Dominion Lands Act Fosters Canadian Settlement

Canada’s Dominion Lands Act encouraged immigrant farmers to settle in the recently acquired western part of the country. It was modeled after the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862, but it was less successful than the latter act in attracting immigrant settlers and increasing agricultural production until close to the turn of the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

The Dominion Lands Act of 1872 was intended to attract settlers to a large area in western Canada formerly known as Rupert’s Land. In 1670, Charles II Charles II (r. 1660-1685) of England had granted a charter that gave the Hudson’s Bay Company Hudson’s Bay Company[Hudsons Bay Company];charter of control of the land, rivers, and lakes—and a monopoly on the fur trade—in this area of 1.5 million square miles that included parts of what are today western Ontario, Saskatchewan Saskatchewan , Manitoba Manitoba , Nunavut Nunavut , and Alberta, Alberta constituting more than one-third of modern Canada. This arrangement was in force until the mid-nineteenth century, when Canada became interested in creating farming settlements and new provinces in the area. Dominion Lands Act of 1872
Canada;Dominion Lands Act
Canada;land policy
Macdonald, Sir John Alexander
[p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];and Dominion Lands Act[Dominion Lands Act]
Immigration;to Canada[Canada]
[kw]Dominion Lands Act Fosters Canadian Settlement (1872)
[kw]Lands Act Fosters Canadian Settlement, Dominion (1872)
[kw]Act Fosters Canadian Settlement, Dominion Lands (1872)
[kw]Fosters Canadian Settlement, Dominion Lands Act (1872)
[kw]Canadian Settlement, Dominion Lands Act Fosters (1872)
[kw]Settlement, Dominion Lands Act Fosters Canadian (1872)
Dominion Lands Act of 1872
Canada;Dominion Lands Act
Canada;land policy
Macdonald, Sir John Alexander
[p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];and Dominion Lands Act[Dominion Lands Act]
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[c]Immigration;1872: Dominion Lands Act Fosters Canadian Settlement[4590]
[c]Agriculture;1872: Dominion Lands Act Fosters Canadian Settlement[4590]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;1872: Dominion Lands Act Fosters Canadian Settlement[4590]
Hind, Henry Youle
Macoun, John
Palliser, John

Accordingly, Sir John Alexander Macdonald, minister of militia affairs for the Province of Canada, drafted the British North American Act, which was passed by the British parliament in 1867. This act created the Dominion of Canada, which included Ontario Ontario;and unification of Canada[Unification of Canada] , Quebec, Quebec;and unification of Canada[Unification of Canada] New Brunswick New Brunswick;and unification of Canada[Unification of Canada] , and Nova Scotia Nova Scotia;and unification of Canada[Unification of Canada] . An election that same year made Macdonald the first prime minister and gave his Conservative Party control of the government. Macdonald created an ambitious agenda for nation-building and economic growth called the National Policy. It included adding Rupert’s Land and British Columbia British Columbia;and Dominion of Canada[Dominion of Canada] to Canada and building a transcontinental railroad. Canada;railroads
Railroads;Canadian In 1857, expeditions headed by British captain John Palliser Palliser, John and Canadian Henry Youle Hind Hind, Henry Youle surveyed Rupert’s Land. Palliser’s report was extremely negative regarding the agricultural potential of the area, but Hind’s more positive report eventually led to the revocation of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s charter in 1869, when the territory became part of Canada.

The province of Manitoba Manitoba;provincial status was created from a portion of the newly acquired territory in 1870, and the rest was designated the North-West Territories of Canada. In 1871, British Columbia British Columbia;provincial status became Canada’s sixth province. Land and settlement policy debates focused on the concerns of skeptics, who believed that the semiarid western plains were not suitable for farming. John Macoun Macoun, John , a civil servant, was commissioned to survey western Canada and assess its agricultural potential. His report in 1872 (which some said was based on a period of unusually high precipitation) indicated that all regions of the territory were well suited for farming. This report led to the passage of the Dominion Lands Act of 1872.

The law was designed to help populate Canada’s western prairies and dramatically to increase agricultural productivity. It provided that any head of household or male at least eighteen years old who paid a ten dollar fee could have 160 acres of free land, provided the homesteader resided there for three years, kept at least thirty acres under cultivation, and built a permanent dwelling. The act also established the Dominion Lands Survey, which divided the territory into square townships made up of thirty-six sections of 640 acres each, which were then subdivided into the 160-acre quarter-section farms. Dominion Lands policy also stipulated that the Hudson’s Bay Company would retain title to about 10 percent of the land, that a large amount of land would be given to the Canadian Pacific Canadian Pacific Railway Railway Canada;railroads
Railroads;Canadian to finance its construction, and that several sections in each township would be reserved for schools and other public buildings.

The provisions of the Dominion Lands Act of 1872 closely paralleled those of the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862 Homestead Act of 1862;and Dominion Lands Act[Dominion Lands Act] , which was also part of a comprehensive strategy for settlement of the western plains and economic development. Both laws gave 160 acres to any head of household who would live on, cultivate, and improve the land (five years, rather than three, was the residency requirement under the U.S. act). However, for many years, the Homestead Act was far more successful in attracting settlers than was the Dominion Lands Act, in spite of the fact that the Canadian act allowed homesteaders to purchase at a low price 160 acres adjoining their free parcel in order to double the size of their farms. In Canada, the settlement rate was disappointing, with homestead applications numbering only about three thousand per year from 1872 to 1896. Approximately the same number of homesteaders gave up and left their land annually during the same period. By contrast, the plains of the United States were filling up with homesteaders at that time, and an estimated 120,000 of them were emigrants from Canada.

There were several reasons for the fact that immigration to western Canada was slower than that to the plains of the United States. Canada experienced an economic recession that began shortly after the confederation of the country, and there was much more frost-free land available in the United States. The U.S. transcontinental railroad Railroads;and immigration[Immigration]
Railroads;Canadian was completed before the Canadian Pacific Railway, whose lack initially restricted the transportation of Canadian farm produce.

In addition, when the Canadian Pacific Canadian Pacific Railway;and land policy[Land policy] Railway was completed, Dominion Lands Act policy mandated that the free land had to be more than twenty miles from a railway because of the railroad land grants, which increased farmers’ transportation costs. In fact, less than half of the farmland in Canada’s plains was available for homesteading or for sale at low prices because of the extensive landholdings of the railroad, the Hudson’s Bay Hudson’s Bay Company[Hudsons Bay Company] Company, and “colonization companies,” which were granted land in hopes of speeding up the process of development. The need to create 320-acre farms to make wheat farming profitable and the restricted availability of adjacent land parcels frustrated potential settlers and contributed to the high failure rate of homesteads.

Ironically, one of the main reasons for the Canadian government’s very limited success in populating its western plains was the promotional campaign that was designed to encourage settlement. The advertisements in this campaign depicted the area as being so rich in resources, including water, wood, gold, silver, and fertile soil, that an utterly inexperienced farmer could realize a profit starting in the first year that would continue to increase thereafter. The unrealistic, romanticized vision of homesteading life presented in these ads even portrayed the cold climate as beneficial, because the water freezing in the ground would expand and break up the soil without the need for tilling.

Thus, many settlers wooed by these advertisements started their farms completely unprepared to deal with the real challenges and hardships of farming in the Canadian West. Typically, water had to be hauled long distances daily. There was no wood for construction or fuel, so cow or buffalo dung was used for cooking and heating, and homes built from sod were damp, insect- and worm-infested, and poorly insulated from the cold. Protectionist tariffs Tariffs;Canadian that eliminated American competition allowed profiteers of every type to overcharge for farming implements, supplies, and transportation. Loan payments were demanded on a schedule designed to flood the market with grain, so speculators could buy it at low prices and reap most of the profits from its production. It is no wonder, then, that each year a large proportion of Canada’s homesteaders gave up and left their land until almost the turn of the twentieth century.

As a result of all of these factors, the increase in wheat prices during the early 1880’s created an enormous upsurge in the homesteading population of the United States, but there was very little corresponding growth in Canada. After 1896, new dry-farming techniques and more rapidly maturing varieties of wheat resulted in a dramatic increase in Canadian homesteaders and wheat production.


By 1930, when the repeal of the Dominion Lands Act ended Canadian homesteading, the goals of Prime Minister Macdonald’s National Policy had been achieved. After 1896, when much of the prime land on the prairies of the United States was exhausted, the Canadian West saw a tremendous increase in immigration that populated all of what had once been Rupert’s Land and made Canada a unified nation whose borders stretched from coast to coast. Thriving towns and cities were created, and unprecedented economic growth was experienced, as Canada became one of the leading wheat producers in the world.

In addition, this influx of settlers into Canada during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included many immigrants from the United States, western Europe, and other parts of the world. The result was the cultural transformation of Canada into the nation of significant ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity that it is today.

Further Reading

  • Richardson, Heather Cox. The Greatest Nation on Earth: Republican Economic Policies During the Civil War. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. An examination of the domestic policy agenda in the United States during and following the U.S. Civil War, including the Homestead Act of 1862, the Union Pacific Railroad Act, antislavery legislation, and the Land Grant College Act.
  • Rollings-Magnusson, Sandra. “Canada’s Most Wanted: Pioneer Women on the Western Prairies.” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 37, no. 2 (2000): 223-238. Discuses Canada’s National Policy, which was designed to encourage immigration to western Canada during the late nineteenth century with an emphasis on the important contributions of women in the settlements.
  • Swainger, Jonathan. The Canadian Department of Justice and the Completion of Confederation, 1867-1878. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000. Shows how the Department of Justice, created by Prime Minister Sir John Alexander Macdonald to reform the criminal justice system, came to be very influential in creating the National Policy.

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Macdonald Returns as Canada’s Prime Minister

Immigrant Farmers Begin Settling Western Canada

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Sir John Alexander Macdonald. Dominion Lands Act of 1872
Canada;Dominion Lands Act
Canada;land policy
Macdonald, Sir John Alexander
[p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];and Dominion Lands Act[Dominion Lands Act]
Immigration;to Canada[Canada]