Imperial Plots

Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies

Reviewed by Penni Mitchell

April 22, 2017

Poor Elizabeth Edmundson. She was confined to a Calgary jail for nine months in 1910 for the simple reason that women were not permitted to claim or to “make entry” on homesteads on the Canadian prairies — unless they were widowed and had dependent children. So she lied.

Edmundson, who had fled from New York and a reportedly violent husband, was just one of the many women who succumbed to temptation and altered their situations to fit the criteria for homesteads on Crown land in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Imperial plots, indeed.

During the early years of the last century, as Sarah Carter sharply illustrates, women were scrutinized by government authorities in ways that male homesteaders were not. If a woman took a lover, she risked being disqualified as the “head” of her household — and she could lose the land. As a result of such scrutiny, many of the female homesteaders who told tales just shy of the truth got caught. During an era when divorce was all but impossible to obtain, single mothers often opted to be known as widows in order to become homesteaders.

While many women horned their way into land ownership, others campaigned openly for equal homestead rights for women. This was the mission of Georgina Binnie-Clark, a Brit who fell in love with Saskatchewan in 1905 but was not allowed to make entry on a homestead as a single woman.

Binnie-Clark’s campaign was not successful, though she eventually purchased a farm. Single men over the age of eighteen, however, were encouraged to make entry on 160-acre homesteads. They had to clear and cultivate the land, build a home, and reside in it for six months of the year. After three years, a homesteader who “proved up” was granted a patent for the land.

If anyone can take the topic of colonial settlement on the prairies and make it sing, it’s Carter. A historian in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, her focus is the intersection of gendered colonial-Indigenous relations on the prairies. Her previous and equally illuminating book, The Importance of Monogamy, outlined the gendered, racialized terrain of colonial powers and matrimonial laws in the West, where traditional Indigenous unions tended to be more lenient and female-friendly than Christian marriages.

With Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies, Carter has again proven her talents. As the title suggests, plots come in many types. One sort involves the schemes of would-be landowners like Edmundson, and another is the plots of land themselves.

The other plot Carter identifies — importantly, the one that preceded the two others — is the plot to expand the Dominion of Canada.

This involved moving Indigenous people off lands they inhabited and building a railway that would secure the prairies against American encroachment. Carter’s book meticulously documents how the Canadian West was moulded under the Dominion Lands Act of 1872. Indians were not permitted to homestead.

Through her analysis of gender and race, we see how Canada gave much of that rural land to white male farmers — largely, but not exclusively, those of British origins. By examining documents written by and about both single settler women and government officials, Imperial Plots provides a valuable correction to the masculinist lens through which prairie history is so often viewed.

Penni Mitchell is managing editor of Herizons magazine and the author of About Canada: Women’s Rights (Fernwood Publishing), a brief history of women’s rights in Canada.

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