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"A stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat"

For the week of Monday November 22, 1999

On November 27, 1896, Federal Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton launched one of the largest successful immigration campaigns in Canadian history!

Clifford Sifton

Clifford Sifton
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-27943

Born on March 10, 1861 in Middlesex County, Ontario, Sifton graduated from Victoria University, in Cobourg, in 1880. After moving to Manitoba, Sifton practised law in Brandon and from 1888 to 1896, represented North Brandon in the Manitoba Legislative Assembly. In 1891, Sifton became attorney general and minister of education in Thomas Greenway's government before moving on to federal politics where he represented Brandon in the Canadian House of Commons from 1896 to 1911.

In 1896, Sifton became Minister of the Interior in Sir Wilfred Laurier's first cabinet. Taking advantage of a strong economic recovery that made farming in the West more attractive, Sifton embarked on a vigorous immigration campaign to promote settlement of the Canadian West. Millions of hectares of land reserved for First Nations were opened up to homesteading. The campaign was designed to attract farmers from the United States and Britain, but Sifton, unlike many of his colleagues, also looked to non-traditional areas such as east-central Europe to attract settlers. The campaign was not without controversy.

'The Last Best West' poster reproduced in Canada West, 1907

"The Last Best West" poster
reproduced in Canada West, 1907

© LAC / C-30621

Sifton believed that "a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat" made the most desirable settlers because of their willingness to work, but many disagreed. The arrival of central and southeastern Europeans caused concern in the prairies because residents felt these newcomers could not be easily "assimilated" into the dominant Anglo-Saxon society. Furthermore, Sifton's Department of the Interior did little to stimulate settlers from Quebec to the prairies, thus allowing the West to fill rapidly with English speaking settlers or those willing to learn English.

In 1905, Sifton resigned over a disagreement with Laurier about the educational clauses of the Autonomy Acts which created the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Despite the controversies, Sifton's goal of settling the West was a success. In 1896, the campaign attracted 17 000 settlers. By the time Sifton resigned, over 140 000 people had made the trek west. In 1911, Sifton withdrew from Parliament and the Liberal party over the controversial issue of Reciprocity with the United States. Thereafter, he pursued an independent, "behind the scenes," political and business career. He died in New York on April 17, 1929.

Sir Clifford Sifton is commemorated by a Historic Sites and Monument Board of Canada plaque in Brandon, Manitoba.

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