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Into the Great Wide Open

For the week of Monday July 5, 2004

On July 10, 1871, a survey party from the Dominion Government placed the first marker of the Dominion Lands Survey on the Principal Meridian and created a survey system that extends across the prairies to the pacific coast, dividing more than 321 million kilometres of land in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and parts of British Columbia.

Settlers wishing to acquire homesteads rush to the land office in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan
© Library and Archives of Canada / PA-029550
Sir John A. Macdonald’s government devised a plan to divide the territory of the western prairies into equal townships of 36 sections, each comprising one-square mile, incorporating equal land grants for new settlers. This plan became known as the Dominion Lands Policy and it was based mostly on the American Homestead Act that granted men the chance to claim a quarter section of 160 acres of land as a homestead. Unlike the Americans, the Canadian system allowed farmers to acquire neighbouring plots of land to amass a greater area for homesteading. Surveying began on a large scale in 1871 and Macdonald appointed Col. John Stoughton Dennis as surveyor-general.

Canada passed the Dominion Lands Act in 1872, a bill that aimed to encourage the settlement of the prairies. In order to prepare for the homestead demands, the government divided the western lands into townships. These townships ran parallel to each other along base lines or meridians running either east-west or north-south. The act allowed 160 acres for the price of $10.00 to any farmer who agreed to break and cultivate at least 30 acres and build a permanent residence within three years. Much of the land distributed to the settlers was not suitable for farming, causing difficulties for some settlers, and for others, loss of their homesteads.

Dominion Lands Survey Commemorative Monument marks the Principal Meridian and the beginning of the survey
© Photo courtesy of the Association of Manitoba Land Surveyors
Almost half the land along the main line of the Canada Pacific Railway (CPR) was reserved as payment for the CPR and subject to private sale. The government’s survey system opened almost half the arable land in the west to free grant settlement. The CPR owned most of the remaining land while the Hudson Bay Company was allocated 10%. The remaining land in each township was reserved for schools.

The survey system devised in the 1870s formed the basis of the land disposal system that contributed to establishing the western provinces. As the system that determined the settlement patterns of Western Canada, the Dominion Lands Survey System was designated an event of national historic significance.

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