For centuries, the Indigenous occupied the land that would one day be the Rural Municipality of Sifton. It was primarily the territory of the Cree and the Ojibwa, with the Sioux having the northern reaches of their territory into the area. Various bands of the Anishinaabe were also found in the area. Artifacts in the area have been found dating back at least 10,000 years. In the area, there is also evidence of old earth mounds that are six feet high and circular. It is believed these were not burial mounds but ceremonial sites. Nearby to Sifton, there is what was called the Indian Wall, which was not a wall but a pile of stones used at a bison harvesting site for an unknown length of time. It is believed that the date of the site is between 500 AD and 1700 AD based on the projectile points found at the site. Another set of stones in the area, facing the river, was set up in the form of a snake.
The bison were an important part of the life of the Indigenous of the area, providing them with nearly everything they needed for the year. Through the seasons, the Indigenous would follow the bison and other animals to harvest them.
Due to the relatively proximity to Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba, the area was often used as a stopping point and trading area with other Indigenous groups. The waterways of the area also served as early highway, allowing for quick trading with groups into future Alberta and Ontario.
The Oak Lake Sand Hills would also provide the Indigenous with a unique mixture of plants and animals to harvest. It is in what is now the Oak Lake Sand Hills and Wetlands Natural Area that one can find a wide mix of biodiversity, covering 777,000 acres. It is within this natural area that the prairie skink, the only lizard native to Manitoba can be found. Many rare plants are also found in the area including the prairie spiderwort, the smooth goosefoot and the hairy prairie-clover.
One of the first explorers to reach the area came in 1730. Pierre La Verendrye, who was appointed by the Governor of New France to command fur trading posts, began to visit the area in an attempt to prevent trading with the new Hudson’s Bay Company. The first fort built in the area would be in 1741 by the sons of La Verendrye. It would be destroyed in 1743, then rebuilt, then destroyed again, then rebuilt and eventually abandoned in 1763. This was the oldest trading fort in the west.
A new group would emerge after the first fur traders arrived in the late-1700s and continuing into the 1800s, the Metis. It was the Metis who would begin to conduct an organized bison hunt, which became legendary for their size and success. The Metis were then able to prosper with the skins, pemmican and meat that they harvested from the great beasts.
Over time, due to overhunting on the American side of the border especially, the bison herds began to decrease but the Metis were in the area to stay and would have a massive impact on the formation of Manitoba into Confederation.
The settlement of the Sifton area would come about after Manitoba joined Confederation. In the mid-1890s, large groups of Ukrainians started to settle in the area. Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton pushed a campaign to bring in farmers from Eastern Europe. When Ukrainians settled, they named the area and the town that popped up Sifton in his honour.
One of those early settlers was Paul Wood, who was a highly-educated English man who came to Canada looking for adventure. He would go back to England to get married in 1896, then came back out to the west to start up his homestead with his new wife. He would put his crop into the ground, which froze black in June. Unhappy with homesteading, he sold his land for $100 to William Buchanon. They had no ink for the deal, so Wood brewed a pot of dark tea and they used that to sign the papers. Wood would then move into Sifton itself where he operated the first grain elevator and served as the first land agent as well. He would also start the first grain handling facility in the community, while also serving as the interpreter and land guide for new settlers to the area.
Around this time, traders would often stop in the area of Oak Lake, named for its large number of oak trees, which would be used to repair wagons. In 1881, work crews on the new Canadian Pacific Railway would reach the area and a siding and small station were built. From that, the community of Oak Lake would rise up and become the main community in the RM of Sifton.
The early town would consist of a grocery store and post office set up in a tent. Through the summer, there were tent hotels and a stable. The entire community would move in 1883 to its present site, where the roundhouse was located for the railroad. Over time, the community began to spring up as permanent buildings and homes were built. By 1885, the total wheat market for the Oak Lake area was 125,000 bushels. The first permanent hotel would also be built that year by William Thompson.
The community of Griswold would be established in the district around this time as well. Before long, it would begin to see growth and at its height contained a flour mill, hotel, general store, a newspaper, two doctors and five grain elevators.
As surveyors came through in 1881, they also surveyed the community of Deleau. A decade later, the Deleau School District was established but it was racially divided between Belgium Roman Catholics and French Roman Catholics. This led to the two groups building their own schools on either side of the community. It was not until 1919 that the two schools would consolidate.
In 1888, the St. Alban’s Anglican Parish was formed in Oak Lake thanks to the efforts of Reverend Charles Quinney. On land donated by the North West Land Company, James Andrew and his contractors would build a new church over the next two years. It would be opened on June 22, 1890 by Bishop Machray. The church continues to stand to this day and is now one of the most impressive examples of a pre-1900 church in Manitoba. Within, nearly everything has been preserved including the structural and decorative elements, as well as the beautiful pipe organ.
On Aug. 29, 1906, Lord Grey, the Governor General of Canada, and Lady Grey, were traveling across the country and made a stop in Sifton. The members of the party would stop at the home of Mr. Basaraba’s, where several photos were taken.
In 1923, the Cross of Sacrifice was constructed in Oak Lake to honour the men who lost their lives serving Canada during the First World War. The cross was the project of the Women’s Institute, and the women were aided by their husbands to get the cross erected at the spot. The plot in the cemetery had been obtained in 1922, and the Union Jack would fly from a flagpole there. It was also where Remembrance Day Ceremonies would be held. The cross itself was built by J. Daum, T.J. Smith and J. Rozell.
It would later be re-dedicated to honour the men who died in the Second World War as well. When it was built, it was placed in the Oak Lake Cemetery but it would be moved into the town in the mid-1930s. In 1972, it was moved to its current location near the Legion Hall.
On Sept. 11, 1930, near Sifton, three sacks of preserved pemmican was found by Colin Inkster when he was grading a crossing near Sifton Junction. The pemmican was quite old, having been made from preserved bison meat and used by fur traders in the early to mid part of the 19th century. The meat was more or less decomposed but was still identified as pemmican.
In the early 1930s, John Weselowski was going broke as a blacksmith but his brother would start a manufacturing business making spinning wheels and that would change everything. The business soon became a major employer in the community throughout The Great Depression and eventually Weselowski partnered with William McPhedrain, who was the CN agent at the time. McPhedrain, with his wife Olive, would found Sifton Products, a mail order company. The company began to expand so quickly that the decision was made to move to Paris, Ontario, where the company name was changed to Mary Maxim. Specializing in craft and needlework products that could be ordered through the mail, the company would see celebrities such as Bob Hope, The Barenaked Ladies and Angela Lansbury wear their products.
On Jan. 18, 1942, Sylvester Demchuk was working in the field with his father when he looked up to see three planes flying from the Dauphin Service Flying Training School. As he watched, two of the planes failed to make a perfect change and collided in the air. The one plane was able to limp back to base, but the third spiraled out of the air and crashed into the ground in a ball of flames. Demchuk’s father quickly harnessed a team of horses and they raced to the crash site to see if they could help. The two airmen on the plane lost their lives that day and no trace of their bodies were ever found due to the heat of the fire and the explosion.
On March 31, 1949, a terrible fire erupted in Sifton at 6 a.m. in the two storey brick building that housed a radio store, butcher shop, bakery and apartment. The building was quickly gutted by flames and soon began to spread to the lumber yard and general store next door. The Farion family had to flee from their apartment to escape the flames but Mr. Farion went back to save personal belongings. He soon found the stairway blocked by flames. He then broke a window and jumped out from the second-storey onto a lean-to. He would suffer bad cuts on his hand but was otherwise okay. At the lumberyard, ten carloads of lumber were completely destroyed. Across the road, another general store was threatened by the flames but a bucket brigade set up by volunteers would save the building from being destroyed. By the time the fire was finally out, it had caused $100,000 in damages. Today, that would be about $1.24 million. The fire would be investigated and it was believed to have been caused by a defective chimney.
Only one year after that fire, another fire erupted on Jan. 26, 1950 on Main Street. This fire was a terrible one that nearly wiped out an entire block of homes and businesses. The fire broke out in the Consumer’s Co-operative garage at 8:30 a.m. and a fire truck from Dauphin would come to fight the flames, along with six members of their fire brigade who set up a bucket brigade. A strong wind was blowing in from the north and the fire began to spread but then the wind direction changed to the west and the danger of houses burning was thankfully eliminated. Nonetheless, the garage burned to the ground, along with two cars and two trucks inside. A house attached to the garage also burned to the ground, as did the post office, which was completely gutted. All mail was thankfully saved from the building before it burned. The poolroom, café, a beauty parlor and hotel all suffered damages as well. The Dauhpin Deputy Fire Chief, Gordon Harrison, would say quote:
“I’ve never seen so many people working so hard to stop a fire. They used everything they could to carry water to battle the fire.”
This was all done in weather that was sitting at -30 degrees Celsius. School was let out due to the emergency and children began to help fight the fire as well. Thankfully, the fire was stopped before it reached the gas pumps at the garage. If those had of been hit, they would have caused a massive explosion.