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Expansion, Immigration and Settlement

Lord Selkirk, Red River colony, Lower Canada, tenant farmers, Eastern Townships

At the beginning of the 19th century a flood of immigrants came to British North America from England, Scotland, and Ireland. Probably a million people migrated from these countries to British North America between 1815 and 1850. By the 1840s, British North America had 1.5 million people: 650,000 in Lower Canada, 450,000 in Upper Canada, and more than 300,000 in Atlantic Canada. About half the immigrants were English, but Irish immigrants became more numerous than English in the 1830s, and particularly after 1845, when famine struck Ireland. Scots immigration increased when tenant farmers in the Scottish Highlands were evicted from their land to allow large-scale sheep farming. The immigrants from Ireland and Scotland included both Catholics and Protestants, and Catholics became a sizable minority in all the English-speaking colonies.

People who had acquired land and wanted to establish colonies recruited other immigrants. Lord Selkirk encouraged immigration not only to Red River, but also to Prince Edward Island and Upper Canada. The Canada Company, a land company chartered by the British government, sought settlers for the large tract of Upper Canada that it acquired in 1826. Most people, however, came on their own. They risked the dangers of the passage and periodic outbreaks of shipborne cholera (particularly in 1832) and typhus (1847).

The greatest number of these immigrants settled in Upper Canada, which was considered “a good poor man’s country” because immigrants willing to work hard for a generation or more could acquire potentially valuable farmland. Upper Canada became the fastest-growing part of British North America. Atlantic Canada also attracted many immigrants, though fewer went to Newfoundland than to the other colonies. In Lower Canada, immigration caused the English-speaking population to grow in Quebec City, the Ottawa River valley, Montreal, and the Eastern Townships (east of Montreal). French Canadians, however, remained the largest ethnic group in Lower Canada.

Immigration made the colonies more British. It also made the indigenous nations minorities in most areas east of the Great Lakes. Land cession treaties gave them small reserves, but the hunting rights and other guarantees made to them in these treaties were rarely respected. Few immigrants went far west or north, and the indigenous nations remained dominant in the vast HBC lands. On the plains, the mounted hunting societies, who did not depend on the fur trade, lived independently on the still-abundant bison. The Red River colony continued, but the additions to its population were chiefly Metis, who were proud of their role as a new people different from both the indigenous peoples and the Europeans. There was little contact with the colonies to the east before midcentury. Then, however, as Upper Canada’s farm population grew, some of its leaders began considering the west as potential space for expansion.

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