Canadian Expansion and Indigenous Lands

After Confederation in 1867, the Dominion government expanded westward in an effort to secure its political and economic future. In 1869, the government purchased Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory from the Hudson’s Bay Company — a vast area stretching from Labrador to the Rocky Mountains and from the forty-ninth parallel to the Arctic Ocean (see North-West Territories: 1870–1905). The Dominion intended to use natural resources and lands in the West to promote Western settlement and railway construction — key elements of the government’s development strategy (see also National Policy).

However, the Indigenous inhabitants of the land were not consulted about its sale. As a result, the Métis of the Red Rive​r resisted and formed a provisional government to assert their authority. In 1870, the province of Manitoba was created to meet Métis demands. The following year, treaty negotiations with First Nations peoples in the region began, with Lieutenant-Governor Adams G. Archibald stating that whether Indigenous peoples “wished it or not, immigrants would come in and fill up the country… and that now was the time for them to come to an arrangement that would secure homes and annuities for themselves and their children” (see Treaties 1 and 2). In the Numbered Treaties that followed, First Nations were required to cede their land to the Crown in exchange for reserve lands, payments and hunting and fishing rights.

Dominion Lands Act of 1872

The Dominion Lands Act of 1872, modelled on homestead legislation in the United States (1862), was a federal law that provided the legal authority under which the Crown granted lands to individuals, colonization companies, the Hudson’s Bay Company, railway construction, municipalities and religious groups. The Act also set aside land for First Nations reserves. An 1883 amendment set aside lands for National Parks.

The Act devised specific homestead policies to encourage settlement in the West, covering eligibility and settler responsibilities. At first, any person over the age of 21 was eligible to land patents for a “quarter-section,” a 65-hectare (ha) plot. However, eligibility changed over time. In 1873, the age was dropped to 18, making it easier for young families to homestead. Women over 18 who were the sole head of a family became eligible in 1876, and in 1919 the widows of war veterans could receive patents.

Policy varied over time, but most eligible homesteaders who paid a $10 administrative fee were given three years to build a habitable residence (see Sod Houses), clear the land for farming and cultivate a certain area annually. Homesteaders were expected to live on the lot for at least six months of each of the three years. Such requirements were created in order to discourage land speculation (when people purchase property, only to sell it at a profit later) and encourage long-term agricultural settlement in the West.

Once authorities decided that progress had been made on a quarter-section, the settler received ownership of the land and become eligible to purchase up to one full section (260 ha) to expand their farms. If improvements had not been made, the land could be taken back by the government and made available to other settlers.

From 1870 to 1930, roughly 625,000 land patents were issued to homesteaders.

Métis Scrip

After 1885, the federal government offered Métis families what was called scrip in exchange for their land title. Scrip was issued either as land scrip, equivalent to a quarter-section of land (65 ha) or a 97 ha plot, or as money scrip, valued at $160 or $240. Similar to the treaty system, Métis scrip was a means to remove Métis title to their lands in the West and make way for White settlers. Many Métis were entered into the scrip arrangement unscrupulously, with agents forging their signatures. Others were pressured into selling their scrip for less than face value to land speculators who would later sell the scrip to homesteaders at a profit. While most of the arrangements for scrip were carried out individually, scrip was also offered to the Métis during the negotiations of Treaty 5, Treaty 8, Treaty 10 and Treaty 11. Many Métis were left homeless as a result of this system. Evidence suggests that the federal government was aware of the scrip system’s flaws.

Dominion Land Survey

The Dominion Lands Act outlined a standard measure for surveying and subdividing land, and surveying was carried out by the Department of the Interior’s Dominion Land Survey. A simple, effective system divided the arable prairie lands into square townships, each comprising 36 sections of 260 ha, which were further broken down into 65 ha “quarter-sections.” These quarter-sections were offered as homesteads. This system of measure covered some 80 million ha, representing some 1.25 million homesteads — making it the largest survey grid in the world.

Townships in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia
Map showing the townships for which official and preliminary plans were issued up to 1 January 1929.

The Western settlement project was so expansive that the government created the Department of the Interior in 1873 to manage five branches, including Dominion Lands, Indian Affairs, the Geological Survey of Canada, Ordnance and Admiralty Lands, and the North-West Territories.

Under the terms whereby Rupert’s Land had been acquired by the Canadian government, the Hudson’s Bay Company was entitled to retain possession of 1/20 of the land. That meant that the company received nearly two quarter-sections in each township. Two sections in each township were reserved for the support of education. A variety of grazing, haying and mining leases were available for lands not yet claimed for homesteading.

Land Subsidies

The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), regarded as a national necessity, was financed through an elaborate system of land subsidies. Since it was not possible to sell most of the lands before the railway was built, when large sums were needed to pay for the construction costs the federal government authorized the issuance of land grant bonds and also provided substantial cash subsidies. Once the CPR was completed, the desire to open new areas to settlement and to bring in more settlers resulted in the granting of land to various colonization companies, which were expected to bring out settlers, construct needed branch lines and provide other assistance needed to establish new agricultural communities in the West.

Immigration and Settlement

In the three decades after 1870, settlement on the prairies was slow, perhaps the result of a prolonged period of economic recession that lasted from 1873 to 1896. Immigration to Canada and the West was aggressively promoted during the tenure of Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton, from 1896 to 1905. During that time, the annual number of immigrants to Canada rose from 16,835 to 141,465, and hundreds of thousands of settlers made their way to the Prairies.

Sifton was adamant that immigrants and settlers be from farming backgrounds, describing his ideal settler as the “stalwart peasant in a sheep-skin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half dozen children” (see Immigration Policy).

During this period, the government engaged in an aggressive advertising campaign for free homestead lands in “The Last Best West” and worked with international agencies to bring immigrants to the West. By 1914, roughly 170,000 Ukrainians, 115,000 Poles, as well as tens of thousands of German, French, Norwegian and Swedish immigrants settled in the West. Many of these immigrants settled the West in ethnic bloc settlements, in which entire townships were almost entirely Ukrainian or Polish, for example (see Ukrainians: Homesteading in the Parkland).

However, not all settlers were welcomed. Immigrants to Canada were selected based on preference, with Brits, Americans, Northern Europeans and Scandinavians topping the list. Italians, South Slavs, Greeks, Syrians, Jews, Asians, Roma people and Black persons were at the bottom of the list (see also Order-in-Council P.C. 1911-1324 — the Proposed Ban on Black Immigration to Canada).

Repeal of the Dominion Lands Act

Prairie politicians regarded federal control over Western Dominion lands and natural resources as an unfair intrusion into areas given to provincial jurisdiction in the British North America Act (see Federal-Provincial Relations). Negotiations undertaken to transfer control of the remaining Western lands and resources to the provincial governments of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta were completed in 1930 (see Natural Resources Transfer​ A​cts, 1930).

See also History of Settlement in the Canadian Prairies.