by Jeffrey S. Murray, Library and Archives Canada
The Dominion Lands Act (also known by the more
formal title An Act Respecting the Public Lands of the Dominion) opened
some 198 million acres (80 million hectares) of western land to settlement --
an area more than two and a half times the size of England. The Act defined how
this land would be awarded and who would be eligible for land grants; it placed
limits on the amount of land that an individual could acquire from the Crown;
and it set up procedures by which the region's natural resources could be extracted.
The Act even allowed some resources to be preserved for future generations through
a system of natural reserves and national parks. As well, it authorized the federal
government to set aside tracts of land "for the purposes of the Dominion."
These special cases included First Nations reserves, education endowments, bounties
for military service, Hudson's Bay Company awards, and subsidies for railway construction.
The Dominion Lands Act envisioned an orderly settlement
of the Canadian West -- no American-style land rushes or massive land hoardings
would be tolerated. To help ensure the successful transfer of land to bona
fide settlers, the Act required that homesteads be surveyed and marked on
a map, and the map filed in a local lands registry, before settlement could proceed.
This requirement sent dominion lands surveyors marching well ahead of the immigrant
homesteaders, dividing the land into a checkerboard of some 1.25 million homesteads,
the world's largest land survey grid.
To administer the Act, the government of Sir John A. Macdonald created a new
agency, the Department of the Interior, and named the prime minister as the minister
responsible for it. Initially, the Department consisted of just five branches:
Indian Affairs, the Geological Survey of Canada, Ordnance and Admiralty Lands,
North-West Territories, and Dominion Lands. As western lands were settled and
western resources came ever more into demand, the Department widened its horizons
and its branches sub-divided to cope with their enlarged responsibilities. Over
its 63-year existence, the Department of the Interior had, in addition to its
basic administrative functions, more than 25 distinct branches, many of which
were responsible for administering a single aspect of the Act. After a period
of nurturing within the Department, several of these branches were carved off
and set up as departments of their own (such as Indian Affairs, Immigration, National
Parks, Mines, the Geological Survey, and Forestry).
In 1936, with the control of public lands and natural
resources firmly in the hands of the Prairie provinces, the Dominion Lands
Act was no longer a valid piece of legislation. Consequently, the Department
of the Interior lost its raison d'être and was disbanded. A huge part of
the active records of the Department -- especially those concerning cadastral
surveys and natural resource extraction -- were transferred to the four western
provinces. The functions that remained a federal responsibility (topographic surveying
and natural resource research, particularly in the areas of resource measurement
and exploration) were transferred to the new Department of Mines and Resources,
along with the remaining body of the Department of the Interior's active records.