ABOUT THE EXHIBITION
At the end of the nineteenth century, the government of Canada fearful
of American expansion and eager for economic growth launched a concerted
effort to populate and develop the Prairies. It succeeded, thanks in part to
an unprecedented marketing campaign that found receptive audiences in the
United States, Britain and continental Europe. Acres of Dreams revisits
that crucial chapter in Canadian history by examining the marketing campaign
and the origins, motivations and experiences of the settlers.
The exhibition tells the story through a variety of means including live
performance, historical artifacts, audio loops, quotations, photographs and
The sales pitch
Described in the exhibition as a "brilliantly modern advertising
campaign," the marketing effort was spearheaded in 1896 by Canada's
Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton a lawyer, newspaper-owner and
politician from Brandon, Manitoba.
Visitors will experience the full force of the sales pitch, built largely
on the government's offer to homesteaders of 160 acres [65 hectares] of
"free" land (conditions included a $10 fee and a promise to break
the land and build a house). This section of the exhibition features
promotional posters, pamphlets and atlases some of which were printed in
a dozen European languages. Most of the material paints an exceedingly rosy
picture of life in this new "Promised Land." Winters are
"invigorating" and harvests are invariably "bountiful."
Personal letters written by early settlers show another perspective on this
promotional campaign. Some match the effusive prose of the official propaganda
"There is not a better place in the whole world," wrote one
while others speak ruefully of long winters, loneliness and other hardships.
The journey that brought the settlers from their homeland to their
homestead was often long and arduous. Immigrants from Europe spent up to a
month at sea, the less fortunate travelling in crowded misery across a stormy
North Atlantic. That was followed by a four-day trip to the West in railcars
equipped with wooden benches. For most, travel beyond Winnipeg was by wagon.
Featured are some of the possessions that immigrants brought to their new
land. The items include clothing and household goods, religious books and
This section also introduces visitors to the cultural and religious diversity
of the settlers. Among them were Ukrainians, Germans and Swedes; Mennonites,
Catholics and Jews. At the same time, the exhibition addresses the bigotry
and discrimination that partly defined Canada's official immigration policy
during those years. It notes that black settlers from Oklahoma were refused
entry at the Canadian border and that Asians, the handicapped, and other
"undesirables" were not welcome.
Through the Eyes of the Cree and Beyond
The First Nations' way of life changed dramatically as a result of the
massive influx of settlers. By 1877, the Government, through a series of
treaty negotiations, had acquired formal title to all of the lands wanted
for settlement and imposed on First Nations a new way of life based on reserve
lands and farming. This section of the exhibition, developed by the Allen Sapp
Gallery in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, tells the settlement story '
Through the Eyes of the Cree'. The paintings of Allen Sapp, interspersed with
significant objects relating to the rapidly changing Cree culture, portray the first
generation of his people (Northern Plains Cree) who moved onto reserves and became
Why they came
Much of the exhibition is devoted to elucidating
why more than two million people abandoned their homelands for an uncertain
future in Canada.
The answer is complex but can be reduced to three essential themes: the
search for economic opportunity, the yearning for spiritual freedom, and
the pursuit of nationalist ambitions. Acres of Dreams explores those
themes in greater detail by focusing on the following immigrant groups:
- Ukrainian peasants and American farmers enticed by the prospect of cheap,
abundant and fertile land;
- Mennonites and Doukhobors attracted by assurances of religious freedom and
communal land ownership;
- British patriots and French-Canadians who wanted to extend and/or enhance
their cultural presence in the West.
Although most of the immigrants became homesteaders, many chose to put
down roots in towns and cities. The exhibition tells the story of the
urbanites in a section devoted to Winnipeg, the "Gateway to the
West." Visitors will get the sense of Winnipeg as a burgeoning,
multicultural metropolis where immigrants encountered a mix of opportunity
The dream fades
For many immigrants, life on the Prairies was
more akin to a nightmare than a dream a point underscored in the final
section of the exhibition. When homesteaders first arrived, their "farms"
usually consisted of virgin prairie, a survey stake and a swarm of mosquitoes.
Once the land was broken, the bountiful crops promised in the advertisements
were sometimes devoured by insects, ruined by frost or shrivelled by drought.
Some immigrants faced discrimination and venomous insults; two newspapers
quoted in the exhibition labelled immigrants as "the scum of other
lands" or even "the refuse of civilization".
With the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, about 80,000 immigrants were
declared "enemy aliens" under the War Measures Act and over 5,000
were sent to internment camps. The Golden Age of Prairie settlement had come
to an end.
Chronologically, Acres of Dreams ends with the Great Depression
a supreme test of the settlers' mettle and ingenuity. Objects featured like
a quilt fashioned from uniforms discarded by a baseball team in Moose Jaw
or a violin made from packing crates and harness supplies illustrate the
resourcefulness of settlers during this testing period of Canadian history.
The Last Best West:
Advertising for Immigrants to Western Canada, 1870-1930
to Western Canada: The Early 20th Century