Railways have long played a prominent role in the stories we tell about Canada’s development as a nation. Promising to facilitate travel and trade across the vast expanse of Canada’s geography, the construction of transcontinental railway lines was once seen as pivotal to the formation of a coherent national identity.
But railway companies also participated in the settlement of Western Canada by serving as the developers and property agents for land granted to them by the federal government. Following the transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada in 1870, railway land grants were a key component of the government’s plan to increase the population of western regions already occupied by indigenous communities, Métis settlements, and Hudson’s Bay Company outposts. Even in the early twentieth century, land grants were used to encourage the railway companies to extend their tracks across the whole of the continent, and railway construction was partly financed through the lease and sale of this land.
The Winnipeg Regional Services office holds a rich aggregation of records documenting the sale and lease of Western Canadian farm and townsite land by the Canadian National Railway and its corporate predecessors. Originating from the various subsidiary property companies linked to the Canadian National Railway, the Canadian Northern Railway, and the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, these records sketch vivid portraits of Western Canadian settlers and some of the many challenges they faced in the early and mid-twentieth century.
The files related to the sale and lease of farmland offer an especially rewarding record of Western Canadian settlers and their experiences. These files typically include a standard application form, outlining the personal background of the applicant, as well as an appraisal of the application by a company representative, whose task was to assess whether or not the applicant is “likely to make good.” These applications and appraisals offer detailed profiles of some of the farmers who came to populate the Prairie provinces and British Columbia.
As one might expect, the bulk of the other documentation found in the files devoted to the sale of farmland consists of correspondence regarding payments to be made toward the purchase of the land. While much of this correspondence is routine, one also encounters heartfelt pleas from purchasers for forgiveness on missed or late instalments, especially in correspondence from the 1930s. In explaining the circumstances behind defaulted payments, these letters frequently elaborate on disappointing harvests or the personal hardships endured by the correspondent and his or her family. In the letter below, for instance, the author relinquishes his claim to a piece of Saskatchewan farmland after first breaking his leg and then losing the year’s crop to a hailstorm.
Searching the Land records
Potentially of great interest to genealogical researchers and to researchers investigating topics such as agriculture, immigration and local history, the land development records of the Canadian National Railway and its corporate predecessors can be searched using the Collection Search tool on Library and Archives Canada’s website. First, select “Advanced search” and then select “Collections and Fonds (Archives Search)” from the “Database” drop-down menu. Then, select “Finding aid” from the drop-down menu of “Specific terms”, enter “30-130” in the box on the right, and click search. You may then choose to refine your search by adding a keyword in the “All these words” box, such as the name of a particular family, or the Dominion Land Survey coordinates for a particular piece of land.
It should be noted, however, that these files do not constitute a complete record of the land development activities undertaken by the Canadian National Railway, its predecessors and their subsidiaries. The files and registers now held by the Winnipeg office of Library and Archives Canada’s Regional Services were salvaged from Canadian National Railway storage sheds when the area of Winnipeg now known as The Forks was being prepared for redevelopment in the late 1980s. Fortunately, enough of the ledgers and files were recovered to provide a valuable documentary perspective on Western Canadian settlement in the early and mid-twentieth century.