“The New El Dorado” – Attracting Settlers to the West

Poster with prominent words “Canada” and “Lecture.” The other words vary in size, and all are printed in blue ink against a sepia background.

Poster advertising a lecture in Glasgow, Scotland on the subject of Canada and the benefits of settling there (MIKAN 1437596)

“160-ACRE FARMS IN WESTERN CANADA – FREE!” So trumpeted one of the many posters printed by Canada’s Department of the Interior to entice immigrants to Western Canada. Between 1886 and the early 1930s, the Department of the Interior ran a vast publicity campaign to attract immigrant farming families to settle in the Prairies. Posters, pamphlets, leaflets, and exhibits in multiple languages were distributed across Europe and the United States to recruit as many immigrants as possible. Settlements linked directly to this campaign include 500 Ukrainian families who arrived in Dauphin, Manitoba in May of 1897, and the Barr Colony, a group of British settlers who arrived in present-day Lloydminster, Alberta in May of 1903.

A small card printed in Norwegian with lettering and background alternating between colours of blue and sepia.

A Norwegian card advertising free land in Canada (MIKAN 2945660)

As the steward of government records, Library and Archives Canada holds a large collection of the promotional materials used during this publicity campaign. The materials were designed to promote an idealized version of the West. Images of lush green landscapes, well-fed cattle, and harvests of golden grain were commonly used. Negative aspects of the Prairies, such as cold weather and isolation, were downplayed.

Brightly coloured poster shows a man carrying a bundle of wheat under one arm and a boy in the other. A basket of potatoes, tomatoes, garlic and onions is at his feet, and in the background are some chickens and pigs, a herd of cattle, and a farmhouse.

“Canada – The New Homeland” (MIKAN 2958967)

Private companies were involved in the campaign too. Shipping and rail companies used these same government-issued images to encourage settlers to come to Canada.

Colourful poster illustrating a mountainous landscape divided by an international border, with two men representing each country standing on either side. The picture is set between a recruitment slogan and train travel information between the two countries.

“40,000 Men Needed in Western Canada…” (MIKAN 2837964)

Recruitment tactics changed over time as the Prairies developed and printing techniques improved. Most early posters of the 1880s and 1890s (like the first image) were limited to text and small pictures. These posters featured information on the West, and promoted the benefits of free land. Different colours and sizes of print combined with small symbols and pictures were used to get people’s attention. As printing technology improved, large colourful pictures replaced words. Some posters used a mix of text and pictures, with each section boxed to create a patchwork effect.

Colourful poster highlighting farm scenes in “Western Canada” on a decorative backdrop of golden wheat and maple leaves. Slogans surrounding the images advertise information and advice.

“Western Canada: The New Eldorado” (MIKAN 2945432)

Other posters, especially later examples, used brightly coloured pictures with short slogans and the name of the department or company.

Brightly coloured poster with “Canada” printed in large red letters across the top, birds flying over golden wheat fields encircled below, and a slogan and space for contact information at the bottom.

“Build Your Nest in Western Canada” (MIKAN 1433941)

The campaign worked. The immigration of Ukrainian settlers and Barr colonists was just the beginning; thousands more settled in the Prairies, motivated by the promise of free land and a new life. Yet many did not succeed. Drawn by an idealized version of the West portrayed in the campaign, the newcomers were unprepared for the realities of their new home. However, those who did succeed changed society and helped shape the Prairies into what they are today.

Related Resources


Vasanthi Pendakur is an exhibitions assistant in the Exhibitions and Online Division of Library and Archives Canada

2 thoughts on ““The New El Dorado” – Attracting Settlers to the West

  1. Why not even a mention of the fact that Indigenous people were being displaced and their traditional way of life made impossible by this influx of settlers — at least by way of noting their absence from the posters you have chosen? That seems an essential, critical piece of historical context.

    • Hello,
      Thank you for your comment.

      Yes, this is an essential point which is in fact, acknowledged in the physical exhibition, opening on June 5th at 395 Wellington.

      In this blog series, each article represents a particular focus entirely chosen by the guest curator. However, we welcome any additional context that can be provided by readers.

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