by Hartwell Bowsfield

Manitoba Pageant, April 1961, Volume 6, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Almost every day in our newspapers we read about Canada's growing population, the number of new Canadians who are coming to live in our country, and of schemes and programmes by the government and private associations to bring still more people to Canada.

Over five million people from distant lands have come to Canada to make new homes here since 1900. In 1870, Manitoba's population was about 12,000; by 1961 it had reached nearly one million.

Until the end of the 19th century there was no systematic Canadian immigration policy. About 1896 the government began to plan an aggressive programme which, it was hoped, would attract settlers to Canada to fill up the vast and empty spaces of half a continent.

This story is about a Manitoba man who had such a policy thirty years earlier. After five years in the Red River Settlement, Thomas Spence considered himself a failure. Ile had come west in 1866 to advocate the idea of a Canadian Confederation in which all the western lands then owned by the Hudson's Bay Company would be joined with the provinces in the East. When this came about he expected the Canadian government would reward him for his services. However, he did not, receive the recognition or the public offices that he desired. Thomas Spence was determined to find a government job for himself. A few months after Manitoba became a province in 1870, Spence, who was in need of money to support his family, wrote to Adams G. Archibald, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba, asking the government to purchase an essay he had written on immigration. This essay, he said, was intended to be an information pamphlet for distribution abroad — an advertising scheme to make known to the people of Europe the advantages of the Canadian West as compared with the western states of the United States.

A trainload of settlers from South Dakota, May 1891.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

A Committee on Agriculture and Immigration of the Manitoba Legislature considered the essay; they recommended it, and in 1871 it appeared in print.

A month after he had written this essay, Spence outlined to the Lieutenant-Governor another scheme for immigration — a scheme in which he could find some employment. This scheme is probably the first detailed immigration plan outlined for Western Canada.

Spence thought that since Manitoba was so far inland immigrants would settle in Eastern Canada unless an organized plan of informing people in Europe of the possibilities and resources of the West was established. He suggested an immigration agent be appointed to reside in Europe during the winter who through advertising and lectures would make Manitoba known as an attractive place to settle.

During the winter this agent would conduct and supervise the passage of five or six hundred people at a time across the Atlantic and to the West. The agent, Spence added, might also try to interest railway builders in a railway line from Fort Garry to the Pacific.

Such an agent, he said, would have to be a man who had personal knowledge of Manitoba's resources and one with experience in the country. And the man Thomas Spence suggested for the job of Immigration Agent was — of course — Thomas Spence.

It is true that Spence had some experience in this field. In Scotland in 1856, he had started a monthly publication called the Scottish Canadian Emigration Advocate, a paper intended to promote the settling of Scottish people in Canada. Spence expected some help from the Canadian authorities in carrying on this work and when the paper failed he blamed the Canadian government for its lack of interest in the plan. In 1858, Spence had been recommended to the Canadian government by the Ottawa City Council as a competent person to undertake a plan of encouraging immigration to Canada. He was again disappointed for no action was taken.

Spence was therefore disillusioned in his attempts to interest the government in an immigration plan. He now hoped that, after many failures and reverses, he could get, from the Manitoba government, an appointment worthy of his abilities. He still hoped that he would not have cause to regret his decision to come west to find a place for himself.

Thomas Spence never received the immigration post in Europe that he wanted. Yet he contributed much to Canada's immigration plans. The many pamphlets he wrote on the subject did much to make known to immigrants in Europe and people in Eastern Canada the opportunities that awaited them in the West.

And we should add that his plan of advertising, lecturing, immigration agents, and government sponsored schemes was essentially the plan adopted by the Canadian government when it set out in earnest towards the end of the century to organize an immigration programme.

Spence never lived to witness the great growth in population that would result from this programme. Disappointed with his reverses in Eastern Canada and in Manitoba he moved on to The North West Territories where, as an assistant in the Lands Registry Office in Edmonton, he died in 1890.

A future issue will present the story of Thomas Spence's attempt to organize the "Republic of Manitobah" at Portage la Prairie in 1868.

Page revised: 1 July 2009