Dominion Immigration Sheds — facility at The Forks handled newcomers streaming into province

by Bruce Cherney

An early Manitoba historian and journalist described the long-anticipated Immigration Sheds as comprising “two separate ranges, capable of accommodating four or five hundred persons, and provided with many conveniences. They are the best of all the Immigrant Sheds that we have seen between Thunder Bay and Winnipeg. The immigrant generally makes this his home until he selects a location.”

Writing in his book, Winnipeg as It is in 1874: and as It was in 1860, George Babington Elliott said, the sheds were east of Upper Fort Garry, “near the mouth of the Assiniboine (River), or at its confluence with the Red River.”

These were the sheds where immigrants from Ontario, the United States, Icelanders and Mennonites had their first glimpse of life in Winnipeg.

Prior to the erection of the sheds, newcomers to Manitoba, especially overland immigrants, invariably first camped on a plain outside Upper Fort Garry and the fledgling hamlet of Winnipeg.

An August 3, 1872, article in the Manitoban and Northwest Herald, reported on the arrival of overland immigrants Mr. Spracklen, Isaac Davidson, wife and six children; and Elias Frazer, wife and six children; Mr. Swazey; who came directly from Iowa.

One of the women commented that they came to Manitoba due to the “wheat ripening too soon” in Iowa.

“Mr. Frazer brings with him a very fine entire Norman horse, which will be a valuable addition to the stock of the country. Mr, Spracklen, an Iowa horse and cattle dealer, has brought in a remarkably fine sorrel horse of the famous ‘Whipstock’ blood; also some very fine young horses.”

The Winnipeg-based Liberal newspaper complained in a May 18, 1872, editorial that the Dominion (Canadian) government had been neglectful in its duty to provide shelter for immigrants arriving in Winnipeg. A year earlier, all the government had done was publish warnings in newspapers informing immigrants that the country was not ready to receive them, but “these parties kept pouring into the country.” 

Even with the influx, Ottawa said there was “no necessity for an immigrant shed to protect them from the weather.”

The Liberal said federal officials did not move on building an immigrant shed  — albeit too slowly — “until disease set in compelling incomers to thrust themselves into stables, saw mills and out houses, for want of accommodation.”

The newspaper said when a large influx of immigrants arrived aboard the steamer Selkirk in the summer, “its cargo of sturdy yeoman, who were thrown upon the River bank, homeless and houseless, men, women and children of all ages, are left standing in the rains ...”

The editorial said the newcomers had left comfortable homes in Eastern Canada and the U.S. — many of the Americans were former Quebecers who had left their native province to become textile factory workers in New England — experienced “untold difficulties and hardships to reach Winnipeg, only to be forced to borrow a board or two to shelter them from the elements.”

Whether immigrant sheds were needed was debated back and forth between the community’s partisan newspapers. The most vicious attacks aimed at the government came from the Liberal, owned by Dr. John Christian Schultz. Inspired by Schultz’s political views, the newspaper became noted for its vicious attacks against the Métis, Louis Riel, Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald, the provincial government and the Hudson’s Bay Company. 

In 1872, Schultz used his newspaper to stir up the people against HBC chief commissioner and political opponent Donald Smith. Mob violence instigated by Schultz supporters resulted in the destruction of opposition newspaper offices as well as the disruption of voting at a St. Boniface polling booth during the 1872 federal election. The rioters tried to prevent St. Boniface voters from supporting a candidate backed by Smith.

The Liberal claimed the government newspaper, the Manitoban, was callous to the need of an immigration shed.

The Manitoban said it regretted that immigrants were cast upon the riverbank to fend for themselves, but the province had yet to be surveyed for settlement so immigrants had nowhere to go. The newspaper favoured immigration, but in an orderly fashion.

“We never could see where the necessity for hurry lay,” editorialized the Manitoban on May 25, 1872. “It never could be made plain to us, why men and women and sturdy yeoman, with good farms and comfortable homes should be told by lying prophets, to leave all and follow them to the Land of Promise ...”

The newspaper acknowledged Ottawa had been slow to react to the wants of immigrants, but the farmers from Eastern Canada “are just the very men to face a difficulty. Their whole history has tended to training them to rely on their own resources. They are just the kind of men who can lay Government incapacity and disappointment to one side, and strike out for themselves.”

The implication that Ontarians of “good stock” were the hardy settlers needed in the West persevered for years, primarily through the propaganda spread by Ontarians who had arrived earlier. Manitoba historian W.L. Morton wrote of the “triumph of Ontario” — settlers from Ontario succeeded in recreating Manitoba in an image of their home province, importing Ontario’s political and social institutions. 

Facing heavy local criticism on the immigration front, the federal government finally decided the time had come to act on the question of the immigration buildings. Tenders were called for in April 1872 and by the summer, a “commodious immigration house” had been erected at The Forks. As well, the government survey of the province had nearly been completed, allowing for the selection of plots of land by immigrants. By 1872, the federal government had passed the Dominion Lands Act, which offered 160 acres of land on the prairies to anyone willing to put up $10 and homestead on the land for three years to receive a clear title. 

With the influx of settlers, primarily from Eastern Canada, the population of Winnipeg doubled. The Manitoba Free Press reported in the fall of 1872 that in 1870 there had been 300 people living in Winnipeg, 700 in 1871, and “a careful enumeration” on November 1, 1872, showed a population of 1,467.

Surprisingly, the Manitoban complained the erection of the sheds did little to help immigrants as the primary use of the buildings was for amateur concerts and theatricals staged by the Garrison Theatre Troupe from Winnipeg. 

Presumably, theatrical productions and concerts were only held in the winter until the arrival of spring, since the Manitoba Free Press on May 3, 1873, announced the disbanding of the Garrison Theatre Troupe and the return of the buildings to their original purpose as an “Immigration Shed.” 

Actually, the federal facilities would have remained devoid of immigrants throughout much of the winter as the onset of cold weather stopped steamboat traffic from St. Paul and overland travel from Eastern Canada or the United States. It would be several years before the completion of the Pembina Branch of the Northern Pacific Railway provided Winnipeg with  a year-round rail connection with the outside world. And, it wasn’t until 1881-82 that the Canadian Pacific Railway reached Winnipeg from Eastern Canada.

Until there was a railway connection, immigration was severely influenced by the vagaries of weather and the difficulties of reaching Winnipeg by the routes then available. Singled out for particularly harsh criticism was the Dawson Route from Eastern Canada which started at Lake Superior and cut through the Canadian Shield, using waterways and corduory (log) roads to reach Fort Garry. Named after government surveyor and engineer Simon Dawson, the route he created was noted for the extreme hardships and bone-rattling ride encountered by anyone traversing its length.

“Quite a number of immigrants have already arrived by the amphibious route which bears the name of Mr. Dawson,” reported the Free Press on July 5, 1873, “and to a man, woman, or child they are loud in their denunciation of the whole concern.”

When the immigrants complained to a man named Graham about the hardships they had experienced along the route, the official said they should “consider themselves very lucky in getting through as they did.

“He said that it was not intended to bring people through comfortably by the Dawson Route, it being intended only for those who were too poor to travel by any other route.”

This is an erroneous statement since the original intention of the Dawson Route was to provide an all-Canadian route to Red River that could compete with the American steamer and railway route to St. Paul and then onward to Fort Garry. The Dawson Route failed miserably in terms of travel comfort, but it was intentionally retained by the federal government as a cheaper alternative to the all-American route. It was reported that between 1872 and 1873, 1,000 settlers paid $10 each to use the Dawson Route.

Travelling on the cheap had its price. One settler arrived in the Winnipeg office of MP Donald Smith reporting that it had taken him 23 days to reach the city. “During that time I’ve been half starved on (unfit) victuals ... the water used to pour into my bunk of nights, and the boat was so leaky that every bit of baggage I’ve got is water-logged and ruined. But that ain’t all. I’ve broken my arm and sprained my ankle helping to carry half a dozen trunks over a dozen portages, and when I refused to take a paddle in one of the boats, an Ottawa Irishman told me to go to h--l and said that if I gave him any more of my d---ed chat he’d let me get off and walk to Winnipeg.”

When Dawson was sent to investigate complaints in July 1874, he was mobbed by starving passengers who had been vainly waiting for transportation to Winnipeg. He was forced to scramble to find transportation for the stranded immigrants. Later that year, he quit in disgust as superintendent of the Dawson Route and advised the government to abandon the route.

It was reported by the Daily Nor’Wester on July 6, 1874, that an indignation meeting was held at the Immigration Sheds. A resolution was unanimously carried demanding payment for damages suffered along the route. If payment was refused, the resolution further called for legal proceedings to be taken against Carpenter & Co., which held the government contract to provide freight and passenger service along the Dawson Route.

In the spring of 1873, anyone who had endured the Dawson Route was to be greeted by immigration agent Gilbert McMicken, who had originally arrived in Winnipeg as a spy master for Ottawa and subsequently was appointed the Dominion land agent. His salary was reported to be $400 a year, although the Manitoban said no one was really aware he was the new agent since his presence in the vicinity of the Immigration Sheds went unnoticed. 

The Manitoban complained that little had been done to help prepare the Immigration Sheds for the accommodation of newcomers. “the kitchens have no stoves,” the newspaper reported on May 3, 1973, “and the chimneys as they are presently arranged are perfectly useless for cooking or anything else, unless something in the way of a useable fireplace is provided. The whole building is dirty, unswept, and unfit for human habitation. Who is responsible for such a state of things, and why is not something done at once to put the place into better order.”

Over the years of its existence, the sheds at The Forks continued to receive immigrants despite the numerous complaints found in newspapers about the deteriorating conditions within the two buildings.

From May 1 to October 1, 1874, a total of 2,693 immigrants were accommodated at the sheds, including 1,368 Mennonites.

In the spring of 1878, when the navigation season via the Red River opened and immigrants began to flood into Winnipeg, the immigration sheds quickly became overcrowded, as a result militia tents were being used to house the overflow. 

William Hespeler, the Dominion Immigration Agent responsible for the sheds — who had been instrumental in bringing the Mennonite settlers to Manitoba — wrote to Ottawa asking for authority to use Fort Osborne Barracks as temporary accommodations for immigrants. The resulting reply allowed for the use of five buildings at the barracks for the purpose of housing families only. 

“With the additional buildings at his disposal, Mr. Hespeler has no doubt but there will be ample accommodation for all who prefer the cheaper method of putting up at the government’s quarters, instead of at hotels and boarding houses, while they remain in the city,” reported the Free Press on April 27, 1878.

The inadequacy of the Dominion Immigration Sheds was emphasized with the arrival of 340 Russian Jewish refugees escaping pogroms in their home country. Newspapers wrote that the impoverished Jews were living under deplorable conditions in the ill-prepared Dominion Immigration Sheds.

The embarassing condition of the federal facility resulted in the city building its own Immigration Hall on Fonseca Avenue (now incorporated into Higgins Avenue).

James Jackson, the caretaker, said the facility was finished on March 22, 1882, and was put up by the city “on account of the Dominion Government Shed not being ready in time to receive immigrants.”

The 1884 annual report of the Department of Agriculture (then in charge of Western Canadian immigration), indicated 6,385 people had been housed in the Dominion Immigration Sheds at The Forks during 1883, which was an increase of 435 people over the previous year.

Over the years, other buildings appeared in the city to house immigrants. A “palatial” Immigration Hall was built near the CPR depot on Fonseca (Higgins) in 1888. The CPR added a more substantial immigration building when it began building a new depot in 1903.  In 1904, the federal government announced it would be building Canada Immigration Hall on Maple Street north of Higgins. The new facility was sorely needed to supplement the existing accommodations. 

The Dominion Immigration Sheds at The Forks disappeared as railway facilities in the area expanded. In 1888, the Northern 

Pacific and Manitoba Railway (NP & MR) created a permanent station, offices, freight sheds, repair shops and an engine roundhouse, which formed the basis of the future Canadian National East Yards. William Mackenzie and Donald Mann purchased the NP & MR with all the property from the defunct rail line being transferred to their Canadian Northern Railway in 1901. 

In 1918, the western line was integrated into the larger CNR, and the old NP & MR facilities from the 1889 era were modified. In 1926, dormitories and dining rooms were installed at the former NP & MR station on Water Avenue, establishing an Immigration Hall for newcomers arriving at Union Station. In the 1930s, the Immigration Hall was transformed into a soup kitchen and hostel for unemployed men during the Great Depression. In 1951, the former station, turned Immigration Hall and then soup kitchen underwent extensive alterations to become CNR offices. The building and wooden sheds to the rear of it survived until 1982.