Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The two-year-old Dominion of Canada purchased that part of the Great Plains that extended north of the forty-ninth parallel from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1869. Peopling this region with farm families, connecting it to Central Canada with a railroad, and exploiting the region's resources were the goals of the "National Policy," Canada's western development strategy. Migrants from Europe, the United States, and from Maritime and Central Canada reshaped this expanse into the Prairie Provinces: Manitoba (1870), Saskatchewan (1905), and Alberta (1905).

Ironically, given Canada's determination to differentiate the Canadian West from the American West, Canadian settlement and development policy copied basic U.S. models. The Dominion Lands Act of 1872, like the U.S. Homestead Act, gave would-be farmers 160 acres if they "proved up": planted crops, built a shack, and survived on the homestead for three years. As in the United States, the routes the railways chose shaped the broad patterns of settlement in the Canadian Plains. Also as in the United States, Canada subsidized privately owned railways. The Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1885, received generous gifts of public land and public money. By 1915 the Canadian Pacific had been joined by two new transcontinentals, the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern Railway, supported by government guarantees of their corporate bonds. Soon bankrupt, the new railways were nationalized between 1917 and 1923 as Canadian National Railways.

Until the late 1890s European settlement of Canada's Prairie West proceeded slowly. Most settlers who moved west came from the eastern provinces, a majority of them from Ontario. For complex reasons, one of which was English Canadian hostility, only small numbers of French Canadians migrated west. The region had only 31,000 farms in 1891, and the total non–First Nations population had grown only to 251,000, compared to the combined population of Montana and North Dakota of 334,000 in 1890. Most embarrassing was that the U.S. census showed that a tenth of these North Dakotans and Montanans had migrated south from Canada.

Slower population growth made the Canadian government more generous toward block settlement by ethnic groups than was its U.S. counterpart. Two communities of Mennonites were attracted to Manitoba in 1874 with promises of freedom from military service, subsidized ocean passage, and grants of twentyfive townships on the east and west sides of the Red River. The U.S. government refused to allow village settlement on homestead lands, but the Canadian government agreed to a "hamlet clause": Mennonite families could live in a village away from the land they farmed and earn title without fulfilling the usual residence requirements.

Like the Mennonites, other minorities were pushed to the Canadian Prairie West by conditions in their homelands and pulled by the liberality of the Canadian government. In 1877 Icelanders settled a block grant on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. Mormons moved north from Utah to evade a U.S. antipolygamy law; their capital and experience enabled them to buy and irrigate railway lands in southern Alberta, and Canada took no action against polygamy. Attracted by assurances that they could preserve their cultural distinctiveness, Jewish homesteaders abandoned North Dakota to create six agricultural colonies in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and 1,700 Hutterites left South Dakota for Manitoba and Alberta.

After 1900 a surging export-oriented wheat economy initiated massive migration to what Canadian immigration pamphlets called the "Last Best West." Regional population leaped to almost two million in 1921, and from 5 percent to 22 percent of Canada's total population. Prairie prosperity persuaded emigrants from the eastern provinces to migrate west within Canada rather than to depart for the United States. But four out of ten in the region in 1921 came from outside Canada: from the British Isles, every country in Europe (Canadians did not think of Britain as part of Europe), or the United States. Canadian immigration policy was unrestrictive, with one massive exception: immigration laws kept low the numbers of people of color–Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian.

The newcomers came as individuals or in families, but no longer did they come as whole villages. Canada's magnanimity toward other ethnic groups was motivated by desperation; when the Canadian West became more attractive to migrants, policies became less generous and less flexible. The 7,400 Russian Doukhobors who settled in north-central Saskatchewan in 1899 were denied the privilege of proving up their lands collectively and had their homestead entries universally canceled in 1907. Informal block settlement continued; however, Department of the Interior officials encouraged Ukrainian migrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to choose homesteads in the parkland belt, which fringed the prairies to the north, close to countrymen with whom they shared a language. Their established Ukrainian neighbors would help impoverished newcomers through their first winter without any cost to the government, and their segregation averted friction with English-speaking Canadians.

Ukrainian homesteaders also became seasonal workers for the railways and resource industries. Although Canada officially sought farmers from Europe, after 1906 more European immigrants were actually unskilled workers destined for the same sort of work than they were homesteaders or farm workers. Half or more of those who came were not "immigrants" at all, but sojourners who sought work in North America intending to return to Europe. A durable ethnic pecking order evolved in the region: English-speaking Canadians, Britons, and Americans nearest the top, Swedes, Norwegians, and Protestant Germans (until World War I) next, and the laborers and peasant homesteaders from eastern Europe at the bottom.

This ethnically diverse population set the Prairie Provinces apart from the rest of Canada, and to a lesser extent from adjacent states of the United States. English-speaking westerners wanted to force European immigrants to speak English and to conform to British Canadian values, but the sheer numbers of immigrants limited their capacity to do so. The ethnic segregation of both the countryside and the cities of the Prairie Provinces also worked against the assimilation of European immigrants. There were striking differences in the rural and urban populations of particular ethnic groups. More than half of British Isles immigrants lived in cities and towns, but twothirds of those from the United States were farmers and three-quarters of Ukrainians lived in the countryside.

In the rural Prairie Provinces, ethnic background, time of settlement, available capital, and differing local environments created different agricultural patterns. A handful were large-scale farmers like American immigrant Charles S. Noble, who cultivated 30,000 acres of southern Alberta in 1917, when the average farm was less than 300 acres. Much more numerous were the near-peasant families like the Ukrainian settlers of southeastern Manitoba or northeastern Alberta, who hewed homesteads from the aspen parkland belt, where they found the wood and water that they needed for almost self-sufficient agriculture. Between these extremes were the families in the parkland belt and the river valleys who attempted diversified farming on mixed farms like the ones that they had grown up on in Ontario or the United States. Finally, in the dry plains closest to the Canada-U.S. boundary were the grain growers. For most farm families the goal was economic independence in order to sustain and reproduce the family. Settlers did not set out alone into the unknown, but traveled west with family and friends. The rural society that migrants fashioned in the Canadian Prairie West before 1920 retained elements of traditional rural societies alongside elements of modern industrial society. Settlers within the region shared the settlement experience, cooperated with their neighbors to harvest and to thresh, and took part in the same community activities.

A recession in 1912. 13 interrupted immigration to the Prairie Provinces. World War I, which for Canada began in August 1914, stimulated the economy but made migration across the Atlantic impossible and discouraged American immigration. War also made the relationship between immigrant minorities and the English-speaking majority more difficult. English-speaking westerners saw the war as a patriotic duty to the British Empire and a struggle for democratic principles, but their conduct was most undemocratic. Manitoba in 1916 and Saskatchewan in 1918 abolished the educational rights of linguistic minorities and made public schools unilingual; French was treated as a "foreign" language and was eliminated along with German and Ukrainian. English-speaking westerners also enthusiastically supported the wartime internment of Ukrainian immigrants, who posed absolutely no threat, and welcomed the disenfranchisement of naturalized "enemy aliens" in the federal election of 1917.

Over nativist opposition, the flow of immigrants resumed in the mid-1920s. The sources of the flow shifted. Many fewer migrants came from Britain and very few from the United States, and a majority came from central and eastern Europe. Shut out of the United States by the quota system introduced in 1924, Poles, Ukrainians, Mennonites, Czechs, German Russians, and Hungarians chose the Canadian West. The federal government allowed the Canadian Pacific and the Canadian National Railway to recruit immigrants in Europe to do pick-and-shovel work in the resource industries, to work the grain harvest, and to start small farms on quarter-sections in the parkland belt, purchased on time from the railway companies.

Ethnic diversity made the Prairie West polyglot, but it could not make it pluralistic. In Saskatchewan the Ku Klux Klan flourished briefly by connecting nativism and anti- Catholicism. English-speaking westerners attempted to force the newcomers into the mold of Anglo-conformity. But immigrant ethnic identities persisted, not as static transplantations from the Old Country but as identities relocated to and reconstructed within western Canada. Ethnic minorities acculturated to English as necessary but spoke their mother tongue at home: the census reported that in Saskatchewan 70 percent of Germans and more than 90 percent of Ukrainians continued to do so in 1941. They married endogamously in ethnic churches, belonged to ethnic fraternal societies, and maintained distinctive residential and occupational patterns. The minority ethnic identities measured by these demographic characteristics persisted in the Canadian Prairie West longer than they did in Plains states for several structural reasons, including primarily rural residence in Canada, formal and informal block settlement, and the longer continuation of wide-open immigration. Eventually, immigrant communities negotiated their own relationship with Canada and with the dominant British Canadian culture. In the Prairie West, immigrant communities themselves invented the Canadian "multicultural mosaic" three decades before governments discovered and sanctioned it.

Without New Deal programs to entice or compel small-scale farm families off the land, the economic crisis of the 1930s did not produce an exodus from the Prairie Provinces as it did in the Great Plains states. Some farm families in the Dust Bowl areas stuck it out through drought and depression; others made new farms in the northern reaches of the parkland belt or in Alberta's Peace River country. Not until World War II, which began for Canada in 1939, did military service and jobs in wartime industries initiate the migration of hundreds of thousands of young women and men out of the countryside, and often out of the region. This rural depopulation has continued; in 1996 the three Prairie Provinces had only 132,000 farms as compared to 301,000 in 1936, when the total number of farms reached its peak.

The proportion of immigrants to Canada who chose the Prairie West as their destination fell from more than one in two before 1930 to about one in seven after 1950. The total population of the Prairie West fell from 21 percent of Canada's population in 1941 to 16 percent in 1971, where it has remained. The largest numbers of immigrants who chose the Prairie Provinces in recent decades have come from South, Southeast, or East Asia; 7 percent of Alberta's population traced its origins to these parts of the world in 1996. The collapse of the former Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia also brought small migrations to the Prairie Provinces from longer-established ethnic groups. Whatever their origins, recent immigrants settled overwhelmingly in the large cities–Calgary, Edmonton, or Winnipeg.

Changes in immigration patterns, migration from country to city, and internal migration within the region have profoundly transformed the three Prairie Provinces. Manitoba and especially Saskatchewan experience continued out-migration to Alberta, to the cities of Edmonton and Calgary in particular. The 2001 census showed that Alberta has more than half of the regional population of more than five million. It also showed that, although the Prairie Provinces contain 80 percent of Canada's agricultural land, the number of farm families continues to diminish as a once rural region becomes ever more urban.

See also: ASIAN AMERICANS: Asian Canadians / IMAGES AND ICONS: Canadian Mosaic; Last Best West / TRANSPORTATION: Railways, Canada.

John Herd Thompson Duke University

The Canada Yearbook. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1867– 2000.

Kerr, Donald, and Deryck W. Holdsworth. Historical Atlas of Canada. Vol. 3, Addressing the Twentieth Century 1891–1961. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Lehr, John C., and Yossi Katz. "Crown, Corporation and Church: The Role of Institutions in the Stability of Pioneer Settlements in the Canadian West, 1870–1914." Journal of Historical Geography 21 (1995): 413–29.

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