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Alberta, Past and Present, Historical and Biographical
Vol 1 - Chapter XII
Land and Colonization

One of the greatest tasks of successive Governments of Canada has been the settlement of the western prairies. Generally this has been encouraged by free grant lands to actual settlers and to colonization companies or railway corporations. In recent years, in fact since 1897, grants to railways have been discontinued and the policy of granting tracts to colonization companies has practically ceased. Land is now reserved to the actual settlers.

The first step in the settlement of the prairies was the adoption and execution of a system of survey. After the transfer of the Hudson's Bay Company's rights to the Government of Canada, immigrants began to come. The completion of the Dawson Route and the Northern Pacific Railway in 1872 gave a great impetus to immigration and created conditions which called for prompt measures to place the settlers on the land. At the time of the transfer, settlement was confined to the river banks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, where the Selkirk settlers and others occupied lots varying from one and one-half chains to twenty chains in width and extending back from the banks of the river a distance of about two miles.

The Dominion Lands Office was organized in March, 1871, under John Stoughton Dennis, Surveyor-General, and the first regulations respecting the disposal of Dominion lands were issued on April 25th, 1871. Under these regulations, unappropriated, surveyed Crown lands were offered for sale at $1.00 per acre, limited to 640 acres to any one person. Pre-emption and homestead rights were established and provision made for the first railway subsidy in the North West Territories. Lands subject to the regulations might be withdrawn from settlement to provide a strip three townships wide on each side of the route of the proposed Inter Oceanic Railway.

The first Dominion Lands Act was passed in 1872. This Act has been amended from time to time to meet the changing conditions of the country, but its main features have persisted to the present and are embodied in the Dominion Lands Act of 1908 and amendments thereto. Numerous survey parties were placed in the field under the supervision of Mr. Lindsay Russell and a grand scheme of surveys outlined which embraced the whole of the North West Territories. Meridians and bases were surveyed and explorations carried on to locate the timber areas and sources of water supply. To ensure that in any one township the greatest possible number of settlers should benefit from the timber found there and to prevent a monopoly thereof by the first settlers, the Act provided that the timbered sections should be divided into wood lots and that one lot should be apportioned to each homestead of 160 acres. This regulation applied only to surveyed lands. The right to take timber or unsurveyed lands was regulated by permit, a system which still exists.


Under the powers contained in the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, and succeeding Acts, and regulations based thereon the Dominion lands of Western Canada have been disposed of in the following way.

(1) Half breed scrip.
(2) Hudson's Bay reservations of one-twentieth of the surveyed land south of North Saskatchewan River.
(3) Lands reserved for education (school lands).
(4) Military bounty lands.
(5) Homesteads and pre-emptions to actual settlers.
(6) Grants to railway companies.
(7) Sales to colonization companies.
(8) Special sales of agricultural lands not exceeding one section; also sales of fractional quarter sections in special cases.
(9) Sale or lease of grazing, hay or marsh lands under special regulations of Governor-in-Council.
(10) Sale or lease of mining lands (i. e., containing salt, petroleum, natural gas, coal, gold, silver, copper, iron or other minerals) under special regulations of Governor-in-Council.
(11) Grants to original white settlers who were born in the North West Territories or were resident prior to March 8, 1869. This time was extended to July 15, 1870, by 38 Viet. C. 52.
(12) Indian Reservations.
(13) Soldier settlement grants.


By the Manitoba Act (Sec. 31) provision was made for the first time for land grants to the half breeds of that Province. An area of 1,400,000 acres was set apart to be distributed under regulations of the Governor-in-Council. Every half breed resident in Manitoba on July 15, 1870, and every child of such half breed became entitled to participate in the grant of 1,400,000 acres. These grants were free from any services or payment. The claims of the half breeds in the North West Territories were first dealt with in 1879. The Dominion Lands Act of that year provided for the satisfaction of the claims of the half breeds resident in the North West Territories outside the limits of Manitoba oil 15, 1870, by land grants and the issue of scrip redeemable in land. These people had settled mainly along the lake and river fronts. When this enactment was executed by the O. C. March 30, 1885, those half breeds in bona fide possession were given plots of not more than 40 acres each along the water fronts at 81.00 per acre. In addition they were allowed to select 160 acres from lands open for homestead and pre-emption entry as near as possible to their holdings. The children of half breeds born before July 15, 1870, and 1885 were given certificates entitling them to select 240 acres from any lands open for homestead entry.

A commission was appointed in 1885 consisting of Messrs W. P. R. Street, Roger Goulet and A. E. Forget to ascertain the number of half breeds in the North West Territories. On certificates issued by the commission, scrip was issued to 854 heads of families, the representatives of 264 deceased heads of families, 1,862 children, and the representatives of 466 children born in the North West Territories before July 15, 1870, but who died before 1885. The whole amount of scrip issued represented 61,020 acres of land and 8663,474.00 in money scrip redeemable in land.


By the deed of surrender from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1870, to the Crown, one-twentieth of the surveyed lands of the North West Territories, south of the North Saskatchewan River, was reserved to the Company. The right to claim the one-twentieth remained good for fifty years from the date of surrender, but all claims to lands in any township had to be made within 10 years from the date of survey. The company retained all its trading posts and stores and in addition was allowed to select parcels of land in the vicinity of the posts, the aggregate of which was not to exceed 50,000 acres throughout the whole of the North-West.. The fraction of one-twentieth of the surveyed lands is computed as follows: In every fifth row of townships the whole of sections 8 and 26 and in each and every of the other townships, the whole of section 8 and three-quarters of section 26. Out of a total of 6,556,000 acres surveyed, 2,175,700 acres are situated in Alberta. Up to March 31, 1922, the company has sold a total acreage in Western Canada of 3,544,580, for the sum of 843,345,000.


Sections 11 and 29 are set apart in every township surveyed by the Dominion Government in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and the North West Territories for the support of education. The lands are held in trust by the Dominion for the provinces. They are sold from time to time and the money invested in securities of Canada. The interest arising therefrom after deducting the cost of management is paid annually to the provinces within which such lands are situated. The money is applied exclusively to the support of public schools. Up to March 31, 1922, the area of school lands disposed of by the Dominion Government in the Province of Alberta, after making deductions for canceled sales, was 952,164 acres, valued at 313,161,415. The rate of interest allowed the Province was raised from 5 per cent to 6 per cent in 1918.


By 0. C., April 25, 1871, each officer and man of the Ontario and Quebec battalions of Rifles then stationed in Manitoba was given a free grant of 160 acres without actual residence.

By 48-49 Viet. C. 93, grants of land were given to the militiamen engaged in the suppression of the half-breed and Indian rising of 1885 in the North West Territories. Each member of the militia was given the right to homestead 320 acres in any even numbered section of unoccupied Dominion Lands, provided application was made for entry before August 1, 1886. In the following year the same rights were conferred upon members of the irregular forces engaged in suppressing the rebellion (49 Viet. C. 29). By the Volunteer Bounty Act, 1908 (7-8 Edw. VII. C. 67) every volunteer domiciled in Canada who served with the British forces in South Africa during the years from 1899 to 1902 became entitled to a grant of two adjoining quarter sections, lands available for homestead entry, subject to homesteading conditions. Provision was made for the issue of scrip instead of land. No more than 207c of the land in any one township could be opened for Military Bounty Scrip. The right to obtain military bounty grants expired October 31, 1913.


The first homestead and pre-emption regulations were authorized by O. C., April 25, 1871. These remained in force until 1879. Up to that year both odd and even numbered sections were open for entry. In that year the Government put into operation the policy of railway land subsidies and reserved for this purpose every odd numbered section. Pre-emption privileges were abolished on January 1, 1890. After 1896 the Government forced the railway companies to select all the lands they had earned and discontinued the policy of encouraging railway construction by land grants. On September 1, 1908, odd and even numbered sections were again thrown open for homestead entry. Pre-emption rights were revived at the same time to apply to that part of Alberta and Saskatchewan comprised within the following boundaries:

"Commencing where the west line of range twenty-six west of the fourth principal meridian intersects the international boundary; thence east along the international boundary to its intersection with the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railway; thence northwest along the said railway line to its junction with the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway; thence west along the Canadian Pacific Railway to the third principal meridian; thence north along the third principal meridian to the north line of township forty-four to the Calgary and Edmonton Railway; thence south along the Calgary and Edmonton Railway to its intersection with the west line of range twenty-six west of the fourth meridian; thence south along the west line of the said range twenty-six to the international boundary." Pre-emption privileges were abolished iii 1914.

Regulations governing homestead entry remain substantially the same as those first issued in 1870. Every male person over 18 years of age who is a British subject, or declares his intention to become such is entitled to obtain entry upon payment of a fee of $10.00. A widow having minor children of her own dependent upon her may make homestead entry. Application must be made by the applicant in person at the Dominion Land Office or sub-office in which the land is situated. Entry by proxy is permitted only in the case of a father, son, brother, or sister.


In 1879 the government of Canada set apart 100,000,000 acres of land in the North West Territories for the support of railway construction in Western Canada (0. C. June 28, 1879). The land regulations of 1871 were superseded by new regulations, authorized by orders in Council dated July 9, and October 14, 1879. Odd numbered sections in surveyed territory were reserved for railways. Special regulations were adopted to apply to lands situated within 110 miles on each side of the Canadian Pacific Railway. For the purposes of the regulations the line of the Canadian Pacific Railway was assumed to follow the fourth base line west of the Red River. The country on both sides of the railway line was divided into belts as follows:

(1) Belt A- 5 miles wide on each side of railway line.
(2) Belt B-15 miles wide on each side of Belt A.
(3) Belt C-20 miles wide on each side of Belt B.
(4) Belt D-20 miles wide on each side of Belt C.
(5) Belt E-50 miles wide on each side of Belt D.

The lands in Belt A were withdrawn from homestead or pre-emption entry, and placed on sale at $6.00 per acre. In the other belts the odd numbered sections were reserved for railway purposes and offered for sale at the following rates: Belt B, $5 per acre; belt C, $3.50 per acre; belt D, $2.00 per acre; belt E, $1.00 per acre. These prices were reduced shortly afterwards.

The even numbered sections were opened for homestead and preemption entry. A homesteader was entitled to a free grant of 80 acres. The prices for preemptions were as follows in the different belts: Belts B & C, $2.50 per acre; belt D, $2.00 per acre; belt E, $1.00 per acre. These regulations were changed by order in Council October 9, 1879, raising the homestead and pre-emption entries to 160 acres each. These regulations were changed again in 1881 (0. C., December 23, 1881) and again in 1889, but the general rule of classifying the lands of the North West Territories with respect to their proximity to the C. P. R. was preserved.

The regulations of 1881 classified the land as follows:

(a) Class A—Lands for 24 miles on each side of the main line of the C. P. R. or any branch thereof.
(b) Class B—Lands within 12 miles on each side of any other railway.
(c) Class C—Lands south of the main line of the C. P. R. not included in Class A or B.
(d) Class D—Lands beyond those belts.

The regulations of 1889 recognized two classes, namely:

(a) Class A—All lands in the North West Territories south of the main line of the C. P. R.
(b) Class 13—Lands not included in Class A.


The regulations of 1881 introduced a new principle in disposing of the public lands. Provision was made for sales of large tracts of land to colonization companies. The lands were to be selected from Class D mentioned above, i. e., lands situated at least 24 miles north of the main line of the C. P. R. or within 12 miles of any branch railway. Two plans were adopted:

Plan No. 1—Odd numbered sections were sold at $2.00 per acre payable in five years. In return the companies agreed to place within five years from the date of purchase two settlers on each section. The settler received 160 acres as a homestead and the right to purchase the adjoining quarter at $2.00 per acre. At the end of the five-year period the company received a rebate of one-half the original purchase price of the odd numbered sections.

Plan No. 2—To encourage settlement by capitalists who desired to cultivate larger farms than under the first plan large tracts in Class I) were sold at $2.00 per acre cash upon the condition that the colonization company would agree to place 128 settlers in each township within five years. If this condition was fulfilled the company received a rebate of one-half the original purchase price. By the end of 1883 over 26 companies were operating in the North West Territories and had purchased 2,973,978 acres of land from the Government for the sum of $857,455. An inspection of 12 out of the 26 indicated that 664 heads of families had been attracted to the country by the Companies. This method of settlement was never popular with the people of Western Canada. By Order-in-Council June 30, 1886, the Government terminated the contracts made with the Colonization Companies, and the policy was abandoned.


Leasehold privileges extend to the following classes of Dominion lands:

(a) Grazing lands, but not suitable for agriculture.
(b) Hay and marsh lands.
(c) Mineral lands and lands containing quarriable stone.
(d) Irrigation lands.
(e) Lands required for development of water power.

These privileges have continued since the first land act of 1872, though they have been varied from time to time by Order-in-Council to suit the growing conditions of settlement.

Sales or leases of any lands other than mineral lands do not convey title to the following minerals: Salt, petroleum, coal, gold, silver, copper, iron or other minerals.

Agricultural lands may be purchased in parcels not exceeding 640 acres under regulations made by the Governor-in-Council. Fractional quarters of less than 80 acres may be sold to an adjoining homesteader or owner at a rate not less than $3.00 per acre.

Soldier Settlement Land.

The return and discharge of many thousands of Canadian soldiers during the late war led to a new scheme for settling Dominion lands and increasing production, so necessary for the prosecution of the war by the Allies. By the Soldier Settlement Act of 1917, the Dominion Government undertook to assist soldier settlers with cash loans not exceeding $2,500, according to the needs of the individual soldier making homestead entry or purchasing patented lands. Power was also given to the Government to reserve any Dominion lands for the exclusive entry of soldier settlers.

The scope of this scheme was enlarged in 1919. Under the Act of that year large powers were given to the Soldier Settlement Board to reserve any Dominion lands, affect compulsory purchase of private lands for soldier settlers, to train soldiers in farming, establish training stations in agriculture and home economics for settlers and provide subsistence allowances for such settlers and their dependents during the course of training. The Board was given power to sell the land so acquired to soldier settlers for actual farming operations conducted by the purchaser. The maximum size of a farm was 320 acres. The soldier settler was required to pay 10 per cent of the purchase price at the time of the sale to him, and the balance was spread over twenty-five equal, annual instalments, with interest at 5 per cent on the amortization plan, with the privilege of full payment at any time. In addition the Board could purchase live stock and sell the same to the settler for cash, or four consecutive, equal, annual instalments, commencing not later than three years from the day of the sale of the stock to the settler, with interest at 5 per cent. Advances for permanent improvements could be made up to S1,000, repayable in twenty-five equal, annual instalments.

Under this Act 453,339 acres of Dominion lands have been settled on by 1,675 soldiers, and 691,959 acres of private or patented lands had been purchased for 3,542 soldiers in the Province of Alberta by the end of 1921.

Coal, Oil and Gas Lands:

The first regulations re coal lands were issued in 1881 (Order-in-Council December 17, 1881) and provided for twenty-one year leases of areas not greater than 320 acres, subject to a ground rent of 25 cents per acre, and a royalty of 10 cents per ton upon all coal taken out of the mine. Under these regulations it was found that lessees were consolidating their holdings and bringing large areas under one management. To obviate this practice the Government, by Order-in-Council December 26, 1882, discontinued leasing in districts where the known existence of coal close to facilities for reaching a market indicated them as early centres of the coal industry. These districts were the Souris River, Bow River, Belly River and Saskatchewan River coal districts. Provision was also made for converting leaseholds into freeholds. By Order-in-Council March 2, 1883, the lands in the above coal districts were opened for sale in areas not exceeding 320 acres to one person at the rate of $10 per acre for surface and under rights. The regulations were changed again four years later. By Order-in-Council, October 30, 1887, all minerals were reserved to the Crown in patents granted in respect of the surface rights of Dominion lands.

These regulations continued until 1907. The development of Western Canada created a great demand for coal lands, consequently the Government withdrew all coal lands from sale and established a leasing system again. By Order-in-Council March 9, 1907, new regulations were proclaimed which, with minor changes, are still in force.

Oil and gas lands are subject to regulations similar to those regulating the use of coal lands. These lands may be leased only for a period of twenty-one years, subject to certain conditions respecting drilling and development, at a rental of 50 cents per acre for the first year, and a rental of $1.00 per acre for each subsequent year during the term of the lease. The maximum area which may be acquired, except by assignment, by one person or corporation is 1,920 acres.


The Township:

Dominion lands are laid off in quadrilateral townships containing thirty-six sections of one square mile each, together with road allowances of:

one chain and fifty links wide between townships and sections. Road allowances running east and west are two miles apart, while those running north and south are one mile apart.

Meridians and Base Lines:

Townships are numbered from the First Base Line, which is the 49th parallel of latitude, northward, and lie in ranges west of certain initial meridians, the first of which is called the Principal Meridian. This is a line run from a point ten miles west of Pembina, near where the Red River crosses the International Boundary on latitude 49 North, in 1869. It runs a few miles west of Winnipeg. The number of ranges between the meridians varies from 30 at the First Base Line or township one to 26 at township 80, decreasing with increase of latitude. There are six initial meridian lines west of the First Meridian. The Fourth forms the boundary between Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Fifth runs a few miles west of Edmonton. The Sixth, the last to be surveyed, lies within 70 miles of boundary between Alberta and British Columbia.

Base lines are surveyed parallel to Latitude 49, every 24 miles. Correction lines or those resulting from the convergence of meridians lie midway between the base lines. Each section contains 640 acres more or less, and is divided into four quarter sections containing 160 acres more or less, which are described as S. E., S. W., N. W., and N. E. quarters. The sections are numbered from the south-east corner westward in each township, the second tier of sections being numbered from west to east and so on alternately throughout the township, the last section 36, being situated ifl the north-east corner of the township, as shown in the diagram below. The sections are subdivided into quarters. By this system it is possible by :1 very simple formula to designate the exact location of any quarter section in any part of the three Provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan or Alberta.

Each section is deemed to be divided in 40 acre areas known as legal subdivisions, and numbered and bounded as in the diagram below.


The total area of Alberta is placed by the Department of the Interior at 163,382,400 acres. Of this area 85,756,935 acres have been surveyed and the disposition of such lands is shown in the following statement at the end of the fiscal year, March 31, 1922:


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