The settlement of the Canadian West is one of the most exciting and important periods in Canadian history—exciting because it was a time of rapid change, new beginnings and conflict; important because it saw the emergence of a new region in Confederation—a region with new needs and new perspectives. Some of the key national political questions in the late 19th and early 20th century—the Riel Rebellions, the Manitoba Schools Question, the Winnipeg General Strike, and the rise of the farmers' Progressive Party—emerged out of western Canada. These issues naturally arose in a new society with large numbers of new immigrants where new social relationships and institutions had to be formed. Immigration patterns during this period were also important since the ethnic composition of the groups who settled the West determined to a considerable extent the social issues which later emerged, as well as later immigration patterns.
With the beginnings of commercial agriculture in the 1870's, social and economic change was abrupt. The population of the prairies grew rapidly, particularly between 1896 and 1914, when one of the greatest mass movements of people in modern history came to this region. In the short span of years from the 1870's to the First World War, the area also went through a dramatic change from a fur-trade economy to an overwhelmingly agricultural economy. The native peoples were displaced and moved from the centre stage of prairie society to a neglected and unappreciated role at the fringes of society. Large numbers of eastern Canadians, Americans, Britons, and other immigrants from Europe and Asia turned their backs on societies where economic opportunity was meagre or where religious and political persecution of minorities was on the upsurge, and made their way to a society which offered free land and a fresh start. Towns and cities sprang up across the prairies, millions of acres of prairie land fell to the plow, and thousands of miles of railway were laid in an attempt to unite the widely scattered population.
Many of the newcomers had little to lose, and were willing to face the hardships imposed by a harsh land and a new society. For those who went to the land, pioneering was a challenge which called forth all the physical and mental ingenuity and perseverance an individual or family possessed. Homes and barns had to be built from scratch. On the open prairies, fuel and water were