History of Settlement in the Canadian Prairies

The Canadian Prairies were peopled in six great waves of migration, spanning from prehistory to the present. The migration from Asia, about 13,300 years ago, produced an Indigenous population of 20,000 to 50,000 by about 1640. Between 1640 and 1840, several thousand European and Canadian fur traders arrived, followed by several hundred British immigrants. They created dozens of small outposts and a settlement in the Red River Colony, where the Métis became the largest part of the population. The third wave, from the 1840s to the 1890s, consisted mainly but not solely of Canadians of British heritage. The fourth and by far the largest wave was drawn from many nations, mostly European. It occurred from 1897 to 1929, with a pause (1914–22) during and after the First World War. The fifth wave, drawn from other Canadian provinces and from Europe and elsewhere, commenced in the late 1940s. It lasted through the 1960s. The sixth wave, beginning in the 1970s, drew especially upon peoples of the southern hemisphere. It has continued, with fluctuations, to the present. Throughout the last century, the region has also steadily lost residents, as a result of migration to other parts of Canada, to the United States, and elsewhere.

Indigenous Peoples to the 1640s

The first people to arrive in the Prairies lived in small groups as nomadic hunters. They arrived in this region of North America at least 13,300 years ago. Discoveries at the Wally’s Beach archeological site in southern Alberta date to this period. The items include hunted horse and camel remains and human-made projectile points.

By about the year 200, people on the Prairies are thought to have lived in small portable tipis. By about the year 600 to 800, they engaged in some agriculture. People on the Plains moved between resource zones according to the season, the fortunes of the hunt and diplomatic relations with neighbouring groups. (See also Indigenous People: Plains.) Different economic adaptations and languages led to the development of distinct Indigenous cultures. There were buffalo-hunting groups on the Plains. Hunting bands combined the harvest of fish and animals in both plains and parklands. Other bands relied on caribou and other resources in the northern forests and tundra. (See also Caribou Hunt.) These groups are represented today by the Cree, Ojibwa, Oji-Cree, Nakoda Oyadebi (Assiniboine), Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfoot Confederacy) and Dene peoples.

Though it is difficult to estimate, the population on the Prairies was thought to be about 20,000 to 50,000 people by around 1640.

Indigenous People and the Fur Trade: 1650s–1870s

Indigenous people in the western interior experienced significant changes after the arrival of Europeans. (See Plains Indigenous Peoples in Canada.) The most notable included the movement of hunting bands into new territories and the negotiation of new diplomatic arrangements with neighbouring groups. The introduction of infections such as smallpox resulted in epidemics and social disruptions. Smallpox broke out several times on the Prairies, beginning in the mid-18th century. The disease sometimes killed entire bands. (See also Health of Indigenous Peoples.)

The autonomy of Indigenous peoples was greatly reduced in the 19th century. This was due to increased migration from eastern North America, the expansion of the Canadian nation-state, and the destruction of the most crucial element in the Plains economy: bison. (See Buffalo Hunt.) In the 1870s, seven Indigenous treaties were negotiated between the Canadian government and the First Nations of the western interior. They exchanged sovereignty over the land for government promises of economic assistance, education and the creation of reserves. (See also Numbered Treaties.) Thus, in the space of a few short decades, First Nations on the Prairies became wards of the state.

The European colonization of the western interior began with the fur trade. The English Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), founded in 1670, traded from posts on Hudson Bay. Competition forced it to establish inland trading posts in the 1770s. The French, and later the North West Company (NWC), created extensive networks of posts that were pushed into the Prairies by the La Vérendryes in the 1730s. These networks were extended by Peter Pond in the 1770s and by Alexander Mackenzie from 1789 to 1793. Deadly competition finally forced the merger of the HBC and the NWC in 1821. The restructured HBC ruled the fur trade in the region for another five decades. (See also: Rupert’s Land.)

Buffalo Hunt, Funnelling the Herd
Before they had horses, Plains people such as the Blackfoot used tactics to funnel a herd towards a cliff (artwork by Gerald Lazare).\r\n
Treaty 1, Lake Winnipeg
Plan of southwest quarter, section 31 of Township No. 16 Range 5E of 1st Meridian. Small additional reserve for St. Peters' Band. Surveyed August 1895 by J.C. Nelson, D.L.S.
Treaty 2 Survey
Survey of Reserve No. 67 for Chief South Quill's Band on Rolling River, Manitoba, 1897.
Paying Treaty
Indigenous peoples receiving treaty money, 1930.
Treaty 8
Honourable David Laird explaining terms of Treaty 8 at Fort Vermilion in 1899.
Treaty 8 Commission at Pelican Portage, 1899
Left to right, seated: H.B. Round, transportation manager; David Laird, commissioner; Harrison Young, secretary. Left to right, standing: Pierre d'Eschambault, interpreter; two NWMP constables; Henry McKay, camp manager; and Lafrance, cook.
 Treaty 7 Signing Site
The signing site of Treaty 7 is a National Historic Site of Canada (Wheatland County, Alberta).

Red River and Canada: 1840s to 1890

By the 1840s, Métis made up most of the population of the Red River Colony. They were also an important part of fur-trading operations. They defended local interests against incoming speculators when outside pressures increased in the mid-1800s. Canada eventually secured sovereignty over Rupert’s Land, but only after the 1869–70 Red River Resistance. It was led by Louis Riel and resulted in significant changes to the terms that allowed the region to enter Confederation as the province of Manitoba. ( See Manitoba Act.)

The policy framework for developing the western interior was created in Ottawa. This was due to the federal government’s great powers and to Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s decision to keep control of western lands under federal jurisdiction. (See also Distribution of Powers.)

Decisions made by the government between 1870 and 1874 remained cornerstones of prairie history for two generations. These policies included homesteading and immigration recruitment, the Dominion Lands Act, and the creation of the North-West Mounted Police (now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police).

Crucial decisions on tariff policy and the Canadian Pacific Railway followed in 1879–80. The region was to become an agricultural hinterland, built upon immigration and the family farm. It would also be integrated nationally with the growing manufacturing sector in central Canada. (See also Industrialization in Canada.) Other events had an equally significant impact. The failure of the North-West Resistance in 1885 and the passage of the Manitoba Schools Act and anti-French-language legislation in 1890 ensured that the defining elements of prairie society would be Protestant, English-speaking and British. The provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta were created in 1905. (See Autonomy Bills.) By that time, the peaceful evolution from colony to self-governing state seemed to have been fulfilled.

Red River Colony
Provisional Government of the Métis Nation
Councillors of the Provisional Government of the Métis Nation, 1870.
Louis Riel
Louis Riel, circa 1873.

Settlement of the Prairies: 1890s–1930s

New forces were at work in the Prairies around 1900. Social leaders were troubled by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of non-British immigrants. Their influx placed great strains upon prairie institutions during the next few decades. The newcomers, on the other hand, gave up much of their traditional culture as they helped to build the new West.

Scandinavians and Germans assimilated quickly. Mennonites, Jews and Ukrainians sought to retain more of their cultural heritage. They eventually helped create a multicultural definition of Canada. Hutterites remained isolated from the larger community. Other religious groups — notably a few Doukhobors and Mennonites — preferred to leave the region rather than accept its norms. By the 1950s, the Prairies were far closer to a British Canadian model than any other culture.

Political institutions were also severely tested in the early 20th century. A wide gap between the wealthy and the poor produced tensions. Cities such as Winnipeg and Calgary had luxurious homes in segregated residential areas, along with exclusive clubs and colleges. Political and economic power was concentrated in the hands of a small elite who reaped the benefits of economic growth. By contrast, the squalor of slums such as Winnipeg’s North End and Rooster Town, some frontier construction camps, and resource towns such as Lovettville and Cadomin, Alberta, led to the emergence of a workers’ resistance movement. Labour-management conflicts, especially with the Winnipeg General Strike and in Alberta coal-mining towns, should be seen in this context.

Dominion Land Surveyors
A simple survey system divided the arable prairie lands into square townships, each comprising 36 sections of 640 acres (259 ha), with the homestead comprising one 160-acre (64.75 ha) quarter section (courtesy PAA).
Township Plan
Diagram showing the division of a township into sections.
Breaking Prairie Sod
Camrose, Alberta, 1900 (courtesy PAA).
Prairie School
Coldridge School, circa 1905 (courtesy Saskatchewan Archives Board).

A full-scale class struggle did not develop in the early 20th century for several reasons. One was the relative openness of the agricultural frontier. The availability of homesteads undercut the militancy of many camp and mine workers by offering a ready alternative, a modest living and hope for the future. At this early stage, the future of agriculture was still unclear. Farm families, though increasingly engaged in the political process and able to elect their own representatives, had not developed fixed class identities. Women won the vote in the Prairie provinces in 1916 — the first in Canada to do so. (See also: Women’s Suffrage in Canada; Right to Vote in Canada.) The growth of a professional middle class that belonged neither to the business elite nor the working class (e.g., teachers, doctors, social workers, journalists) tempered the harshness of economic circumstances while offering aid and hope to the workers.

Another factor working against class formation was the Great Depression of the 1930s. The combination of drought, international trade crises, commodity price declines and the disappearance of local investment plunged prairie society into a prolonged stasis. Ethnic hostility was a serious issue in the late 1920s. (See also: Ku Klux Klan; Prejudice and Discrimination in Canada.) However, it dissipated in the face of the serious economic crisis. Political expressions of anger were channelled into either the moderate Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, now the NDP) or Alberta’s version of the Social Credit movement. The Prairies entered the Second World War poorer than at any time since 1900.

North-West Territories, 1898
North-West Territories, 1905
Northwest Territories, 1912
Winnipeg General Strike

Post-War Recovery: 1940s to 1970

A remarkable shift in Prairie fortunes occurred after 1940. The A remarkable shift in Prairie fortunes occurred after 1940. The extraction of oil and potash, as well as uranium and other minerals, diversified an economy that had once relied on wheat. As a result, wealth flowed into the region. Improvements in agriculture — ranging from larger equipment to fertilizers, herbicides and new plant strains — increased productivity and reduced the size of the rural work force. It also hastened the migration of young people from farming communities to urban centres. By 1986, the were half as many Prairie farms as in 1941.

Immigration during the postwar generation again drew people from Europe. The years between 1945 and the early 1970s differed from the earlier wave. Newcomers were more likely to go to the largest prairie cities: Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Saskatoon. They were joined by migrants from the rural Prairies. The cultural vibrancy of many ethnic communities contributed to a renewed ethnic consciousness and pride. As part of a consciously multicultural society, they played a significant role in the redesign of Canadian immigration policy in the 1960s and in the emergence of a new definition of Canada. (See Multiculturalism.)

1970s to Present

The sixth wave of immigrants to the Prairies, as in the rest of the country, headed for the major cities. These newcomers came from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Their arrival coincided with the migration of rural and northern citizens, including many Indigenous peoples, to these same centres. This cultural blending has reshaped prairie society once again, presenting new sources of conflict and demanding new thinking about maintaining a multicultural community.

See also: Ukrainian Settlement in the Canadian Prairies; Sod Houses.


Further Reading

  • Paul Hackett, A Very Remarkable Sickness: Epidemics in the Petit Nord, 1670 to 1846 (2002)

  • Michael Payne, Donald G. Wetherell and Catherine Cavanaugh, eds., Alberta Formed, Alberta Transformed, 2 vols. (2006)

  • Bill Waiser, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan before 1905 (2016)

  • Royden Loewen and Gerald Friesen, Immigrants in Prairie Cities: Ethnic Diversity in Twentieth-Century Canada (2009)

  • Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History (1984)

External Links