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
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.