Settling Western Canada: Background information when reading A Place Called Winter

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A Place Called Winter

by Patrick Gale

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale X
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale
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    Mar 2016, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan
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Settling Western Canada

This article relates to A Place Called Winter

Print Review

West is Best pamphletIn Patrick Gale's A Place Called Winter, he describes how Harry Cane comes across an office for Canadian emigration, and decides that moving abroad to become a homesteader/farmer in Canada is the solution to keeping the scandal of his being homosexual away from his family. Most people know something about the American push to settle the west. Over the years, numerous well known works of fiction (for example, Laura Engels Wilder's Little House on the Prairie novels, Edna Ferber's Cimarron and Dana Fuller Ross' Wagons West series), as well as hundreds of Hollywood movies and television series have been placed during this period of American history. However, both in fiction and in film, the world has mostly ignored the settling of western Canada.

Mount RundleAt the end of Canada's depression, the need for settlers motivated Sir Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior (from 1896 to 1905), to promote mass immigration. Many were from Britain. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, "Because of immigration, for many years a large portion of Canada's population was English-born. Between 1871 and 1901, about 22% of Canadian residents were born in England. In 1911, 25% of the population recorded England as their place of birth, a figure that increased to nearly 30% in 1921." Most of the lower class immigrants from the UK came due to unemployment, others were ex-military or second or third sons of landed gentry who had no chance of inheriting anything of substance. Also, many British living in America moved to Canada - drawn by the free land. The transcontinental railway, which included a Saskatchewan line, assisted Canada in settling lands further to the west.

Sod home, 1910The UK wasn't the only country whose citizens looked for a new life in Canada at the turn of the 20th century; quite a few people emigrated from Scandinavian countries. In Gale's novel, Harry meets one Dane on the ship from England, and ends up apprenticing for a Danish family for a year before finding his own tract of land to start his homestead and farm. This makes perfect sense since, according to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, Minister Sifton "disliked the idea of urban populations settling the Prairies, for they would congregate in cities, instead of developing Prairie homesteads. Instead, he promoted the immigration of groups like the Ukrainians, Hungarians, and Mennonites over the more ethnically 'desirable' British immigrants." As for the area in which Harry ends up, the museum website notes, "Saskatchewan's population grew by 1124.77% between 1891 and 1911."

Apparently, due to the work of people like Minister Sifton, combined with religious, political and economic distresses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that reached from Iceland to China, Canada was as much a Mecca for people looking for prosperity and freedom as America ever was. My interest is certainly piqued to learn even more!

Pamphlet advertising Last Best West.
Mount Rundle, circa 1890s, courtesy of Library and Archives Canada
Saskatchewan sod house, 1910

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Davida Chazan

This article relates to A Place Called Winter. It first ran in the May 18, 2016 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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