Friday, January 13, 2012

Favourite Foote Photos: Allan Levine

Winnipeg was built by a powerful business elite, mainly born in England, Scotland and Ontario. But in its heyday, during the boom years of the early twentieth century, it was truly transformed by hard-working immigrants, who came from Eastern Europe.

Whether they were Poles, Ukrainians, Russians or Jews who journeyed half way around the world to arrive here, these immigrants gave the city, and specifically the North End where they first resided, its unique character.

The culture, food and dress, and multi-ethnic flavour we today associate with the city were derived from this collective experience.

As this early Foote photograph shows, life for the newcomers was extremely difficult and fraught with the various urban problems that defined the pre-First World War era in many North American cities like Winnipeg.

Poverty, disease and hunger in the slums were rampant and Foote brilliantly captured this sense of despair.

Here you have a group of East Europeans, fathers, brothers and their children - and the absence of women is curious - looking tired and disheveled. The men appear as if they have just arrived home from a long day at the factory or working on a road gang and the children from playing in the dirty streets.

When I have written fictional accounts of early Winnipeg, I have closely studied such photographs taken by Foote in an attempt to get inside the head of the city's East European immigrants.

I always liked this one as depicting the trials of their lives: the clothes hanging on the rope, the ray of light in an otherwise dark and dank space, and the empty stares of the men and even the two older girls. They seem to have surrendered to the harsh realities of their ordeal, though the optimistic side of me thinks that they survived and ultimately prospered.

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Allan Levine is a Winnipeg-based historian and the author of the Sam Klein Mystery trilogy set in the city's early twentieth century. His most recent book is William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Life Guided By The Hand Of Destiny.

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