The cornerstone of commercial agriculture
in western Canada was the quarter-section homestead.
The Dominion Lands Act (1872), and its later amendments,
set out the conditions under which the head of
a family or a single male, 21 years or older (later
18 years), would be eligible for a free quarter-section
grant. Until 1889, homesteaders could also
"pre-empt" - that is, purchase an adjacent
quarter-section homestead at a guaranteed low
price when they received title to their free grant.
In an effort to avoid private speculation (corporate
speculation by the Hudson's
Bay Company, the railways, and the government
itself was allowed to proceed unchecked), the
Dominion Lands Act required a potential farmer
to "improve" his homestead before the
Crown would award a Land Patent on the grant.
"Improvements" generally meant that
the applicant resided on the land for at least
a three-year period (and for at least six months
in each of those years), built a residence, and
broke (depending on the time period) from 15 to
50 acres of land and planted another 10 to 30
acres of crops.
Not all western lands were reserved for agriculture.
In 1881, an amendment to the Dominion Lands Act
allowed the federal government to lease large
blocks of land for ranching purposes. The leases
were generally awarded for a 21-year period at
an annual fee of one cent per acre. Some of the
lease holdings of western cattle barons were incredibly
large; Senator Matthew
Cochrane's ranch in southwestern Alberta,
for example, encompassed 367,000 acres (144,000
To induce new homesteaders from Europe, the federal
government introduced the concept of block settlement
by ethnic groups. This policy allowed entire communities
to leave their ancestral homes and move en masse
to the Prairie West where entire townships were
set aside for them. The federal government successfully
used this provision to attract Mennonites
from the Russian Ukraine, as well as Scandinavians,
Icelanders, Danes, Mormons, and Doukhobors.
Plans for Functional Farms
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