Wanted: Stalwart peasants, born on the soil. Artisans not willing to work need not apply.

Canada, at the turn of the century, desperately wanted immigrants. And not just any immigrants. Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior from 1896 – 1905, wanted hardy farmers to work the land — and help pay off the country’s debt. No fancy urban dwellers need apply; Sifford wanted “quality”:

“When I speak of quality I have in mind, I think, something that is quite different from what is in the mind of the average writer or speaker upon the question of Immigration. I think a 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, is good quality. A Trades Union artisan who will not work more than eight hours a day and will not work that long if he can help it, will not work on a farm at all and has to be fed by the public when his work is slack is, in my judgement, quantity and very bad quantity.”

Governments, railroads and land companies waged an all-out promotional campaign to entice the British, Americans, Europeans, and others to come to Canada’s West — touted as “the largest continuous wheatfield in the world”, where the soil needed only be “tickled” to reap a fortune. And come they did. With over 22 million acres of Canadian prairie available, and the homestead process simplified, land fever transformed Alberta. The population went from 73,000 to 374,000 at decade’s end. Scores of towns and villages emerged.

Set up with a quarter section (160 acres) of land for a $10 fee (an acre of land in part of the U.S. at the time went for $100-$200) a settler had three years to “prove up” to keep the land. That meant living there for at least six months of the year, while cultivating the land, and building fences, barns, and houses. If all went well, after three years they could buy a second quarter section.

The journey to Canada across seas and continents was hard. But it was nothing compared to what settlers met once they arrived. Only six out of ten people were able to keep the land after three years. Many didn’t come with the needed skills, and those who did usually lacked the funds to stay afloat in those first few years, working virgin land, coping with fickle weather, and appeasing ruthless grain handling agencies.

Katherine Strange, an early settler, summed it up like this: “How vividly I recall my first day on the farm, and the almost overwhelming realization it brought me of my total lack of knowledge of the kind of life that lay ahead of me.”

Want to learn more? 

Read: A Harvest Yet to Reap: A History of Prairie Women by Linda Rasmussen, Alberta in the 20th Century, Volume Two: The Birth of the Province 1900-1910, By Ted Byfield, editor, and Alberta Homestead: Chronicle of a Pioneer Family by Sarah Ellen Roberts.

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