By PATRICK BRENNAN
Fifty years after its founding by Samuel de Champlain in 1608, New France, with fewer than 3,000 settlers, was little more than a collection of fur trade outposts. Preoccupied with European wars, France would never show much interest in the colony’s fate. Settlement took the form of the feudal seigneurial system, which provided defence against marauding Iroquois and a crucial sense of established community in the wilderness. In practice, abundant land and the freedom of frontier society ensured that this system would be easier for the colonists than for peasants in France. Slowly, a robust, self-reliant agrarian society emerged. Even so, it was generous subsidies to promote marriages and large families that proved the salvation of New France. During its existence, 90 per cent of population replacement came by birth, not immigration.
Of those who did immigrate, many were recruited to serve fixed contracts in New France as labourers and tradesmen, and then stayed on. A descendant of Étienne Trudeau, one such contracted worker, would become a future Canadian prime minister. For the 10,000 settlers who came entirely on their own, adventure and the desire to be self-sufficient, not poverty or persecution, seem to have been the motives. By 1760, when New France fell to British arms, the population was barely 70,000, but Canadien society (and the smaller community of Acadiens in the Maritimes) had developed a strong sense of cultural identity.
The British established Upper Canada (later called Ontario) in 1791 as a refuge for exiles who had sided with them during the American Revolution. The initial wave of 8,000 Loyalists – including some freed Black slaves and Iroquois – were granted free land and generous subsidies to settle in the wilds north of Lakes Ontario and Erie. Many ordinary Americans, drawn by the prospect of obtaining free land simply for swearing allegiance to the king and called Late Loyalists, soon followed. During the first decades of settlement, earnest efforts to build a class-based agrarian society like that in Britain was only partially successful. However, bitter Loyalist memories, sharpened by the United States’ invasion and military occupation during the War of 1812, did ensure that anti-Americanism would flourish.
With Americans openly discouraged after the war, immigrants flooded into Canada from the British Isles. Government incentives were no longer necessary – escaping poverty, industrial squalor and political oppression were enough.
The great majority of the one million emigrants from England, Scotland and Ireland who arrived in British North America in the first half of the 19th century went to Upper Canada. The poorest, including famine Irish in the 1840s, came as ballast in empty timber ships, carrying with them hopes for a better life and too often diseases like cholera and typhoid fever.
Clearing the forest was back-breaking work. Most settlers’ first “crop” was potash, extracted by burning their cleared trees.
Roughing It in the Bush, the title of Susannah Moodie’s contemporary account, aptly summed up life for many on the Upper Canadian frontier. Still, by the 1850s, a wheat boom had made the colony prosperous and its population had soared – from 95,000 in 1815 to over 500,000.
The dreams of Confederation, a union of the British North American colonies, depended on the speedy settlement of the West and its development as the breadbasket of the British Empire. Copying the wildly successful American model – railways and free land – was supposed to guarantee the necessary immigration, but by the late 19th century, only a handful had come.
But soon world prosperity, a high demand (and price) for wheat, farming practices more suited to the short growing season and the dry plains, and the end of free American land turned the tide. Eastern Canadians as well as immigrants from the United States, Britain and Europe were vigorously recruited. Ottawa helped overcome fears that the Canadian west was a frigid wasteland by using “invigorating” for “freezing” and “precipitation” for “snow” in its glowing advertisements for what it called the “Last, Best West.” Even unpopular eastern Europeans were welcomed as “a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat born on the soil.” Ultimately, the Canadian government cared only that the homesteaders were White and had a chance of success.
Spurred by the usual attractions of free land, independence and a better life, immigrants now poured in. There had only been 10,000 homesteads through 1897, but by 1914 the number had reached 150,000 in Saskatchewan alone. The Prairies were now home to 710,000 people of British descent, 140,000 Germans, 144,000 Slavs and 78,000 Scandinavians. Assimilation into the British-Canadian model, not present-day multiculturalism, was encouraged, and only pessimists noted that half the homesteaders failed and that too much marginal land had been taken up. World War I temporarily closed off immigration, but the settlement boom and the rise of “King Wheat” had succeeded in building the Canadian West almost overnight.
Next Instalment: Immigrants made Canada
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