Immigration and Settlement: 1870-1919In 1870 most of Manitoba's 12,000 citizens lived in small settlements and farms strung out along the newly created province's winding river system. The rivers and the woods that grew along them were a source of water and wood, neither of which could be found on the rolling plains. There were no cities or towns. The village of Winnipeg at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers had 100 residents.
The young Canadian government had plans for the prairie. It was to be turned into an agricultural colony(Ref1, Ref2) filled with immigrants from Eastern Canada, New England and the United Kingdom. These new Western Canadians would buy goods produced in Eastern Canada and grow wheat and other grains that would be shipped to Europe from Montreal. For this to happen the Aboriginal people of the plains would have to give up their rights to the land, a trans-continental railway would have to be built, central Canadian industries would have to be protected from competition in the United States, and hundreds of thousands of immigrants would have to be recruited. These were the key elements of what came to be known as Canada's National Policy.
In large measure this vision was fulfilled. By 1881 the population of Manitoba was 66,000; by 1901 it was 255,000; and by 1911 it stood at 450,000. In 1871 treaties were signed with the leaders of the Aboriginal people of Manitoba, and as the province's boundaries were expanded new treaties were negotiated. In 1885 the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was pounded into the ground in the Rocky Mountains. Canada was now linked from sea to sea. New cities and towns were springing into existence in Manitoba and across the plains. By 1911 Winnipeg, was the third largest city in the country with over 142,000 residents. (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3, Ref4, Ref5, Ref6, Ref7, Ref8, Ref9, Ref10, Ref11, Ref12, Ref13, Ref14.)
It was the age of the Wheat Boom. Where once the economy of the West had revolved around the trapping and shipping of furs, wheat was now the king. In 1878 the first shipment of Manitoba grain reached Great Britain. By 1890 Manitoba's 16-million bushel harvest constituted nearly 40 per cent of the national wheat harvest.
But this growth did not always come easily. From the outset many Aboriginal people and the Canadian government found themselves disagreeing over the meaning of the treaties that they had recently signed. Life was not easy for the homesteaders: late springs, early frosts, and plagues of grasshoppers were a constant risk. The early years were ones of isolation, endless work and poverty for most farmers and their families. As they established themselves on the land, many farmers began to work together to address the political and economic problems that they faced. This was to bring them into conflict with the railways, the federal government, and even the leading members of Winnipeg's business community.
The nature of Manitoba society kept on changing during these years. Where in 1870 about 50 per cent of the population spoke French, by 1891 this was down to 7.3 per and continued to decline. Immigrants from Ontario could boast that Manitoba had become a thoroughly British province: but this began to change by the early years of the twentieth century when tens of thousands of immigrants from Eastern Europe poured into the West. By 1901, many of Winnipeg's leaders were worried about how the province would accommodate all these strangers at its gates. The land may have been settled, but Manitoba society was far from settled: this was an age rocked by conflicts over language, women's rights, the place of immigrants, and the relation between workers and employers.