By Jamie Rieger
After Clifford Sifton was elected as Member of Parliament and was Minister of the Interior, he put in place an immigration policy that saw many Europeans come to Canada and start a new and prosperous life.
As the federal government worked on building the westward rail line, it wanted to ‘settle’ the west, turn the soil, and build communities along the rail.
In his campaign to encourage people from Russia, Germany, Ukraine, England, and a host of other country to come to Canada, Sifton set up colonial offices across Europe and distributed brochures (1.3 million pieces of literature, in fact) in the hopes of getting hard-working farmers to come to the Canadian prairies.
As people were drawn to homestead on the virgin prairie, our country’s population grow from five million people to seven million in just a decacde.
“A Land of Opportunity” was how the prairie land was described in some of those brochures.
Even in its infancy, the prairie provinces recognised the need for conservation and Sifton formed the Commission of Conservation, a body that sought a balance between conservation, the management of natural resources, Aboriginal rights, and development. One of the commission’s primary purposes was to “frame recommendations for the conservation and better utilization of natural resources”, according to a document in the Native Studies Review, 1992. While the report focuses mainly on Aboriginal rights, it does bring to mind that even in the early years, as people were encouraged to establish homesteads and farm the land, the government was putting in place conservation policies and wanted to see a balance between development and conservation.
Clifford Sifton must be turning in his grave these days as descendents of those very homesteaders are having to fight tooth and nail for the livelihoods of their operations.
As the homesteaders settled and the railway pressed westward, cattle production also became a part of many farming operations. Also, the declining buffalo population meant another source was needed on the vast grasslands and as a source of sustanence for the local people. A cattle boom in the U.S. solved that problem and cattle were sent northward to what is now southern Alberta.
In order for these same homesteaders to be encouraged to get into the cattle ranching business, a provision for grazing leases was written into the Dominion Lands Act in 1872 and was amended a few years later to provide large grazing leases at low cost. Twenty-one year leases were initially established at that time. A subsequent cattle boom from 1902-06 led to more, often smaller grazing leases being put in place.
By comparison, it was not until 1935 that the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act was formed and a few years later, the PFRA introduced its Community Pasture program.
More than century later, it seems rather harsh that anybody would say, “It’s leased land. The government can do what it wants”. I’m sure the settlers who left their homelands for unknown territory may have reconsidered if they had been told it could be taken away at any time and there would be no guarantees for future generations.
Let’s get those cattle raised and grazed, but when we don’t need that from you any more, we’re going to take that land back and you’re out of a job.
One of the reasons there is a successful agriculture industry in southern Alberta after more than one hundred years is because of the stewardship and conservation practices of the farmers and ranchers, who have been improving their techniques to minimize their footprint on the land. They want to have a future farming operation for their children and grandchildren.
Three area communities recently celebrated their Centennials and leaders from each reflected on how important those homesteaders and early farmers and ranchers have been to growing our communities by working hard, showing community support, and support for one another. They each recognized too, that their towns would probably not be more than a whistle stop if it had not been for the agriculture industry.
Let’s hope the tradition can continue for many more generations.