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The Great Canadian West

The Canadian West: An Archival Odyssey through the Records of the Department of the Interior by Terry Cook

When one considers the opening of the Canadian West from 1870 to 1930, certain images spring to mind: Louis Riel's two rebellions, his trial and death, the national dream of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the solitary mounted policeman staring down armed American desperadoes, the oft-photographed mountains of buffalo bones and straggling bands of displaced Indians, and Clifford Sifton's dynamic new immigration policies attracting hordes of people in sheepskin coats to rapidly populate the Last Best West. Behind these images, however, lies a long continuum of federal government activity. Indeed, in 1870 the Old West of explorers, missionaries and fur traders interacting with independent native groups was replaced in short order by a West dominated by federal government officials operating through the old Department of the Interior and its myriad of branches, divisions and units. CPR hotel at Banff, with Mt. Rundle in the distance, photographer unknown, c. 1890s Looking westward

The opening of the Canadian West is recognized as the third plank in John A. Macdonald's national policy. That policy envisioned an industrialized East, protected by high tariffs, selling its goods to and buying its food from a newly settled agricultural West, all joined by a national transcontinental railway. While Macdonald built the railroad, raised tariffs and encouraged industries, it is traditionally held that he was unable to open the West and that his Liberal successors, Wilfrid Laurier and Clifford Sifton, completed this third plank of the Conservatives' national policy. Indeed, the tragic neglect of early settlers' needs that generated in part the North-West Rebellion of 1885 has been cited as evidence of Macdonald's haphazard approach to the region. Such was not the case, however.

Macdonald carefully established the framework for the successful opening of the West by his successors; indeed, so significant did the Prime Minister see this job that he appointed himself his own Minister of the Interior for the crucial years of 1878 to 1883.

Macdonald determined in 1870, with the entry of the then-tiny province of Manitoba into Confederation, that the West would be a colony in an imperial relationship with Ottawa. Unlike the four original provinces, which federated in 1867, or British Columbia and Prince Edward Island, which joined in the early 1870s, the prairie region's inhabitants were to have no control over their land or other natural resources. These were reserved for the federal government to use "for the purposes of the Dominion." This inferior constitutional position did not end with the creation of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 as separate provinces or with the gradual expansion of Manitoba, but only in 1930 when the West was settled and the objectives of the Dominion were adjudged to be gained. Six years later, the Department of the Interior, which had been created to realize those objectives, was accordingly abolished and its records scattered in many directions.

John A. Macdonald, November 1883

The land. . .

Having thus ensured federal control over western resources, Macdonald soon created three powerful instruments to open the prairies. The first was the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, which established the provisions for granting free homestead land based on quarter sections. At a stroke, this created the topographic character of the entire West -- the patch-work quilt landscape so evident when flying over the region -- and allowed for a rational approach to surveying, subdividing and settling the prairies.

The second was the North-West Mounted Police, founded in 1873 to guarantee the peaceful, orderly settlement of the Canadian West -- unlike the contemporary gunslinger images of its American counterpart. And the third was the Department of the Interior, created in 1873. The eventual mandate of the department was to explore the western region; remove the natives from the open plains; settle outstanding grievances with the M�tis; survey and subdivide the area; establish land reserves for natives, schools, the Hudson's Bay Company, railways, towns and swamp lands; grant or sell millions of acres of homestead lands; encourage immigration; lease lands for timber, grazing, mining and water rights; create the national park system; protect wildlife; and administer and conduct scientific research on a whole range of natural resources. At one time or another over its sixty-three-year existence, Interior had, in addition to its central administrative core, more than twenty-five distinct branches and agencies under its umbrella, from Dominion Lands to Tourism, without counting the several units that administered the Canadian North.

Neither the administrative structure nor the focus of Interior was static over the years. In its first decade, surveying the West was the principal concern: at one point in the early 1880s the Surveyor General was also the Deputy Minister of the Interior. The Immigration Branch was then still mired in the Department of Agriculture. Specialized resource branches such as forestry, water power and national parks would not come into existence until after the turn of the century. The emphasis was rather on preparing the West for settlers by removing the Indians, allowing the North-West Mounted Police to establish order, building the railway, and especially subdividing the actual land for settlement. Scores of teams of surveyors -- topographical and geological -- traversed the West in these early decades. The records they created not only documented their official activities but also contained fascinating sidelights. Geological surveyors, for example, were schooled in the natural history movement that dominated Victorian science, and thus they collected specimens and maintained displays of them: the National Museums grew out of the Geological Survey. Ethnology naturally fell in with such interests and, as a result, the surveyors' notebooks contain many surprisingly detailed observations of the traditional native life and customs then vanishing, in addition to the expected geological calculations and figures, and botanical and mineral notes. To what use these were put, why they were kept in some cases and not in others, what impact this had on the Geological Survey, its evolution and its records- keeping will only be known by further studying the history of the record.

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Published on: 2005-10-10 (13903 reads)

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