Welcome, Guest
Print this page

Prairie immigration and the "Last Best West"

Overview of the set

This set of History Docs invites students to assess the accuracy and fairness of the Canadian government’s “Last Best West” advertising campaign after examining a variety of primary and secondary sources including promotional posters and pamphlets, photographs, cartoons, poems, and journal articles.

Click on the thumbnails below to view enlarged images in a new window.

Download the complete set of images to your desktop.

Primary sources

1. Canadian coronation arch |

2. Advertising pamphlet |

3. Canada West: The Last Best West advertising pamphlet |


4. Description of the climate |

5. Advertising poster for the New Eldorado |

6. "The Evolution of a Homestead" |


7. The land of the sugar maple tree |

8. The only drawback |

9. Fertile Canada |

10. Now then, all together! |

Image viewer

Student tasks

Question: Did the Canadian government’s “The Last Best West” advertising campaign provide a fair and balanced view of what life was like from 1890 to 1914 for new immigrants to the Canadian west?

When examining the advertising created to attract immigrants to the Canadian west, consider whether the Canadian government provided a balanced view of the:

  • environmental conditions (weather, insects and climate)
  • economic costs (land purchasing, equipment, seeds, potential profit)
  • social / cultural life (leisure, community).

Teacher notes

The following notes on topics addressed in the History Docs are intended to enhance teachers' understanding of the sources and ability to guide students in interpreting them.

Using History Docs

View our online guide for instructions about how you might use History Docs.

Tools for investigating documents

Use or adapt these resources to suit your needs.

Historical context for teachers

Settling the prairies

  • By the late 1800s, good farmland in Ontario was becoming increasingly hard for immigrants to acquire, and the situation was no better in the United States. Seizing the opportunity, the Canadian government began to advertise the Prairies (current provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta) as “The Last Best West” to attract immigrants, particularly those from the United States and eastern Europe.
  • The hope was that a vastly populated prairie area would provide a market for goods manufactured in central and eastern Canada. The prairie population would also be able to supply the East with agricultural products for consumption and for export around the world.
  • Clifford Sifton was the Minister of the Interior at the time, and responsible for directing government immigration policy. He was instrumental in making “The Last Best West” campaign a success.
  • Between 1896 and 1905, the recruiting budget of the Canadian government increased from $900 000 to $4 000 000. Under Sifton’s direction, the Canadian government sent posters, agents, mobile museums and exhibits, fact books and other information to nations all over eastern and western Europe, all designed to convince people to move to Canada.
  • Immigrants were enticed by the promise of free / cheap land. Most posters offered 160 acres for free or for as little as $10, but few people received 160 acres at that price. Many land speculators had already taken the good land, and were selling it for far more money.
  • Immigrants were told that they needed $1000 to start that was often too little to begin with. Fact sheets told immigrants what they could expect to make in their first year:
  • $7.50 an acre x 160 acres = $1200
  • 20 bushels an acre x 160 acres = $3200
  • $0.65 per bushel x 3200 = $2080.
  • The profit would therefore be $880, and this total was used to show people what they could earn in a year. They failed to mention all the other expenses:
  • $600 for tools
  • $250 for farm animals
  • $300 for implements.
  • The $880 profit had now turned into a $270 deficit.

Realities of settlement

  • Settlers commonly had to stretch their budgets and were forced to focus on the bare basics of survival. The first house was typically a “soddie,” made of mud-covered sod on wood. Soddies usually featured open windows covered with sacks and a thatched roof. They were full of flies and fleas and smelled in the summer. These homes were usually replaced with more substantial buildings within one or two years.
  • Not all homesteaders were able to settle on ideal land, and many were forced to build their homes on land that was poor and unproductive, or far from major rail transportation or water sources. Many homesteading plots also needed to be cleared of vegetation and trees before any farming could begin.
  • While the climate of the Canadian west was ideal for growing wheat and other grains, it could be unpredictable and immigrants at times had to contend with cyclones, droughts, floods, snowstorms and other extreme weather.
  • The development of Marquis wheat in the early 1900s was a significant help to prairie farmers. Marquis wheat matured earlier and gave farmers a better chance of getting a crop harvested before the first frost.
  • Life for prairie homesteaders was often quite lonely and isolating; however, the environmental and economic problems they faced encouraged community cooperation. Raising barns and threshing wheat were communal activities and sports and picnics provided occasional relief from the hard work of farming.
  • To ease the transition into a new country, many homesteaders settled in areas where previous immigrants from their home country had settled . In some cases, immigrants’ determination to maintain their home language and customs angered those settlers who wanted immigrants to assimilate into Anglo-Canadian society.
  • The West was not a get-rich-quick opportunity. Immigrants who were not able to withstand the trials of farming returned home or headed to Prairie cities to find work in nonagricultural areas. The hard work of those who persevered, however, was often rewarded with modest success, and a great sense of optimism was felt in the Canadian Prairies as Canada began the 20th century.