History of Settlement in the Canadian Prairies

The Prairies, or the Plains, is a vast region of the “western interior” of Canada that is bounded roughly by Lake Superior and the Rocky Mountains, the forty-ninth parallel and the low Arctic. It was peopled in six great waves of immigration, 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. Several thousand European and Canadian fur traders, followed by several hundred British immigrants, arrived between 1640 and 1840, creating dozens of small outposts and a European-style settlement in the Red River Colony, where the Métis became the largest single component of the population. The third wave, from the 1840s to the 1890s, consisted chiefly but not solely of Canadians of British heritage. The fourth and by far the largest was drawn from many nations, mostly European, and 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 and lasted through the 1960s. The sixth wave, beginning in the 1970s, drew especially upon peoples of the southern hemisphere, and 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, including hunted horse and camel remains and human-made projectile points, date to this period.

By about the year 200, people on the Plains are thought to have lived in small portable tipis, and by about the year 600 to 800, they engaged in some agriculture. People on the Plains moved between resource zones according to the dictates of the season, the fortunes of the hunt and diplomatic relations with neighbouring groups (see Indigenous People: Plains). Different economic adaptations and languages underlay the development of distinct Indigenous cultures, including buffalo-hunting groups on the Plains, hunting bands combining the harvest of fish and animals in both plains and parklands, and bands that relied on caribou and other resources in the northern forests and tundra (see 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 about 1640.

Indigenous Territories of the Prairies
(courtesy Victor Temprano/Native-Land.ca)

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

Indigenous people in the western interior experienced significant changes after the arrival of Europeans. 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 Plains, beginning in the mid-18th century, sometimes killing entire bands (see Health of Indigenous Peoples).

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).

Indigenous autonomy was reduced in the 19th century, through population pressure from eastern North America, the expansion of the Canadian nation-state, and the destruction of the single, crucial element in the Plains economy: bison (see Buffalo Hunt). Seven Indigenous treaties were negotiated in the 1870s between the Canadian government and the First Nations of the western interior, exchanging sovereignty over the land for government promises of economic assistance, education and the creation of reserves (see Numbered Treaties). Thus, in a few short decades, prairie First Nations became wards of the state.

Lands of the Numbered Treaties.
(courtesy Victor Temprano/Native-Land.ca)

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 until competition forced it to establish inland houses 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, and 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 Rupert’s Land).

Alexander Mackenzie, Explorer

Red River and Canada: 1840s to 1890

By the 1840s, Métis constituted a majority of the population of the Red River Colony and an important component of fur-company operations. They led the defence of local interests against incoming speculators when outside pressures increased at mid-century. Canada eventually secured sovereignty over Rupert’s Land, but only after the 1869–70 Red River Resistance led by Louis Riel resulted in significant revisions to the terms allowing the region’s entry into Confederation as the province of Manitoba (see Manitoba Act).

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.

Because of the federal government’s great powers and because of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s decision to retain control of western lands, the policy framework for development of the western interior was created in Ottawa. Decisions taken between 1870 and 1874 on the square survey (see Dominion Lands Act; Surveying), the dispatch of the North-West Mounted Police, and the policy on homesteading and immigration recruitment activities remained cornerstones of prairie history for two generations. Crucial decisions on tariff policy and the Canadian Pacific Railway followed in 1879–80. The region was to become an agricultural hinterland, built upon international immigration and the family farm, and integrated with a growing manufacturing sector in central Canada (see Industrialization in Canada).

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).

The failure of the 1885 North-West Resistance and the passage of the Manitoba Schools Act and anti-French-language legislation in 1890 made plain that the defining elements of prairie society were henceforth to be Protestant, English-speaking and British. The creation of Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1905 (see Autonomy Bills) seemed to demonstrate that the British tradition of peaceful evolution from colony to self-governing state had been fulfilled.

Settlement of the Prairies: 1890s–1930s

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

Northwest Territories, 1912

Scandinavians and Germans assimilated quickly; Mennonites, Jews and Ukrainians sought to retain more of their cultural heritage, and eventually helped to create a multicultural definition of Canada; Hutterites remained isolated from the larger community; and some 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.

Winnipeg General Strike
Marchers in support of Winnipeg Strike leaders leaving Market Square, passing City Hall, fall 1919 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-34022).
R.E. Bray
One of the strike leaders, R.E. Bray, speaking to demonstrators during the Winnipeg Strike, June 1919.

Political institutions, too, underwent severe testing 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 and 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 slum areas 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 in Winnipeg (see Winnipeg General Strike) and the Alberta coal-mining towns, should be seen in this context.

Rooster Town
This photo is of the family of Joseph Noel and Margeurite Laramee in front of their house on Ash Street in the early 1940s.
Rooster Town
This picture originally comes from Joan Cohen\u2019s article, \u201cNo Fuss, No Excitement, Squatters \u2018Just Moving\u2019,\u201d in the Winnipeg Free Press (8 April 1959). It described some of the living conditions of Rooster Town residents Julia Hogg and Mathilda Conway: \u201ctwo old age pensioners, shared one of the smallest of these homes, along with nine cats, a large shaggy, part-collie mongrel, and a black-wood-stove that kept the room hot and musky. A table was squeezed into the centre of the room, littered with dishes from breakfast. They\u2026live on their old-age pensions. They spend their money on food.\u201d
Rooster Town
Image from an article in the Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 20 December 1951, \u201cHeard of Rooster Town? It\u2019s Our Lost Suburb,\u201d by Bill MacPherson. The cart belonged to Frank Sais who was born in Rooster Town and moved as a teeneger, with his family, to the north end. He used it to deliver water to the houses in the Ash and Oak Street cluster. \r\n
Rooster Town
Produced by Adrian Werner, this map shows Rooster Town households in 1941.

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, and farm families, though increasingly engaged in the political process and able to elect their own representatives to public office, had not developed fixed class identities. Women won the vote in the Prairie provinces in 1916, the first in Canada to do so (see Women’s Suffrage in Canada). The development of a professional middle class, including teachers, doctors, social workers and journalists — who belonged neither to the business elite nor to the working class — simultaneously tempered the harshness of economic circumstances while offering aid and hope to the workers.

Suffrage Meeting
Clipping from The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 11 September 1915 (courtesy University of Manitoba Libraries, Digital Collections).
Executive of the Manitoba Equal Suffrage Club, 1900
Manitoba Equal Suffrage Club, 1900 (courtesy, Archives of Manitoba, N10675).

Another factor working against class formation was the Great Depression of the 1930s. So devastating was the combination of drought, international trade crisis, commodity price declines and the disappearance of local investment that prairie society went into prolonged stasis. Ethnic hostility, serious in the late 1920s (see Ku Klux Klan), dissipated in the face of this more serious crisis. Political expressions of anger were channelled into either the moderate Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation or Alberta’s variant of the Social Credit movement. The Prairies entered the Second World War poorer than at any time since 1900.

Dust Bowl
The prairie dry belt was unwisely opened for homesteading and was struck by successive droughts in the 1920s that contributed to hardships during the Depression (courtesy PAA).
Great Depression
Farms in the west such as this one were devastated not only by erosion but also by droughts and plagues of insects.
Winnipeg Grain Exchange
The wheat glut of 1928 threw the Winnipeg Grain Exchange into a spiral, triggering a depression in Canada\u0092s economy.
A family returning to Saskatoon from the north during Great Depression. Credit: Glenbow Archives.

Postwar Recovery: 1940s to 1970

A remarkable shift in prairie fortunes occurred after 1940. Wealth flowed into the region as oil and potash, as well as uranium and other minerals, diversified an economy that had once relied on wheat. Improvements in agriculture, which ranged from larger equipment to fertilizers, herbicides and new plant strains, increased productivity, reduced the size of the rural work force and hastened the departure of farm children to urban centres. By 1986, prairie farms numbered half the 1941 total.

Immigration during the postwar generation again drew people from Europe. The years between 1945 and the early 1970s differed from the earlier wave because 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. In many prairie ethnic communities, the two sources of cultural vibrancy contributed to the development of a renewed ethnic consciousness and pride. As part of a consciously “multicultural” prairie society, they played a significant role in the redesign of Canadian immigration policy during the 1960s and in the emergence of a new definition of Canada in subsequent decades (see Multiculturalism).

1970s to Present

The sixth wave of immigrants to the western interior of Canada, as in the rest of the country, headed for the major cities. These newcomers were recruited in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Their arrival coincided with the migration of rural and northern citizens, including significant numbers of 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 development in a multicultural community.


Further Reading

  • 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)

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

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

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

External Links