Persuasive Posters

The ad campaigns that shaped a young nation

“Immigration work has to be carried on in the same manner as the sale of any commodity; just as soon as you stop advertising … the movement is going to stop.”

Or so declared Canada’s bullish minister of the interior Clifford Sifton in 1899. According to Daniel Francis, in his most recent book, Selling Canada: Three Propaganda Campaigns That Shaped the Nation, the advertising by, for and about Canada never did stop, not once, although his book examines specifically the period between 1880 and the 1930s, as exemplified in three campaigns: the population of Canada’s Northwest, meaning everything west of Ontario (“The Last Best West … Homes for Millions”), the Great War (“There’s a Man You Know Who Ought to Go, GIVE US HIS NAME”) and tourism (“See Canada … Apply Within.”)

Text and beautifully reproduced images are given almost equal weight in Selling Canada, which is apt, as it was through posters and pamphlets that Canada made its pitch for whatever it wanted at the time; in almost every campaign, what Canada mostly wanted were bodies, in vast quantities. In 1896, there were only 17,000 immigrants to Canada; by 1914 there were 400,000. (Francis notes without comment that in 2007, 235,000 came.) And 45,000 Canadian bodies were Canada’s contribution to the Great War. These first two campaigns draw Francis’s strongest commentary and writing; tourists seem a relatively easy mark after farmers and soldiers.

To draw immigrants to “The Promised Land” posters and pamphlets were printed in at least twelve languages in Sifton’s years and beyond (he resigned abruptly in 1905, perhaps to dodge a scandal). They flooded northern Europe and the British Isles. One commentator noted that London was “plastered from end to end with flaring posters” depicting fat cattle and cowboys in picturesque costumes. Bandwagons raced around the English countryside, laden with pamphlets and agricultural products, decorated with stuffed foxes and owls. An enormous stuffed buffalo was sent to the Royal Agricultural Fair in London in 1913 (the animal having previously been an exhibit at the Banff Zoo, until it died; the mixed messages perhaps best left untangled). For the Chicago World Fair in 1893, Canada had made a 10,000 kilogram “mammoth” cheese. One poster—“40,000 men needed in WESTERN CANADA TO harvest 400,000,000 bushels of grain”—depicts the Canadian-American border as two high cliffs bisected by a river that joins Duluth, Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton. (A couple of red Bailey bridges are sketched in to show how easy it is to cross over.) On one side of the cliff beside a wheelbarrow stands a hapless American, clad in overalls. Beckoning him (outstretched arm and pointing fingers are a motif in both immigration and war propaganda) across the great divide is a man wearing a North West Mounted Police costume, complete with red cummerbund, standing beside a live chicken and a cornucopia draped in a Union Jack.

The campaign, of course, belied a complex truth about the lives of immigrants. The land was free, but often isolated. Men who came to farm their own land had to become labourers in order to buy food, equipment, seed. Francis reproduces a scrap of a letter from a Ukrainian immigrant, which is translated thus: “I have to starve because I cannot write English or speak … I don’t understand Canadian law. I know only that I worked whole summer for nothing.” One double-page spread conveys the extremes: on the left, a small black and white photograph of a Ukrainian woman delivering milk in the snow with a horse and buggy; on the right, glorious full-colour posters depicting a lean young man in shiny riding boots, white shirt and a stetson, perched on a harvester, and a cute young gal—“Canada’s Call to Women”—making apple pie beside an open window.

There was another truth obscured by the campaign, for the most part. Canada trumpeted religious freedom for immigrants, and got them to come to Canada by negotiating special deals, notably for Mennonites, Hutterites and Doukhobors, arrangements that allowed them to create communal farming settlements without requiring that they swear allegiance to the Crown. But the real limits of tolerance in Canada were specifically racial. Sifton and his successors only wanted white, northern European immigrants, and really only farmers; clerks and shopkeepers were bluntly told not to come to Canada in 1899. Italians, Blacks, Jews and Asians were not welcome. A 1911 order-in-council (later rescinded) decreed that the “Negro race” was “unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada” and Canada’s superintendent of immigration, William Scott, wrote that he hoped that “the fertile lands of the West will be left to be cultivated by the white race only.” For Chinese, of course, Canada created a head tax, $50 in 1885, later raised to $500. As early as 1905, the overarching WASP mentality prevailed; there were coded concerns about making immigrants into “good Canadian citizens.” Mongrelizing was the term used. Everyone knew what it meant.

The First World War presented a new set of propaganda challenges, but many of the same messages and techniques were used to encourage recruitment of young men (it would all be over by Christmas) and sacrifice by everyone “at home.” By 1917, the war was costing Canadians a million dollars a day, resulting in the very first income tax (created as a temporary measure). Canadians were exhorted to buy bonds; in one strikingly offensive poster, a Cree man stands in front of these words:Pale Face, My skin is dark but my heart is white. For I also give to Canadian Patriotic Fund.” Canadians were asked to ration food, live modestly; some posters targeted the indifferent affluent with slogans like “Kultur vs. Humanity”; others were more blunt—“Patriotic Canadians WILL NOT HOARD FOOD.”

But the recruitment issue was more complicated. It began in euphoria, which subsided as the war became bloody and protracted. Citizens were encouraged to out pacifists, especially able-bodied white young men, who were admonished to join up before they were hunted down by the “green eye monster, conscription.” Women patrolled the streets of Toronto with feather dusters drenched in talcum powder, which they shook onto the shoulders of what were known as “slackers.” When conscription became inevitable, it sharply divided French- and English-speaking Canada and resulted in a bitter election campaign in 1917. And it divided urban and rural Canada.

The war effort was also an opportunity for a government to test the possibilities of censorship, in the name of patriotism. Canada’s chief press censor, appointed in 1915, had extraordinary powers over “everything Canadians listened to, saw, read and talked about, right down to the songs they sang and the pictures they looked at.” He censored everything—British temperance pamphlets (because the idea of British drunkenness might affect Canadian morale), films showing wounded soldiers (because Canadian women might get hysterical), numerous left-wing organizations and even 14 Hearst newspapers (because the United States was not yet in the war, they contained articles critical of the United Kingdom).

Francis acknowledges the enormous significance of the war in Canadian history, the coming of age it represented, what one writer has even called our “war of independence.”

But maturity as a nation had its costs—“it was a disturbed, agitated society that emerged from the war.” Against the big beating patriotic heart was poised a profound sense of loss, as expressed by war artist Frederick Varley, in a letter to his wife: “You in Canada … cannot realize at all what war is like … You must see … the turned-up graves, see the dead on the field, freakishly mutilated—headless, legless, stomachless, a perfect body and a passive face and a broken empty skull … Until you’ve lived this … you cannot know.”

Throughout the book, Francis toys with the idea of Canadians as malleable, gullible, manipulated. One could argue that if Canadians were manipulated, as immigrants, as a country at war, and then as tourists or host to tourists, it was as much by legislation and politics as it was by beautiful posters and pamphlets. The best propaganda is not subtle.

And certainly in the 21st century, we know a fake lake when we see one.