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We All Have a History, Including Lethbridge

June 28, 2019

The city of Lethbridge has an interesting history. Before the lucrative coal mine took over, and even before the American whiskey traders were running a profitable business here, Lethbridge was populated by several indigenous tribes. The traditional territory was known as the Blackfoot Confederacy.

The tribes had their own names for the area. It was known as Steep Banks, Coal, Black Rocks, Digging Coal, etc. Then, around 1869, whiskey traders moved into the area during restrictions on alcohol in Montana. They settled in a place later nicknamed Fort Whoop-Up. The traders brought violence, perpetrating the need for the North-West Mounted Police. The area was then known as Coal Banks. 

It was around this time that Residential Schools were in full-force in Canada, their numbers peaking in the mid 1800s. Indigenous children were forced from their homes and required to attend religious-based schools to assimilate to the now-dominating white culture. The schools existed for over a hundred years in Canada, and had devastating effects on indigenous peoples. Lethbridge was not untouched by its effects.

By the 1870s, more settlers moved into Coal Banks. Nicholas Sheran was the first to mine a coal seam. Seeing his success, Sir Alexander Galt and his son opened the first coal mine in Lethbridge in 1882 with his company: the North Western Coal and Navigation Company. He first used barges on the river to transport coal, but they were inefficient. With many letters of complaint to the Canadian Pacific Railway, the railway was built two years later. In the same year, the town was renamed ‘Lethbridge’ after the coal company’s first president, William Lethbridge. The town grew quickly and was plagued by various gambling dens, saloons and prostitution. These vices were eventually stabilized by the mounted police. 

Charles A. Magrath was appointed the first mayor in 1891 and the town was incorporated. The railroad brought more settlers into the area, mainly men, and the town remained rather poor until the mid 1900s, when agriculture began to dominate the coal industry. 

The indigenous people were pushed out of the city as it grew, and between the 1950s and 1980s, the coined “sixties scoop” became a new force in Canadian history. Beginning in Saskatchewan and taking root in the entire country, thousands of indigenous children were “scooped” from their families as babies and young children, and put into adoption with primarily white, middle-class families. Their culture and language was stripped from them along with any ties to their biological family. Many children were transported to the United States and Europe. The indigenous families were deemed unsupportive, and many of their children suffered in the foster care system as a result.

Years passed and Lethbridge continued to grow, until finally reaching over 100,000 people in 2019. It is now the third largest city in Alberta and its industry has long since evolved. 

Lethbridge, along with cities across Canada, recently celebrated National Indigenous Peoples’ week. It’s a week for us to try and reconcile the crimes done against indigenous people, and to celebrate their culture. You can watch the video to learn more: (https://www.bridgecitynews.ca/news/national-indigenous-peoples-week-hits-yql).

Historical references courtesy of https://digitallibrary.uleth.ca/digital/collection/lhs/id/2774
Photos courtesy of http://www.prairie-towns.com/lethbridge-images.html