How the Canadian West Was Won: During the Early Years of the 20th Century, the Canadian Government Devised a Sophisticated and Diverse Advertising Scheme for British Emigrants. Taking Advantage of New Media and a Small Children's Atlas, the Campaign Sang the Virtues of Canada's Prairie West as a New Homeland for British Farmers

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The dream was simple enough. Canada wanted to see its prairie west become a gigantic breadbasket, tied to central Canada through railways. Wheat would flow east to feed the world and central Canada would fill the returning freight cars with manufactured goods. Surely, with the west's expanding population and ever-increasing agricultural bounty, Canada would be able to overtake the USA's economic prosperity. The 20th century would belong to Canada!

The dream would only become a reality, however, if Canada got the farmers it needed. 'The men whom we want above all others,' proclaimed Canada's assistant superintendent of immigration in London in 1907, 'are the men of ambition and healthy condition; the men of good muscle who are willing to hustle.'


For more than two centuries, the Hudson's Bay Company had been filling the world's imagination with images of the Canadian west as a snowbound, inhospitable, empty wilderness. 'The great lone land,' as one adventurer called it. Such images served the company's interest well by keeping the population to a minimum, allowing it to preserve its monopoly on the fur trade. But different images were needed now if the world's deeply ingrained misconceptions of the region were to be overcome and the west transformed into an agricultural economy.

To counter earlier prejudices, the federal government began a huge advertising campaign, the likes of which the world had never seen. Clifford Sifton, the federal minister responsible for settling the west, figured immigration was like any other commodity. 'Just as soon as you stop advertising,' he warned Canada's House of Commons in 1899, 'the movement is going to stop.' Expanding its advertising budget from a few thousand dollars to a staggering four million in 1905, the government blitzed the four corners of Britain with one simple message: 'Canada needs farmers.'


The message was trumpeted through every medium that the early 20th century offered--from displays at agricultural shows and horse-drawn exhibition wagons to public lectures, films, colourful slide shows, billboards and newspaper advertisements. 'Our agents are equipped as missionaries of Canada, carrying propaganda to the smallest town and the remotest hamlet,' said Canada's London-based superintendent of immigration, J Obed Smith, in 1922. The blitz prompted the British illustrated paper The Graphic to compliment Canada on carrying out an advertising campaign that was 'better and more extensive' than any of the other colonies.


The largest portion of the government's advertising budget was set aside for a small pamphlet-size atlas. Featuring a combination of good writing, attractive photography, useful maps and colourful covers, the 30- to 40-page annual was thought to offer British farmers the best opportunity for developing 'a fair understanding of the geography, climate, and natural resources of Canada', as Sifton's director of publicity put it.

From its first appearance in 1897, the Canada West atlas was an immediate hit. 'The people like readable facts and maps,' commented Obed Smith, 'and I can conceive of no better value for the expenditure of public funds than ... by getting [maps and atlases] in the homes of school children.' Alberta's Edmonton Bulletin declared it 'in appearance and in matter ... attractive, readable and reliable. The book is worthy of a place in any library and will serve an excellent purpose.' At a time when a Canadian book was considered a bestseller if it sold 5,000 copies, the government was printing as many as 675,000 copies of the atlas annually.

In order to use the atlas to its full potential, deputy interior minister James Smart suggested sponsoring a nationwide competition, in which British schoolchildren would be asked to write an essay on Canada. The best essay in each school would be awarded a specially minted bronze medallion. …


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