Western Canada’s population boom — Sifton re-organized department to increase immigration

by Bruce Cherney

The recently-released 2006 Canadian Census showed that this nation experienced the greatest population growth among G8 countries. Canada’s population rose to 31,612,897 with a growth rate of 5.4 per cent between the years 2001 (the previous census year) and 2006. During those five years, roughly 1.2-million immigrants — about 240,000 a year — contributed to the population surge. On the other hand, native-born Canadians only contributed to a 400,000 person growth in population over the same period.

Historically, Manitoba’s greatest population boom occurred between 1896 and 1911 when the Sir Wilfrid Laurier Liberal government made it their policy to heavily promote the West across Europe and the United States. Overseeing this immigration policy was Interior Minister Clifford Sifton, the Liberal MP from Brandon.

During his famous January 18, 1904, speech to the Canadian Club in Ottawa, Laurier thanked Providence for being born in Canada and then launched into the comment that has been changed over the years. What he said was: “The 19th century was the century of the United States. I think we can claim that it is Canada that shall fill the 20th century.”

Laurier had reason for his optimism. His government’s immigration initiative reversed years of out-migration. For 15 years prior to the election of the Laurier government, more people were leaving Canada than could be replaced by immigration. The Times of Winnipeg wrote that, “The trails from Manitoba to the United States were worn bare and barren by the footprints of departing settlers (who could not make a living.”

In his book, Clifford Sifton and His Times, John Dafoe captured the despair. He wrote that in 1896 only 902 immgrants and an equal number of people from Eastern Canada had applied for homesteads. Cancellations reduced the total to 1,400.

The Laurier government’s immigration campaign was helped by the end of a worldwide recession, scarcity of free land in the U.S., gold discoveries and Europeans wanting to escape oppression and economic hardship.

Gold finds in the Yukon and in South Africa had reinvigorated world markets and caused the price of wheat to increase to the benefit of farmers in the Canadian West. Up to 1896, millions of potential immigrants chose the U.S. over Canada, fearing the northern nation’s harsh winter climate and the difficulty of making a living on the Prairies  — the rise in wheat prices changed this attitude.

New dry-land farming techniques and grain varieties made the Prairies more attractive, especially to experienced American farmers who were frustrated by the expense of purchasing land in their own country.

Some historians have argued that the Laurier government benefited from the “last best West,” a term used to define land availability in Western Canada, but reforms instituted by his regime had a dramatic impact on immigration. 

Sifton outlined the new belief of the government when he said: “I think, a stalwart peasant in a sheep-skin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for 10 generations, with a stout wife and half-dozen children is good quality ... I am indifferent as to whether or not he is British born.”

Both Sifton and Laurier were on the same page — they believed settling the West required hardy people.

Among those Sifton selected as appropriate were Ukrainians. The first settlers were from the Western Ukraine — the 19th-century provinces of Bukovina and Galicia in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Sifton proved to be flexible, pragmatic and a first-rate administrator when promoting the West.

Manitoba’s population had grown steadily but not dramatically after it entered the Canadian Confederation in 1870. By 1891, there were 150,000 people within its borders. The massive immigration, which occurred after the Laurier government came to power, had boosted Manitoba’s population to 225,000 people by 1901 and 364,000 by 1906. In 1911, the last year of the Laurier government, the province’s population hit 450,000 people.

While the Laurier government under Sifton reformed federal immigration policy, there still existed barriers to settlement in the West such as the land monopolies held by the CPR and Hudson’s Bay Company. The CPR and other railways had been subsidized by the federal government by granting them holdings of over 32-million acres of Prairie land, according to some estimates. Sifton felt this figure was too low and that railways held some 67-million acres.

“We have millions of acres in that country owned by railway companies and these companies are not required to do any work or spend any money...,” said Sifton. “The farmers do their work ... And the land goes up in value for the benefit of the railway companies.”

Through a series of negotiations between 1901 and 1903, Sifton forced the railways to select (patent) their land grants so they could be made available for settlement. Prior to this, railways had been in no hurry to have land transferred to them because then they would have to pay taxes on the land. Furthermore, Sifton stopped the practice of giving land grants to railways. Other railway land was designated for irrigation projects and forestry.

Actually, homesteading was to the railways’ advantage — more people on the prairies led to greater profits. The Canadian Pacific Railway began to work with the government in promoting the West overseas and in the U.S.

By 1896, Metis land claims in Canada had been mostly resolved. Under the terms of the Manitoba Act, 1.4-million acres of land had to be made available to the children of Metis in the province. It was not a smooth process; large parcels of land ended up in the hands of speculators who specialized in buying Metis “scrip” — often for a pittance of the scrip’s true value. (Metis land claims arising from the Manitoba Act and unfulfilled promises are now in court.) 

In 1896, Sifton’s workers began to flood selected countries with promotional material, including pamphlets and newspaper ads. Officials also attended regional exhibits in the U.S. and Europe to distribute material bragging about Canada’s potential.

“In my judgement ... the immigration work has to be carried on in the same manner as the sale of any commodity; just as soon as you stop advertising and missionary work the movement is going to stop,” said Sifton.

The government also paid journalists from Britain and the U.S. to come to Canada's West, with the expectation that the correspondents would fill the pages of their publications with praise for Canada.

This was also a popular method used by Winnipeg’s business community and local politicians embracing the cause of immigration. As the commercial centre of the new West, Winnipeg had a vested interest in promoting immigration.

In March 1896, just four months before the election of the Laurier government, the Western Canadian Immigration Association was formed in Winnipeg. The aim was “the formation of a central, independent and permanent immigration association, with branches covering the whole Canadian Northwest, which would co-operate and work in unison with the governments, railways and land companies and other organizations which could in any way promote a desirable class of immigrants.”

In 1897, the association sent a questionnaire to 5,000 relatively successful prairie farmers. It received 2,000 replies which were compiled into a pamphlet called A Few Facts. Sifton was impressed by this effort and had Ottawa pay for the distribution of 30,000 copies. This was the only triumph of the association which was disbanded in December 1897. 

Between 1897 and 1904, the federal government and CPR embarked on a large-scale promotional campaign in the U.S. It was so successful that American authorities met in 1904 in St. Paul and formed the American Immigration Association of the Northwest “for the purpose of keeping ... Americans away from Canada.” 

Also in St. Paul, delegates from Winnipeg city council, the Winnipeg Board of Trade and the Winnipeg Real Estate Exchange (now WinnipegREALTORS®) and private businessmen met to discuss ways to combat the adverse propaganda of the American association. The result of this meeting was the formation of the Western Canadian Immigration Association to “facilitate the movement of (American) settlers to Western Canada.”

“The commercial interests of Winnipeg and the West depend largely upon the continued growth of population — the more people the more trade,” explained three Board of Trade delegates — D.W. Bole, W.S. Evans and D.E. Sprague. “A well defined policy of emigration, under the auspices of the Association just formed, must therefore commend itself to the businessmen of Western Canada and is entitled to their support.”

Money poured into the association from all levels of government, the CPR and the business community.

The most effective tool used by the association was the organization of free Western Canada tours for American reporters. During a 27-day tour, newspapermen from Washington, Chicago, New York, Kansas, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Raleigh and the Associated Press were wined and dined in Winnipeg hotels and restaurants and travelled by train across the West.

The result of the extensive trip was 182 columns of material in U.S. newspapers and magazines about Canada covering 270,000 words, according to a report by the association’s secretary. The articles were compiled into a pamphlet called What Famous  Correspondents Say About Western Canada that was distributed throughout the U.S.

The association also published its own magazine called The Canada-West. By 1907, over 1,468 American farmers and investors were receiving the magazine.

It is difficult to determine how successful the association was in attracting immigrants. The Manitoba Free Press, which was a staunch supporter, said in an editorial that its success could be judged by the CPR doubling its contribution.

In opposition, W.J. Whyte, the Inspector of U.S. Agencies in a memorandum to his Ottawa superior, said he didn’t think the association brought in six people in the preceding year and it was interfering with the immigration work of the federal government.

Sifton gave only token support to the association.

By 1908, the association felt it had performed its duty and disbanded.

To ensure the smooth operation of his own department, Sifton restored morale among its dispirited staff. He ousted those he considered incompetent or simply political hacks from the previous Conservative government. But he wasn’t averse to appointing his own political buddies to important department positions, including two former Brandon mayors. 

Sifton rewarded agents who attracted immigrants through a series of bonuses based on “merit.” Some positions in Sifton’s department were paid by the number of immigrants brought to Canada.

Sifton also cut red tape in his department, making it easier for settlers to get their 160 acres of free land. 

When Sifton became Interior Minister, there were only six government agents promoting Canada in the U.S. By 1899, he had over 300 agents and sub-agents in the U.S. who were paid $3 for every man, $2 for every woman and $1 for every child they convinced to settle in Canada. With such numbers and incentives, the agents increased American immigration to Canada from 2,400 people in 1897 to between 40,000 to 50,000 each year from 1902 to 1905.

Sifton also increased funding for the promotion of European immigration to Canada. In Great Britain, the push was to attract farmers from England and Scotland. He wanted agriculturalists — “the men of good muscle who are willing to hustle” —  and frowned upon sending more of England’s urban poor or labourers to Canadian cities.

“Once a man is taken hold of by the Government and treated as a ward,” Sifton said, “he seems to acquire the sentiments of a pauper, and will not stand on his own feet or try to help himself ... I have never known anybody that was materially assisted by the Government to amount to anything.”

Sifton’s immigration policy was made clear when he said: “We are in a position now to take our choice and we do not want anything but agricultural labourers and farmers who are coming for the purpose of engaging in agriculture ...”

He had no desire to attract “the mechanic, the artisan and the drifter” from Britain.

In Europe, Sifton supported the formation of the privately-operated  North Atlantic Trading Company in bringing more agricultural immigrants to Canada from Europe. For each immigrant, the Canadian government paid a bonus. The company sent nearly 71,000 immigrants to Canada and was paid $367,243.85. 

Sifton’s concentration on agriculturalists, regardless of European country of origin, led to strong criticism.

Under the heading Sifton’s Immigration, the Daily Nor’Wester of July 8, 1897,  reported that 2,842 immigrants had arrived in Winnipeg of which 2,374 were “Galicians.”

“These people are without doubt almost the worst possible material that could be selected for nation building,” according to an editorial, “and it is securing them that Mr. Sifton is devoting his whole attention.”

The Conservative newspaper complained that the Liberal government was ignoring potential immigrants from Northern Europe — the ones they wanted — in favour of the “Galicians.”

The Morden Chronicle of May 25, 1899, contained a poem with these racial stereo-types: “greasy Pole,” Russian Jews referred to as “dermal parasites” and Chinese as “Pasty Chink.” 

The only Manitoba newspaper supporting Ukrainian settlement was the Manitoba Free Press, which happened to be owned by Sifton. 

When told of the newspaper reports, Prime Minister Laurier said: “I have only this to add, that all the information I have received, is that the Galicians are a most valuable class of immigrants.”

Although Sifton’s immigration policy made no specific legal restrictions for ethnic or racial groups, he did make it clear to his officials that they should discourage Italians, Chinese, blacks and Jews from trying to settle in Canada. Despite the barriers placed in their path, many of these groups did find their way to Canada. If they had visible means of support (cash in hand) and a healthy constitution, officials could not legally bar their passage into the country. 

When a party of American blacks  from Oklahoma heading for Alberta crossed the border at Emerson, border officials “found themselves unable to stop a single member of the party. All had plenty of money, were in perfect health and apparently in good moral standing. They talked freely and stated they feared neither cold nor privation, and that all they were seeking was free land and a chance to make homes for their families.”

On April 30, 1902, the largest boatload of immigrants ever to arrive in Canada landed at Halifax. Among the 2,692 men, women and children aboard the Bulgaria were Jews, Ukrainians, Italians and Germans, the vast majority of whom were going to settle in the “promised land” of the “last best West.”

Sifton and Laurier were victims of stereotypes associated with Jews which claimed they would not make good farmers.

When a the immigration department issued a memorandum in favour of a limited settlement of Rumanian Jewish farmers, Laurier said, “I do not favour this movement.” He belieived that once in Canada, the Jews would not take up farming and migrate to cities. He ordered that the memorandum be redrafted “to make it clear, that whilst the doors of the country are open to all, we favour only agricultural immigrants.”

Sifton redrafted the document to say that, “Experiences shows that the Jewish people do not become agriculturalists. However strong the attempts that we have made to induce them to remain on the land ... such efforts have ... proven an undoubted failure. The Jewish population of Canada ... like that of the United States, is to be found entirely in the cities and towns.”

The only group discouraged by law as immigrants were Chinese, a policy Canada shared with the U.S. 

The Chinese head tax of $50 came under the jurisdiction of the Department of Trade and Commerce — not Sifton’s department that oversaw immigration — and had been in effect since 1885. In 1900, the tax was increased to $100. In 1903, the tax was increased for the last time to $500.

The head tax did not discourage Chinese immigration; nor did other discriminatory laws convince the Chinese, who played such a vital role in building the CPR in Western Canada, to return to China.  

Between 1885 and 1903, 39,925 Chinese paid the tax to immigrate to Canada. From January 1904, after the tax was increased to $500, until the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 by the Canadian government, 42,444 Chinese paid to come to Canada. From 1886 to 1924, a total of 82,369 paid the head tax to enter Canada. The Chinese Exclusion Act wasn’t repealed until 1947. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently apologized to the Chinese-Canadian community for past injustices and the government issued compensation cheques of $20,000 to each head tax survivor — about 500 Chinese-Canadians are now eligible for compensation.

Sifton seems to have accepted the discriminatory laws as politically expedient and a necessary evil because he believed Chinese immigrants would not be easily assimilated into Canadian society and would not become prairie farmers.

Sifton’s immigration policy was not exactly open door, nor was the door fully closed. It can be summed up as a door left ajar. Many groups were of the right type to easily slip through the space provided, while others had to be stubborn enough to push the door wide open and then enter Canada.

Thomas Crerar, A Manitoba MP who was a cabinet minister in the Robert Borden Union government and later in the McKenzie King Liberal government, said that Sifton’s “reorganization of the Immigration Department in 1896 and the years immediately following, and the steps he took at that time to make Canada known abroad, both in the United States and Europe, was, in my judgement, the greatest contribution that any public man has made to the material wealth of the Dominion.”

In the first decade of the 20th century, Canada’s population rose from 5.3 million to 7.2 million. Over a million of those who came to Canada settled in Manitoba and the West. So many had come that it became politically expedient for the Laurier government to divide up the North West to create the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905.

Canada’s most extensive immigration boom only ran out of steam when a severe recession hit in 1913 and the First World War commenced in 1914.