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Immediately east of Highway No. 11, 65 km southeast of Saskatoon (as the Cro[w] flies), lies the Kenaston Cemetery. About 90% of those interred in the Catholic section, have the following distinctive surnames: Bonic, Brkich, Doshen, Krpan, Masich, Matovich, Matonovich, Pavelich, Persic, Prpich, Rupcich, Sarich, Sekulich, Strmotich, Tomlenovich, Yelich and Zdunich or versions thereof. Most of these deceased were born in what is now Croatia and are usually referred to as Croatians, Croats or Cros for short. About 50 families (c. 150 men, women and children) had settled on farms in surrounding area between March 1905 and mostly before the outbreak of WW1. This was the largest rural Croatian community in Canada. A much smaller group of Croats settled north of Saskatoon at Leask and a few near Avonlea, but the 1999 Saskatchewan Atlas shows the Kenaston area as being the only community of predominantly Croat origin (p. 56). However in total, inhabitants of Croatian ancestry form a miniscule part of Saskathchewan’s population. The author is the grandson of Sam Brkich/Beckie, the 10th Croat homesteader of this community, arriving from the U.S.A in March 1906, followed by his wife Eva and son Nick (author’s father) that summer. The author’s other grandparents, pioneers Gabriel and Maria Zdunich, emigrated in April 1914.

1994 Land Holdings of Croat Descendants Year: 1994 Place Name: Kenaston-Bladworth area Image Source: prepared by Kenneth Beckie A map showing Croatian settlers in the area 1904-1914 and land holdings of Croat descendants in 1994

1994 Land Holdings of Croat Descendants
Year: 1994
Place Name: Kenaston-Bladworth area
Image Source: prepared by Kenneth Beckie
A map showing Croatian settlers in the area 1904-1914 and land holdings of Croat descendants in 1994

Most of the lands between Kenaston and Bladworth, (about 80 sections), are farmed by a few descendents of the original Croat pioneers (cf map). The approximately 1500 other descendants have moved to the cities, mostly of western Canada, where their Croat identity has largely been blended through marriage with other ethnic backgrounds and where many have made a remarkable contribution to Canadian society. A few examples of the more prominent descendants, in no particular order: Lynne Yelich, MP (Member of Parliament), Allan Kerpan MLA and former MP, Greg Brkich MLA, Larry Doshen retired Brigadier General, Sean Prpic CBC Radio Network Producer in Regina, Anne Campbell poet and author, entertainer “Metro” Les Pavelich (1975 hit “Eleven Days from Christmas”), Ellen Rupcich Schmeiser retired Provincial Court Justice, Rod and Corey Sarich professional hockey players, Chris Sarich retired Superintendant of Saskatoon Catholic Schools, Ken King former publisher of the Calgary Herald and Martin Matovich nationally recognized registered seed producer. Many others are successful farmers, professionals (including doctors, lawyers, teachers/professors, engineers etc), mounties and businessmen. Some became nuns, an example of which is Sister Louise Zdunich, author and chaplain at the University in Edmonton.

Origin: About half of the men settlers came to this area via the USA, the other half direct from Croatia. The wives often stayed behind in Croatia until the men had become established. The first group had emigrated to the States starting in 1900, mostly from 1902 on. They were lured to ‘America’ by advertisements and word of mouth from earlier Croat emigrants. They worked in coal mines, rock quarries, railroads and factories in Illinois, Arkansas, Kansas, South Dakota, Colorado, Oklahoma and Wyoming. It was Nikola Pavelich, working in coal mines in Pueblo, Colorado, who was the first to hear about cheap homestead lands at Kenaston (then called Bonnington Springs, NWT). He heard about it from a fellow miner John Sabo, a Slovak, who found an advertisement which was placed in a U.S.-Slovak newspaper by George Zeman, a government “land locator” who lived in Bonnington Springs.

Nikola Pavelich and John Sabo went to Bonnington in the fall of 1904 to investigate the situation. Sabo applied immediately for a homestead on October 31, 1904 but Pavelich went back to Pueblo to gather up his wife, two infant sons and belongings, plus his brother Joe, brother-in-law Mike Pavelick and Joe’s brother-in-law Paul Tomlenovich. This group left for Bonnington in February of ’05, accompanied by John Sabo. Sabo brought his family, farm machinery and animals by freight train, as the others probably did. The Canadian government paid two and a half cents per mile and the settler one half a cent per mile freight costs. Meanwhile Nikola’s brother, Rock, came directly from Croatia and met up with the others in Bonnington. Nikola, Joe and Rock filed on quarters in the same Section 20 Township 29 Range 1 W3M on Monday March 5, 1905. The above five families were to be the vanguard of the following 45 Croat families, who heard about this area by word of mouth through a network of relatives, essentially all of whom came from a township sized area around Lovinac, Croatia. These pioneers were part of the flood of settlers who rushed into central Saskatchewan just after the railroads were built and only 20 years after the Riel Rebellion. The Lovinac area of Croatia was brutally involved in WW1 and 2 and ‘ethnically cleansed’ 50 years later on September 24, 1991, for which reason the Kenaston area ‘Cros’ are eternally grateful that they left Europe when they did. A few Bosnian Croat refugee families were sponsored/welcomed to the Kenaston community during the 1991-1995 Croatian war of independence.

The township sized area around Lovinac had a population of around 7000 in the mid 1700’s but after emigration and the depopulation of small low income farms and finally the 1991 ethnic cleansing, less than about 200 people now live in the same area! The major reason for rural depopulation is the same as that of Saskatchewan. Croatians settled in present day Croatia in about 626 AD, having come from what is now southern Poland along with the flood of other barbarian tribes, to claim a share of the collapsing Roman Empire. The history of the Croatians before this is speculative, but the best evidence appears to indicate that they originated in eastern Persia (now southwestern Afghanistan) about 300 BC, perhaps having fled Alexander the Great’s armies by going into southern Russia where they picked up the Slavic language. Croatia was a province of the Austro Hungarian Empire for 391 years from 1527-1918, and so the pre WW1 Croat pioneers of this community were initially called Austrians. Croatia is a particularly beautiful country. A present day tourist brochure claims ‘Croatia is a gift from heaven’.

Rough and Tough West: The pioneer settlers of the ‘wild west’ in the early 1900’s had a rough and tough life. However, the Croats were well prepared for it because of the rough existence they had experienced on the tiny rock infested farms that they grew up on in the ‘old country’. Also, most were further toughened by two years of compulsory military training in the Austrian army, further honed by exposure to some of the roughest of men in mining camps and railroad gangs in the USA.The author’s paternal grandfather was shocked to have a fellow Negro worker shot and killed by their foreman while working on a railway in the southern States, because he wasn’t doing a good enough job. The author’s other grandfather had a man fall dead onto his lap after being shot in a mining camp in Illinois. He was questioned for years after this by the RCMP, trying to establish who the killer was.

Before WW1 it was permissible to have and even carry handguns in Saskatchewan for protection. Presumably this helped maintain law and order.

One of the Croats who came through this community in the early 1930s, but didn’t stay, was a Tony Babich, who was born in Lovinac in 1905 and became a Canadian citizen in 1929. In 1939 he joined the Communists in the Spanish Civil War, where the Russian Communist secret police (GPU) got his Canadian passport and forged it into the possession of one of Stalin’s agents, with the pseudonym Franc Jacson. At Stalin’s command, Jacson murdered Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, by driving an ice pick into his skull. Babich was considered a crazy commie by Kenaston Croats. A monument in Lovinac indicates that Babich died in 1957.

Despite their rough upbringing, the Kenaston area Croats were generally a gentle and peace loving bunch, eager to start a new life. When WW1 broke out, many Croatians from other parts of Canada were put into detention camps because they were considered Austrians. The Kenaston Croats were spared this fate because of being vouched for by their local Member of Parliament, J.Fred Johnston. During WW2, 29 sons and daughters of these pioneers joined the Canadian armed forces, two of the men were killed in action in Europe in 1945: Tony Pavelich, PPCLI and Frank Sekulich, Regina Rifles.

The early Croat pioneers faced the same trials, tribulations and tragedies as did all the early settlers, especially those of the 1918 Spanish flu and the Depression years of the ‘Dirty Thirties’. The paucity of medical care was the source of some heart breaking sorrow. Several women died in child birth including the author’s paternal grandmother in 1917. Four Croat families lost several family members from the scourge of tuberculosis in the late ‘20’s /early ‘30’s. In one family, half of the twelve children died in infancy from various illnesses.

Language and Culture: As with all non-English speaking pioneer settlers, Croatian immigrants faced the hurdle of learning the difficult English language. The men learned to converse quite well on their first jobs in the USA, some even picking up American expressions like Mike Zdunich calling a horse a ‘hoss’. English speaking neighbors and businessmen also helped them learn. The wives had very little such learning exposure and most could only speak the odd word of English. Although first generation descendants only spoke Croatian when they started school, they were soon fluent in English. None of the first class of Briggs School spoke English when the school opened in 1913; it must have been quite a challenge for Miss Kitchen the teacher. Keeping the Croat language and culture alive was not practically possible with Saskatchewan pioneer Croats, because they were so few in numbers compared to the immensely larger communities in Toronto, Vancouver etc. And so, by the third generation of descendants, there are few who know more than the odd word of Croatian. Perhaps the author’s great uncle typified the feeling towards their roots. When he was told about a Croatian cultural centre being built in Edmonton, he said it was not a good idea, and that we should all become Canadians.

During ethnic celebration days in Saskatoon and Regina, the more recent urban Croat immigrants usually get together an exhibit of their food, folk dress, music and dance.

This attitude toward their culture probably existed because most of the pioneer families had such a miserable existence in the old country, that they wanted to forget their past and also as mentioned above, they were too small a community. They wrote frequently to their relatives in Croatia and often sent money and gifts, but only about three or four of the pioneers ever went back to visit. By the 1980’s contact with relatives in Croatia was virtually non-existent. The author’s great uncle Paul Brkich said his childhood was like that of an animal – and yet upon arrival at Quebec City’s Grosse Isle on May 3, 1914, he wrote the following touching farewell words in his prayer book: (translated) “Farewell Lika and Croatia, beloved country, sweet birthplace, my old fatherland. Good Bye.”

Those who are descendants of the Kenaston Croatian community, are deeply grateful to their forefathers who emigrated to Canada under such great difficulties, and to Canada for allowing them to immigrate into this, the best country in the world.

Beckie, Kenneth Croatian Pioneers of Kenaston, Saskatchewan : Self-published 2003
Grabovac, Fr. Isidor 450 Years of Croatians in Canada Quebecor Inc. 1995
Kith ‘n Kin: History of Kenaston and District 1980
Rasporich, Dr. A.W. For a Better Life: A History of Croatians in Canada 1982
Tanner, Marcus Croatia: A Nation Forged in War Yale University Press 1997