The New Homestead Act

To help rural communities prosper in the 21st Century, we can perhaps find inspiration from the 19th Century. More than 150 years ago, both the United States and Canada introduced legislation to open up their western territories by giving away free land to European immigrants. The U.S, policy, called the Homestead Act, was epitomized in a poem by Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Afraid of U.S. expansionism creeping north, Canada introduced the Dominion Lands Act in 1872 to entice immigrants to Western Canada by offering land, free schools and a “healthy climate.” The resulting land rush sparked economic growth and helped build two successful nations. However, it was a disaster for North America’s Indigenous peoples forced off their traditional lands, or worse. We continue to live with the impact of the homestead policies, both good and bad, from the 19th Century. But can we use the good, and discard the bad, in a 21st Century reinvention of those policies to attract people to rural communities?

Say hello to the new Homestead Act, but nothing like the old Homestead Act. In fact, let’s just drop the name “homestead” altogether. I am not talking about giving away land or increasing tensions between governments and First Nations. I envision a situation where immigrants would welcome the chance to move to Canada and locate (perhaps as a group) in a rural community with available housing that could be fixed up and with vacant buildings on main street that could be filled up. This isn’t about providing free land but providing opportunities for new immigrants and a transfusion of life into their newly adopted communities. They would be filling a niche not embraced by existing residents already employed in farming or in other rural-based industries.

If you have read anything I have written in the last 20 years, you know how much I believe our rural communities are critical to the health and success of our nations. Rural prosperity is the underpinning of a prosperous nation. Although younger generations are moving from large cities to smaller communities for a better quality of life, we still require more people, more professionals, more jobs, more businesses, and more amenities in our rural areas. We have a grand opportunity to utilize a new immigration policy to stimulate rural communities.

Extensive research has demonstrated that immigration is an economic stimulant, not a drain on the economy. Both the United States and Canada experienced tremendous economic growth through immigration at the turn of the last century. New immigrants built farms in rural areas, but they also founded new businesses and provided important services that improved the quality of life in those rural areas, which then spurred on more growth in population and further economic returns. Immigration was the key to the economic prosperity for both countries.

Those weren’t halcyon days for everyone. Indigenous peoples were often treated criminally, especially in the U.S. where the government authorized the massacre or forced relocations of tribes to make way for the European immigrants. For its part, the Canada government entered into Treaties with many First Nations across much of the country to open the way for settlers. However, Canada has its own troubled history with Indigenous peoples including racist policies, the legacy of Residential Schools, and disagreements over the Treaties that continue to this day. So, I raise the memory of the homestead policies as a reminder that we can learn from the failures, as well as the successes, of the past.

Encouraging growth in rural areas could mean a miraculous turnaround for struggling communities. This kind of economic renewal could be good for everyone, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. A new influx of people would mean an expanding workforce to attract new industries. The new arrivals would spend money, which leads to new businesses, which would create new jobs. The great benefit to municipal leaders is a growing tax base to pay for renewed infrastructure and services, improving the quality of life of residents, which in and of itself can attract new residents.

There has always been an age-old question in rural economic development: which do you need first, people or businesses? Many businesses do not locate in rural communities because there are too few people, both as clients and as employees. But people will not move to rural communities when there aren’t any jobs. It becomes a vicious circle: no jobs means no people, but no people means no jobs, and around and around we go.

Of course, controversy over increased immigration is a contentious issue for both Canada and the U.S. Some of it is based on embedded racism, but I believe most of it is driven by fear of the unknown and lack of knowledge about the value it can bring to our communities, our economies, and our collective quality of life. A new homestead policy, under a different name with 21st Century sensibilities, need not be forced upon anyone. Interested communities could sign up to be New Growth Communities. As their population grows, their economy grows, new businesses open, and as those communities find success, other communities will overcome their fear of the unknown and the movement will grow.