In 1906, the Prairies had a population of 808,863 people. This number had almost doubled in just five years, because in 1901, there had been only 419,512 inhabitants. If you look at the above table you can see just how huge these changes were, particularly for the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. At the time, the vast majority of people lived in the countryside.

Indigenous Peoples, the first inhabitants

For the longest time, the First Nations people were the only ones to inhabit this vast land. They were few in number, perhaps 33,000 in the early 19th century. The Blackfoot, Prairie Cree, Assiniboine and Sarcee were some of the nations who shared the territory, living mainly by hunting bison.

In the 1870s, the federal government signed treaties with the First Nations living in the Prairies so that they could take ownership of the land and make it available for colonization and the construction of the railway. This is when many First Nations Peoples relocated to reserves.

The arrival of the first Europeans in the Prairies and the birth of the Métis

It was the fur trade that brought the first Europeans to settle in the Prairies. Once there, they established trading posts and a permanent settlement, the Red River colony. These newcomers were anglophones from Ontario and francophones from Québec. Some of them married Indigenous women and gave rise to the Métis Nation. One of the most well-known Métis was Louis Riel.

The successful settlement of the Prairies

In 1896, the settlement of the West really took off, thanks to the arrival of huge numbers of immigrants from the United States, Britain and various European countries, like Germany, Russia, Poland and Scandinavia. Block settlements were formed or imposed on some of these groups. Block Settlements meant that the land was divided into squares or rectangles that were inhabited by members of a specific ethnocultural or cultural group. This meant that there tended to be specific areas where Ukrainian, German, French, Scandinavian  and Canadian cultures were more prevalent. 

What can explain this success? There were several reasons why the settlement of the West increased so rapidly between 1896 and 1914. Here are two: in the western U.S., all the good farmland had already been distributed; the Prairies were therefore considered to be the last good farmlands available. Second, Europe was overcrowded, so there were plenty of people who were leaving for other countries, including Canada. The Trans Canada Railroad which was completed in 1885, also made transportation to the Prairies easier.

Author: Service national du Récit de l’univers social

Quickly check your knowledge: