You never heard of the Barr Colony, you say? You're in good company, as mention of the Barr Colony often generates a blank look even among Canadian historians. The Barr Colony was the last great emigration scheme in English/North American history. Almost 2,000 English men, women and children emigrated to the prairies of western Canada in 1903, crossing the ocean from Liverpool to St. John New Brunswick and continuing by train, wagon and foot to an area set aside for them in what is now Saskatchewan. Theirs is a story of good intentions but poor planning, internal strife that unfairly villified one leader and exaggerated the virtues of his replacement, winter storms and summer mosquitos, settlers who brought pianos instead of plows. As Lloydminster, the city founded by the Barr Colonists, nears its centennial, it seems a good time to re-examine the story of its beginnings.
How did the Barr Colony come about, and with it the city of Lloydminster? The short answer is that as other nationalities emigrated in large numbers to Canada, feeling grew in Ottawa to keep "Canada for the English." At about the same time, Rev. Isaac Barr conceived the idea of leading a group of Englishmen and their families to the almost undeveloped areas of the western prairies.
The longer answer is more complex. To what extent Barr's intentions were self-serving and to what extent nationalistic can only be guessed, and it seems likely the two were so intertwined in his own mind that he wouldn't have seen a difference. He certainly hoped to be paid for bringing new settlers, especially farmers, into Canada, as others before him had been. At the same time, however, Canadians were expressing pro-British sentiment in greater intensity than ever before. Canada sent money and troops to support England in the Boer War, when it had provided only lukewarm support for earlier British conflicts. With large numbers of eastern Europeans, Scandinavians and other ethnic groups pouring into Canada, there may have been concern, however misplaced, that circumstances similar to those in South Africa could occur if greater numbers of English citizens were not brought to the sparsely settled areas.
Nationalistic feelings had existed even earlier, of course. In 1865, John A. MacDonald (who later become Canada's first prime minister) said, "I would be quite willing . . . to leave that whole country a wilderness for the next half-century, but I fear that if Englishmen do not go there, Yankees will." An early edition of the Grolier Book of Knowledge suggests that his concern was justified. In an article titled "The Canadian Immigrant" it says, "The American in Canada can scarcely be called an immigrant; he is rather a solid citizen. He considers that Western Canada offers him better opportunities than his own state, so he comes with all of his possessions." Sir John's political party was defeated in 1873, but returned to power in 1878 with the slogan "Canada for the Canadians." It is evident that by "Canadians" he meant primarily English.
The word spread quickly in England that a veritable promised land awaited settlers in Canada. Each colonist would be given free land, said the pamphlets. In an already crowded England at the turn of the century, ownership of land was for the rich and privileged. The prospect of free land might by itself have been sufficient to attract large numbers of people. But England was facing economic depression in the aftermath of the Boer War, and many young men saw little hope of good jobs. Hundreds of families responded to the advertising with advances of money and reservations for the trip.
Rev. Barr persuaded Rev. George Lloyd, a minister with many years experience in Canada, to join the colony as its chaplain. Lloyd had in fact been working toward putting together a much smaller group of settlers himself. He agreed to join forces with Barr and contribute the names and addresses of all who had contacted him. In April 1903, the first ship carrying Barr Colony passengers reached St. John, New Brunswick.
This ship, the SS Lake Manitoba, had been built in 1901 for the Elder Dempster line, with accommodations for approximately 700 first, second and third class passengers. In 1902, the ship was refitted and made two round-trip passages between Bombay and South Africa as a Boer War troop carrier. Crowded with almost 2,000 civilians, the experience could not have been anything like the comfortable accommodations promised by Barr's advertising.
Do you think your forebears may have been part of the Barr Colony? Or did they just turn
up suddenly in Canada around 1903 and you're wondering why? Click here to see whether their names appear on the first ship. Many others came later in 1903 and 1904 on other ships, so if you don't find your ancestors on this list, don't give up. The microfilm containing all the arrivals to St. John between 1902 and 1904 is on order and will be transcribed here when it arrives.
If you have family history to contribute, please contact Liz Wallis. Your ancestors needn't have been Barr Colonists themselves. If they had any connection with the colony, we'd like to hear from you.