Eighteen ninety-six marked a dramatic shift in Canadian immigration policy. The new minister of immigration, Sir Clifford Sifton, decided to spare no expense in opening up the Prairies for settlement. He increased advertising abroad and introduced a series of reforms to the Immigration Department in order to make Canada look more attractive and affordable. Thanks to these measures and an economy that was generally booming, more than three million people came to Canada between 1896 and 1914.
However, immigration would gradually become more selective and focused on either the types of skills immigrants brought to Canada or their ethnic backgrounds. French people in Québec would start to worry that these new arrivals to the country would marginalize their language and culture.
“The Last Best West”
In 1896, Sir Clifford Sifton became Canada’a new minister responsible for immigration in Sir Wilfred Laurier’s new Liberal government.
With the economic depression of the 1870s and 1880s starting to lift, Sifton decided it was time to increase immigration to the Prairies from Britain, other western European countries and the United States. It was felt that people from these areas were best suited to agricultural life on the Prairies.
Sifton increased immigration by:
- embarking on an extensive promotional campaign, featuring the slogan “Canada: The Last Best West.” (This was a reference to the fact that American land on the Plains was becoming less available and more expensive to settlers by this period.)
- reorganizing the immigration department to give it more power in setting immigration policy;
- increasing the number of immigration agents and support personnel aboard;
- freeing up unused land owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR);
- offering “free” land to settlers.
While Sifton advertised that settlers could claim up to 160 acres of free land in Canada, this claim wasn’t entirely true. Settlers still had to pay a land registration fee of $10 – or roughly $150 in modern-day currency once inflation is factored in – under the Dominion Lands Act. This also didn’t cover the cost of equipment and animals for the land, not to mention the cost of building shelter. Many settlers during their first year would build sod houses, as they simply couldn’t afford to build their own homes out of lumber.