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Land Grants

by Jeffrey S. Murray, Library and Archives Canada

In the province of Quebec, land distribution was originally based on the seigneurial system, established in 1627 and used until 1854. Seigneuries were granted by the King to members of the bourgeoisie, members of important families or former military officers. As proprietor of a seigneurie, the seigneur had privileges and obligations towards the King or his representative. The seigneur granted parcels (concessions) of his land to tenants called censitaires or, more commonly, habitants. Starting in 1763, new lands were granted according to the township system. Quebec was divided into counties that were divided into townships or municipalités de paroisses. The British North America Act of 1867 established Crown lands as a provincial responsibility. Only land petitions for Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Quebec) were retained by the Government of Canada.

A land grant is a general term referring to the Crown's transfer of public lands to a subordinate government, a corporation or an individual. The Dominion Lands Act (35 Vic., c. 23, 1872) offered a wide variety of such grants to colonization companies, the Hudson's Bay Company, railways (for right of ways and stations), municipalities (for town sites and schools), religious organizations (for church sites and cemeteries) and individual homesteaders.

The instrument used to convey title to a 160-acre (65 hectares) homestead grant was a land patent. From 1870 to about 1932, the federal government issued some 625,000 patents on homestead lands across western Canada.

As initially stipulated in the Dominion Lands Act (35 Vic., c. 23, 1872), title to a 160-acre (65 hectares) western homestead could be issued to any male over the age of 24. Two years later, the age limit was dropped to 18 years to allow younger families to make an entry (37 Vic., c. 19, s. 8.1, 1874). After 1876, women over the age of 18 also became eligible, but only if they were the sole head of a family (39 Vic., c. 19, s. 4, 1876). After 1919, this provision was extended to widows of veterans (9-10 George V, c. 13, s. 1, 1919). In 1908, patentees were expected to be a British subject or to declare their intention to become one (7-8 Edward, c. 20, s. 9, 1908).

Before title to a homestead was granted by the Crown, however, the homesteader had to meet certain conditions of residency and cultivation for a fixed period of time. Although the details varied as government policy evolved, the homesteader was generally given three years to make some improvements to the land (a minimum number of acres had to be cultivated), to build a residence and to be a bona fide occupant of the property. These conditions were necessary to keep land speculation to a minimum and to discourage all but genuine settlers from obtaining a homestead. Failure to comply with any of the regulations resulted in the loss of the homestead and its re-opening to other settlers.

Although specific numbers are difficult to determine, the majority of patentees were recent arrivals from overseas and from the United States. These people were lured to the Prairie West by one of the largest and most extensive advertising campaigns the world had ever witnessed.

From 1870 to 1883, land patents on western homesteads were issued by the Secretary of State for the Provinces (Library and Archives Canada retains these records in Record Group 68), and from 1883 to 1930, by the Department of the Interior (Record Group 15). The Western Land Grants database provides access to the land patents issued by both departments. Any transactions that took place on homestead lands after the land patents had been awarded were recorded in local land titles offices. Prior to 1905, the land titles offices in the Northwest Territories were maintained by the federal government, and in Manitoba, by the provincial government. From 1905 to 1930, the newly created provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta could not make grants of Crown lands; however, like Manitoba, they were responsible for registering any transactions on lands after the land patent had been issued by the federal Crown. The alienation of Crown land only became a provincial responsibility in 1930, when the three Prairie Provinces won the right to administer their own natural resources. Provincial grants after 1930 are registered in local land titles offices.

Land patents were issued as the first title to land, and served as proof that the land had been alienated from the Crown. These documents provide information of interest to genealogists, such as the name of the patentee, his/her occupation and place of residence. The documents also provide a description of the homestead and note any restrictions (especially those on mines and minerals) that may have been reserved by the Crown.

Once the land patent was awarded by the Crown, much of the paper trail documenting individual immigrant experiences in western Canada comes to an end, at least as far as the federal record is concerned. In this respect, the land patents are the end product of a lengthy relocation that first began in the villages, towns and cities of Europe. But as every homesteader knows, securing a land patent from the Crown was really just the beginning of a commitment that spanned several decades, a commitment that eventually reshaped the Prairie West into a productive landscape that could be called home.

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