When the Last Best West moved north to the prairies in Canada

The Laurier government was elected in Canada in 1896. It soon put into action an aggressive immigration policy campaign. “Free homesteads were offered promiscuously throughout the world, with the object of inducing settlement on the plains in Western Canada.”[1] The Canadian government placed advertisements promoting the Canadian prairies in more than 7,000 newspapers and farmers’ journals during those years. The content of the advertisements was read, discussed, and acted upon.

Free and good quality land was hard to come by in the United States in the 1890s. The vast and fertile prairies in western Canada “attracted thousands of restless Americans who were reluctant to abandon their traditional migratory and impermanent agricultural habits for stability and intensive farming. Farmers, traders, land speculators, lumbermen, and all the other familiar figures on agricultural frontiers poured into this last West.”[2] More than nine thousand immigrants crossed the border from the United States to the Canadian prairies in 1898. The peak years of American emigration to Canada were 1910 with 103,798 persons and 1911 with 121,451 persons.

A third of the immigrants from the USA had not been born there

A large number of Norwegians and Swedes were part of the flow from the United States into western Canada. Thousands of Germans also made the trek, as well as Hungarians, Belgians, Dutch, Ukrainians, Poles, and other Scandinavians. Many of the colonies of foreign born in western Canada were fed from similar settlements in the United States.[3]

Thousands of Midwestern farmers hoped to do better in Canada than they had done in the United States. They moved to western Canada to escape the burden of increasing rents and land prices in the United States. Farmers in the US sold their land for a high price and bought larger holdings for the same money in Canada.

Most of the American immigrants, however, had been tenant farmers in the US. In Canada they hoped to become owners. Following the economic depression which began in 1893, thousands of American farm families went bankrupt and were forced to leave their farms. Sons of American, German, and Scandinavian farmers who had broken the prairie sod of western Iowa, western Minnesota and South and North Dakota in the last quarter of the 19th century, wanted nothing more than to acquire their own land.

Boom towns sprang up overnight

Boom towns sprang up overnight on the Canadian prairies. With a “remarkable similarity, the Canadian West experienced the excited feeling of unending expansion and unlimited optimism that had marked the opening of the American plains to the south,” commented Karel Denis Bicha. “When the inevitable crash came in 1913, Americans who should have learned their lessons in Wichita, Lincoln, and Bismarck got their fingers burned again.”[4]

Nearly 600,000 immigrants from the United States moved into the new prairie provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta between 1897 and 1914. The immigrants followed the prairie northward, and north of the border line they turned westward. “As the economies of Canada and the United States began to emerge from the depression of the 1890s, the market price of wheat experienced a sudden and precipitate increase.”  

When wheat prices rose, land value increased as well. Between 1900 and 1910 land prices increased by more than 100 percent; in South and North Dakota with more than 300 percent.[5] High wheat prices were a blessing for farmers who already owned their own land. Tenants, on the other hand, had to live with rising tenancy rents. Their hope of owning their own land was fast disappearing. The trend was especially marked in the Red River counties of Minnesota and North Dakota. By 1920, nearly 40 percent of the farms in the best North Dakota wheat counties were operated by tenants. The same development was experienced in western Minnesota and western Iowa.

To climb the agricultural ladder

First- and second-generation Norwegians and Swedes in the Midwest followed in the footsteps of their American neighbors. They moved north to the western prairies in Canada.[6] Young Norwegians who grew up in immigrant families with many children still had a burning desire to climb to the top of the agricultural ladder. They dreamed of establishing their own farm, but the reality was that most of them would have to work on farms in their neighborhoods owned by others.

To homestead on the Canadian prairies proved a great challenge. The majority of settlers did not succeed. Nearly two thirds of the American immigrants gave up and returned to the United States. Only 30 percent of American settlers who registered homesteads satisfied the three-year residence requirement necessary to obtain the final patent.[7]  

By 1910 the Canadian prairies were no longer the “poor man’s paradise”. Land prices had become excessive, good land was hard to find, and most farmers had to take up mortgages. After 1910 the wheat market could no longer absorb the fast increase in supply, and wheat prices began to slip. American settlers in record numbers still sought prairie land, but the flow of Americans returning south was even greater.

New methods and knowledge of plains farming

Steam plowing in Alberta

The economic impact of American know-how and technology on how to grow wheat on the Canadian prairies lasted longer than the American settlers. Most of the immigrants from south of the border were experienced plains farmers. Many early Norwegian settlers who left the Midwest carried with them cash in the amount of 12,000 to 15,000 dollars as well as loads of agricultural machinery. Many also brought with them livestock. They played a key role in the diffusion of technical knowledge and the introduction of the new methods of plains farming among the less experienced Canadian, British, and European farmers who still comprised 70 percent of the population in the region.[8]

Western Canada attracted Scandinavians

Of 47,449 inhabitants of Norwegian heritage in Canada in 1916, the majority, 18,854 persons, had come from the United States. An almost equal number had arrived from “elsewhere”, meaning they came directly from Norway. When comparing these numbers with people from Denmark and Sweden, it is striking to see that not only were the Norwegians attracted to western Canada to a higher degree than their Nordic neighbors (37,220 Swedes and 9556 Danish). The Norwegians, to a larger degree than almost any other non-English-speaking immigrant group, had first tried their luck in the United States. Among the Norwegians, 40 per cent moved from the United States to Canada, while 27 per cent of the Danish, had first lived in the United States, 23.4 per cent of the Swedish, 24.1 per cent of the Germans, 19.7 per cent of the Dutch and 12.1 per cent of the French immigrants.

According to Kenneth O. Bjork 33,991 residents from the United States of Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish origin lived in Saskatchewan in 1911, 28,046 in Alberta, and 16,421 in Manitoba. By 1921, the numbers had increased to 58,382 in Saskatchewan, 44,545 in Alberta, and 26,698 in Manitoba—a total of 129,625. Broken down by nationalities, the figures for 1921 reveal that 31,438 persons of Norwegian origin lived in Saskatchewan, 21,323 in Alberta, and 4,203 in Manitoba. The same census count registered 19,064 Swedes in Saskatchewan, 15,943 in Alberta, and 8,023 in Manitoba. Residents of Danish origin numbered 6,772 in Alberta, 4,287 in Saskatchewan, and 3,429 in Manitoba.

Population growth on the Prairies

The total population of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta grew from 150,000 to 2 million between 1886 and 1926. The increase between 1901 to 1926 was 1,647,881, or almost 400 percent. At the time of the Dominion census in 1911 it still seemed that the region had limitless possibilities of expansion. The total number of immigrants arriving in Canada between the fiscal year 1900-1901 and the fiscal year 1911-1912 was 2.1 million, and around 40 per cent of the immigrants settled in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, the same percentage as ten years earlier.[9]

Population growth, Canadian Prairie Provinces 1871-1931

The Canadian census in 1926 census, however, showed that the population had grown rather slowly since the 1921 census because of the depressed agricultural conditions. The strength of the westward movement leveled off during the First World War. The number of immigrants from Britain declined during and after the First World War, as did immigration from northwest Europe. Immigration to Canada from Central, Southern and Eastern Europe, however, continued in the 1920s.[10]

Norwegian immigrants did not belong to the “exotic” immigrant groups

There was never any great prejudice against Norwegians in Canada. Norwegian immigrants did not belong to the “exotic” immigrant groups. They showed a high rate of cultural assimilation with regard to language and Canadian traditions. Norwegians never preferred to live in bloc-settlements.

People of Scandinavian origin on the Canadian prairies hardly ever formed a majority of the population in any local town or village. Most Scandinavian immigrants did not settle within well defined, compact, homogeneous ethnic settlements. They lived in dispersed patterns of rural settlements or in cities or communities with mixed populations. The dispersed patterns are understandable when we know that Scandinavians mastered the English language better than most other groups of immigrants. They were “normal” protestants, although Lutherans. All of these factors contributed to make the history of Norwegian immigrants in Canada almost invisible.

Language skills varied among population groups

The census takers in 1916 were asked to document the degree of English skills among the different population groups. Only 1.4 percent of 6,971 persons with a Danish background were unable to speak English, 2.1 percent of 34,780 persons of Norwegian background, and 3.4 percent of 27,796 persons with a Swedish background. Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian immigrants had far larger problems in this respect – almost 40 percent of all Ukrainians were unable to speak English and 27 percent of the Poles and the Russians.[11]

The largest Ukrainian settlements on the Canadian prairies all had their beginning in a short time period, from 1896 to 1906. The majority of the settlers emigrated from neighboring districts in Galicia and Bukovina. Today their descendants constitute the second largest non-British and non-indigenous ethnic group in Saskatchewan. Polish concentrations often developed within Ukrainian settlements, although several distinctly Polish settlements were established between 1896 and 1906. 

The situation of Norwegian immigrants had much in common with Scots who tried to uphold their Scottish identity. The Scots spoke English with a different dialect. Because so many Norwegians had first lived in the United States, they had already to a large degree adapted their way of life to that of the greater society. They preferred to speak Norwegian, but most of them mastered the English language much better than most other non-English speaking immigrant groups.

[1] Norman P. Lambert, “Western Agricultural Resources”, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 107. Social and Economic Conditions in The Dominion of Canada, May 1923, p. 74-81, p. 74.
[2] Paul F. Sharp, “When Our West Moved North”, The American Historical Review, vol. 55, No. 2, January 1950, p. 286-300, 286.
[3] Paul F. Sharp, “When Our West Moved North”, The American Historical Review, vol. 55, No. 2, Jan., 1950, p. 288.
[4] Karel Denis Bicha, “The Plains Farmer and the Prairie Province Frontier, 1897-1914”, The Journal of Economic History, vol. 25, No. 2, June 1965, p. 264.
[5] Karel Denis Bicha, “The Plains Farmer and the Prairie Province Frontier, 1897-1914”, The Journal of Economic History, vol. 25, No. 2, June 1965, p. 265.
[6] Kenneth O. Bjork, “Scandinavian Migration to the Prairie Provinces, 1893-1914,” Norwegian-American Studies, Volume 26, Northfield: Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1974, p. 3-30.
[7] Karel Denis Bicha, “The Plains Farmer and the Prairie Province Frontier, 1897-1914”, The Journal of Economic History, vol. 25, No. 2, June 1965, p. 269.
[8] Karel Denis Bicha, “The Plains Farmer and the Prairie Province Frontier, 1897-1914”, The Journal of Economic History, vol. 25, No. 2 , June, 1965, p. 270; Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode, “The Red Queen and the Hard Reds: Productivity Growth in American Wheat, 1800-1940”, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 62, No. 4, December, 2002, pp. 929-966.
[9] W. J. A. Donald, ”The Growth and Distribution of Canadian Population”, The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 21, No. 4, April, 1913, p. 301.
[10] A. S. Whitely,  ”The Peopling of the Prairie Provinces of Canada”, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 38, No. 2, Sep., 1931, p. 242.
[11] The Canada Year Book 1918, p. 110.

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