Notes on 28th Text for Reading Field: Moyles & Owram

Canadian History, Week Four

 An Illustrated Lecture on Canada "The Land of Opportunity".

An Illustrated Lecture on Canada "The Land of Opportunity".

“Poster advertising a lecture the Canadian government lecturer, Mr. F.O. Chapman, was to give on October 14, 1912 to encourage British emigration to Canada.” Courtesy Library and Archives Canada, Mikan no. 2938966

R.G. Moyles, and Doug Owram. Imperial Dreams and Colonial Realities, British views of Canada, 1880-1914. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988.

R.G. Moyles and Doug Owram describe the British ‘imperial vision’ from 1880 to 1914 as one imbued with doctrine promulgated through propaganda. Elements of the doctrine included the idea that Empire was a blessing bestowed on England and that England’s people were destined to dominate and absorb lesser peoples “for the good of the planet.”[1] The imperial theme was – among other things — the subject of editorials, the lyric of hymns, the graphics of advertising, “the plot of novels, the dialogue of plays, the rhythm of ballads, the inspiration of oratorios,” and the height of fashion.[2] Canada figured prominently in all of these literary venues. For three decades fact and fiction combined in unequal amounts to produce a misleading, but imaginative, seductive, and gratifying vision of Canada for a British public avid to consume it.

Moyles and Owram isolate nine stereotypical views of Canada that were particularly prominent in written works:

  • the ‘dutiful imperial daughter’;
  • a ‘wild and wooly west’;
  • ‘hunters’ paradise’;
  • ‘quaint Quebec’;
  • ‘golden [wheat]land of opportunity’;
  • an investor’s gold mine;
  • home of the ‘doomed Indian’;
  • a potential ‘little Britain’;
  • and an uncouth youth.

As a ‘dutiful daughter,’ Canada was assumed by British writers to be populated by a “vast army of pro-imperialists,” born British and fully committed to dying British.[3] However, Moyles and Owram find ample evidence suggesting that Canadian writers were equivocal – sentiments of trans-oceanic loyalty were somewhat undermined by a distinct pride in at-home accomplishment and national progress. Thus, counter to the British penchant, Canadians were not likely to present themselves as ‘possessions’ or ‘colonials.’ As well there was a notable reaction against non-national imaginings of Canada as perpetually frozen – in Canadian verse the countryside seemed perpetually in bloom. And, the imagined daughter proved an unnerving, even eccentric child. For example, although professing willingness to maintain a ‘moral tie,’ Canadians resolutely quashed attempts to inaugurate an Imperial Federation as early as 1884, yet they did not display an overriding interest in becoming American, or a desire for complete independence.

Moyles and Owram show the Canada epitomized as the ‘wild and wooly west’ to have been a staple favourite in such venues as The Boys Own Paper, Chums, and adventure novels aimed at a juvenile audience (presumed male, but, in my opinion, likely to include female readers as well — literate women in western European cultures have long been used to reading genre fiction low on female representation). The west envisioned was immense. It held prairies, mountains, buffalos, bears, ‘Indians’, and gun-toting, hat-wearing, cayuse-breaking, heroic Anglo Saxons. From about 1879 to 1890 the fictional west was snowed under and snowshoes were de rigueur, but subsequently ‘rich golden-brown sunshine’ radiated over a land of seemingly endless snow-free September afternoons. The point drummed home, according to Moyles and Owram, was that “the budding imperialist” youth in Britain could rest assured that ‘wild’ Canada was eminently conquerable by men of the right sort (which all British boys were naturally predisposed to be).

The message in tales that depicted Canada as a ‘hunter’s paradise’ was not appreciably different. The same mental acuity, impeccable ethics, and inner resolve of Anglo Saxons who were faced with life and death struggles was highlighted. There was the same tendency to telescope geography and place indigenous wildlife in incongruous settings.


These settings were similarly recognizable as the home of the ‘doomed Indian,’ whose reason for imminent extinction was made clear. Whether noble or savage, handsome or hideous, it was impossible to imagine the fictional red-hued, paint daubed ‘specimens of a dying race’ as assimilable. They evinced an inherent “independence from civilization and resistance to it.” Actual First Nations people, when they were encountered by writers from Britain, bore little if any resemblance to the imagined representation and seem therefore to have gone unnoticed, or alternately, to have presented such a disappointment that they were disparaged for being less than they were supposed to be. As stories about ‘Real Indians’ did not fit the imperialist myth, the fictive, almost-the-last-of-the-tribe Indian continued to haunt the pages of popular literature.

The people of ‘quaint Quebec’ were not much better served. Because they were French they were represented as necessarily backward relative to the British: they had failed to see the wisdom of adopting the British modification to Catholicism; they had been conquered; they were destined to remain perpetually behind. The problem French Canadians presented to the British was that they did not seem properly accepting of a subordinate position. Their expressions of nationalist sentiment were annoying, wheras those of English Canadians were merely confusing. The French of Quebec were better liked the more they conformed to romantic visions of a medieval age. They were no more successful at doing so than First Nations people were of conforming to visions of ‘Red Indians.’ Moyles and Owram conclude that “What the British were doing, in all of their comments on French Canada, was convincing themselves of their own magnanimity, a magnanimity which meant that the French would remain loyal to the Empire as would the English.”[4]

The tendency for wishful thinking displayed by the literature which Moyles and Owram survey is perhaps most blatant in posters, pamphlets, and tracts aimed at promoting emigration and investment. The underlying promise of such propaganda appears to have rested on a belief that the Empire could be thought into existence and maintained in perpetuity by the same mental effort. Potential farmers – men — needed only to be convinced that Canada was a ‘golden [wheat]land of opportunity’ and therefore suited for fulfilling an Englishman’s personal and national destiny.

As Moyles and Owram point out, fantasy often diverged widely from reality – partly because the numerous fantasy visions of Canadian opportunities were rife with internal contradictions, and as well, contradicted each other. The divergence of reality from fantasy must be suspected of being particularly difficult on middle-class women who were without prospects for maintaining their social status, or even a reasonable standard of living (something at least on par with ‘genteel poverty’) in Britain. The hard lesson that a stint working in the Canadian context revealed was no different for women low on funds than for men. Rhetoric about the need for the civilizing and graceful presence of the right sort of women aside, upper-class refinement and a superior bearing were neither salable commodities nor useful attributes for someone looking to work their way to a golden future.

British investors looking to buy into such a future faced hard lessons as well. Working out of London, the financial capital of the world, investors were wooed by Canadian speculators and developers with promises of handsome returns. However, the history of Canadian ventures was less than reassuring (both Upper and Lower Canada had periods of near bankruptcy in 1836-1837 and 1846-1847 respectively). Nevertheless, from 1897 to 1900, British funds increasingly underwrote projects to extract resources and encouraged Dominion development. British Columbia’s potential for mining is a case in point. Moyles and Owram point out that even with the collapse of the mining boom in 1900, “British investments in Canada in 1914 were greater than all those Canadian agricultural exports which were so important to the economic success of what Laurier had called ‘Canada’s century’.”[5]

The image that Moyles and Owram find predominant in British literature shows two particularly distinct facets: in the one, Canada and its peoples were anthropomorphized as a youth in need of tutelage; in the other, Canada and its peoples were commodified as a possession to be enjoyed. The “Canadian problem” was that as individuals and as groups, Canada’s people apparently did not mind being thought of as ‘rough around the edges’ and showed no desire to be tutored into respecting refinement. They regarded their lack of conformity with ‘old-world’ mannerisms as a strength and shared a sense of self-possession.

Additional online resources:

Jeffrey S. Murray, Library and Archives Canada, “Printed Advertisements,” The Documentary Trail, Moving Here, Staying Here – The Canadian Immigrant Experience, Library and Archives Canada website,

Library and Archives Canada, “Free Farms for the Million,” The Canadian West, Library and Archives Canada website,, displays additional immigration posters.

Margaret K. Powell, and Susanne F. Roberts, with help from Shalane Hansen, Sarah Oelker, and Anahid Powell, “Imperial Views, Colonial Subjects: Victorian Periodicals and the Empire,” virtual exhibit, Images from an Exhibition, Sterling Library, Yale University, August – October 1999, web page , with introduction and annotated examples of images and text.

[1] R.G. Moyles, and Doug Owram. Imperial Dreams and Colonial Realities, British views of Canada, 1880-1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), 5.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 15.

[4] Ibid., 112.

[5] Ibid., 147.


Rough and Ready Western Canadians 1943: furtrading, farming, rail riding, and ingenious.

Source: Travelfilmarchive, YouTube, see site:


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 4 and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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