The first wave of settlementIn 1870s different Canadians harboured different visions for the new province of Manitoba. The Métis hoped it would remain their homeland, a place where they and their children could continue to farm along the banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers and their tributaries. Alexandre-Antonin Taché, the Roman Catholic Bishop of St. Boniface and federal politician George-Etienne Cartier, hoped that Manitoba might become the country's second French-speaking province, ensuring that Quebec was not isolated in Canada. And tens of thousands of young men and women in Ontario saw it as an agricultural frontier, a golden opportunity to leave the stony fields of Ontario and build a new life for themselves. The province that they sought to build would be English- speaking, Protestant, and based on a strong concept of individual as opposed to community rights. It was their vision that was to dominate.
By 1886 there had been a dramatic shift in the population of Manitoba. In 16 years it had jumped from 12,000 to 109,000. The Métis and English-speaking country born, who had been the vast majority in 1870, accounted for only 7 per cent of the population. Where the Roman Catholic proportion of the population had been 50 percent, it was now 12 percent. Seventy per cent of the population had been born in Canada and 18 per cent in the United Kingdom. French was distinctly a minority language: during the province's first decade its French-speaking population grew by only 52 per cent while the English-speaking portion grew by 687 per cent. By 1891 French-speakers accounted for only 7.3 per cent of the population.
The province's chief attraction was free land. Under the Dominion Land Act of 1872 homesteaders could get 160 acres of land for free as long as they improved the land, grew crops and lived on it for three years. Their only cost for the land was a $10 registration fee. But breaking the heavy clay soil, building a house in a land without forests, and getting in a crop were hard work. Oxen pulled the ploughs, seeding was done by hand, and homes were often built of sod. Until the railway came through even getting to the Prairies could prove to be an arduous journey involving a mixture steamer, railway through the United States, stagecoach, wagon, cart and foot. The land may have been free, but only six of every ten homesteaders was able to stay on the land long enough to claim their 160 acres. Despite this, farms and towns began to cover the postage stamp province. As the Canadian Pacific Railway spread westward, it created a row of towns and villages and Brandon, the province's second largest city.
The Ontarians often came as self-organized groups settling towns, particularly in the province's southwest. Since they belonged to a variety of Protestant faiths, they tended to downplay the role of religion in education: a development that would lead to significant conflict in the coming years. Ontarians were not the only ones to come west. In the 1870s over 6,000 Mennonites came to Manitoba from Russia. The federal government paid their way to Canada, allowed them to create villages away from their land and promised that, in keeping with their religious beliefs, they would not have to serve in the Canadian military. In 1873 a volcano covered much of the farmland in Iceland with lava. By 1876 over a thousand Icelanders had settle on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.
There were also French-speaking settlers from Québec. Bishop Taché organized a French Colonization Society with the specific goal of recruiting French-speaking immigrants. By 1901, the province's French-speaking population was 16,000, up 10,000 from 1871. From 1876 to1885 4,800 French-Canadians who had originally moved to the northern United States came from the New England states and created ten new settlements in rural Manitoba. In an effort to bolster the size of the French-speaking community, efforts were also made to recruit immigrants from France and Belgium. (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3)
But the numbers of immigrants from Québec (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3) could not keep up with the flow from Ontario. The people of Quebec had been subject to the same pressures as the young people of Ontario: most of the good farmland had been taken up in both provinces and the cities could not absorb all the people being forced off the land. The young people of Quebec were not afraid of venturing into the unknown; close to 400,000 of them moved to the United States between 1870 and 1900. Had they gone to Manitoba instead, as Taché and Cartier had wished, Canadian history may have been much different.
Historians have long debated why migrants from Québec chose to go to the United States rather than Manitoba. The United States had its attractions: it was closer, it was possible to develop small French-speaking communities there, and if it was a foreign country, at least it was not part of the British Empire that had once conquered Quebec.
Secondly, up until 1870 many leading figures in Québec society had discouraged emigration to both the United States and the West. Instead, they said, young people should stick to their home province: if they had no land they should settle the Ottawa Valley on the Québec's western border. Taché undermined his own efforts by being overly selective in who should be encouraged to come to Manitoba. Because he did not want migrants to fail "and return to Québec with negative stories" Taché discouraged potential immigrants who did not have what he thought was enough money.
Finally, many Quebecers would have concluded that they would not get a friendly reception in Manitoba. They pointed to the treatment of the Métis, the government's refusal to grant Louis Riel a full amnesty after 1870, and the undisguised hostility that many Protestants in Manitoba exhibited towards the Roman Catholic Church as signs that Québec was the only home to the French Canadian. Manitoba's evolution from a province with an equal number of English- and French- speaking citizens into a predominantly English-speaking province would in later years thrust the province onto the national stage and place strains on the bonds of national unity.