marital status, and religion. This database provided a good starting point for my research and gave me an overall (if very sketchy) picture of the series’ contents.14 My goal was to create a random sample of the series and then search the selected files for all remaining quantifiable information. In making the decision about the size of the sample, I was guided by two considerations: it had to be large enough to have a sufficient degree of representativeness but also manageable by one individual within a reasonable time frame.15 I opted for a fifty per cent sample of the entire series, which was then further reduced by excluding individuals coming from places irrelevant to my study. I used the migrants’ territory of origin, rather than ethnicity, as the main selection criterion, limiting the sample to cases originating in Ukraine and Belarus and leaving out persons that came from elsewhere in the empire (even if they might be of Ukrainian or Belarusan origin).

  • 16 For an insightful discussion of such ethnic intermixture, see Czeslaw Milosz, “Vilnius, Lithuania: (...)
  • 17 In some areas of Vilna (Vilnius) Province, Belarusans had long lived next to Lithuanians and share (...)

17The next step was to identify and eliminate cases belonging to various non-East Slavic nationalities that populated Ukraine and Belarus. While Jews and Germans were easy to identify, Poles, Russians, and Lithuanians presented a greater problem. The complex ethno-political structure of Russia’s western provinces, with their overlapping ethnic and administrative boundaries and the presence of minorities interspersed with the ethnically dominant population, made the creation of an ethnically “pure” Ukrainian and Belarusan sample impossible.16 Furthermore, largely because of the similarity of Slavic surnames, there was sometimes not enough information that would allow me to identify precisely the ethnicity of the subjects. Although applicants for entry permits were required to indicate their nationality on the “interrogatory forms,” their answers proved to be of little help, for the modernday concept of ethnic identity was unknown to peasants in early twentieth century eastern Ukraine and Belarus, who, as we shall see below, routinely described themselves as “Russians” (just as Ukrainians in Austria-Hungary usually identified themselves as Ruthenians or Austrians). In most cases, a combination of surname, place of origin, and religion provided the needed clue, but it still could not wholly eliminate the problem of distinguishing between various nationality groups. The solution I finally adopted was to keep all Ukrainian- and Belarusan-born persons of Slavic and Lithuanian17 origin in the sample, which, in its final version, included 2,743 cases.

18Once the final sample was created, it was checked for duplicate cases, transliteration inconsistencies, spelling errors, and other technical flaws. The English spelling of place names in Russia presented the greatest difficulty because the database compilers at the LAC had mechanically transliterated into English the Cyrillic spellings that appeared in the files. Due to multiple errors contained in the original renderings of these names (hardly a surprise given the migrants’ low literacy), this method often resulted in multiple versions of the same geographical name, sometimes distorted almost beyond recognition. I did my best to correct these errors, adopting uniform English spellings for the same place names. I also filled in the missing names of Russian provinces, districts, and counties by cross-checking them against each other when possible (e.g., in many cases the missing province of birth could be easily established by the name of the district, if the latter was available).

  • 18 For the list of variables and a more detailed discussion of research issues related to the Li-Ra-M (...)

19At the next stage, the 2,743 case files that constituted the final sample were thoroughly examined for all information relating to the individuals they represented. The retrieved data were coded and added to the initial set of variables contained in the LAC database. I used a total of twenty-eight variables, most of them repeating questions contained in the “interrogatory form” and the affidavit.18 Due to omissions in the original files, the amount of data for different cases, too, displays considerable variations; in fact, there are not many cases that have information in all twenty-eight variables.

20The main sample is supplemented by a separate and smaller database, which I labelled the “Passport File.” It includes 671 cases (including some of those that also appear in the main sample) which contain either a Russian passport or an internal pass attached as proof of citizenship, or both of the above. From these documents I retrieved data on the migrants’ occupation in Russia, pre-emigration literacy, and points of Russian border passage.

21In the way of a disclaimer, it needs to be emphasized that all statistical data calculated on the basis of the Li-Ra-Ma files should be treated as approximate. Even though I do believe that my findings are representative of the socio-demographic and geographic parameters of early twentieth century eastern Slav migration from Russia to Canada, obviously no sample, especially derived from an archival source that itself constitutes a kind of “sample” of the general migrant population, can be viewed as a mirror image of the social group(s) it is intended to represent.

A Case Study: Immigration to Montreal

  • 19 The history of Montreal Italians is among the few significant exceptions. See Bruno Ramirez, Le pr (...)

22The space limitations placed on this article does not allow me to provide full results of my Li-Ra-Ma-based study of labour immigration from the Russian Empire to Canada. Therefore, I thought it pertinent to illustrate the research possibilities of the Li-Ra-Ma Collection by choosing a particular group of immigrants from the sample: persons who resided in Montreal at the time when their files were created. The decision to focus on Montreal had a two-fold rationale. First, Montreal was by far the main destination point for Ukrainian and Belarusan peasant-workers arriving from Russia, and second, I felt the need to do justice to a city that, despite its fascinating multi-ethnic mosaic, has never been given the attention it deserves by immigration historians.19

23The Montreal sub-sample contains information on 752 Russian-subject individuals of Ukrainian and Belarusan origin who reported the city as their place of residence at the time of contact with the Russian consulate. This data allow us to explore the composite socio-demographic profile of these migrants, their geographic origins, and patterns of settlement in the city. I have omitted some of the less important information obtained from the files, focussing instead on the basic social and demographic parameters of the migrant population. Again, due to space constraints, the interpretation of the statistical data is kept to a minimum, with only brief remarks offered regarding each particular set of statistics.

  • 20 Virtually all published literature on Ukrainians in early twentieth century Canada deals with immi (...)

24As Table 1.1 demonstrates, more than three quarters of the migrants were natives of Ukraine and less than one quarter came from Belarus. The proportion of Ukrainians to Belarusans observed in the Montreal sub-sample was typical for Canada’s entire population of Russian-born immigrants of eastern Slav origin. The preponderance of Ukrainians is due mostly to the fact that while Ukrainian peasants in Russia, like their neighbours in Austria-Hungary, migrated primarily to Canada, for Belarusans, who mainly headed south of the 49th parallel, Canada was a secondary destination.20 The migrants came from the total of eleven Russian imperial provinces (seven in Ukraine and four in Belarus), primarily those west of the Dnieper River, which marked the geographic watershed between westward (trans-Atlantic) and eastward (Siberian) migration. Again, typical of the entire sample, the province of Podolia (Podillia) in the southwestern corner of Ukraine supplied by far the largest migrant cohort: every third Russian-born Slavic immigrant in early twentieth century Canada was likely a native of that province.

25Figure 1.1 demonstrates that immigration of Ukrainians and Belarusans from Tsarist Russia reached its apex in the two years before the First World War; in fact, nearly half of the Montreal-bound Li-Ra-Ma migrants arrived in 1913. A comparison of the chronology of immigration by area of origin, however, reveals that Belarusans began to settle in Montreal earlier than Ukrainians. About twelve per cent of them already lived in the city by 1910, while among the Ukrainians the proportion of these early comers was less than four per cent. Most left Russia illegally: persons who reported having government passports in their possession constitute less than a quarter of the entire Montreal sub-sample, the proportion being higher among immigrants from Ukraine.

  • 21 Kukushkin, “Peasants on the Move,” 86-90.

26One of the most important sets of data that can be extracted from the Li-Ra-Ma files is related to the social and demographic profiles of the immigrants. By subtracting an individual’s year of birth from the year of his or her arrival in Canada, we can establish the age at which he or she immigrated. The results of this statistical operation are presented in Table 1.2, which breaks down the migrant population by five-year age cohort. The figures demonstrate that the Ukrainians had a considerably larger percentage of persons in each cohort 30 years of age and over. In other words, the average Ukrainian immigrant was slightly older than his Belarusan counterpart (the average age at arrival for the Ukrainians is 27.6 and for the Belarusans 25.4). The majority of immigrants from both regions were married men, usually with no more than one or two children (see Tables 1.3 and 1.4). The proportion of bachelors among the Belarusans was slightly higher and the average number of children lower than in the Ukrainian group-both facts doubtless related to the younger age of the Belarusan immigrants. Only twelve per cent of the persons in the Montreal subsample reported having families living with them; however, this exceeded by four per cent the proportion of men with families in the entire Li-Ra-Ma sample, highlighting the role of Montreal as the site of the oldest and most established “Russian colony” in Canada. Notably, most of the men were literate which we can establish from their ability to sign completed "interrogatory forms" and affidavits. In fact, my comparison of the Li-Ra-Ma data with 1897 Russian census statistics reveals that literates constituted a much larger (sometimes a double) proportion among the migrants than they did among the general population in the donor areas.21 Some of the migrants seem to have mastered the basics of writing after they came to Canada, but it is possible that literates were also more likely to contact the consulates.

  • 22 For more on the population structure of early-twentieth century Belarus, see Jan Zaprudnik, Belaru (...)

27The church affiliations of the Li-Ra-Ma migrants by and large reflected the religious landscape of the territories of origin. Most of them belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church-the officially dominant religious denomination in Tsarist Russia. The higher percentage of Roman Catholics among the Belarusans than among the Ukrainians comes as no surprise. Catholics constituted up to a half of the Belarusan population in western Belarus (especially Vilna Province), which also had a substantial presence of Lithuanians, all adherents of the Roman Catholic Church.22 Most of the Canada-bound Belarusan migration, however, occurred from territories with a predominance of Russian Orthodoxy (Grodno and Minsk provinces), which accounts for a relatively small proportion of Catholics among the Belarusans.

  • 23 On national identity and Russification see Theodore Weeks, Nation and State in Late Imperial Russi (...)

28Particularly interesting for the immigration historian is the matter of ethnic self-identification. The analysis of data in line 14 of the “interrogatory form” (“Nationality”) gives a picture of a virtually non-existent ethnic awareness of the eastern Slav respondents, about 90 per cent of whom put themselves down as Russians and only in rare cases as "Little Russians" (the official designation for Ukrainians in Tsarist Russia). Most of the Lithuanians and Poles, however, identified themselves by their proper ethnic names, which points to a higher degree of ethnic awareness among these groups. Ukrainian and Belarusan peasants in Russia had not yet been exposed to nationalist agitation, which would lead them to question the official concept of a single Russian nation consisting of Great Russians, Little Russians, and White Russians. In this regard, “Russian” Ukrainians represented a marked contrast to their brethren from the Austrian provinces of Galicia and Bukovyna who were well on their way from “Ruthenians” to Ukrainians.23

  • 24 The satellite town of Lachine, officially beyond the city limits, also had a large Slavic immigran (...)

29Sifting through data on the migrants’ places of residence within Montreal, one learns that after arriving in the city, Ukrainians and Belarusans gravitated to the same settlement areas, although not quite in the same proportions. Pointe St. Charles was the earliest enclave of Slavic and Eastern European settlement in Montreal. Here by the mid-1900s one could hear Ukrainian, Belarusan, Polish, Russian, and Lithuanian speech almost as often as French and English. Other major concentrations of Ukrainians and Belarusans emerged in the so-called St. Lawrence “immigrant corridor” (a downtown area east and west of St. Lawrence Boulevard, which also contained large numbers of Jews, Italians, and Chinese) and in the HochelagaFrontenac district at the eastern end of the city. Table 1.7, which shows the distribution of the Li-Ra-Ma migrants across the three main neighbourhoods, demonstrates that Belarusans were considerably more likely to settle in the Hochelaga-Frontenac area compared to Ukrainians, who preferred the downtown district and Pointe St. Charles. A minor concentration of eastern Slav immigrants from Russia existed in Côte St. Paul.24

  • 25 This finding contrasts with the calculations of Eric Sager, who found no definitive correlation be (...)

30Finally, the files have something to say about the occupational structure of the migrant population. Of 501 Montreal residents for whom occupational data is available, 417 (83.2 per cent) put themselves in the broad category of chernorabochii, translated from Russian as “one who performs black (i.e., unskilled or rough) labour.” Carpenters, ironworkers, and mechanics constituted the majority among those who held jobs requiring some skill. The skilled worker category also included tailors, shoemakers, car drivers, bakers, cooks, firemen, machinists, and an electrician. There were also two musicians, one photographer, four small entrepreneurs (including a grocer and a restaurant owner), and a student. Interestingly, the proportion of workers who reported their jobs as other than “general labourers” was almost twice as high among Belarusans (26.6 per cent) as Ukrainians (13.5 per cent). The difference in occupational patterns between the two groups is probably due at least in part to the earlier beginnings of Belarusan immigration to the city. The analysis of the Li-Ra-Ma data also revealed a correlation between the year of arrival in Canada and the nature of employment held by the immigrant in 1917-18-the time when most of the files were created. Among persons who came to the country before 1911, the proportion of “general labourers” was only 66.7 per cent compared to 85.3 per cent among those who arrived in later years.25 A higher degree of socio-cultural adaptation and familiarity with the Canadian labour market that came with being an “old-timer” were likely to increase one’s chances of breaking out of the endless cycle of exhausting low-end jobs and finding more skilled employment, which brought a higher income and greater economic stability. In many cases, it also heralded the beginning of transition from sojourning to permanent settlement. Not surprisingly, the percentage of individuals with resident families was significantly higher among skilled workers and artisans than “general labourers” (19.1 per cent compared to 11 per cent).


31This paper has provided only a glimpse of the vast and barely tapped set of personal immigrant files preserved in the records of the three Russian imperial consulates that operated in Canada between 1900 and 1922. While I have focussed on immigrants of eastern Slav origin, similar opportunities for research also exist for at least three other major ethnic groups represented in the collection: Jews, Poles, and Finns. What draws the historian to these documents is not only the richness of biographic facts reported in the “interrogatory forms” and affidavits, but also the fact that, unlike most other sources used in immigration history, they bring together information from both ends of the migration chain. This unique combination allows the researcher to trace an individual or a group through their entire migration cycle-from their home villages to, say, a boarding-house in Montreal or miner’s shack in Timmins. With due attention to the specific provenance of the collection-as resulting from voluntary contact between some Russian-subject immigrants and Russian consular posts-historians can continue using it to explore multiple aspects of early twentieth century immigration from Tsarist Russia that are difficult or impossible to analyze on the basis of other sources.

Table 1.1. Geographic Origins of Russian-Born Ukrainian and Belarusan
Immigrants in Montreal (N =752)

Table 1.1. Geographic Origins of Russian-Born Ukrainian and BelarusanImmigrants in Montreal (N =752)

Table 1.2 Age of the Immigrants at the Time of Arrival, by Origin (%) (N = 491)

Age cohorts



Under 20















40 and over






Table 1.3 Marital Status of the Immigrants (%) by Origin (N = 466)

Marital Status












Table 1.4 Number of Children in the Immigrant Families (%) by Origin (N =3 69)

Number of children












5 or over






Table 1.5 Literacy of the Immigrants by Origin (%) (N = 724)













Table 1.6 Religious Affiliations of the Immigrants by Origin (N = 724)




Russian Orthodox



Roman Catholic







~ 100


Table1.7 Major Areas of Ukrainian and Belarusan Settlement in Montreal, ca. 1920 (N =471)

Table1.7 Major Areas of Ukrainian and Belarusan Settlement in Montreal, ca. 1920 (N =471)

Fig1.1. Ukrainian and Belarusan Immigration to Montreal, 1903-1918

Fig1.1. Ukrainian and Belarusan Immigration to Montreal, 1903-1918

Source: Li-Ra-Ma Sample


1 For good, albeit now somewhat dated, overviews of the achievements of the “new social history” in the areas of Canadian immigration and ethnicity studies, see Franca Iacovetta, “Manly Militants, Cohesive Communities and Defiant Domestics: Writing about Immigrants in Canadian Historical Scholarship,” Labour/Le travail 36 (1995): 217-52, and Anthony W. Rasporich, “Ethnicity in Canadian Historical Writing 1970-1990,” in J.W. Berry and J.A. Laponce, eds.., Ethnicity and Culture in Canada: The Research Landscape (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 153-78.

2 A thoughtful discussion of the merits of statistical analysis can be found in Eric Sager, “Employment Contracts in Merchant Shipping: An Argument for Social Science History,” in Franca Iacovetta and Wendy Mitchinson, eds., On the Case: Explorations in Social History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 49-64. See also Kris Inwood, “The Promise and Problems of Quantitative Evidence in Canadian History,” Histoire sociale/Social History 27, no. 53 (1994): 139-46.

3 For a historiographical exploration of recent Canadian and American immigration scholarship using large datasets see Bruce S. Elliott, “The Genealogist and the Migration Historian,” Families 39, no. 3 (2000): 131-45.

4 Eric Sager, “Immigrants, Ethnicity and Earnings in 1901: Revisiting Canada’s Vertical Mosaic,” Canadian Historical Review 83, no. 2 (2002): 196-229; Bruno Ramirez, Crossing the 49th Parallel: Migration from Canada to the United States, 1900-1930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).

5 See, for instance, Franca Iacovetta, Such Hardworking People: Italian Immigrants in Postwar Toronto (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992); Ruth A. Frager, Sweatshop Strife: Class, Ethnicity and Gender in the Jewish Labour Movement of Toronto, 1900-1939 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992); John Zucchi, Italians in Toronto: Development of a National Identity, 1875-1935 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988); and Lillian Petroff, Sojourners and Settlers: The Macedonian Community in Toronto to 1940 (Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1995).

6 Marcus Hansen, The Atlantic Migration, 1607-1860: A History of the Continuing Settlement of the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1940).

7 See Vadim Kukushkin, “Protectors and Watchdogs: Tsarist Consular Supervision of RussianSubject Immigrants in Canada, 1900-1922,” Canadian Slavonic Papers XLIV, nos. 3-4 (2002): 209-32.

8 Library and Archives of Canada (hereafter LAC}, MG 30 E406, Likatcheff-Ragosin-Mathers Collection. For a more detailed description of this collection see E.W. Laine, “On Documenting the Russian Presence in Canada,” in Tamara Jeletzky, ed., Russian Canadians: Their Past and Present (Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1983), xvii-xxiii. A short story of these documents after the fall of tsarism is related in Bruce Franklin Ashkenas, comp., Records of Imperial Russian Consulates in Canada, 1898-1922 (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992). See also Finding Aid No. 1411 (prepared by George Bolotenko) at LAC.

9 There are a limited number of files that do not quite fit this classification, either because they have no documents except a piece of correspondence, or because they hold both an “interrogatory form” and an affidavit.

10 General information on Russia’s passport system can be found in Mervyn Matthews, The Passport Society: Controlling Movement in Russia and the USSR (Boulder: Westview, 1993).

11 See Iacovetta and Mitchinson, On the Case for an excellent collection of recent work using case files. It should be noted, however, that their definition of case files as representing primarily “individuals and groups deemed in some way deviants or victims” (p. 3) is restrictive, for it misses a large and important category of such files (of which the Li-Ra-Ma records are an example), like those created as a result of individuals applying for government services.

12 Li-Ra-Ma Collection, vol. 25, files 849-850.

13 In using the spelling “Belarusan” rather than one of the other commonly used versions of the term (Belarusian, Belorussian etc.) I follow Paul R. Magocsi, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 253-57.

14 I would like to thank Myron Momryk, a Project Archivist with the Social and Cultural Archives Division of the LAC, for his assistance with this project.

15 For a good discussion of random sampling in historical research, see Konrad H. Jarausch and Kenneth A. Hardy, Quantitative Methods for Historians: A Guide to Research, Data, and Statistics (Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 1991), 68-74.

16 For an insightful discussion of such ethnic intermixture, see Czeslaw Milosz, “Vilnius, Lithuania: An Ethnic Agglomerate,” in George de Vos and Lola Romanucci-Ross, eds., Ethnic Identities: Cultural Continuities and Change (Palo Alto: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1975), 339-52.

17 In some areas of Vilna (Vilnius) Province, Belarusans had long lived next to Lithuanians and shared many common cultural traits.

18 For the list of variables and a more detailed discussion of research issues related to the Li-Ra-Ma Collection, see Vadim Kukushkin, “Peasants on the Move: Early Twentieth-Century Labour Migration from Russia’s Western Frontier to Canada” (PhD diss., Carleton University, 2004), Chapter 1.

19 The history of Montreal Italians is among the few significant exceptions. See Bruno Ramirez, Le premiers Italiens de Montréal: l’origine de la Petite Italie du Québec (Montréal: Boréal Express, 1984). A good, if too sketchy, historical survey of ethnic settlement in Montreal is Claire McNicoll, Montréal, une société multiculturelle (Paris: Belin, 1993). Two M.A. theses done over sixty years ago by McGill University sociologists Stephen Mamchur and Charles Bayley still remain the best source on Montreal Ukrainians. See Stephen W. Mamchur, “The Economic and Social Adjustment of Slavic Immigrants in Canada: With Special Reference to Ukrainians in Montreal” (Master’s thesis, McGill University, 1934), and Charles M. Bayley, “The Social Structure of the Italian and Ukrainian Immigrant Communities in Montreal” (Master’s thesis, McGill University, 1939).

20 Virtually all published literature on Ukrainians in early twentieth century Canada deals with immigrants from the Austrian provinces of Galicia and Bukovyna (western Ukraine), ignoring the smaller community of Ukrainians from the Russian Empire. For general histories of Ukrainian-Canadian immigration to Canada see, Michael Marunchak, Ukrainian Canadians (Winnipeg: Ukrainian Free Academy of Sciences, 1970), and Jaroslav Petryshyn, Peasants in the Promised Land: Canada and the Ukrainians, 1891-1914 (Toronto: Lorimer, 1985). For a short history of Belarusan immigration to Canada, see John Sadouski, A History of the Byelorussians in Canada (Belleville: Mika, 1981).

21 Kukushkin, “Peasants on the Move,” 86-90.

22 For more on the population structure of early-twentieth century Belarus, see Jan Zaprudnik, Belarus: At a Crossroads of History (Boulder. Westview Press, 1993).

23 On national identity and Russification see Theodore Weeks, Nation and State in Late Imperial Russia: Nationalism and Russification on the Western Frontier, 1863-1914 (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996), and Paul Robert Magocsi, A History of Ukraine (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 355.

24 The satellite town of Lachine, officially beyond the city limits, also had a large Slavic immigrant population consisting mainly of Ukrainians.

25 This finding contrasts with the calculations of Eric Sager, who found no definitive correlation between the number of years spent by immigrants in Canada and their earnings (unless one assumes that more skilled jobs do not equate with higher wages). See Sager, “Immigrants, Ethnicity and Earnings in 1901,” 217.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1.1. Geographic Origins of Russian-Born Ukrainian and BelarusanImmigrants in Montreal (N =752)
Fichier image/jpeg, 64k
Titre Table1.7 Major Areas of Ukrainian and Belarusan Settlement in Montreal, ca. 1920 (N =471)
Fichier image/jpeg, 55k
Titre Fig1.1. Ukrainian and Belarusan Immigration to Montreal, 1903-1918
Légende Source: Li-Ra-Ma Sample
Fichier image/jpeg, 50k


Holds a doctorate in Canadian history from Carleton University and is currently a Grant Notley Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Alberta. He specializes in the ethnic and immigration history of Canada with a focus on 20th-century immigrants from Eastern Europe. He is the author of several articles and co-editor, with R. C. Elwood, of Mikhail Klochko: Soviet Scientist, Cold-War Defector, Canadian Storyteller (Penumbra Press, 2002)

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