Frank Oliver, the Liberal MP for Edmonton, had scarcely assumed his new duties in April 1905 as federal minister of the Interior in the Wilfrid Laurier cabinet when he received a troubling report from one of his department officials.
For the past few years, Robert Young, in his capacity as superintendent of railway lands, had been monitoring the rate at which homesteads were being taken up in Western Canada and concluded that the current rate of immigration would soon exhaust the available lands. It was a startling finding, especially when it had always been assumed that Canada had enough land for countless millions in North-West. In fact, the challenge in the 1870s and 1880s had been getting people to settle in Western Canada when there was still homestead land available in the United States.
That changed by the early 1900s when hundreds of thousands of immigrants answered the siren call of “the last best west” and the promise of 160 acres of free land.
More settlers applied for homesteads in Western Canada in the first decade of the 20th century than during the entire previous century. Saskatchewan led the way with 19,787 entries in 1905 and 27,692 the following year. By the end of the decade, three out of every five homestead entries in the three Prairie provinces were in Saskatchewan
The Department of Interior responded to this demand for land by opening up the southwest part of the province to homesteading, even though the dry mixed-prairie district was best suited to grazing. Oliver, wearing his other hat as minister of Indian Affairs, also pursued the reduction or outright elimination of Indian reserves on the grounds that bands had “idle” or “unused” lands that could be given to immigrant settlers.
Even then, the Department of Interior remained worried that the supply of homestead land might soon be gone and that prospective settlers would go elsewhere.
The Interior Department consequently began to investigate the idea of starting a second settlement frontier north of the North Saskatchewan River — what became known as “the New North-West.” It was not a far-fetched idea. Saskatchewan’s northern boundary had been set at the 60th parallel in the belief that it was the northern limit of agriculture.
In the summer of 1908, Frank Crean, a civil engineer by training and clerk with the Interior Department, was handed the task of examining a huge sweep of forested land south of the Churchill River between Stanley Mission on the east and Ile-a-la-Crosse on the west, including present-day Prince Albert National Park.
Although the local indigenous population depended on this territory for its subsistence activities, Crean determined that the land was ideal for raising cereal crops. Chancing upon a fine garden on Red Deer (Waskesiu) Lake, for example, Crean enthused: “I fancy this country might profitably be surveyed and opened for settlement.” In the end, he reported that almost one-quarter of the survey region of five million acres was ready for cultivation.
He reached an even more favourable conclusion the following summer when he continued his investigation westward from Portage la Loche into northeastern Alberta. Once again, he found small garden plots and promising patches of wheat and oats, a fact confirmed by the splendid photographs he took at northern settlements including one picture where the crop reached his shoulders.
Crean’s findings nicely dovetailed with the needs of the moment. But when two surveyors were sent into the region in 1909 — 10 to lay out the major base lines, including the third meridian, in preparation for homesteading — they found little land of agricultural value.
Faced with these contradictory findings, the Interior Department asked C.H. Morse of the University of Toronto School of Forestry to do another reconnaissance survey of the region in 1912. Morse strongly recommended that the land east of the Sturgeon River — generally rolling, heavily timbered, with sandy or gravelly soils — be set aside as a federal forest reserve.
That it was the right decision was confirmed by a 1914 soil survey of the new reserve. “It would be very unfortunate,” the report’s author concluded, “if this area were opened to settlement, as nothing but hardship and poverty followed by starvation awaits.”
As for Frank Crean, his name was given to the largest lake in Prince Albert National Park.
Bill Waiser’s latest book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905, is now available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers.