Mancuso to Study failed Canada Plan

Marketing and Communications

Mancuso to explore failed Canadian plan as Fulbright

The concept of immigrants elicits an image of people coming to a new land aspiring to a better life for themselves and their families. The other side of the coin, as Dr. Rebecca Mancuso points out, is the goals of the governments of the adoptive countries in admitting these newcomers.

Mancuso, a history faculty member and coordinator of the BGSU Canadian Studies Program, will research a particular instance of government-induced immigration to Canada as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Calgary this fall.

She will be conducting research for her planned book, "Nothing but Debts and Worries: Canada’s ‘Three Thousand Families’ Scheme and Empire Settlement, 1919-1939." The overarching questions of her project ask what makes an immigrant (in this case, to Canada) successful and what Canadians expect of immigrants.

As the project title indicates, the plan was "a disaster for many settlers," Mancuso said, characterizing the strategy to attract British immigrants to settle the vast, open western plains of Alberta and Saskatchewan as "an example of nation-building gone terribly wrong."

Despite its obvious failure, the program continued for two decades, creating much misery for the immigrants and resentment by Canadians over the huge, unrewarding investment in the settlers.

Mancuso will also look into what made it so hard for the government to admit defeat and why the country placed the burden for the program’s failure squarely on the shoulders of the immigrants rather than on the wrongheaded assumptions that created it.

Guided by the spirits of social engineering and agricultural idealism, the Canadian government chose British citizens as the preferred group to create an agricultural society in the western provinces. The two cultures were compatible, they reasoned, and innate "British superiority" and the Protestant work ethic should make the newly minted farmers a success. This was despite the fact that most of the incomers were not farmers back home but tended to have more urban jobs such as dockworkers, Mancuso said.

A largely inadequate bit of training was provided, the immigrants were given homesteads and low-interest loans with which to purchase livestock, equipment and seed, and then "they were plunked down in Saskatchewan and Alberta, where they sometimes had to walk five miles for water," Mancuso said. "People practically starved to death out on the prairies, the livestock died, the houses were often not what was promised."

Ultimately, the land turned out to be mostly unsuited to growing corn or wheat. The topsoil could only sustain the native tall grass and, once tilled, simply blew away, worsening the drought conditions that were also occurring in the U.S. at that time.

In her archival research, Mancuso discovered a trove of letters written by the settlers to the Canadian government, pleading for help and often asking to be deported back to England — which no longer wanted them.

"They were so poignant," she said. She will try to track down some of the descendants of the "Three Thousand Family" program to learn how their lives have been shaped by their history.

The response of the Canadians, for whom this was a "signature program," she said, was to blame the immigrants, especially the women, for failing to make a success of the venture.

"It was often said that, in cases where immigration failed, the women had not worked hard enough," Mancuso explained. "It was symbolic of the mindset at that time and gets to the stereotypes and deep-seated beliefs about emigrants and people of different ethnicities."

Mancuso’s publications have appeared in peer-reviewed journals in Canada, the U.S. and Britain, and she has received multiple grants from Foreign Affairs Canada.

In addition to her research, she will give a departmental lecture at the university in September as well as a talk in Billings, Mont., in October on the history of the plains people and especially women’s role there.

(Posted August 22, 2013 )