A review of Imperial Plots by Sarah Carter

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Imperial Plots: Women, Land and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies
by Sarah Carter
University of Manitoba Press
2016, !SBN: 970-0-88755-818-4, October 2016, 480 pages

Picture a woman in a wheat field operating a horse-drawn mower with a baby on her lap, or a pair of women ranchers riding the range in trousers and cowboy hats. These are just two of the images presented in Canadian historian Sarah Carter’s landmark work, Imperial Plots: Women, Land and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies.

Women in indigenous communities farmed the North American Great Plains for centuries before the coming of white settlers. With the arrival of Europeans, however, female dominance in food-growing gradually diminished. When the “Dominion of Canada” was founded under the British North America Act of 1867, Canada took over the Great Plains of North America above the 49th parallel, and women were relegated to a support role.

Aboriginal women, men and children were dispossessed and relegated to reserves, and the land was deemed empty and in need of settlement. The Canadian government took a colonial attitude toward settlement of the west and envisioned that the land would be farmed by families headed by men. Although many settlers were newcomers from Eastern Europe and the United States, “[i]n the Canadian West a sense of Britishness combined with whiteness to distinguish the elites who would rule from those who would be subject to rule.” The idea of women working on the land seemed contrary to the natural gender division of labour, and a “regression to savagery.”

The 1872 Dominion Lands Act allowed single women, along with single and married men, to apply for 160 acre grants of free Crown land on which to homestead, but a change to the law in 1876 denied this opportunity to single women. (Married women had never had the right to file a claim on the free land.) Women who were sole heads of households with a minor child or children could file a claim to free land, but these women, usually widows, were suspected by government officials as not really being on their own, and were scrutinized for fraud in a way that male homesteaders were not.

If a woman could afford to buy land, her marital status did not matter. Carter tells the stories of a variety of women settlers, including Isobel “Jack” May, an English farmer who settled briefly in Alberta in 1911 and became the focus of journalists’ attention because she wore male attire and had a female partner. Another noteworthy woman settler was Georgina Binnie-Clark, daughter of a valet who had come from a farm labouring family in England. Georgina became a journalist and in 1905, purchased a 320 acre wheat farm in Saskatchewan.

Binnie-Clark became devoted to the cause of British women farming on the Canadian prairie. The 1851 British census reported a significant number of “surplus women” from the middle class who were entering over-crowded occupations like seamstress or governess, and a movement arose to promote their immigration to the colonies. Officialdom wanted them to become domestic servants and eventually, settlers’ wives, but women’s groups, mostly composed of well-to-do women, advocated that British women be allowed to claim free land and homestead in Western Canada, arguing that their presence would have a civilizing, uplifting influence which was better than the cultures of Eastern Europeans.

The story of this movement is largely a “history of dashed hopes and plans for imperial plots,” writes Carter. Government and Canadian Pacific Railway officials (all men), subscribed to the myths that women lacked the technological and physical ability to farm successfully. In practice, wives and daughters of homesteaders frequently performed hard physical toil and operated machinery.  Carter’s study uncovered many women who farmed and ranched, some quite successfully.

Imperial Plots is groundbreaking because Carter puts Indigenous people and women in the foreground of her account of how the west was settled.  Her extensive research and reader-friendly style make her book appealing to scholars and general readers.

About the reviewer: Ruth (Olson) Latta has a Master’s degree in History from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Her most recent book is Grace and the Secret Vault, an historical novel.