The Last Best West
Homes For Millions
By Collections Curator Ruth Bitner
They came by the thousands to Western Canada, seeking opportunity and
a better life in a new “promised land.” The Canadian government in the
late 19th and early 20th century was anxious to populate the west with
farmers and business people who would contribute to the national economy
by developing the vast resources of the West. A settled west would also
solidify Canada’s claim to sovereignty over the northwest. Ottawa had
negotiated treaties with First Nations peoples in the 1870s and confined
them to reserves, thereby opening the territories for agricultural
production. Surveyors had been sent out to survey hundreds of thousands
of square miles, imposing the grid system of townships, sections and
quarter sections. A plan was set in place to offer homesteads to
To attract newcomers to the West, the government launched aggressive advertising campaigns in the United States and Europe. The Western Development Museum collection contains a number of booklets issued by the Department of the Interior to attract settlers. The promotional material painted a rosy picture of the conditions the settler might expect to find. Photographs and artwork romanticized the prairies, featuring only the most modern and well-to-do farmsteads. The climate was described in terms that must have left settlers unprepared for the rigours of the Saskatchewan winter.
The 1909 edition of Canada West began with a page describing land regulations. A diagram of a township showed the numbered sections from one to 36. Not all sections in a township were open to homesteaders. Sections 11 and 29 were reserved for school purposes; sections eight and 26 belonged to the Hudson’s Bay Company and could be purchased by settlers. Homestead rules stated, only the “sole head of a family, or any male over eighteen years of age, and is a British subject, or declares intention to become a British subject, on payment of an entry fee of ten dollars” was permitted to file for a 160-acre homestead. Women were excluded unless they were the “sole head of a family” with minor dependent children. There were also regulations requiring the homesteader to live in a “habitable house” for six months in each of three years and to break a certain amount of land, part of which was to be cropped.
Customs and freight regulations were included on the first page. “Settlers effects” were permitted entry into Canada duty-free and reduced rates were charged by the railways for belongings classified as such. Rules regarding the importing of livestock and machinery were applicable primarily to immigrants from the United States.
The government gave advice to “young men with $250 or less,” to “the man with $500" and to the “man with $1000.” The young men were advised to work for wages for a year before applying for a homestead. The man with $500 was told to “homestead 160 acres at once and put up a house.” He should then look for a job for six months to make some money. A “fair start” could be made to the man with $1000. By “working out in harvest and threshing, money may be earned to help over the winter.” The cost of equipment and livestock to get started was estimated at $1155.
Saskatchewan was described in glowing terms. “...there is no part of the American continent where there are such uninterrupted stretches of plough land as in this Province....if there is such a thing as a soil whose fertility is inexhaustible by cropping, it is certainly here.” Homesteaders putting in their first winter in Saskatchewan must have been disillusioned if they had taken seriously the government’s description of the climate. “Winter snows stay on the ground but a short time...cattle and horses may be wintered in the open without shelter, even in a severe season...the natural protection afforded in almost any portion of the ranching district effectually provides for shelter and the need to ‘put up’ cured feed for the winter does not exist.” A further description of southwest Saskatchewan indicates there are “two or three winter months.” Of central Saskatchewan, the writer declares, “the climate is healthful and bracing.” Surely he could not have spent a winter in Saskatchewan.
Describing the extremes of climate, the literature continues, “In reality, the climate has helped to fashion prosperity. To obtain tingling veins, sharp movement is needed....extremes (are) overcome by a straw hat (in summer) and a thick overcoat (in winter). Temperature statistics stated that the average of the January monthly mean temperature in the nine years ending in 1908 was 4.6 degrees (F). “Cyclones and violent storms” were reported to be unknown in summers. The nine-year average rainfall, according to the booklet, “has proved ample for all agricultural needs.”
If prospective immigrants needed further convincing, the publications featured testimonials from established successful farmers. Most talked about the size of their farms and the money they made. H.M. Jansen of the Saskatchewan Valley area stated, “I would not sell my homestead on any consideration.”
To demonstrate the increasing rate of settlement in western Canada, it was calculated that “in September and October, 1908, enough land was homesteaded to make up 183 townships or a strip seven miles wide from Winnipeg to Calgary, 800 miles.” Statements like this encouraged the prospective homesteader to come west before the choice land was taken up.
The Department of Immigration and Colonization continued to publish Canada West at least until the late 1920s. The format was similar, with colourful covers, information for intending settlers, description of the West in general and each of the western provinces individually. Social conditions and infrastructure were described and testimonials featured prominently. Maps were also provided. The booklets were published in languages other than English to attract settlers from other European countries. The campaigns were successful in attracting tens of thousands of immigrants to the West. It is impossible to estimate the role the promotional literature played in attracting prospective farmers but was certainly was a key component of the government’s immigration strategy.