Dominion Lands Act

Dominion Lands Act

The Dominion Lands Act (short for An Act Respecting the Public Lands of the Dominion) was an 1872 Canadian law that aimed to encourage the settlement of Canada's Prairie provinces. It was closely based on the United States Homestead Act, setting conditions in which the western lands could be settled and their natural resources developed. In order to settle the area, Canada invited mass emigration by European and American pioneers, as well as settlers from eastern Canada. It echoed the American homestead system by offering ownership of 160 acres of land free (except for a small registration fee) to any man over 18 or any woman heading a household. They need not be citizens, but had to live on the plot and improve it.



The act only applied in the Prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and (prior to 1905) the Northwest Territories. Unlike the other provinces, the prairies were split-off from the Northwest Territories. When they were created, the federal government retained control over the public lands and natural resources. Without this control, the federal government would have lacked the jurisdiction to enforce the Dominion Lands Act.

The act gave a claimant a homestead area (160 acres, or 65 hectares) for free, the only cost to the farmer being a $10 administration fee. Any male farmer who agreed to cultivate at least 40 acres (16 ha) of the land and build a permanent dwelling on it (within three years) qualified. This condition of "proving up the homestead" was instituted to prevent speculators from gaining control of the land.

The act also launched the Dominion Lands Survey, which laid the framework for the layout of the Prairie provinces that continues to this day.

An important difference between the Canadian and U.S. systems was that farmers under the Canadian system could buy a neighboring lot for an additional $10 registration fee. This allowed most farmsteads to quickly double in size, and was especially important in the southern Palliser's Triangle area of the prairies, which was very arid. There it is all but impossible to have a functional farm on only 160 acres (0.65 km2), but it could be managed with 320. Canadian agriculture was consequently more successful than U.S. agriculture in this arid region.[1]

Bloc settlements were encouraged by Clause 37 which allowed associations of 10 or more settlers to group their houses together to form a settlement to fulfil their cultivation obligations on their own homestead while residing in a hamlet.


The success of the Dominion Lands Act overall is questionable. Large-scale immigration to the prairies did not get underway until 1896 (immigrants prior to then generally preferring to live in the U.S. due to a protracted recession in Canada that followed confederation). Also, the first version of the act set up extensive exclusion zones. Claimants were limited to areas further than 20 miles (32 km) from any railway (much of the land closer having been granted to the railways at the time of construction). Since it was extremely difficult to farm wheat profitably if you had to transport it over 20 miles (32 km) by wagon, this was a major discouragement. Farmers could buy land within the 20 mi (32 km) zone, but at a much higher price of $2.50 per acre ($6.20/ha). In 1879 the exclusion zone was shrunk to only 10 miles (16 km) from the tracks; and in 1882 it was finally eliminated.

Less than half the arable land in the West was ever to open to farmers (the Canadian Pacific Railway owned most of the rest). The Hudson's Bay Company, which had once owned the entire prairies, had kept 10 per cent of the land, and additional areas were set aside for schools and government buildings.


The act went through many changes and amendments, finally being done away with in 1918 (when a new system was set up designed to help World War I veterans settle more easily). In 1930, Parliament passed the Natural Resources Transfer Acts, turning over the control of public lands and resources in the prairies to the provinces, thus relinquishing its right to the lands. Overall, about 478,000 square kilometres of land were given away by the government under the Dominion Lands Act.

Some historians argue that the Dominion Lands Act encouraged premature settlement of the West since many of the farms settled under the act later failed.[citation needed]

See also


Further reading

  • Kirk N. Lambrecht. The administration of Dominion lands, 1870-1930 (1991)


  1. ^ David J. Wishart, ed., Encyclopedia of the Great Plains (2004) p 864

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