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Banner: Moving Here, Staying Here. The Canadian Immigrant Experience


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Commissioned Photography
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Commissioned Photography

by Jim Burant, Library and Archives Canada

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has acquired thousands of photographs that document the immigration experience. These photographs are primarily from the records of the former Department of the Interior, especially from the Immigration Branch; the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau and its successor agency, the National Film Board of Canada; Canadian National Railways; and from the Department of Immigration and its successor departments. In addition, the photographic records of many pioneering families, as well as those of immigration organizations such as the Barnardo Homes and Frontier College, have been acquired from individuals and organizations in order to provide a broader picture of the immigrant experience. The many newspaper and wire-service photographic collections held by LAC are also a particularly important source of visual documentation, especially for the post-Second World War period.

As early as the 1880s, the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture began publishing illustrated pamphlets and articles in various European and American periodicals extolling the virtues of emigration. Local photographers were commissioned to take views of agricultural developments, farms, crops and settlements, and these photographs were reproduced as woodcuts or half-tones. As the photographic reproduction technology improved, photogravures began to appear instead, or photos became the basis for more elaborate forms of art work, including posters and highly coloured booklets. The Ottawa firm of Topley Studio supplied two of the most well-known photographers working on behalf of the federal government, Horatio N. Topley, who eventually became a paid employee of the Department of the Interior, and John Woodruff. These two photographers undertook a number of cross-country journeys to document the growth and settlement of different parts of the Dominion, but most particularly of the Canadian West.

Woodruff also visited the immigrant stations at Québec and Saint John, New Brunswick, and took photographs of the variety of ethnic and cultural groups arriving at these points of entry, as part of the Department's efforts to demonstrate the success of its publicity campaigns in Eastern and southern Europe. Photographs taken by such photographers were used by a number of government departments, but especially the Immigration Branch, to create posters, calendars, lantern-slide illustrated lectures, exhibits at world's fairs, and travelling exhibit wagons, especially in Britain.

The illustrated pamphlet was the primary outlet for such photographs. Between 1896 and 1913, the government produced hundreds of such pamphlets in multiple languages for use by emigration agents, shipping lines, and government offices abroad. In addition, magazines such as Canada West: The Last Best West appeared in the 1910s and 1920s. The images in such periodicals and pamphlets were most often used to depict Canadian conditions to prospective immigrants. The images were accompanied by maps to show the geography and transportation routes, and texts that provided facts about Canadian society, politics and agriculture, as well as testimonials, aimed at specific European populations, from fellow countrymen and women.

These government pamphlets and the photographs taken for them provide some insights into past attitudes, official or otherwise, about the immigration of people of different nationalities. While their production often involved patronage, poor communication and bureaucratic parsimony, they remain emblems of the great faith that the Immigration Branch placed in the power of pamphleteering.

Photographic documentation of the immigration experience, at least by the government, began to decline in the late 1920s and 1930s, even as private companies, such the railways and shipping lines, began to target their services more closely at prospective immigrants. In the 1950s, the federal government, through the National Film Board and the Department of Immigration, began to renew its interest in capturing the immigrant experience from the moment of arrival through to the immigrants' integration into Canadian society, but in a very limited fashion. The overall visual record of the immigrant experience from the 1960s onwards is still weak, or has not yet been acquired from individuals and organisations. Documenting the multicultural experience in Canada is an important goal of LAC's acquisition strategy.


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