Why Did They Come?

Salute To Agriculture Special Issue April 23rd, 2015

One of the many posters that attempted to lure people into homesteading and settling the West.

One of the many posters that attempted to lure people into homesteading and settling the West.

Every year the Pipestone/Flyer pays tribute to those that toil the soil. A hundred and twenty-five years have passed since Robert Telford decided to establish a stopping-off place to welcome newly arrived homesteaders looking for a better life. Many would become disappointed but others would prosper. Their journey may have begun thousands of miles away from Leduc, but it would be here that they decided to stay. The question is why?

When the Fathers of Confederation signed off on the foundations of a new country they knew in order for the country to reach its full potential two things had to be accomplished. First a railroad would have to be built connecting the west to the east and second the vast empty space of the west had to be filled with people capable of making a living on the land.

John A. Macdonald would suffer through a political scandal in his determination to have a railroad linking east and west and in 1872 saw the passing of the Canadian Homestead Act which is commonly called the Dominion Lands Act short for it’s official name: An Act Respecting the Public Lands of the Dominion.

The Canadian Homestead Act gave 160 acres for free to any male farmer who was at least 21 and agreed to cultivate at least 40 acres and to build a permanent dwelling within three years. The only cost to the farmer was a $10 administration fee. This condition of “proving up the homestead” was instituted to prevent speculators from gaining control of the land.

An important difference between the Canadian and U.S. systems was that the Canadian system allowed the farmers to buy a neighboring 160 acres for the same $10 registration fee. This allowed most farms to quickly double in size. This was especially important in the arid areas of the Prairie Provinces where a farm of 160 acres was not large enough to be successful.

Though the bill was passed in 1872 it would not be until the railroad was completed in 1885 that the Canadian government got active in advertising the Homestead Act to the people of Europe and the United States.It would be Clifford Sifton, Canada’s Minister of the Interior from 1896 to 1905 who really got the ball rolling. Because of the various European laws that restricted Canada from advertising the benefits available in Canada Sifton focused first on the United States. He regarded mid-western American farmers as ideal settlers, particularly those with a NorthWest European background that could bring capital and equipment with them. Sifton believed with first-hand experience of prairie farming in the United States, these were the most likely people to succeed in western Canada. They spoke the same language as Canadian westerners, and shared many common values.

By 1900 Sifton had established agents in Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, North and South Dakota and Wisconsin. Then added Montana and Washington to the list, and hired more agents. Agents would receive a commission for every man, woman and child who actually settled in western Canada. Between 1896 and 1910, close to half a million Americans were reported to have left for Canada. In some cases these “Americans” were actually Canadians returning to Canada.

Today Calmar and Thorsby are but two communities that can trace many of their first settlers to those that answered Sifton’s call.

The laws in Europe made it difficult or impossible for foreign government agents to advertise in many countries. Canada had two resident agents in Europe, one based in Belgium and the other in France, but even there they had to proceed with caution. Canadian officials would resort to contracting European steamship ticket agents to promote Canada, and pay a bonus on each agricultural immigrant sent from certain countries. The Laurier government seemed to turn a blind eye to the circumvention of European laws by their officials – as long as there were no problems.

Sifton was also aware that Britain itself could not supply large numbers of agricultural immigrants but that was not the case of Scotland. Ireland, and Wales. In fact the British government was relieved by Canada’s efforts that assisted them in relieving the population pressure felt by the movement from the farm to the industrial cities of England.

Part of the deal with the railroad was the granting of 25 million acres of land to the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR). As a result the CPR also got into the immigration business sending agents to Europe selling a package that included ship and train passage and land as cheap as $2.50 an acre along the rail line.

When an immigrant with a homestead title stepped off the train in Leduc he was often shocked to discover his homestead was many miles away from Leduc as the land along the CPR was owned by the railroad. The men and their families that were to settle in the area came from many different places and all left established civilizations and homes, their relatives and friends, traditions, and places they would never visit again. Why did they come in the thousands to the Great West? Why did they come to a place filled with mosquitos and mud? Why did they come to a place that 45 percent of them would abandon after just a few years? Why would they suffer through leaking sod-homes, impassable trails, frozen crops, and almost non-existent markets?

They came because they knew the rich land would eventually provide them a living and though their lives would be hard and difficult, most of the time, the land would eventually provide for their families and life would be better for their children and grandchildren. In the meantime they enjoyed the small things like walking on their own land, being behind a plow, or the occasional dance or picnic.

These first homesteaders are all gone now, even their children will all soon depart, but their grandchildren and great-grandchildren survive and have lived to see the fruits of their ancestor’s efforts. They came for the land, but stayed so they could make a better life for their children and their children. A job well done!

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