Women in the westMost settlers to the Canadian west came as farmers and the most successful farms were family farms. In the early settlement period there were few villages or stores across the Prairies. It fell upon the women to make and mend the clothing, prepare the meals, raise and preserve the vegetables, maintain the household, and, on many occasions care for the poultry and dairy animals. At harvest time, the women had to cook daily meals for the small army of harvest workers that were hired to bring in crops. As Manitoba writer Nellie McClung noted:
On the farms before any labour-saving devices lightened their loads, women's work obsessed them. Their hours were endless, their duties imperative. Many broke under the strain and died, and their places were filled without undue delay. Some man's sister or sister-in-law came from Ontario to take the dead woman's place. Country cemeteries bear grim witness to the high mortality rate in young women.
A report to the Canadian House of Commons on Mennonite settlement in Manitoba commented that "every man, woman and child in the settlement is a producer. We saw women ploughing the fields as we drove into the settlement. We next saw a woman thatching the roof of a building" a girl plastering the outside of a house. We saw every young children take out and bring in the cattle." Despite their contribution to the rural economy, there was very little legal protection for farm women (or urban women for that matter) for under British common law married women could not own property. In 1885 the Manitoba government eliminated the necessity of a husband's gaining his wife permission before selling or given away farmland. The Dominion Land Act, only allowed widows, divorced women or separated wives with children under 18 to homestead land.
When Winnipeg women went out to work for someone else, it was usually as a domestic servant. Going into service meant that young teenage girls would being doing the same sort of work they had done at home only now they were doing it in someone else's house. Most women left service as soon as a better job came along. They disliked the isolation, the low pay, and the long hours. To keep up with the demand for servants, over 2,000 were brought to Winnipeg from the British Isles between 1900 and 1915 under a plan by which employers paid the servant's travel expenses. The maid then had to pay back the travel fee to her new employer. This fee usually amounted to six months worth of wages.
The twentieth century saw a large increase in the number of women who worked outside the home. By 1911 there were nearly 12,000 working women in Winnipeg and double that number outside the city. The bulk of Winnipeg's working women were employed in stores, workshops and offices. About eighty per cent of school teachers were women and they were among the best paid working women. A teacher could make up to $1,200 a year. A top-rate stenography could hope to make $900 a year. The young women employed in the small workshops of the city's garment district could not hope to do so well: a government study of this industry found that many women were making less than ten dollars a week.
Both in the city and the country, women formed a variety of organizations, often based around the church or their country of origin. These included the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Women's Institute, and women's divisions of many organizations such as the Grain Growers' Association and church missionary societies. These associations would become important vehicles as women began to organize for the right to play a broader role in society.
The youngest pioneers. Not all immigrants to Canada were adults. Between 1870 and 1930 over 80,000 poverty-stricken British orphans and street children were sent to Canada. A variety of charitable organizations in Britain paid their way over and arranged for them to live and work with Canadian farm families. The London-based Dr. T.J. Barnardo, an energetic organizer of child immigration, set up homes across Canada. Immigrant children were to stay at these large homes until they could be placed with local families.
In 1887 Barnardo established an Industrial Farm near Russell, Manitoba for older and rougher boys who had grown up on the streets of London. The boys were to stay at the farm for a year, learning the basics of farming. After that they would be placed with farm families in Manitoba. Barnardo hoped that the strict training they received at the farm would improve their characters.
The boys lived in a large house on fourteen square miles of land. There was a dormitory that could sleep 200 boys in bunk beds along with a small jail for boys who broke the rules. When a visiting newspaper reporter was locked in the cell for a single minute, he observed that the narrowness of the confinement and the darkness made that minute quite enough for him. But, he wrote, the housemasters said some boys had been locked in the room for two and three days at a stretch.
Barnardo hired E.A. Struthers, a former railway land inspector, to run the farm. Some excerpts from Struthers' 1905 journal (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3, Ref4, Ref5, Ref6, Ref7, Ref8, Ref9, Ref10, Ref11) give a flavour of the life of a Barnardo boy in Manitoba:
While life on the Prairies may have been an improvement over starving on the streets of London, many Barnardo boys had a rough time of it. The farmers that took them in often viewed them as little more than hired help. Winnipeg Methodist minister J.S. Woodsworth worried that while the boys were being brought into the country as an act of charity, they were in fact being turned into cheap labourers. Although the farm in Russell was closed in 1908, following Dr. Barnardo's death, other child immigration schemes continued up until 1930.