Manitoba History: Book Review: Sarah Carter, Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies

by Margaret Jacobs
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Number 84, Summer 2017

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Sarah Carter, Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016, 480 pages. ISBN: 978-0-88755-818-4, $31.95 (paperback)

Building on her previous scholarship on farming and marriage policy on the Canadian prairies, Sarah Carter has written a bold new history of homesteading in western Canada that will be of interest not only to Canadian historians but also to scholars of gender and colonialism worldwide.

Carter has crafted a complex argument with two main parts. First, she asserts that Canadian dominion lands legislation established homesteading as an “overwhelmingly male preserve” (p. 3). After 1876, neither single nor married women were eligible to homestead. Only women who were “sole” heads of households—generally widows with children—could qualify. Efforts by both British and British-Canadian women to gain homesteading rights for women failed miserably.

Not content with this simple argument, Carter takes it one-step further. She argues that the women who promoted homesteads for women occupied an ambiguous place in the colonial order. They “were devoted to the British Empire” (p. 4) and “hoped to garner support [for female homesteaders] by articulating an imperialist vision to demonstrate their fitness for the land denied to them yet available to ‘foreign’ men” (p. 11). This complex argument enriches Imperial Plots.

Carter is careful to state and to show that nothing was natural or inevitable about the gendered dimensions of the homesteading system. She begins her first chapter by describing the role of Indigenous woman farmers as the “main economic drivers” (p. 29) of the Great Plains regional economy well into the 19th century. Moreover, she shows that the United States and other British settler colonies, including Australia and New Zealand, chose to allow single women to homestead. Originally, too, the 1872 Dominion Lands Act followed the pattern of the U.S. 1862 Homestead Act and permitted single women to make homestead claims.

However, in 1876, lawmakers amended the Act to make it impermissible for single women who were not the sole heads of household to homestead. Carter cites the influence of conservative surveyors and clerks on policymakers. She argues that these men and other Canadian observers believed women to be incapable of the hard physical labour of farming, despite evidence that early women woman homesteaders in Manitoba were more likely than men to prove up on their claims (which meant building a habitable dwelling, successfully cultivating their land, and living on their claim for at least six months each year for three years). Ignoring the reality of women’s successful homesteading, Canadian policymakers, Carter asserts, equated women’s work in the field with savagery and deemed it vital to the imperial enterprise to demonstrate that colonizers were superior to Indigenous people by keeping women from work in the fields.

The architects of Canada’s homesteading system had twin goals—to dispossess Indian people of their land as they repopulated the West with European (ideally British) settlers and to re-establish a patriarchal gender order. Officials wanted women of British descent to come to western Canada not as independent landowners, but as dependent wives who would propagate white settlers, not crops. As one supporter of British colonization put it, “Colonization without women is futile.... whereas a thousand Englishmen in a colony are a thousand men and none more, every Englishwoman that you take out at the same time carries with her, as it were, four potential English colonists as well” (p. 9).

Supporters of women’s rights in Britain and Canada had other ideas. They believed that single British and British-Canadian women should move to the prairies as landowners in their own right. Homesteads for women could solve the purported problem of “surplus” women in Britain. Becoming farmers would enable these well educated, middle class women to support themselves. British women set up organizations such as the British Women’s Emigration Association, founded in 1901, and colonial training schools to prepare women to take up farming on “free” lands in the colonies. I would have liked Carter to provide more information about how large and influential these British organizations were.

Some Canadian women circulated petitions asking the government to enable single women to homestead at the same time as they fought for the vote and reinstatement of dower’s rights (assured inheritance of one-third of a husband’s estate) at the turn of the 20th century. Increasingly, these women’s groups advanced the idea that homesteads should be for “daughters of British blood” rather than “hordes of men of alien race[s]” (p. 308). Carter devotes an entire chapter to one ardent supporter of homesteading, Georgina Binnie-Clark, a British woman who purchased 320 acres near Fort Qu’Appelle in 1905 and became devoted to the cause of Englishwomen farming wheat on the prairies. Here, too, I wanted to know more about how extensive this Canadian movement was. Were these significant and well-known movements at the time or small and marginalized?

Carter shows that despite efforts to thwart women from owning and farming land, some persevering women managed to do so. She includes chapters on widows and women who bought land with South African scrip (gained from volunteering in the South African War of 1899-1902) and Métis scrip (which entitled the bearer to an allotment of land), and women who purchased land outright from the Canadian Pacific Railway. She includes a fascinating section on women who had been deserted by their husbands and futilely sought to gain homesteads. One such woman, Clara Lynch, pointedly critiqued how the law considered any man to be a head of household but required women to prove that they were responsible for their families before they could claim a homestead. Many “male bipeds” in her own neighbourhood, she remarked, “have homestead entry, who are not, and in all human probability, never will be heads of families” (p. 189). Some women who farmed their own land, including the British-born woman, ‘Jack’ May, dressed in men’s clothing. All women who farmed made themselves vulnerable to public stigmatization.

Carter’s book is clear, convincing, and compelling in regard to Canada. A paradox arises when she compares Canada to other settler colonies, including Australia, the United States, and New Zealand. Carter and many other scholars argue that white women’s reproductive roles—both in a physical and social sense—were essential to settler colonial enterprises. Carter quotes the historian Jane Carey, for example, who wrote that if “settler colonialism was driven by the ‘logic of elimination’ in relation to Indigenous peoples, then the imperative of vigorous white propagation was its necessary corollary” (p. 9). The need for white women in settler colonial projects may have compelled the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand to grant free land to white single women woman settlers. The question remains as to why Canada, which was just as intent on eliminating Indigenous claims to land and propagating the white race on the prairies, rejected this notion? Carter argues that Canadian officials feared that the gender order would be subverted by enabling white women to gain land independently of men. A similar concern for maintaining the gender order prevailed in other settler colonial nations as well, so why was this fear more pronounced in Canada? Carter does not resolve this paradox, but her book enriches scholarly inquiry on gender and empire worldwide.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 26 November 2020