Canada: From Struggling Seed, the Church Has Risen to Branching Maple


When Joseph Smith first ventured outside of the United States to preach the gospel in Canada in October 1833, he recorded by candlelight his impressions and predictions of the destiny of the restored Church in that great new land:

“[We] … had many peculiar feelings in relation to both the country and the people. [The congregation] gave good heed to the things which were spoken, what may be the result we cannot tell but the prospect is flattering. … We hope that good may yet be done in Canada which O Lord grant for thy name’s sake.” (Journal of Joseph Smith, Jr., 17–22 Oct. 1833, Joseph Smith, Jr., Papers, Church Archives, Historical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

What the Prophet anticipated some 150 years ago, more than one hundred thousand Latter-day Saints in Canada are now accomplishing. Today the influence of the Church is felt in every province and territory in this vast dominion, from the rugged eastern coasts of Newfoundland to the western shores of Vancouver Island, and from the Alberta wheat fields in the south to the Arctic Ocean on the north. Although the Church has not grown here as spectacularly as in some other regions of the world, it has nevertheless done so consistently year after year, one faithful life upon another.

The story of the Church in Canada is perhaps best understood by dividing it into three periods: a time of plowing, 1830 to 1850; a time of planting, 1880 to 1930; and a time of harvesting, 1930 to the present. The story is essentially a spiritual one. As Canadian-born Elder Alexander B. Morrison of the First Quorum of the Seventy recently remarked: “It has been the deeply-felt conviction of divine direction which has motivated the leadership and the humble, faithful members of the Church [in Canada] since its very beginning.” (“Health Patterns in Canadian Latter-day Saints,” address delivered at the “Mormon Presence in Canada” conference, 6–9 May 1987, Edmonton, Alberta.)

A Time of Plowing

The Prophet Joseph Smith was not the first to declare the restored gospel in what was then the British colony of Upper Canada (now Ontario). That honor belonged to his father, Joseph Smith, Sr., and to his brother, Don Carlos, who preached in several Canadian towns and hamlets north of the St. Lawrence River in September 1830. The Canadian settlements were only a day or two’s journey from Palmyra, New York, and Kirtland, Ohio, and several converts were eager to share their new religion with relatives north of the border.

So it was with Freeman Nickerson, who prevailed upon the Prophet Joseph and Sidney Rigdon to visit his extended family in Mt. Pleasant, near Brantford. So it was also that Brigham Young and his brother, Phineas, both former Methodist preachers in the eastern townships of Ontario, returned in January 1832 to convince their older brother, Joseph, of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. After Joseph’s conversion, the Young brothers taught their friends and acquaintances in the Kingston, Sydenham and Loughborough township, and Ernesttown regions. They baptized more than 150 settlers and established four branches of the Church between 1832 and 1834.

Such a favorable response persuaded the Quorum of the Twelve to dispatch two of its members—John E. Page and Parley P. Pratt—on special missions to Canada. Elder Page was called “Son of Thunder” by his associates because of his power in speaking. He initially declined to go to Canada because of financial hardship, but “Joseph Smith took off his coat,” as Brigham Young recalled, “and gave it to him and told him to go, and the Lord would bless him abundantly.” Two years and two missions later, Elder Page returned, having baptized almost one thousand people in Elgin, North and South Crosby, Westport, Portland, and other small towns along the Rideau Canal system north of Kingston.

Parley P. Pratt’s 1836 mission to Toronto was equally impressive. Promised by Elder Heber C. Kimball that he would find “a people prepared there” and that the Church would “spread thence into the regions round about,” Elder Pratt set out in great confidence. However, after being denied an opportunity to preach on a score of occasions by local clergymen, he would likely have returned in failure had not an Isabella Walton invited him in to share his message with her and her family and friends.

One of the first three people baptized in Toronto, Isabella Walton was the key to several important conversions. She introduced her brother, Isaac Russell, and his friend Joseph Fielding to Elder Pratt’s preaching, and before long, they joined the Church. Her good friend John Taylor (later to become the fifth President of the Church) had heard Mormon missionaries preach before, and he eventually also joined. Joseph Fielding’s sisters Mary (who would become the wife of Hyrum Smith) and Mercy also joined with him. Theodore Turley and William and Wilson Law were among other converts of this period. Elder Pratt’s friendship with the well-known Canadian reformer and political leader, William Lyon Mackenzie, opened doors to receptive audiences not otherwise attainable. Soon, branches were organized in Toronto, Scarborough, Churchville, and Markham.

Between 1830 and 1850, some 2,500 Canadians joined the Church, mostly in Upper Canada but also in the southern English-speaking townships of Lower Canada (Quebec), New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. As in other areas of the world, however, local Church growth and activity declined in direct proportion to the exodus of Latter-day Saints bound to join the main body of the Saints en route to the Rocky Mountains. Whatever influence the Church may have experienced here in the last half of the nineteenth century was sacrificed in order to consolidate its positions south of the border. By 1861, the Ontario census counted only seventy-four Latter-day Saints in the entire province!

These early missions into Canada, however, were far more valuable historically than the mere numbers of new converts, for they sent an unmistakable signal that the message of Moroni could be as acceptable to the British as it was to some Americans. Much of the credit for the opening of the British Isles to the Church must go to several Toronto area converts—men like Joseph Fielding, Isaac Russell, and Samuel Mulliner. Later, serving as companions to Wilford Woodruff, Heber C. Kimball, and Brigham Young, they helped persuade friends, relatives, and, in the case of Joseph Fielding, his brother’s entire congregation in Preston, England, to be taught the gospel.

A Time of Planting

Fifty-five years after the Prophet Joseph’s visit to eastern Canada, another man in a place two thousand miles to the west also penned his impressions of Canada. From a tent on a cold, windswept grassy prairie called Buffalo Plains near Lee’s Creek in southern Alberta, he wrote in May 1887, “I am tired, and weary of traveling. I started to plow on a new place in the wilderness one week ago yesterday and one week ago today put in my first garden. It is a task to commence anew in a new land far from home … but such are the trials of many of the saints at present, but by the help of Father [we] will endure.” Such was the faith and determination of Charles Ora Card (1839–1906), the man still referred to by many as Canada’s Brigham Young.

President of the Cache Valley Stake in Logan, Utah, Charles Card had earlier been commissioned by President John Taylor to find a place of refuge in Canada, where members of the Church could live their religion without harassment. In the wake of recent federal laws and court rulings prohibiting plural marriage, many husbands had chosen to leave the United States and support part of their multiple families from a distance rather than be thrown into jail and left unable to provide for them at all.

Some had gone to Mexico. President Card, on the other hand, had been sent north in 1886 to find a potential settlement site in western Canada. In the spring of 1887, after scouting out several potential sites, he decided on the Lee’s Creek encampment. There, on June 3, the first eight families he had recruited from Cache Valley pitched camp within sight of “Old Chief,” the nearby mountain sentinel. President Card’s family and others arrived during the next several days. Soon the town of Cardston was laid out in grid fashion, with several square blocks of 8.4 acres each in size, eight lots to a block. Acreages were parceled out, attempts to irrigate from Lee’s Creek and the nearby St. Mary’s River began, and a branch (later the Card Ward) of the Cache Valley Stake was organized.

Two years later, President Card returned to Salt Lake City to report on their progress and receive new directions. Instead of being told to return to Cache Valley, as he half-expected, he was sent back by President Wilford Woodruff to buy some twenty thousand acres of land adjoining Cardston to make the Alberta settlement permanent and self-sustaining and to extend the fortunes and frontiers of the Church in what was called “the Canadian Mission.” Church authorities recognized that few other governments anywhere in the world were at that moment as open and accepting of the Latter-day Saints as the Canadian government was.

The log home of pioneer colonizer Charles O. Card

The log home of pioneer colonizer Charles O. Card, in Cardston, Alberta, is a reminder of the Church’s early years in Canada. (Photography by Don L. Searle.)

The favorable reception of the Canadian government to the member-settlers was a reflection on the times. At a moment when Ottawa’s national policy was to seek new settlers to populate the almost endless stretches of the Canadian West, immigration—particularly of skilled and seasoned farmers—was strongly encouraged. With both Church directives and government incentives as impetus, President Card returned to Alberta and in time organized the villages of Mountain View, Beazer, Leavitt, and Kimball. He also saw to the creation of the Alberta Stake in 1895, over which he was asked to preside—the first stake organized outside the United States.

The dry years and the recession of the 1890s prompted several southern Alberta business interests, including those of Alexander Galt and C. A. McGrath, to contract with the Church to irrigate 720,000 acres between the St. Mary’s River near the U.S. border and Lethbridge some ninety miles to the north. This would attract hundreds of new settlers, many of them Latter-day Saints, and establish several villages. Soon afterward, Jesse Knight’s sugar beet factory, as well as cheese factories, creameries, and other agriculture-related industries, sprang up in the new towns of Magrath (1898), Stirling (1898), Raymond (1890), and elsewhere. In 1906 the Church purchased the 60,000-acre Cochrane ranch northwest of Cardston. (The communities of Glenwood and Hill Spring are now located there.)

Latter-day Saint irrigation efforts proved so effective that Canadian businessmen were calling them the most successful colonizing instruments on the continent. By 1914, more than ten thousand Latter-day Saints—nearly three percent of the entire provincial population—had settled in a score of farming communities in southern Alberta.

What animosities nearby neighbors and fellow settlers may once have harbored against the Mormons gradually gave way in the face of the Manifesto of 1890 and the growing reputation of the Latter-day Saints for industry, thrift, integrity, obedience to law, temperance, strong family ties, and an enthusiastic loyalty to Canadian institutions and traditions.

The Alberta story is, however, much more than plowshares and irrigation canals; it is also central to the establishment and growth of the Church throughout western Canada. Some two hundred to three hundred missionaries were sent west to British Columbia and as far east as Manitoba before World War I, but with little success. Meanwhile, by 1921, two other Alberta stakes had been organized—the Taylor Stake (1903) and the Lethbridge Stake (1921). Since then, members of the Church have moved northward in ever-increasing numbers to Calgary and Edmonton to seek employment, training, and advanced education. Of the fifty thousand Latter-day Saints in Alberta today, 75 percent live in these larger centers.

Clearly a landmark in Canadian Church history was the decision by the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve to build a temple in Cardston—again, the first outside the United States or its territories. Built of white British Columbia granite, this sacred building was dedicated by President Heber J. Grant in 1923. Edward J. Wood, who had succeeded Charles Card as the Alberta Stake president twenty years earlier, was called to serve concurrently as the temple’s first president. The completion of the Canadian temple symbolized the commitment of the Church to Canada’s future. Unlike eighty years before when the Church had pulled up its Canadian stakes, it had now returned to stay.

Canadians like Hugh B. Brown and N. Eldon Tanner (both were born in Utah but called Canada home) were soon to make their mark on the Church, along with Ted E. Brewerton, Victor L. Brown, Alexander B. Morrison, and Ardeth G. Kapp. In addition, the Alberta Saints were destined to play a powerful role in the spreading of the gospel message into all parts of Canada.

A Time of Harvesting

In 1923, 80 percent of the Latter-day Saint population in Canada lived within a 100-mile radius of Cardston. Today, the majority of Canadian stakes are outside Alberta, and the trend is gathering momentum. For instance, there are more than twenty thousand members in both Ontario and British Columbia. Canadian Latter-day Saint membership growth has occurred at the rate of eighteen thousand every ten years, so that since 1950 the numbers have tripled, from thirty thousand to more than one hundred thousand.

The onward march of the Church during the past half century in Canada is written in the souls of hundreds of remarkable, faithful people, like Brother and Sister Gustav Wacker of Kingston, Ontario. A German immigrant convert family who could not afford to move farther west, the Wackers stopped in Kingston, Ontario. Many times President Wacker was the only one in attendance at sacrament meetings in one of the branch’s antiquated, rented halls. Not only did new converts come discouragingly slowly, but they also would often move west to the larger centers of Church membership. The result was a heavy burden on those who stayed behind. “Everybody had so many Church jobs,” one member recalled, “you never knew who was who. A family would move out of town, and there would be twenty positions vacant.”

Upon the backs of such humble men and women as the Wackers, branch after branch has gradually transformed itself from a mere port of entry for the Church into a ward and then a stake. For instance, Kingston, Ontario, today boasts a thriving ward and a spacious new chapel not far from where John E. Page and Brigham Young once preached.

The Wackers represent a small but significant number of European and British immigrants who played pivotal roles in struggling branches.

In Montreal, for example, there is Hans Peets, an Estonian refugee who immigrated to Canada in 1948. He first met LDS missionaries in the early 1950s and, he recalls, “I wrestled with what they taught for about four years” before accepting the gospel. He was president of the first branch organized on Montreal’s South Shore, in 1962, and went on to be a counselor in the district presidency, district president, and a counselor in the mission presidency. He is currently serving as a stake patriarch.

Stanley Roberts was converted to the Church through his wife-to-be, Ellen, in their native England early in this century. They immigrated to Winnipeg in the 1920s and there became stalwarts in the Church. Stanley was branch president for twenty-seven years and district president for several more. “I don’t know how many times Mother was Relief Society president,” says their son Arnold, recently called as second counselor in the Washington Temple presidency.

In the Far West, Gerhardus and Deynphina (known as George and Dina) Suiker set an example of Church activity for their own children and other members in Vancouver. Their daughter, Dahlia Martin, recalls that the family would hike for forty-five minutes, wading a stream along the way, just to get to the trolley line for a half-hour ride to church on Sunday morning. “We never missed a Sunday,” says Dahlia. When their children were tiny, Sister Suiker would stay home in the morning to care for them while her husband journeyed to Church, then go to sacrament meeting with him in the evening.

Later, before the Suikers were able to buy a car, they attended meetings in North Vancouver, traveling to the bus line by water in the outboard motorboat Brother Suiker had built.

George had learned to be a bricklayer in his native Holland, and even though the family no longer attended there, he helped construct the building that is now the Vancouver First Ward meetinghouse.

European families like these represented a “Cross-Atlantic Connection” that provided great strength to the Church in Canada during the first six decades of the twentieth century.

No less important is the “Alberta Connection,” where thousands of members and seasoned leaders left the province to make a living elsewhere in Canada. Among them are President Ted Smith of the Ottawa Ontario Stake and his wife, Geraldine; Laurie Davidson, president of the St. John’s Newfoundland District and his wife, Kathy; Jim Matkin, now head of the Business Council of British Columbia and former deputy minister of labor; and Mark Spencer, patriarch of the Winnipeg Manitoba Stake, and his wife, Katie. These and other Alberta Saints have been like nursing mothers and fathers to struggling branches and wards from coast to coast. Other Albertans have served as missionaries and mission presidents.

The building program has its own special history. From Sudbury to St. John’s, from Charlottetown to Vernon, rented halls and legion centers have given way to new chapels and renovated meetinghouses. The first LDS meetinghouse in Vancouver, purchased in 1925, was a tall, narrow frame structure on Fourteenth Avenue, “perched rather precariously on a corner slope and reached by climbing a long flight of wooden steps.” Before the dedication of the first LDS chapel in eastern Canada (on Toronto’s Ossington Street in 1939), early congregations climbed fire escapes to rented halls, holding meetings above dog shows and ethnic festivals.

Daunting distances and Canada’s notorious winters sometimes have created problems in operating Church programs. Toronto Fifth Ward Bishop Everett Pallin was serving in an elders quorum presidency that traveled to a mining camp at Timmins, 550 miles north, to locate a less-active member of their quorum. The man, seeing the three quorum leaders approach his outdoor rock-crushing site, wept like a child once lost but found again.

Church leaders in Manitoba and Saskatchewan still oversee stakes that cover entire provinces, each of which is about as large as Utah, Nevada, and Idaho combined.

In the far north, the Yellowknife Branch covers more than half a million square miles in the Northwest Territories and includes scattered members in Arctic areas. A thousand miles west, in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, members combine a one-way, three-hour car ride with a six-hour ferry crossing to Juneau, Alaska, to attend district conferences. And for members in Newfoundland, it’s a ten-day round-trip to the Washington Temple.

As for the weather, while Canada is a land of great summer fun at cottages on abundant lakes and streams, it is also a land of bitterly cold winters. Temperatures may stay from twenty to thirty degrees below zero Fahrenheit for days on end. Blizzards become a way of life. In Winnipeg, early-morning seminary students often face windchill temperatures of sixty degrees below zero Fahrenheit at their bus stop. Yet, if anything, traveling long distances and learning to cope with the weather have bonded members together in a spirit of sacrifice and service.

This sense of distance and remoteness, of surviving in spite of the elements, and of gradual forward progress, has helped to make the creations of new stakes especially memorable. When President Thomas S. Monson, now Second Counselor in the First Presidency, presided over the Canadian Mission, he had the privilege of announcing in 1960 that the long-anticipated Toronto stake would be organized. It was the first Canadian stake outside of Alberta, and members from all over Ontario and Quebec attended to celebrate 130 years of Church growth in central Canada. Since then, six more stakes have been organized in Ontario alone.

The year 1960 also marked a milestone for the Church on Canada’s west coast in British Columbia when Elder Hugh B. Brown of the Council of the Twelve organized the Vancouver Stake that fall. Today there are five stakes in that province.

Elsewhere, stakes were organized in the two prairie provinces, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, in 1978. And the most easterly stake in the country, the Dartmouth Nova Scotia stake, came into being in 1985.

Growth for the Church has come relatively recently in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec. Not too long ago, missionaries were barred from entering the province. As the Church first began to gain a foothold, members faced the same local struggles that members in Ontario had faced a generation earlier.

In Quebec City, for example, the underbudgeted YMCA “gladly” rented its facilities as a meeting place. Dean Louder, one of the pioneers of the Quebec City Branch, writes of experiences there in the early 1970s: “Some Sundays there would be no key to open the door, but fortunately a window eight feet above street level would usually be unlocked.

“I would lift my five-year-old son, who would then crawl through … and open the fire door at the rear of the building, thus letting in the faithful who spent the next fifteen minutes disposing of empty soft drink cans, emptying smelly cigarette butts from heavy-laden ashtrays prior to sweeping floors, lining up chairs, searching for the tiny key to open a lock giving access to the piano keyboard, and setting in place the fragile portable masonite pulpit.”

Profound social, political, and religious changes have created a much more open society in Quebec in recent years. Many among the predominantly French-speaking community have become alienated from their traditional religions. Latter-day Saint emphasis on families, on obedience to authority, and on love and respect for one’s ancestors have contributed to remarkable Church growth in Quebec.

There are two stakes in Montreal today, one English- and the other French-speaking, and inroads among the French-speaking “Quebeçois” are impressive. Unlike their English-speaking counterparts, who often move west to attend school, the French-Canadian Latter-day Saints tend to stay with their people, culture, and language. Gerard Pelchat, who served as the first president of the Montreal Quebec Stake, explains: “They don’t move their roots.” Consequently, the Church is building upon itself faster in Quebec, perhaps, than almost anywhere else in Canada.

The imminent completion of the Toronto Temple will mark a new threshold in the development of the Church in Canada. Wards and stakes throughout the country will be organized at an ever-increasing pace, and the influence of good Latter-day Saints will become more noticeable in government, business, education, the professions, and other walks of life. It is likely that growth will not be dramatic, but it will be constant.

Setbacks and disappointments will inevitably occur. But the greatest change, the biggest miracle, as President Ian Wilson of the Montreal Quebec Mt. Royale Stake says, will continue to be the small but gradual improvements in the lives of faithful Latter-day Saints.

Joseph Smith once wrote by candlelight of flattering prospects in this land and petitioned the Lord that good might be done here, for His name’s sake. It seems apparent that this petition has been granted. In Canada, the dawn has long since broken for the Church, and the day is fair.

[photos] While Latter-day Saints put down roots in Canada’s rugged west, symbolized by Banff National Park (backdrop; photography by Ron Thomas, FPG International), some of the earliest Canadian converts, taught by Joseph Smith, were baptized in the verdant countryside near Mt. Pleasant, Ontario (top inset photo; photography by Cary Kumano). Dedication of the new Dartmouth Nova Scotia stake center in 1987 was just one indicator that the growing Church now extends throughout Canada; President Terry Livingstone (right in lower inset photo; photography by Arnon Livingstone) greeted members afterward.

[photos] Members in urban Montreal (above; photography by Foster Warren) attend meetings in a large building while members of the Yellowknife Branch in the Northwest Territories (far right; photography by Robert Slaven) learn the same gospel in a much smaller facility. A scene of the city of Vancouver serves as a backdrop for both. (Photography by FPG International.)

[photos] Members of the Flin Flon (Manitoba) Branch gather for a group photo (far left; photography by Tony Rice). The fertile Cochrane Ranch property (center; photography by Wayne Strong) above Cardston, acquired in the early 1900s, provided additional space for Latter-day Saint settlers. Vernon British Columbia stake center (upper inset photo; photography by W. A. [Burt] Perry). Librarian Rose Ingram assists patrons (lower inset photo; photography by W. A. [Burt] Perry) in the satellite family history library.

[illustration; photos] The Toronto Temple (top), will serve sixty thousand Church members. Many attended the ground-breaking (center; photography by Gilmour Smith); Elder M. Russell Ballard was among the speakers. The city of Quebec (right; photography by FPG International) is among the French-speaking areas where the Church has made progress in recent years. The Carry-The-Kettle Branch meetinghouse (far right; photography by Don Cruickshank) in the Canada Winnipeg Mission.

Richard E. Bennett is head of the Department of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Manitoba. He is president of the Winnipeg Manitoba Stake.