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No. 111

Projecting Images of the Nation: The Immigration Program and Its Use of Lantern Slides

by Ellen Scheinberg and Melissa K. Rombout


The National Archives of Canada preserves several outstanding collections of photographic lantern slides which capture detailed scenic views taken across the country during the early part of this century.1The fragile hand-coloured glass slide, which fits neatly into the palm of one's hand, was the basis of a popular form of entertainment known as the "magic lantern show" during the nineteenth century.It was first used in Canada for government purposes by the Department of Agriculture during the early 1890s, initially as a method of promoting Canada's produce abroad and then as a vehicle to promote immigration to Canada.Shortly thereafter, the Department of the Interior, under the direction of Sir Clifford Sifton, harnessed this same medium, along with other forms of publicity, to promote immigration to the Canadian West.

From 1896 until his departure from the Department in 1905; Sifton expanded the publicity and immigration programs within the Department in support of his goal of rapidly populating the Canadian prairies with immigrant farmers and agricultural workers.Sifton described the ideal immigrant as'' a stalwart peasant in a sheep-skin coat born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children."2In order to attract these hearty farmers, Sifton established a new civil service section to encourage immigration to Canada.While the development of immigration policy and its administration took place in Ottawa, recruitment activity was conducted "in the field" through agents stationed in Canada's overseas offices.Although there were offices in European countries such as England, Ireland, Scotland, France and Belgium, as well as the United States, the promotional campaign was primarily focussed in England, and to a lesser extent Ireland and Scotland.


Posters like this one were used to promote lantern slide lectures

The individuals who were assigned the task of carrying out the Department's mission abroad were the immigration agents.Their role was to stimulate immigration and encourage the selection of Canada as the place of settlement.3The agents spent their time affixing billboards and posters of Canada across the cities and "tramped the countryside" distributing literature, giving lectures and promoting the benefits of Canadian life.During the immigration boom years, from the late nineteenth century until the late 1920s, the overseas agents bombarded European and American audiences with promotional material such as posters, pamphlets and tracts publicizing the free land grants that were available in the Canadian West to prospective farmers.One agent, in fact, directly compared their role to that of missionaries, stating that "our agents would be equipped as missionaries of Canada, carrying propaganda to the smallest town and the remotest hamlet."4

While the zeal of the overseas agents strongly contributed to the campaign to populate the West, it was the Immigration Program's sophisticated advertising methods that served to capture the imaginations of European and American audiences.The communication techniques developed and utilized by the Department were the most advanced promotional devices of the time.Historian Harold Troper illustrated this point, stating that the Canadian government "welded the essence of the immigration policy to contemporary techniques of business-promotion, management and advertising know-how -- each tempered by a keen awareness of political reality."5Sifton himself viewed the work of the overseas agents as similar to that of marketing or sales, declaring that "in my judgement, the immigration work has to be carried on in the same manner as the sale of any commodity; just as soon as you stop advertising and missionary work the movement is going to stop."6

At the same time that immigration agents were fulfilling the federal immigration mandate, there were also provincial agents abroad, as well as non-departmental agents employed by transportation companies such as Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways, and privately-owned Canadian shipping companies, all of whom were engaged in circulating their own publicity to recruit immigrants.The Canadian government agents and company agents, in turn, would frequently work in tandem with company booking agents, who were responsible for selling tickets for passage on the ship and railway lines.Other countries such as Australia and the United States were also actively involved in circulating propaganda about their respective countries for the same purpose of recruiting immigrants.There was therefore a great deal of competition amongst the different countries advertising abroad, as well as the different Canadian transportation companies, all of whom were eager to sign up as many potential immigrants as possible.


Immigrants awaiting departure for Canada on dockyards at Liverpool, England, n.d. (photo attributed to John Woodruff, PA-173009)

Sifton's immigration policy welcomed almost any immigrant willing to work the land; however, his successor, Frank Oliver, introduced a more racially and culturally-restrictive immigration policy after 1905, favouring Anglo-Saxon immigrants who were deemed most able to assimilate.Consequently; most of the recruiting activity after this time took place in the English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish countryside, in order to attract potential farmers and agricultural workers who fit the new, more restrictive standard for " desirable" immigrants.7In his report to the Department, W.G. Stuart, the agent for Scotland, illustrated the benefits of focusing his efforts and lecturing campaign in the countryside, asserting that "I avoid the large towns for lecturing purposes, because of the expense of arranging meetings and the difficulty of getting the right people to attend." He continued to state that " the country parishes provide the best field for successful work, and in other respects the class of emigrants are more desirable."8

The projection of photographs, whose technological origins conveyed a purportedly neutral and authoritative message to viewers, was ideal for the communication of federal initiatives to a general populace.Also of significance was the fact that the images were conveyed by projection onto the wall of the community hall or church basement -the audience responded to information conveyed literally on beams of light.In this way; both overt and implicit appeals to prospective immigrants were thus ephemeral and somewhat mysterious.During the height of the lantern slide lectures' popularity during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; the presentations would often attract crowds of 800 to 1,200 people, many of whom travelled from miles away to see the shows.9The lecture season ran from October to March, following the harvest, a period in which farmers had more leisure time to attend these types of exhibitions.For many people, the lectures were viewed not only as an opportunity to learn about Canada, but as a form of mass entertainment which served as a type of escapism from the burdens of rural life.For the agents, the lectures provided an opportunity to attract large crowds of people who would be exposed to the benefits of the Dominion and hopefully receptive to the prospect of immigrating to Canada.

Although moving film or "cinematograph" shows were available to the public in small towns at the one, two and three-penny theatres and used by immigration agents from the turn of the century on, many of the agents preferred to use the lantern slides, since they were not only less expensive to run, but perhaps more importantly; afforded the lecturers with the opportunity to provide their own opinions about Canada.The projection of nitrate-based moving films at that time also required a special hall with fireproof appliances and a special licence, which was often difficult to obtain.The Assistant Superintendent of Immigration, J . Obed Smith, in a letter to W.D. Scott, Superintendent of Immigration, described another advantage of using lantern slide shows over cinematic projections, arguing that the film shows " draw from the streets a class of person that we are not desirous of seeking." In contrast, he asserted, "the audience that was drawn to an ordinary lantern slide lecture on Canada was one which had come there to learn something serious about the Dominion, and not merely save a penny, which might be charged for some other cinematograph exhibition."10


1. The National Archives possesses some of the images that were used by the Immigration Program prior to the First World War in photographic print versions.The earlier slides were mostlikely destroyed by the Department of the Interior since it was their practice to update their slide collection regularly, destroying those images that were no longer in use.Glass lantern slides produced by and for the Department of the Interior during the post-war period are preserved in several collections within the National Archives of Canada.

2. Sifton paper, Vol. 255, p. 16.

3. H. Gordon Skilling, Canadian Representation Abroad: From Agency to Embassy (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1945), p. 2.

4. Department of Immigration and Colonization, Annual Report, 1922, p. 25.

5. Harold Troper, Only Farmers Need Apply' Official Canadian Government Encouragement of Immigration to the United States, 1896-1911, (Toronto: Griffin Press Limited, 1972), p. 7.

6. Valerie Knowles, Strangers at our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-1990, (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1992), p. 61.

7. While Sifton was eager to welcome any "stalwart peasant in a sheep-skin coat," Frank Oliver favoured Anglo-Saxons, even those who were not interested in settling in rural Canada, over Eastern European farmers.See Donald Avey Reluctant Host: Canada's Response to Immigrant Workers, 1896-1994, (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995), p. 77.

8. Report of Special Agent in the North of Scotland, W.G. Stuart, Department of the Interior, Annual Report, 1886, p. 37.

9. RG 76, Vol. 49, File #1945, Part 1, Letter from H. Hickman to J.G. Colmer, Esq., March 22, 1892.

10. RG 76, Vol.49, File #1945, Part 3, Letter from J. Obed Smith, Assistant Superintendent of Immigration to W.D. Scott, Superintendent of Immigration, April 22, 1914.