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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian:Immigration Records by Patricia McGregor, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Why Did People Emigrate?
Some people actively make a choice to move and start a life in a new country. The reasons for making such a choice are varied. They can be political (such as the American War of Independence or the Russian invasion of Hungary); economic (looking for better opportunities for oneself or one’s children); religious (persecution of some religions, for example, the Protestant Huguenots in France); adventure (looking for new opportunities); military (some soldiers decided or were encouraged to stay when their units were demustered after the American Revolutionary War); or even a combination of reasons. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that in some cases emigrants had no choice, for example, deportations of criminals, indentured individuals, slaves and servants ‘owned’ by an emigrating master and those escaping the law.
Consider the following description of Oldham in Lancashire, England in an 1849 newspaper:
Angus Reach, The Morning Chronicle (1849)
The visitor to Oldham will find it essentially a mean-looking straggling town, built upon both sides and crowning the ridge of one of the outlying spurs which branch from Manchester, the neighbouring “backbone of England”. The whole place has a shabby underdone look. The general appearance of the operatives’ houses is filthy and smouldering.
Airless little back streets and close nasty courts are common; pieces of dismal waste ground—all covered with wreaths of mud and piles of blackened brick and rubbish—separate the mills, which are often of small dimensions and confined and crowded appearance. The shops cannot be complimented, the few hotels are no better than taverns, and altogether the place, to borrow a musical simile, seems far under concert pitch. I observed as I walked up from the railway station, melancholy clusters of gaunt, dirty, unshorn men lounging on the pavement. These I heard were principally hatters, a vast number of whom are out of employment. Another feature of the place was the quantity of dogs of all kinds which abounded—dog races and dog fights being both common among the lowest orders of the inhabitants.
(Article #4 from the website http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jreach.htm)
My great, great grandparents lived in Oldham and were enumerated there in the 1851 census. I often wondered what prompted two cotton mill factory workers in their 20s with a young son to come to Ontario in the 1850s to take up farming. After reading the above description, their decision is easier to comprehend.
Historical Context and Immigration Policy
While it is important to know what was going on in the home country that might make people decide to leave, that study in detail is beyond the scope of this wiki article. Instead we will look at what enticed our ancestors to come to the parts of North America that eventually became Canada. In order to understand the enticements, we do need to look briefly at the historical and political context.
The first evidence of European migration is at about 1000 AD at L’Anse aux Meadows in what is now Newfoundland. Although we are learning more about this site all the time, it is believed that this settlement was more of an interim base for fishermen than a place that grew from permanent migration. According to many historians who have written on early Canadian history, the primary attractions were fish, furs and the search for the north-west passage. Settlement was an afterthought when it was realized that populating the land was an effective way to protect claims to the resources.
Permanent settlement dates from the early years of the 17th century during a time when control of the land switched back and forth between the French and the English. One author states that England and France were at war so often that “periods of peace appeared like intermissions.” (MacEwan 1984, 25) Most of the settlers with a few exceptions came from these two countries. Before the British North America Act of 1867, the home country controlling the land also controlled immigration and settlement. After this date, legislation was made by the Canadian government recognizing the need to attract immigrants to strengthen claims to the lands, particularly in the west. The predominant migration pattern of Canadian settlement over time was from east to west. Transportation played a large role in the settlement of this vast country and the completion of the cross Canada railway allowed immigrants arriving in the east to move west at a time when most of the good farming land in the east was already taken.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Immigration Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.