by Jeffrey S. Murray, Library and Archives Canada
Individual ownership was a revolutionary concept in the
West. For centuries, the ancestors of the Cree and the Assiniboine had lived on
the land, but they had never owned it. The idea of individual ownership of land
was still relatively new, even for Euro-Canadians. It had been incubated in Tudor
England, taken shape in colonial America, and only been fully realized with American
independence. In other words, the concept of individual land ownership had only
existed for a little over a century prior to the introduction of the Dominion
Lands Act in 1872.
One of the unique advantages of the American-style grid
system that Canada adopted for the Prairies was clearly demonstrated when the
first land patent was issued in Ottawa by the Registrar General on May 5, 1873.
It went to Samuel Hume Blake, who acquired a homestead identified as the south
half of sections 18 and 22, township 13, range 6, west of the prime meridian.
Even now, this is an anonymous parcel of farmland southwest of Winnipeg. However,
once it had been surveyed and registered, it could be picked out from the 1.25
million other homesteads in western Canada and a land patent for it could be issued
from 1,500 miles (2,414 km) away. (The Western
Land Grants database provides access to all the land patents issued by the
By dividing up the Prairies for individual ownership, the Dominion Lands
Act turned wilderness into property -- property that could be traded, borrowed
and speculated. In other words, the Act helped to create wealth, not only for
the many immigrant families from Europe and the United States who acquired homesteads,
but also for the government agencies that regulated and administered the Act.
And although the Act started many immigrant settlers on the road to securing a
home and some form of financial independence, the homesteading process required
a commitment to decades of unrelenting work and hardship before any homesteaders'
dreams were realized.