Sell, Sell, Sell
by Jeffrey S. Murray, Library and Archives Canada
With new editions compiled each year over a 40-year period, and with print runs sometimes exceeding 400,000 copies a year (when a best selling book was just 5,000 copies), Canada's immigration atlases were one of the most cost-efficient promotional tools used by the Department of the Interior (and after 1918, the Department of Immigration and Colonization). The highly entertaining atlases were translated into as many as 12 European languages and were widely sought by schoolteachers and students, both at home and overseas. Through clever images and carefully worded statements, they implied that hard-working homesteaders had every reason to succeed and no reason to fail.
From its first appearance in 1897, Sifton's immigration atlas was a hit. "The people like readable facts and maps," commented J. Obed Smith, Canada's Assistant Superintendent of Emigration in London, "and I can conceive of no better value for the expenditure of Public funds than ï¿½ [by] getting [maps and atlases] in the homes of school children." The Edmonton Bulletin declared it "in appearance and in matter ï¿½ attractive, readable and reliable ï¿½. The book is worthy of a place in any library and will serve an excellent purpose." British school children were equally impressed by the atlas. "I am extremely pleased with your free atlas," wrote one student, Edith Beckett, to the superintendent of immigration in London, England. "It is very much better than I expected it to be ï¿½ I have backed it to keep it clean and put it out of the reach of my younger sister."
Despite their slick appeal, the misleading nature of the atlases and other promotional material did not go unnoticed. "I have before me the latest pamphlets on Manitoba and the North-West and all I can say is that the ones that are not a pack of lies are a pack of rubbish," wrote one unidentified victim of Prairie boosterism on his return to England from Manitoba in 1891. George Shepherd, an immigrant from Kent, England, also found the literature "a little on the optimistic side." "It was said," recounts Shepherd in his autobiography West of Yesterday, "that ï¿½ while it got cold in winter, the cold was dry and not unpleasant. I used to recall these glowing words ï¿½ as I ran behind the sleigh at 30º below zero to keep from freezing."
Unfortunately, the criticism was far too little and was easily drowned out
by the trumpeting of the promoters. Canada's overseas agents monitored all the
world's major newspapers for unfavourable reports and pounced quickly to stifle
any criticism before it got out of hand. Canada wanted the West settled and no
means were seen as too questionable if they got results. The promoters saw the
Prairie West not as it was, but as it would become.