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The Selkirk (Red River) Settlement

The French philosopher and essayist Voltaire sneeringly commented that Canada was essentially "a few acres of snow." During much of the 18th and 19th centuries, commentary in both England and France echoed Voltaire's limited sentiments. Rupert's Land was to be managed exclusively for the fur trade because the land was unfit for any other type of industry. Thus, plans for organizing agriculturally-based colonies were strongly discouraged.

Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk, campaigned heavily to begin a colonization project along the Red River Valley in what is today known as Manitoba. In 1811, the Earl of Selkirk was granted nearly 300 000 square kilometres of land by the Hudson's Bay Company. At the time, social upheaval in Scotland had left a number of farming families destitute, and Selkirk wanted to provide them with new economic opportunities so long as they agreed to emigrate across the Atlantic Ocean. The Selkirk (Red River) Settlement lasted from 1825 to 1836 and faced increasingly arduous circumstances year after year. Wars broke out, floods washed away attempts at settlement, and there were ongoing disagreements with local fur traders and Métis. However, the prospect of free land continued to lure many new settlers to the area.

Grant MacEwan asserts that the Red River Settlement provided the foundation for western Canadian agriculture and its subsequent development. He also suggests that Lord Selkirk and the whole Selkirk Settlement experience did not receive appropriate credit from historians. According to MacEwan, Lord Selkirk is Western Canada's founding farmer. Selkirk believed in the potential of the West, and through perseverance he laid the foundation for agricultural development in the decades to follow.

The Selkirk Settlement was regarded by those who studied the subject as the first agricultural enterprise in the Canadian West. Without Selkirk's ideas and contributions development in the West would have been significantly delayed, and MacEwan ponders if the Government of Canada would have been interested in 1869 in buying the lands of the West which traders continually insisted were unfit for any other industry except the fur trade. Had the Government of Canada not acted, would the United States, acting on instincts fabricated by Manifest Destiny, have purchased this land? MacEwan seems to think so. Without the efforts of Lord Selkirk and the colonizer, Western Canadian history could have played out very differently.

MacEwan's Cornerstone Colony is a detailed record of the settlement and shows very clearly how the sheer survival of the Selkirk Settlement was of great significance in future years. The Selkirk Settlement forms the foundation for Western Canadian identity, particularly in how the colony demonstrated steadfast determination in developing agricultural practices.


MacEwan, Grant. Cornerstone Colony: Selkirk's Contribution to the Canadian West. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1977.

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