In his recently published book, Selling Canada, historian Daniel Francis offers an engaging view of three propaganda campaigns by Canadian governments and railway companies, run between the 1880s and 1930s, that shaped the development of the country.

Francis looks at the selling of western Canada to immigrants, the Great War to Canadians and Canada to tourists. It was in the marketing of homestead lots to farmers in the British Isles that maps and atlases played a particularly key role.

The story starts in 1896, when the Dominion government acquired land, west and north of Ontario all the way to the Rockies, from the Hudson’s Bay Company and the British government. The power of map-making then took over. Dominion Land surveyors were sent out to parcel up the undulating prairie, but they didn’t concern themselves with the course of rivers, the nature of landforms, the quality of soil or the record of rainfall. The maps that resulted from their work spoke nothing of the topography on the ground; they were, however, convenient templates.

Officials in charge of populating the prairies with European homesteaders used these precise yet highly misleading maps to great advantage. The maps were incorporated into all sorts of promotional material, including atlases that were distributed free of charge throughout Western Europe and the U.S. Wall maps were distributed to every school in Britain.

The maps and accompanying imagery and Victorian iconography played to European pastoral instincts. They were designed to counter the popular perception of the Canadian Northwest as cold, wild and uninhabitable. The immigration atlases featured no pictures of snow and very few of urban Canada. Instead there were images of ample harvests and modern farmsteads.

Railway companies produced their own settlement maps in an effort to sell land parcels and encourage traffic on their lines. These maps were highly misleading, showing rail lines and station stops (such as Swift Current) that were not yet established.

With these maps and images in their minds, the immigrants arrived on the ground and found a very different reality. Daniel Francis offers the testimony of one homesteader who had been asked by a British writer about his experience in Canada.

“. . . I begin to fancy I’ve done wrong in coming,” the settler said. “Then the loneliness, the utter want of congenial society, the roughness, the immense distances and the prospect of the dreadful winter. Oh, it is all very fine, when I was at home, reading about this sort of thing; but I confess the reality sometimes appalls me.”