Emigration to Canada is not entirely a pretty Story


We had a very interesting visit in Hofsós Iceland. It is a beautiful little fishing village. But there is more to this village than fishing.

Hofsós also has an interesting  Museum of Emigration. This museum told a very interesting story. In the second half of the 19thcentury Iceland experienced climate change. As conditions got colder, farmer got more difficult. Life was harsh. Many people faced starvation. This led to a sharp increase in poverty and deprivation. Many people longed for a better life. Many were attracted by stories from agents of the Canadian and American governments of better conditions in North America.

Canada offered migrants from Iceland free land.  This was very hard to resist. This was the time in Canada when the government wanted to populate the west with white migrants from Europe. Mennonites were also offered free land. Mennonites were even promised freedom from military conscription.  Unfortunately many of the migrants did not understand what they were getting into. Icelanders, for example, did not know what to do with trees. After all they came from a treeless island. They did not understand how to use the tools they were given. They had no experience with the type of farming that was required to succeed in North America. As a result times were very difficult for these migrants to North America.

Many in our group of tourists were amazed that Canada would offer these people free land. How generous! It was generous. However it was not all selfless generosity.

There is another side to this story. This was also the time during which the Canadian government was trying to “clear the plains” to use an expression used by James Daschuk in his fine book, by that name, Clearing the Plains.

The government of Canada, after it was formed in 1867, wanted to pacify the Plains Indians, as they were referred to at the time, and avoid the messy and costly wars of conquest in the United States. The American government in one year spent 25% of its budget on these wars. It was vital to the plans of the Canadian government that Indians be kept on their reserves. As a result it was unlawful for any of them to leave the reserves without the approval of the government Indian agents.  To encourage the Indians to go to the reserves and then to stay there the government employed draconian tactics. Those tactics did not exclude enforced starvation! As Daschuk said, “while the Indians were starving, in many cases to death, the authorities withheld food that was available.”[1]

Daschuk added, “Instead of supplying rations to famine-stricken populations, ‘in a national famine’, As Morris had promised rations were used as a means of coercing Indians into submitting to treaty.”[2]“Submitting to Treaty” meant, entering into a treaty with the federal government and then staying on the Reserve, keeping the plains clear instead for European immigrants. The Canadian government wanted to fill the plains with white Europeans, after first removing the natural impediments—i.e. the indigenous people. What makes this even more remarkable, is that many of the indigenous people wanted to farm the land. They wanted to learn from the Canadians how to farm. the Canadian government often stood in their way preventing that from happening.

Canada was remarkably generous to the European immigrants. To the indigenous people they had displaced they were not so generous. It was not all a matter of kindness and light. I do not criticize the Europeans for accepting the invitation to move.  I will criticize their descendants however, if they choose to ignore the fact that their opportunity came in part at the expense of local people. They should not forget that. None of us should forget that.

[1]James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, (2013) p. 113

[2]James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, (2013) p. 114

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