The Records of the Department of the Interior and Research Concerning Canada's Western Frontier of Settlement


198 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Index
ISBN 0-88977-061-1
DDC 016.35471063




Reviewed by William A. Waiser

William A. Waiser is a professor of history at the University of
Saskatchewan, and the author of Saskatchewan’s Playground: A History
of Prince Albert National Park and The New Northwest: The Photographs of
the Frank Crean Expeditions, 1908-1909.


When Canada purchased Rupert’s Land and the Northwestern Territory in
1869 (and thereby increased seven times in size), it acquired the kind
of empire more in keeping with a great nation than a young dominion just
two years old. To facilitate settlement and railway construction in the
region, Ottawa retained control of all public lands and natural
resources, including those of the new province of Manitoba. It also
created, in 1873, a separate federal ministry—the Department of the
Interior—to oversee development, in particular the disposition of
lands. The department’s role lasted well into the 20th century (beyond
the creation of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 and the natural
resource transfer some 25 years later)—until 1936, when the department
was finally dissolved.

This long-overdue attempt to provide a comprehensive listing of the
surviving records of the former department succeeds admirably, despite a
number of obstacles. When the three Prairie Provinces finally secured
control of their public lands in 1930, the federal government began to
transfer, over the next quarter-century, an estimated 200 boxcars of
records generated by the Department of the Interior. Several federal
departments also retained a large volume of old or closed materials that
filled some 9000 filing cabinets—space that Ottawa badly needed for a
new generation of war records. The authors consequently had to determine
not only where the voluminous papers of the former department were sent,
but how much of the material was retained or considered expendable and
destroyed. The dismemberment of the department’s records further
complicated this work, for it raised questions about the nature and
organization of the material itself.

Drawing on their respective talents and experience, Spry and McCardle
have compiled an impressive piece of scholarly detective work. In a
brief introductory essay, they provide a short history of the
department, review the existing literature on western settlement, and
then reflect upon the project and its attendant problems. The heart of
the work, however, is a detailed catalogue of the department records:
how and why the diverse records were created, and what survives today
(and where). This section is rounded out by a short listing of related
federal records and personal papers. There is even a section on how to
use the guide.

This is an indispensable reference for all students of western Canadian
settlement history, whatever their interest or speciality.


Spry, Irene M., “The Records of the Department of the Interior and Research Concerning Canada's Western Frontier of Settlement,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 24, 2024,