The first immigrants moved between resource zones according to the dictates of the season, the fortunes of the hunt, and diplomatic relations with neighbouring groups. In the 18th century they utilized European trade goods such as axes and knives, and were affected by some European innovations, particularly the gun and the horse, but they remained in control of their domestic economies and diplomatic alliances.
Native autonomy was lost in the 19th century, partly through population pressure from eastern North America and partly because of the destruction of the single, crucial element in the plains economy - the buffalo (see BISON; BUFFALO HUNT). Seven INDIAN TREATIES were negotiated in the 1870s between the Canadian government and the natives of the western interior, exchanging native sovereignty over the land for government promises of economic assistance, education and the creation of reserves for native people. Thus, in a few short decades, prairie natives became wards of the state.
From the European perspective, the early history of the western interior was the story of FUR-TRADE competition. The English HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY, founded 1670, traded from posts on Hudson Bay until competition forced it to establish inland houses in the 1770s. The French and later the NORTH WEST COMPANY, with Montréal as headquarters, created an extensive network of posts that was pushed into the Prairie West by the LA VÉRENDRYES in the 1730s, and extended by Peter POND in the 1770s and Alexander MACKENZIE, 1789-93. Deadly competition finally forced the merger of the HBC and the NWC in 1821. The restructured HBC ruled the fur trade and the region for another 5 decades.
Some traders established liaisons with native women. Their offspring, whether French-speaking (Métis) or English-speaking ("mixed bloods" or country born), were sufficiently numerous by the early 19th century to constitute the largest group in the Red River Colony and an important component of fur-company operations. They led the defence of local interests against incoming speculators when outside interest in the region quickened in the 1840s-60s. Canada eventually secured sovereignty over RUPERT'S LAND, but only after the 1869-70 RED RIVER REBELLION led by Louis RIEL resulted in significant revisions to the terms allowing the region's entry into CONFEDERATION.
Because of the federal government's great powers and because of PM J.A. Macdonald's decision to retain control of western lands, the policy framework for development was created in Ottawa. Decisions taken between 1870 and 1874 on the dispatch of the North-West Mounted Police, the square survey (see DOMINION LANDS POLICY; SURVEYING), the policy on HOMESTEADING and immigration recruitment activities remained cornerstones of prairie history for 2 generations. Crucial decisions on tariff policy and the CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY followed, 1879-80. The region was to become an agricultural hinterland, built upon international IMMIGRATION and the family farm, and integrated with a growing manufacturing sector in central Canada.
The failure of the 1885 NORTHWEST REBELLION and the passage of the Manitoba Schools Act and other language legislation in 1890 made plain that the defining elements of prairie society were henceforth to be Protestant, English speaking, and British. The creation of Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1905 (see AUTONOMY BILLS) seemed to demonstrate that the British tradition of peaceful evolution from colony to self-governing state had been fulfilled.
New forces at work in the Prairie West around 1900 made complacency inappropriate. Social leaders were troubled by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of non-British immigrants who placed great strains upon prairie institutions during the next few decades. The newcomers, on the other hand, relinquished much of their traditional culture as they helped to build the new West.
Scandinavians and Germans assimilated quickly; MENNONITES, JEWS and UKRAINIANS sought to retain more of their cultural heritage, and eventually helped to create a multicultural definition of Canada; HUTTERITES remained isolated from the larger community; and some other religious groups - notably a few DOUKHOBORS and Mennonites - preferred to leave the region rather than accommodate to its norms. By the 1950s the Prairies were far closer to a British Canadian model than to that of any other culture.
Political institutions, too, underwent severe testing in the early 20th century. A wide gap between the wealthy and the poor produced real tension. In cities such as Winnipeg and Calgary, luxurious homes in segregated residential areas, exclusive clubs, colleges and social events, and the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a few were signs that a ruling class was evolving. By contrast, the squalor of slum areas such as Winnipeg's North End, some frontier construction camps, and resource towns such as Lovettville and Cadomin, Alberta, suggested that a class struggle was in the making. The intensity of labour-management conflicts, especially in Winnipeg (see WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE) and the Alberta coal towns, should be seen in this context.
A full-scale class struggle did not develop in the early 20th century for 3 reasons. The first was the relative openness of the agricultural frontier: the availability of homesteads undercut the militancy of many camp and mine workers by offering a ready alternative, a modest living and hope for the future. At this early stage, the future of agriculture was too uncertain to permit the existence of firm class identities among farmers. Second was the development of a professional middle class: the teachers, doctors, social workers and journalists belonged neither to the business elite nor to the working class, and simultaneously tempered the crudeness of the economic decision makers while offering aid and hope to the workers. The third factor working against class formation was the GREAT DEPRESSION.
So devastating was the combination of drought, international trade crisis, commodity price declines and the disappearance of local investment that prairie society went into prolonged stasis. Ethnic hostility, serious in the late 1920s (see KU KLUX KLAN), dissipated in the face of this more serious crisis. Political expressions of anger were channelled into either the moderate CO-OPERATIVE COMMONWEALTH FEDERATION or Alberta's variant of the SOCIAL CREDIT movement. The Prairie West entered WWII poorer and more united than at any time since 1900.
After 1940 a remarkable shift in prairie fortunes occurred. Wealth flowed into the region as OIL and POTASH, as well as URANIUM and other minerals, diversified an economy that had once relied on WHEAT. Improvements in agriculture, which ranged from larger equipment to fertilizers, herbicides and new plant strains, increased productivity, reduced the size of the work force and hastened the departure of farm children to urban centres; prairie farms in 1986 numbered half the 1941 total.
Accompanying the economic gains was a significant change in material culture. Television, cars, airplanes and universities brought the Prairie West closer to a growing global cultural consensus. Social issues within the region increasingly resembled those in other nations: the indigenous peoples' renaissance, an international political and cultural phenonemon, was an important development; the growing gulf between fundamentalists and modernists in the Christian churches was part of an international trend; and political debates about the fate of the region, as in other nations, were grounded upon local perceptions of MULTINATIONAL CORPORATIONS and the global balance of power. Similarly, social change assumed an international cast: the remarkable changes in the family that accompanied widespread birth control, higher employment rates for women, higher divorce rates and increases in life span were evident in the Prairie West and around the North Atlantic world.
Prairie art also became international: though rooted firmly, even self-consciously, in local images, prairie artists, novelists and performers in theatre and dance found their context, their standards and their audience in an international rather than a local or regional community. The Prairie West, 1940s-80s, became a neighbourhood of the North Atlantic industrial capitalist world.
Author GERALD FRIESEN
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Pacific Railway
The CP Rail website features information about the company's extensive services and operations. Click on "General Public" to access the multimedia "Our History" section.
Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21
The website for a museum devoted to history of Pier 21 in Halifax, once the primary point of entry for immigration to Canada. Check out the virtual exhibits, lesson plans, and online copies of "The Passport" newsletter.
The Last Best West
View a colourful collection of posters, photographs, and other material that was used to attract new immigrants to western Canada. Part of an advertising campaign developed by the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. A Canadian Museum of Civilization website.
The Canadian West
View an extensive collection of historical photographs and other archive material about European settlement of the Canadian West prior to the 1930s. From Library and Archives Canada.
Sir Henry James Warre
A collection of paintings and drawings depicting western Canada by Sir Henry James Warre. From the website for the British Columbia Archives.
Saskatchewan Settlement Experience
View an extensive collection of photographs, textual documents, and media clips that bring the settlement experience in Saskatchewan to life. From the website for the Saskatchewan Archives Board.
Click on a theme area for a glossary of terms related to that topic. From the Glenbow Museum.
Manitoba: Life and Times
A great information source about Manitoba's history and its many noteworthy pioneers. Features an extensive online archive of newspapers, first-hand accounts from letters, memoirs and diaries, drawings, maps and photos - all of which record the early development of the province. From the Manitoba Library Consortium and its partners.
Saskatchewan Homestead Index
The Saskatchewan Homestead Index is a file locator database to the homestead files at the Saskatchewan Archives. Contains 360,000 references to people who, from 1872 to 1930, under the terms of the Dominion Lands Act, took part in the homestead process in the area now known as Saskatchewan.
Facebook: Canada's History Magazine
Join the conversation about noteworthy events and personalities in Canadian history.
European Immigrants in the Fiction of Robert Stead
This paper examines Robert Stead's portrayal of the life of generations of immigrants who settle in Canada's West. From "Studies in Canadian Literature".
The Philosophy of Railways: The Transcontinental Railway Idea in British North America
A synopsis of A.A. den Otter's book in which he challenges popular ideas concerning the role of the transcontinental railway in spurring the West's integration into Canadian confederation. From the Memorial University website.
Patrick Gammie Laurie
A biography of newspaperman Patrick Gammie Laurie. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...