ARCHIVED – Forging Our Legacy: Canadian Citizenship and Immigration, 1900–1977

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Chapter 2
The Arrival of the Europeans

top of page  Canada’s first great wave of European immigration

Canada’s first great wave of European immigration followed a lacklustre period in its immigration history. Despite the best efforts of Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government to attract newcomers, large–scale immigration failed to become a reality in the first three decades after Confederation in 1867. Canada’s immigration prospects only started to look up in the 1890s, when the economic depression (1873–96) that had gripped Europe and North America ended and demand soared for Canadian foodstuffs, particularly hard wheat.

Fortunately for Canada, the reinvigorated economy coincided with a population explosion in Europe and a rapidly dwindling supply of good free land in the United States. Then, too, there was the election of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government in 1896, which immediately launched an aggressive campaign to encourage settlement of the West.

top of page  Clifford Sifton and his policies

Photo of Sir Clifford Sifton

Sir Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior,

National Archives of Canada (PA 027943)

The principal planner and promoter of the campaign for western settlement was Clifford Sifton, who at the age of 35 was appointed Minister of the Interior in Laurier’s new government. In this powerful portfolio, the six–foot dynamo exploited his renowned drive and relentless energy to the full and in so doing became the most celebrated and remarkable figure in Canadian immigration history.

Born in Ontario in 1861, Sifton moved with his family to Manitoba in 1875. He studied at Victoria College in Toronto and then returned to Manitoba to practise law in Brandon with his brother Arthur. Using law as a springboard, he embarked on a 23–year political career, beginning in the provincial arena, where he became a member of the Manitoba legislature and then an influential member of the Greenway Liberal government from 1891 to 1896. After presiding over the affairs of the Attorney General’s Department and matters relating to education and provincial Crown lands, he accepted Laurier’s invitation to become federal Minister of the Interior. Sifton spent his entire federal career in this portfolio, resigning in 1905 after a bitter disagreement with the Prime Minister over the issue of separate schools in the newly created provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

A man of strong views as well as a born organizer, Sifton was determined to develop a well–organized Immigration Branch within his ministry and to fill the empty Prairies with suitable farmers as rapidly as possible. Having always been a provincial booster, the new Minister had unbounded confidence in the West. Furthermore, he was firmly convinced that massive agricultural immigration was the key to Canadian prosperity; it was his view that if primary resources were developed through the labour of hard–working immigrants, then industry and commerce would follow in their wake without the need of similar infusions of newcomers.

Dominion Lands Act, the 1872 piece of legislation that granted a quarter section of free land (160 acres or 64.7 hectares) to any settler 21 years of age or older who paid a ten–dollar registration fee, lived on his quarter section for three years, cultivated 30 acres (12.1 hectares), and built a permanent dwelling.

As soon as he arrived in Ottawa, Sifton set about making the Department of the Interior’s Immigration Branch more efficient. He then simplified the regulations of the Dominion Lands Act, the 1872 piece of legislation that granted a quarter section of free land (160 acres or 64.7 hectares) to any settler 21 years of age or older who paid a ten–dollar registration fee, lived on his quarter section for three years, cultivated 30 acres (12.1 hectares), and built a permanent dwelling. By ruthlessly pruning the Act’s red tape, Sifton enabled immigrants to secure their promised homesteads more quickly.

Norwegian promotional poster

This Norwegian poster is typical
of the posters employed in Canada’s
aggressive campaign to attract
European settlers to the West.
Issued in the 1890s, it reads
“Canada: 160 acres of free
land for every settler.”

National Archives of Canada
(C 132141)

Next came an assault on the lands that the federal government had granted to the railways in the 1880s to help them defray the costs of construction and to serve as collateral for railway bonds. Large blocks of these lands in the Prairie West had remained closed to free homesteading because the railways had selected only a small portion of them for sale to companies and individuals. It was a situation that clamoured for attention and Sifton met the challenge by abolishing the land grants system and pressuring the railways, chiefly the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), into freeing land for general settlement.

top of page  Selling the West

Just as important as his political and organizational talents were Clifford Sifton’s skills as a salesman, and these he applied aggressively to his far–reaching program to attract farmers and farm labourers to the West. While he employed methods that were not always new, he pursued these more vigorously than had been done previously in advertising the West’s attractions. A torrent of pamphlets in several languages flooded Great Britain, Europe, and the United States. Canadian exhibits were mounted at fairs, exhibitions, and public displays, while “editorial articles,” commissioned by his department, were inserted in foreign newspapers. Foreign journalists were wined and dined on guided tours across the West, and prosperous homesteaders were encouraged to revisit their homelands and those friends and relatives they had left behind, since it was Sifton’s belief that the most effective advertising was done by individual contact.

top of page  Courting Americans

As a staunch member of the British Empire, Canada had hitherto sought British immigrants and it continued to do so during the Sifton years. In his quest for suitable agriculturalists to farm the West, however, Clifford Sifton stressed new fields for recruiting immigrants. One of these was the United States. Sir John A. Macdonald’s government had generally regarded the U.S. as a competitor for new immigrants, but the Minister saw Canada’s southern neighbour as itself a vast reservoir of potential new settlers. Instead of concentrating on the repatriation of former Canadians living south of the border, which had been the Conservatives’ approach, the Department of the Interior under Sifton’s direction expanded its network of American offices and agents and mounted a strong campaign to attract experienced American farmers with capital. Estimates indicate that between 1901 and 1914, over 750,000 immigrants entered Canada from the United States. While many were returning Canadians, about one–third were newcomers of European extraction—Germans, Hungarians, Norwegians, Swedes, and Icelanders—who had originally settled in the American West.

Between 1901 and 1914, over 750,000 immigrants entered Canada from the United States. While many were returning Canadians, about one–third were newcomers of European extraction—Germans, Hungarians, Norwegians, Swedes, and Icelanders—who had originally settled in the American West.

Promotional poster

This poster was reproduced in
the magazine Canada West, circa

National Archives of Canada
(C 30623)

As it had been in the past, the primary attraction for these American immigrants was good land, which was available in abundance on the Prairies and at no cost if the settlers met the conditions stipulated by Canada’s homestead policy. Because they were familiar with the demanding way of life in North America and many of them were also experienced prairie farmers, most of these American homesteaders adapted well to conditions on the Prairies. Those who came with capital, machinery, and livestock—and many did—successfully settled into life in their new surroundings even more quickly. For this reason, Americans were considered to be among the most desirable of immigrants.

Sifton’s campaign to attract American farmers was so effective that Americans constituted the largest group of immigrant settlers in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta when they were created in 1905. The enthusiasm with which most Canadians greeted these American newcomers was summed up in the Lethbridge Herald in 1905:

Less enthusiastic were those Canadians who worried that these American settlers, because of their sheer numbers, would dominate development in the West, seizing control of its industry and edging the Prairies away from Britain and Canada and into the American sphere of influence. This concern was not shared, however, by the federal government, which continued to seek settlers from the United States during this period.


top of page  No welcome mat for black Americans

When it came to prospective American settlers, the Immigration Branch solicited only white farmers, especially those living on the prairies and in the Midwest states. No attempt was made to recruit black agriculturalists, for they were widely regarded as being cursed with the burden of their African ancestry.

As unwelcome as black settlers were, no law was passed to exclude them, although administrators devised careful procedures to ensure that most applications submitted by black people were rejected. Private schemes for black settlement were also discouraged. For the most part, however, American black people expressed no great interest in coming to this country; they were too impoverished to contemplate emigration.

In its attempts to exclude black settlers, the Immigration Branch undoubtedly reflected public opinion in the West and elsewhere in Canada. Thousands of free black people had been among the Loyalists who had settled in Nova Scotia in 1783. Later, runaway slaves from the United States had obtained refuge in Canada. Nevertheless, white settlers insisted that the Prairies be kept white, and in 1910, when it appeared that their wishes might be disregarded, they drove home this point. On learning that anti–black sentiment in the newly created state of Oklahoma threatened to drive a large migration of black Americans north to the Edmonton area, the citizens of Alberta’s capital mounted a strong protest against Negro immigration. This spurred the Edmonton Municipal Council to pass a resolution urging the federal government to “take all action necessary to prevent the expected influx of Negroes” and the city’s Board of Trade to petition the federal government to act immediately to prevent any black people from immigrating into Western Canada.

Photo of a group of immigrant women, 1917

A group of immigrant women in front of the YMCA
boarding house at 698 Ontario Street, Toronto, 1917.

National Archives of Canada (PA 126710)

The anti–black backlash in Western Canada played directly into the hands of Immigration Branch officials who wanted to see the Canadian border closed to black immigration. Legislative action, they insisted, was the only answer. Accordingly, in 1911 these officials took unprecedented steps to have Canada acquire an exclusion ordinance against black settlers. Their efforts came to nought, however, because a general election that September threw the Liberals out of office before the necessary Order in Council could be drawn up and implemented. Years later, immigration authorities would resort to other methods to keep black settlers out of this country.

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