Edmonton: Know your City

The City of Edmonton is a bustling place with a robust population of different backgrounds and socioeconomics, but the city’s development and liveability have not come overnight. Aboriginal peoples and immigrants of different eras, origins, and expertises have teamed up and taken on themselves to make the city a superb place to live in.

Edmonton City

The city’s beginning was fairly simple. Indigenous peoples had lived in Edmonton for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. The city began as a trading post called Fort Edmonton, built in 1795 on the site that is now occupied by the Alberta Legislature Building.  

Driven by a lucrative, fur trade with the indigenous communities, the Hudson Bay Company established numerous trading posts, one of which was Fort Edmonton. Hence, the City of Edmonton evolved from that small place. Some sources indicate the city was founded in 1894, incorporated in 1904, and became the site of the Alberta Provincial Legislature in 1905.

How did Edmonton get its name? John Peter Prudent is credited with giving the city its name. He was born in 1778, in a locality called Edmonton, which is an area of north London, England. Thus, the City of Edmonton owes its name to John’s birthplace. John Prudent immigrated to Canada at age 13 and worked for the Hudson Bay Company from 1791 to 1837 and died in 1868 aged 80.

There is another pioneer immigrant who has imprinted Edmonton. This man is Anthony Henday, who was also born in England and is often credited as the first European who had set foot on Edmonton soil. He was an explorer for the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1754, and his expedition was aimed at establishing contact with the Aboriginal population to strike a firm deal based on the fur trade, which continued for nearly 250 years. Now, Anthony Henday is that stunning Highway which surrounds the City of Edmonton and immortalizes the explorer’s name.

As time went by, the City of Edmonton expanded and annexed other towns and municipalities. Edmonton amalgamated with Stratchcona in 1912, with Beverly town in 1960, with Jasper Place in 1964. And as of today, the City of Edmonton is expanding and sprawling. What contributed to the city’s growth back then was an immigration policy spearheaded by Sir Clifford Sifton, a lawyer, and a Liberal minster. He espoused a sweeping immigration policy not limited to traditional immigrants, but encompassed farmers and other skilled workers of any background and nationality. So, from 1867 to 1914, thousands of new immigrants in search of safety and a better life streamed to the Prairie Provinces, Alberta included. The immigrants worked hard and got involved in different industries and initiatives, including farming, mining, and construction. Also, Alberta’s oil discovery in 1947 added to the city’s growth. Its status got elevated, and was named the “Oil Capital of Canada”.

 Imagine Edmonton with no cars. Not much could be done. Another factor that propelled the city’s augmentation was the advent of electric streetcars coupled with the Canadian Pacific Railway. These transportation means enhanced the city’s outlook and services, as communities opened up to one another and touted their products to prosper.

In fact, introducing the streetcars was a big breakthrough for the city’s population. Edmonton became accessible, enjoyable, and abundant with resources. Its residents moved around with ease and attended to their respective errands. The streetcars started running in Edmonton in 1908 and heralded a new era of ample hauling, but discontinued in 1951. They ran on rails laid down on the street equipped with overhead wire system. The cars picked up the current by using a long pole built onto their roof. Conductors with hand-held boxes passed through the cars and collected fare from passengers. Anyone willing to know how it felt to be a passenger of a streetcar can visit Fort Edmonton Park and ride an electric, streetcar there. It is an amazing experience. Edmonton streetcars were eventually phased out and replaced with trolley coaches.

Mobility was a tedious task to undertake before the arrival of the electric street cars. For example, it would take someone up-to five days of a hard riding to travel between Edmonton and Calgary. However, life was easy and cheap in some other ways. No taxes to pay, no utility bills to wrestle with, and no expensive rent or mortgage payments. But again, life was uncomfortable as neither adequate heat nor adept transportation existed. Add to this difficulty the lack of any ardent amenities to access.

Edmonton suffered a devastating flood in 1915.  The flood hit Edmonton River Valley hard. The valley is where Kinsmen Park is now. The flood displaced 2000 residents, destroyed 50 buildings, and submerged 700 homes; but luckily, there was no loss of life. The Edmonton Bulletin reported on the severity of the flood and how it shattered the valley’s residents.  The Bulletin estimated “that the river rose to over 42 feet above the low water level.” At the time the city’s population was 59,000. The river valley was a hub for varied industries and businesses ranging from coal mines, to brick yards, to gold mines, to breweries.

Working class people congregated near the valley to live close to employment. But, when the river burst its banks, it washed away their houses and businesses, making them unable to rebuild them. As a result, many of the working class people left the city for other destinations. John Walter was one of the valley’s residents ruined by the flood. Born in Scotland, he immigrated to Canada and became a wealthy citizen of the City of Edmonton. Now, he has a museum (John Walter Museum) in Edmonton, featuring his and family’s life. Astoundingly, encyclopaedias he brought with him from Scotland are still found in his Edmonton museum. I myself saw them. What a brilliant preservation, eh?

The City of Edmonton takes pride in its deep history, diversity, and dedication to optimal growth. Lately, the city has been attracting many immigrants from all over the world, yet Edmonton has to catch up with some big Canadian cities when it comes to a significant diversity. However, the city is heading in the right direction as it entices immigrants of different creed and colour.  

Mill Woods area is a testament to the city’s multiplicity. The area is mainly populated by people of colour; and one can find there different kinds of ethnic outlets, selling exotic foods and other items. The same goes for the north side of the city, where one finds varied, ethnic amenities. Take the 118 Ave, for example. Various, ethnic businesses adorn the avenue. They have revitalized the avenue and turned it into a bustling place. Restaurants and other small businesses run by members from Somali-Canadian community assemble along both sides of the 118 Ave. Like the diverse commerce, Heritage Festival is another factor that uplifts the city’s image. This annual festival (It runs first three days of August) is one of the largest multicultural celebrations in the world. The festival features cultural mosaic and offers enriching events throughout the three days.

Present Edmonton is fairly beautiful and attracts thousands of tourists who stare at its majestic structure in awe. Yes, the city has its own feel and vibe; and important locations of the city include Alberta Legislature Building, Edmonton City Hall, the High Level Bridge Streetcar, Royal Alberta Museum, Fort Edmonton Park, West Edmonton Mall, Muttart Conservatory, and Edmonton Valley Zoo.

Alberta Legislature building
Alberta Legislature building stands on where Fort Edmonton used to be.

Because people stream to the City of Edmonton, its population is on the rise. As of 2018, the city had a population estimated at 980,000.  Edmonton is Alberta’s capital city, Canada’s fifth largest city, and the epicentre of the country’s oil production.

This article was published in Millwoods Mosaic Newspaper on January 15, 2019.