Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: February 2017

The North-West Territories provisional districts at the time Saskatchewan and Alberta were created in 1905.

Saskatchewan once wanted direct access to Hudson Bay

Saskatchewan is the only Canadian province with completely artificial boundaries. In fact, the trapezoid shape has led to the suggestion that the province’s unofficial motto should be: Saskatchewan, easy to draw, hard to spell.

These boundaries were challenged during the first few years of the province’s existence. The political leaders of the day believed that Saskatchewan had been shortchanged in 1905 and looked to extend the provincial boundaries to the north and the east.

What had nurtured this appetite for a larger Saskatchewan were the early 20th century federal-territorial discussions over the entry of the region into confederation.

Frederick Haultain, the North-West Territories’ first and only premier, had wanted one large province (named “Buffalo”) to be created between Manitoba and British Columbia. He never got his wish. Instead, the Wilfrid Laurier Liberal government created two roughly equal, north-south provinces, Saskatchewan and Alberta, in 1905.

But the prospect of a larger Saskatchewan did not end there. There was still the possibility of expansion to the northeast and to the east. And it remained a possibility because Manitoba, box-like in appearance, was still confined to the southern half of the present-day province. The northern boundary did not yet reach Hudson Bay but ran east-west through the Manitoba interlake region.

The Manitoba government had formally requested that the province’s boundaries be extended north in 1905 when Saskatchewan and Alberta were created. It argued that it was a matter of fairness. Why should the two new western provinces be larger than Manitoba?

History also supported the province’s position. Travel to and from the Red River Settlement (Winnipeg) had been through Hudson Bay before confederation.

But the matter was not so straightforward.

Ontario’s northern boundary, at the time, did not reach Hudson or James Bay and the province aspired to some of the same territory that Manitoba coveted.

Then, there was the case of Saskatchewan, something that Prime Minister Laurier raised during the debate on the autonomy bills creating Saskatchewan and Alberta. Indeed, the prime minister acknowledged in the House of Commons in February 1905 — even before the province became a reality — that Saskatchewan probably had a legitimate claim to more territory.

That claim was based on the 1882 federal decision to create four provisional districts (Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Athabasca) in the southern part of the North-West Territories. These provisional districts, as they were called, were supposed to form the basis of four future western provinces.

That never happened. Rather, Saskatchewan and Alberta were formed from the four provisional districts — except for that finger-like portion of the Saskatchewan provisional district that extended eastward beyond the 1905 provincial boundary (at 101 degrees, 30 minutes) into the northern portion of lakes Winnipegosis and Winnipeg.

Saskatchewan wanted this “leftover” territory and more.

Faced with these overlapping claims, the Laurier government convened a meeting in November 1906 and called on the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario to justify their claim to the territory in question.

In its submission, the Saskatchewan government argued that the Saskatchewan provisional district had once been administered by the territorial government in Regina and that it only made sense for all of the former district to be part of the new province.

Saskatchewan also sought a water port for grain shipments to Europe and asked that a corridor of land, north of the Nelson River and running northeast to Hudson Bay, be added to the province.

In response, Ottawa initially leaned towards creating new provinces in the disputed territory before deciding it was more practicable to enlarge existing provinces.

Saskatchewan came away empty-handed in this new round of province-building. In 1908, by way of a parliamentary resolution, the Laurier government rejected Saskatchewan’s bid for additional territory in favour of the Manitoba position.

It took until 1912, though, before Manitoba assumed the size it is today.

In extending the western boundary of Manitoba northward to the 60th parallel, it appeared that there would be no repeat of what happened in 1905 when the community of Lloydminster was cut in half by the new boundary (110 degrees) between Saskatchewan and Alberta.

But then in 1915, copper and zinc ore were discovered along the Manitoba-Saskatchewan interprovincial boundary. That’s why the communities of Flin Flon and Creighton straddle the border today.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: The North-West Territories provisional districts at the time Saskatchewan and Alberta were created in 1905. Manitoba was still box-like in shape and did not yet reach Hudson Bay.
Photo: Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers

Saskatoon bachelors

No female homesteaders need apply

On April 30, 1910, Manitoba Conservative MP William J. Roche stood in the House of Commons and asked Interior Minister Frank Oliver whether he had ever given “serious consideration” to the idea of “permitting ladies … the privilege of homesteading.”

Because women could homestead in the United States, Roche wondered, should Canada adopt the same policy?

“The matter has been brought to my attention frequently,” Oliver responded. But he continued, as if it was some indisputable fact, “the purpose … in giving free land to homesteaders is that the land may be made productive (and) giving homesteads to single women would tend directly against that idea.”

If a woman “(wanted) to settle on land in the North-West,” Oliver advised, she should get herself a man.

Oliver’s stance was nothing new.

Since the homestead program was introduced in 1872, successive governments had steadfastly refused to grant women — except in rare circumstances — the right to take up homestead land. Only women who were the sole head of a family — in other words, a widow or divorcée with dependants — were eligible.

Oliver’s intransigence spawned a “homesteads for women” movement. But the intensive lobbying effort, including letters and a petition, failed to sway Ottawa, and the homesteading regulations remained the same until the end of the program in 1930.

One of the leading figures in the campaign was Georgina Binnie-Clark, who had come to Saskatchewan in 1905 to check up on her brother, Lal, a brewer by trade, homesteading near Fort Qu’Appelle. Shocked to discover that he was failing miserably and ready to quit, Georgina bought a half-section of land and with her sister Hilaria ran a successful farm operation for the next few decades.

But she deeply resented how a woman farmer was disadvantaged by federal homestead policy.

“She may be the best farmer in Canada,” Binnie-Clark observed in her prairie classic, Wheat and Woman, “she may buy land, work it, take prizes for seed and stock, but she is denied the right to claim from the Government the hundred and sixty acres of land held out as a bait to every man.”

Federal homestead policy translated into a male-dominated settlement frontier. In Saskatchewan, for example, the single men to single women ratio in 1906 was 1.7 to 1. By 1911, there were 3.5 single men for every single woman in the province.

It was common practice for husbands to go ahead alone to get established on their homesteads before sending for their wives and children.  Thousands of single men were also attracted to Saskatchewan by the promise of free land and planned to get a start before seeking a partner.

What many “bachelor” homesteaders quickly learned, though, was that it was next to impossible to work on the land and maintain a household. There was no one to prepare the all-important noontime dinner, wash sweat-drenched grimy clothes, or make their first home a little more habitable.

Something had to be sacrificed, and it was usually the men’s diet and hygiene. The primitive conditions under which many lived during their first few weeks and months on their homestead only made things worse, as did the isolation.

Homesick husbands consequently sent for their wives earlier than they had planned. But their reunion could be delayed because of the isolation of some districts.

In the fall of 1906, Mrs. Margaret McManus, along with her two little boys, spent six anxious weeks in the Saskatoon immigration hall until word reached her husband on his homestead that she had arrived from Scotland.

Other men sought wives. Bob Sansom decided to return to his Rosetown-area homestead only because of his pending marriage. Percy Maxwell felt the same way about his engagement to his girlfriend Mabel. “If it wasn’t for her I don’t think I would stay on my homestead,” he wrote his family, “I am thoroughly sick of baching.”

Many men persevered as long as they could, but ultimately the lack of companionship took its toll. According to a sampling of pioneer surveys conducted by the Saskatchewan Archives in 1955 in commemoration of the province’s 50th birthday, loneliness drove men from their homesteads.

Perhaps Elizabeth Mitchell, who visited western Canada before the Great War, said it best: bachelor homesteaders were poor, lonely creatures “who need kindness badly.”

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:Many prospective homesteaders who started out alone quickly discovered that a partner was essential.
Photo: Saskatoon Public Library Local History Room, LH3348

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers