Alastair MacArthur sighed and looked out at the big clock on the far wall. Thirty minutes left. Boredom was like an anchor on the minute hand. He wanted to leave now but the Minister had specifically instructed his staff to stay until the end of the last day. Four thirty couldn’t come soon enough.

The contents of Alastair’s battered oak desk filled several packing boxes stacked next to the door. Through the window of his office he could see the other employees in the Interior Ministry offices. Some were huddled with co-workers talking quietly, while several, like Alastair, sat alone staring off into space. On Monday, a few would return and resume work under a new boss, while others like himself moved on to new employment. It had been a tense, oppressive place for the past week.

Alastair lowered his eyes to the scarred, ink-stained surface of his desk. Besides the empty document bins stacked at the top edge, the only thing left was a big scrapbook. It archived the achievements and highlights of his eight-year career. He caressed the dark, embossed hardcover with the fingertips of his left hand before opening it to the first page. December 2, 1896 was written at the top – the first day on the job. The hand-written entry for that day read:

Arrived at 0800. Met Mr. Johnston, Sifton’s Chief-of-staff. Completed pre-employment documentation and was assigned a desk. His secretary gave me grand tour. Waiting for meeting with Minister.

 Alastair remembered the rest of that day as if it were yesterday.

*                 *                *

At precisely ten AM a young woman approached and led him into a wood-panelled boardroom where Clifford Sifton was waiting.

            Good morning, MacArthur. Thank-you for joining us. All settled in? Good, good, he continued without waiting for an answer, glad to hear it. As you know, we’ve brought you aboard as Press Secretary and this morning I wanted to give you a overview of our goals and your mandate.

            Alastair nodded and watched the new Minister of the Interior rise and stride to a large, brightly coloured map of Canada on the wall. Each province and territory was a different colour. The Liberal Member of Parliament from Brandon, Manitoba was a solid six feet tall, and exuded energy and vitality. One hand clutched the lapel of his jacket, the other a walking stick that he proceeded to use as a pointer, as if he were teaching a class or berating a member of the Loyal Opposition.

            MacArthur, he’d said, we live in a marvelous country. Over three thousand miles from sea to sea. It is a land of opportunity, full of timber and minerals and coal and fertile land. We have a railroad running from coast to coast. We have seaports, we have banks, we have industrious entrepreneurs. In point of fact we have almost everything we need to become the greatest country in the world but we’re missing something, MacArthur. Do you know what we’re missing?

            The walking stick was now pointed directly at Alastair’s heart and all he could do was shake his head.

            We don’t have enough people,of course. Human beings, labourers, farmers, domestic workers, miners, ditch diggers. People, dammit! We have this great country but it’s damn near empty from Toronto to Victoria. Particularly this region, he circled the big salmon-coloured area between Winnipeg and the Rocky Mountains with the stick, the Northwest Territory, Beautiful, fertile, land but practically devoid of human habitation. The Prime Minister and the railroad want to fill this territory and we’re going to give this country what it needs – a big injection of farmers, right in it’s big, pink arse. He held the steel tip of the stick on the map and paused. We have a fantastic product here but we need to aggressively promote our assets. It will be your job, as Press Secretary, to portray Canada in the best possible light and to counter any negative publicity, should there ever be any. You’ll write advertising copy for brochures and print ads. You’ll write newspaper articles that encourage immigration to Canada and you will respond to negative editorials and attacks from our opponents. We must control and manage the information, while the Canadian Pacific sets up a network of salesmen in Europe. We are going to fill this land with people from the British Isles, if possible, but we’ll take Scandinavians, Dutch, Italians, and even Eastern Europeans. He hesitated and seemed to look inward for a moment before adding, The Canadian public doesn’t seem to appreciate the Slavik peoples but it may be that the ideal settler is a stalwart peasant from Austro-Hungary or Galicia, in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children. His eyes had gleamed with the fervour of his vision. We need to find this family and pull them across the Atlantic to our shores. The sooner they begin turning the sod of their own 160 acre farm, the better The point of the walking stick targeted a spot just northeast of Regina. Alright, MacArthur? Any questions? Let’s get to it.

*               *                *

               It wasn’t until later that Alastair realized that he hadn’t uttered a single word in that first meeting, but “to it” he’d got, and it was a resounding success. He knew the statistics by heart – in 1896 there were a total of 16,835 immigrants compared with 142,853 in fiscal 1904/05. The Canadian government and the Canadian Pacific advertised and the North Atlantic Trading Company sent agents out into the European countryside to “pull in immigrants” as Minister Sifton wanted. Alastair flipped a page to one of his early efforts – a full-page, including photographs, under the heading “Climate Contributes to General Prosperity”. He smiled in fond remembrance. His prose had never been better. The gist of the text was that the climate was not only good for agriculture but also produced healthier children. The photos were perfect, as well, one for each season with only WINTER having any snow in it. The effect of the campaign was recognized inside Canada and out. He scanned an article extolling the efficacy of Canadian advertising from the Anaconda Standard in Montana dated September 29, 1904 that read in part.

American and European newspapers have had page “ads” inviting settlers to come to Western Canada, and that the invitation is being accepted statistics show.

Of course, support of Minister Sifton and his policies was not universal, particularly early on, but Alastair had done his best to refute and deny charges made by Conservative politicians and their supporters. It wasn’t always easy, since the Tory organs refused to run any press releases from Sifton’s office but the Liberal party had their own network of newspapers that rarely questioned anything praising Grit politicians or policies. Naturally, the most supportive newspaper was the Manitoba Free Press in Winnipeg, a paper that Clifford Sifton had owned since the early nineties. That paper never needed any prompting to counter-attack. The editorial staff knew for whom they worked.

            Over the years there had been constant bleating about immigrants from Eastern Europe. Opponents referred to these settlers as “Sifton’s Pets”, which infuriated the Minister, but that was mild compared to some of the hysterical vitriol that Alastair was forced to deal with. He flipped a page and his gaze fell on a page of the Conservative newspaper in Winnipeg,

July 28, 1898 – Two more trainloads of Sifton’s undesirable immigrants are here, numbering 774 men, women, and children; accompanied by the poverty, vice and crime which attends these sorry specimens of the human race hailing from Galicia.

By and bye we may be hearing of incendiarisms wholesale and retail, poisonings, and perhaps other forms of murder, as a result of the criminal ignorance or indifference to consequences that has characterized Mr. Sifton’s policy as Minister of the Interior. It is neither likely nor possible that the Galicians who poisoned, robbed, or murdered in Galicia, without apparent compunction or remorse will immediately on his arrival in Manitoba become a decent and well-ordered citizen. Already there are complaints from adjacent settlers to the Galician communities of their lazy and thievish habits. If such is the case while yet strange to the country, what will they do when they grow fat and lazy?

Sifton was apoplectic on that occasion, and any time he was informed of such attacks. Alastair earned his pay over the years, writing letters and articles disputing such outlandish rhetoric, but it wasn’t possible to change public opinion overnight. The white, English-speaking, Protestant ruling class wanted immigrants from England, although they would accept Scots and Irish, in a pinch. A column in a Toronto trade-union publication, The Toronto Tribune, opined that,


……the commonest London loafer has more decency and instincts of citizenship than the Sicilian, Neapolitan, Croat, or Hungarian.    

Alastair turned another page.

            Canadian Associated Press, June 27, 1903


London, June 26 – The Evening Globe referring to the contract between the Canadian government and the North Atlantic Trading company, says we can only assume the new contract has only been negotiated without a proper consideration for the existing arrangements between the Mother Country and Canada. It is simply unbelievable that the Ottawa parliament should openly flout and scorn the surplus population of the United Kingdom, as unsuitable for Canadian purposes.


            The Manitoba Free Press printed Alastair’s explanation for differences between the government’s arrangement in Britain versus the rest of Europe,

Ottawa, June 26 – The statement contained in the Canadian Associated Press dispatch today, in regard to the arrangement between the North Atlantic Trading Co. and the Dominion government in respect to immigration have been frequently explained. The North Atlantic Trading Co. gets $5 a head for immigrants because it does all the advertising and everything else in connection with immigration on the continent. In Britain the Dominion Government pays less cash per head because it does all the advertising and keeps its own agents to look after the work there. As a matter of fact the British immigrant costs the Dominion very much more per head than the continental immigrant.

            But the clandestine agreement with the NATC became a lightning rod issue for Wilfred Laurier, Clifford Sifton, and the Liberal party. It wasn’t the official reason that Frank Oliver was named the new Minister of the Interior last week. The Prime Minister’s Office claimed that it was Clifford Sifton’s involvement in a contentious Manitoba schooling dispute, but Alastair knew better. Laurier was tired of the constant harangue in Question Period and in the press about “Sifton’s Pets” and the accusations that Sifton was receiving a kick-back from the North Atlantic Trading Co. deal. It was time to make a change despite the success of the program.

The last entry in the book was dated February 24, 1905. Alastair closed the cover and patted it thoughtfully for a moment before standing up. There was no more time for melancholy. It was over and his new job at the Manitoba Free Press started in two weeks.

At least he had the same boss.