From fur to wheat: How immigration changed the Canadian Prairie landscape

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The period of intensified immigration to the Prairies began in 1867 until 1914. Prior to this, Manitoba had around 12,000 residents in small settlements. Winnipeg was a village of 100 people living at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. There were no cities or towns.

Spurred by the Canadian government’s vision of the Prairies as an agricultural colony, Manitoba would soon realize rapid population growth. More importantly, this paved the way for the creation of Canadian key industries: agriculture, mining and oil.

  1. From fur trading to agriculture

    Prior to becoming an agricultural economy, the Canadian West was concentrated mainly on the trapping and shipping of furs. The new Canadian government (newly confederated in 1967) envisioned the Prairies as the country’s agricultural center; shipping wheat and grains to Europe via a trans-continental railway. Integral to this vision was bringing immigrant farmers to Canada, with preference for those coming from Eastern Canada, Britain, United States, and east-central Europe.

  2. Five factors supported mass settlement to the Prairie Provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1867:

    • The Construction of the transcontinental railroad which made transportation and travel easy to the Canadian West.
    • The Dominion Lands Act of 1872 which allowed the provision of free and fertile homesteads for settlers.
    • The Establishment of the North-West Mounted Police which ensured the safety of residents.
    • The creation of the Department of Interior which took the lead in promoting immigration to the Prairies.
    • The work of Sir Clifford Sifton , the Minister of the Interior and staunch proponent of immigration. Under his leadership, the annual number of immigrants entering Canada rose from 16,835 to 141,465 between 1896 to 1905. He fought to expand the list of “preferred immigrant groups” that would settle in the Prairies to include Ukrainians, Hungarians and Mennonites. He believed that the sturdy European immigrants were the best settlers to the area due to their familiarity with agriculture, rural lifestyles and harsh climates.
  3. Free land

    The main attraction that pulled immigrant farmers was 160 acres (64.7 hectares) of free land. Under the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, homesteaders get free land as long as they improved it, grew crops, and lived on it for three years. They only needed to pay a $10 registration fee. This, and the country’s strong economic recovery made farming in the West attractive.

  4. Manitoba’s population and agricultural boom

    The first wave of immigrants to Manitoba as a result of this campaign boosted its population from 12,000 to 109,000 by 1886. In search of greater economic opportunities and improved quality of life, the first groups to immigrate to the Canadian West were Hungarians, French, Icelanders, Romanians, Chinese, and Ukrainians. Many Ontarians also saw Manitoba as an agricultural frontier and a golden opportunity to build a new life for themselves.

    The immigration boom further intensified in 1896. This was due to the improvement in the economy with discovery of gold in the Yukon, as well as socio-economic challenges in Eastern Europe (and the start of the first World War). These factors pushed immigrants to seek better lives in the Canadian West. By 1901, Manitoba had 225,000 residents, growing to 365,000 in 1906, then to 450,000 in 1911. From 1896 to 1922, 30,000 new farms were created each year. Wheat production tripled every five years during Manitoba’s so called “wheat boom.”

  5. Notable immigrant settlements in Manitoba in this period:

    • First Belgian settlement – St. Alphonse
    • Irish – Carberry and Kilarney
    • Chinese – Winnipeg
    • French – Ste. Rose colony, Sainte-Rose du Lac
    • Hungarians – Minnedosa
    • Hutterites – James Valley colony
    • Icelanders – Gimli (Manitoba has the largest concentration of Icelanders outside of Iceland’s capital city Reykjavik)
    • Jews – Winnipeg and Bender Hamlet
    • Mennonites – Gretna, East Reserve (8 townships), and West Reserve (17 townships)
    • Polish – Lac du Bonnet
    • Scandinavian – Minnedosa
    • Swedes – Erickson
    • Ukrainians – Interlake and Gilbert Plains

These historic events had a major impact on the development of the prairies and changed Manitoban society in terms of language, culture and values. It ushered in an era of immigration and industrialization that would leave lasting changes, as well as conflicts and policy shifts not only in the province but nationwide.

Sources: Settling the West: Immigration to the Prairies from 1867 to 1914, Erica Gagnon, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21; Sir Clifford Sifton by David J. Hall (revised by Tabitha Marshall), The Canadian Encyclopedia; Immigration and settlement 1870-1919, Manitobia; all retrieved on March 8, 2017.

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