by Jeffrey S. Murray, Library and Archives Canada
The dream was simple enough. Canada wanted to see the Prairie
West become its breadbasket, linked to the world through railways to central Canada. Wheat would flow east to feed the world, and central Canada would fill the returning freight cars with manufactured goods. Surely, it was reasoned, with the West's expanding population and ever-increasing agricultural bounty, Canada would be able to duplicate America's economic prosperity and perhaps even overtake it.
The 20th century would belong to Canada!
The dream could only become reality if Canada got the farmers
it needed. But how was it going to attract the men and women of muscle who would
reshape the prairie landscape into an agricultural paradise? For more than two
centuries, the Hudson's Bay Company had been filling the world's imagination with
images of the Canadian West as a snowbound, inhospitable, empty wilderness. To
counter these prejudices, the federal government and the railways began, in the
late 19th century, a massive advertising campaign to change people's perceptions
of the West. Expanding their distribution of immigration literature from a few
thousand pieces per year to over 1.25 million, they blitzed the four corners of
the world with one simple message: "Canada West. The last best west."
The effect of their campaign was phenomenal. The number of western
homesteads settled immediately before the start of the massive advertising campaign
in 1896 averaged only 4,000 a year. Once the campaign was fully operational, around
1905, Canada saw an eight-fold increase in the number of settlers looking for
a western homestead.
Although the federal government and the railways used every means
possible to advertise the West, their greatest annual expense was reserved for
posters and pamphlets.
Printed on one side of an over-sized paper panel, posters were
meant to be exhibited almost anywhere. The earliest immigration posters used limited colours and had little in the way of illustrations. They tried to get their message across through concise, well-worded text. As printing technology improved in the early years of the 20th century, immigration posters became more image-based. The design gradually shifted into something that would catch the attention of passers-by through a striking, colourful design that appealed to the senses. When properly executed, poster art can be understood by anyone, including the illiterate.
Prior to the introduction of motion pictures in the 1920s, posters
were the single, most important of all visual media and the Canadian government
took full advantage of them. In one 1897 report from Canada's High Commissioner
in London, England, Lord Strathcona reports having 23,000 new posters made for
"exhibition" in all the post offices of the United Kingdom. "The value of the
advertising we thus receive through the courtesy of the Postmaster General cannot
be over-estimated," announced Strathcona in his report. (Canada, Dept. of the
Interior, Annual Report, 1897, part iv, p. 12)
In the early part of the 20th century, immigration posters were
rendered in clear, radiant colours. Their images promised not only a productive
landscape, but a picturesque one as well. The horizon was often set high so as
to diminish the immensity of the prairies and everywhere the vegetation was lush.
If families were toiling in the fields, they appeared happy and in the company
of bountiful harvests. Obviously their labour had been justly rewarded. Nowhere
was there any suggestion that the homesteaders might have said goodbye to an awful
lot in their homeland when they took up their prairie farm. The sense was that
the homesteaders stood only to gain in their new land.
In some instances, pamphlets consisted of a single, large-format
page printed on both sides and folded into individual panels. In other instances,
they consisted of a number of unbound (or loosely bound) pages and a paper cover.
Pamphlets have a long-standing tradition in Western Europe where, as early as
the 15th century, they were used to inflame popular opinion in periods of religious
controversy or as a vehicle for social and political commentary.
In the early 20th century, the Canadian government used this means
to connect with prospective homesteaders on a one-to-one basis. The single-page,
folded pamphlet was inexpensive to produce and could be distributed through mass
mailings. In one such mailing, in 1897, Canada's High Commissioner in London distributed
a specially prepared pamphlet "through the post to every farmer in the United
Kingdom, and to every blacksmith." (Canada, Dept. of the Interior, Annual
Report, 1897, part iv, p. 15) In another distribution, pamphlets were sent
to "the free libraries, reading rooms, farmers' and workmen's clubs and institutions, hotels, etc...." (Canada, Dept. of the Interior, Annual Report, 1897, part iv, p. 14) The pamphlets were designed to spark an interest in immigration and to encourage the prospective settler to contact an immigration agent who would then provide further encouragement in favour of Canada's "last best west."
Printed in as many as 12 European languages, the pamphlets promised
productive soil, adequate rainfall, a good growing season, bountiful crops and
a healthy climate. Such words as "cold" and "snow" were universally banned from the pamphlets in favour of the more positive terms "invigorating" and "bracing." With their colourful covers and attractive photographs, the pamphlets visually reaffirmed the Prairie West as a land of prosperity and happiness.