Manitoba History: Welcoming Immigrants at the Gateway to Canada’s West: Immigration Halls in Winnipeg, 1872-1975

by Robert Vineberg
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 65, Winter 2011

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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“The great unwashed.” Photographer G. F. Ridsdale captured this view of people at the Winnipeg Immigration Hall, circa 1900.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, PA-122676.

In 1869 the new Dominion of Canada arranged the purchase of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company and the deal was concluded in early 1870. From that time until the coming of the Great Depression in 1930, a principal preoccupation of the Canadian government was to populate the Prairies. The small town of Winnipeg had been established at a key water transportation point—the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. Until the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1881, the main route to the West was via the United States, and then down the Red River to Winnipeg. Once the railway started pushing west from Winnipeg, the growing city became the western headquarters for Canadian immigration activities and for over sixty years the distribution point for all immigrants seeking to settle in the West. All were required to de-train in Winnipeg and be processed through immigration offices located there. In order to manage this process, the immigration department had to provide accommodation for the immigrants. This article tells the story of the numerous immigration halls that were built and operated in Winnipeg during Canada’s first century.

What were Immigration Halls?

The immigration hall was very much the tangible symbol of Canada’s commitment to its immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The concept of truly providing for immigrants rather than just “getting them out of the way” was a key element in the government’s thinking. Even before Confederation, in order to provide basic comfort and care to arriving immigrants, and to protect them from the countless hustlers trying to part immigrants and their life savings, the government of Canada decided that immigration stations had to be provided, serving not only as offices for immigration agents but also as decent accommodation for immigrants. Such stations had been built at ports of arrival such as Quebec City and Montreal, but also at inland points, including Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto and Hamilton. In 1872, the government of the new dominion authorized the construction of two more stations, one in London, Ontario, and the other in Winnipeg, the capital of one of the country’s newest provinces. [1]

Originally called “immigration sheds” as in other countries, the more impressive term “immigration hall” was adopted later and came into common usage by the 1890s. Winnipeg, as the transportation gateway to the west, was the logical place for large immigration facilities to be placed.

In time, over fifty immigration halls would be built in almost every Prairie city and town of any significance. All immigrants to the west, however, with the exception of Americans moving north from the Plains states, would pass through Winnipeg and be directed onward after a short stay, usually of about four or five days, at a local immigration hall. During this time, homesteaders would be counselled by Dominion Lands agents on the availability of land, while artisans were provided with labour market information from communities across the West. Once a destination was determined, arrangements for onward train travel were made to another community with a smaller immigration hall and, after another stay at government expense; immigrants would travel by horse or wagon to their final destinations.

Immigrant shed at the Forks, Winnipeg, built in 1872 and demolished in 1884.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Elswood Bole 6, N13803.

The Immigration Sheds at the Forks

As noted above, before the arrival of the CPR on the Prairies immigrants to Western Canada travelled by train to St. Paul, Minnesota and were then transferred to steamers that travelled down the Red River to Winnipeg, arriving at the levée at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. The new immigration agent at Winnipeg, Gilbert McMicken, reported at the end of 1871 that:

In view of the expected immigration this year, and which will most probably set in early, I would recommend that a building be erected in the neighbourhood of Fort Garry for the reception of the families of settlers on their arrival; at present there is no accommodation or shelter of any kind that they can procure.

The building might be in length 150 feet and in width 30 feet. This divided into thirty compartments would afford temporary accommodation for at least thirty families at a time. There should be ten or more cooking stoves provided and placed in temporary sheds contiguous to the building. [2]

McMicken did not pick these dimensions out of his head. His proposals were based upon similar designs previously built in eastern locations. In 1872, the Canadian government did indeed build an immigration shed at The Forks, close to the levée at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. In his report to the Minister of Agriculture for 1872, McMicken wrote:

The Immigrant Building which you authorised to be erected here will be found of great utility, and be a great boon to immigrants on their arrival. There are 30 (thirty) apartments in the main building, with two commodious cooking-houses contiguous to it, one on the east side, the other on the west, with comfortable and necessary conveniences [latrines] attached. The buildings are situated just at the confluence of the two rivers—Red River and Assiniboine—where, of course, water is convenient, and the situation in every way desirable. [3]

A family would be crowded into each compartment, measuring about ten feet by twelve feet. Depending on the size of the family, the immigrant shed might accommodate up to 200 to 250 people. The cookhouses were in separate buildings to reduce the risk of fire. In 1873, a second immigrant shed, likely about the same size, was added, giving the immigrant sheds at The Forks a capacity of up to 500 people. [4] They were located close to the present site of the Manitoba Children’s Museum.

Immigrants could stay in the sheds for free for at least seven days and longer if there was space. In the summers, with the sheds often filled to overflowing, the army barracks at Fort Osborne, located at Broadway and Osborne streets, were called into service and sometimes tents had to be set up as well. The sheds at The Forks provided very basic accommodation. They were intended for summer use only and “[b]uilt without foundations or weeping tiles, the floors frequently flooded and there was no provision for hot water.” The unheated bath houses were useless in winter. When the Pembina Branch Railway (later to become part of the CPR in 1881) linked St. Boniface to the United States–Canada border at Emerson, and to the Minneapolis and St. Paul Railway in 1878, the immigration sheds at the Forks, just across the river from the station, began to serve those arriving by rail. The sheds continued in use until they were demolished in 1884. [5]

William Hespeler succeeded McMicken as Immigration Agent at Winnipeg in August 1873. [6] The 1876–1877 Manitoba Directory (later known as the Henderson Manitoba Directory) listed William Hespeler as immigration agent in Winnipeg with his office at the “immigration shed on the Levée [at The Forks].” However, the 1880 Henderson’s Directory listed Hespeler as having his offices at the corner of Broadway and Main Street. [7] Apparently, the immigration officers sought better space than could be offered in the sheds by moving into the Dominion office buildings on Main Street.

Winnipeg Immigration Hall.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, PA-046609.

Immigration Halls in the CPR Station Area

After the arrival of the CPR mainline to Winnipeg in 1881, immigrants began arriving in the city by train in greater and greater numbers. A new immigration hall had to be built near the new CPR station at Main Street, beside the mainline which ran parallel to and just south of Point Douglas Avenue, somewhat to the north of Fonseca Street (now Higgins Avenue).

The first hall in the general area of the CPR line, located on Dufferin Avenue between Salter and Aikins, was constructed in 1881 and served as both an immigration hall and an immigrant hospital. However, at the same time a disaster struck the Winnipeg General Hospital. The bacteria from an epidemic could not be disinfected and the directors of the hospital decided that the only solution was a new hospital, so they made an emergency plea to the Dominion government to buy the new immigration building. The immigration service already realized that the building was too far from the new station and was more than willing to build another immigration hall closer to the station. So, on 20 December 1881, Cabinet agreed to sell the Dufferin Avenue facility to the Winnipeg General Hospital for $5,000. [8] Subsequently, tenders for another new immigration hall were issued almost immediately and on 4 January 1882 Cabinet authorized the construction of this hall and another in Brandon. [9]

The 1882 Henderson Directory noted that the existing “immigration sheds” were near the CPR depot. [10] The new immigration hall was built by the CPR tracks about 5 blocks west of the CPR station. [11] This immigration hall proved to be still too far from the station for immigrants laden with baggage to get there easily; so when it burned down in the spring of 1887 the government sought a new location closer to the station. Three lots on the west side of Maple Street, north of Fonseca Street, just to the east of the CPR station were identified and Cabinet approved their purchase on 14 November 1887. [12]

The new Dominion Government Immigration Hall was located at 177 Higgins Avenue and opened in 1890. Originally, Higgins was called Fonseca Street and for some years the names seemed to be used interchangeably. While this hall was under construction, temporary facilities in a two-storey brick building were procured at the corner of King Street and the CPR tracks, just one block west of the station. [13] Shortly after the new building opened, it had to be closed for sanitary reasons. On 11 August 1892, following epidemics of scarlet fever, diphtheria and measles that left thirteen dead in a period of forty days, all immigrants were evacuated from the building at 177 Higgins Street. Luckily, the building on King Street that had been rented as a temporary hall was still available and was leased again for several months while the new hall was fumigated and renovated. [14]

The volume of immigrants increased and, by the time the new hall reopened, it was realized that two halls were required and the King Street hall was retained for some time. By January 1899, W. F. McCreary, the Commissioner of Immigration in Winnipeg was requesting permission to obtain a third building for up to three months. [15]

The Winnipeg Immigrant Hospital

Another important part of the complex of immigration facilities was the Winnipeg Immigrant Hospital. Though not considered an immigration hall, it provided accommodation and care to the most vulnerable of immigrants—the sick. As early as January 1897, the Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, suggested that an isolation facility in Winnipeg would help control outbreaks of infectious diseases among immigrants. [16] After several years of discussion, tenders were finally issued and a contractor was approved by Cabinet on 20 May 1902. [17] The Immigrant Hospital was built on Maple Street, just behind the Immigration Hall and opened in 1903. It was a three-storey structure, measuring about 70 feet by 30 feet. Given the shortage of immigrant accommodation, the hospital building was designated “Immigration Building 2” and was used as an additional immigration hall, accommodating some sixty people until a new immigration hall opened in 1906, at which time it commenced operations as a hospital although it continued to take overflow from the regular immigration halls when required. [18]

Unlike the immigrant hospitals at the ports of Québec, Halifax and Saint John that were mainly used to detain persons who were to be deported on medical grounds, the Winnipeg facility was to provide free medical care to immigrants who fell ill on the journey inland to the Manitoba capital. In 1907, in a full page feature entitled “How Settlers are treated in Winnipeg,” the Manitoba Free Press described the role of the hospital as “but one of the many agencies of the immigration department—that most paternal of organizations—which strives to help, in every way, and at every stage, the man, woman or child coming out under its auspices.” [19] The Immigrant Hospital continued to operate until the middle of the First World War, at which time sick immigrants were referred to city hospitals. [20]

The Immigrant Hospital at Winnipeg, opened in 1903.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, PA-046607.

Building the Immigration Complex

The growth of Winnipeg throughout the 1890s and into the early 20th century was truly astonishing. So was the increase in railway traffic and the CPR decided to build a massive new railway station to demonstrate the importance, both of the city and the CPR. The new station, located to the west of the old station on Higgins Avenue, would run as far as Maple Street, taking in the lots that the government had bought in 1887 for its immigration hall. [21] This immigration hall also proved inadequate to deal with the increasing numbers of immigrants. So, the government planned construction of a new Dominion Immigration Hall while retaining the hall built on Higgins Avenue as well. The original plan was to purchase the property for the new immigration complex just across the street on the south side of Higgins Avenue. The new complex was to consist of immigration offices, a new immigration hall, as well as the old hall and hospital that would be moved from their original sites. In any event, this created an opportunity to build new and better facilities. The Deputy Minister of the Department of the Interior, James A. Smart, wrote to the Minister, Clifford Sifton, “that steps should be taken to put up a more prepossessing building,” adding that “I really know of nothing that would so impress new arrivals, especially from the old Country, as having good comfortable accommodation provided for them.” [22] The location finally chosen was along the CPR tracks both for convenience and because the CPR was willing to do a land swap.

However, as the CPR would be constructing their new station before the new immigration hall would be ready, the Commissioner of Immigration in Winnipeg had to take some extraordinary measures to provide for his staff and incoming immigrants. In his report for 1903–1904, the Commissioner, J. Obediah Smith, wrote:

The large and extensive improvements to the terminal facilities of the Canadian Pacific Railway in Winnipeg, necessitating the erection of a new station, offices and other buildings, led to an amicable arrangement between the government and the railway company, whereby the land at the corner of Higgins Avenue and Maple Street, in the said city, on which the immigration buildings were situated, was exchanged for other land immediately contiguous to the proposed new station buildings, forming a more convenient arrangement for all concerned, and furnishing additional land for a new and large immigration building, together with a spur track and platform in front of the same sufficiently large to care for ten coaches of immigrants at once. Unfortunately, the arrangements were in progress at such time as to make it extremely difficult for our officers to afford reasonable accommodation for newcomers during the spring of 1904. The buildings themselves had to be moved from the old site to the new one…. During the season, the department rented the old St. Lawrence Hotel [at Main on the north side of Higgins] and a vacant warehouse, both near the railway station. In addition, a temporary building 40 feet by 100 feet was erected, and a large tent, 30 by 90, floored and framed, also provided as convenient to the main station building as possible, in order to accommodate the large numbers requiring temporary shelter. It is learned with much gratification that the contract is about to be let for a new and large immigration building, which will obviate the necessity for renting totally unsuitable buildings, in addition to the public buildings which have already been erected. [23]

The surveyor’s plan for the site showed the layout of the immigration complex with the new immigration hall immediately to the east of the CPR station and the old hall and the Immigrant Hospital relocated to new sites to the east of the new hall. [24]

The relocation of the old buildings was a very complex operation and fraught with delays and difficulty. Both the old immigration hall and the Immigrant Hospital, as well as the caretaker’s cottage and a baggage hall, were to be moved. The immigration hall was a large building, three storeys tall and measuring 130 feet by 31 feet, and the Immigrant Hospital, also a three-storey building, measured about 70 feet by 30 feet. To move them, even the two hundred yards to their new locations, east of the site of the new building, would have been quite a feat. The CPR promised to build new foundations for the buildings and move them all by February 1904, but the contractor they hired to do the work fell so far behind that he was dismissed and CPR crews moved the buildings themselves. [25] The work was only completed in April, after the spring flood of immigrants resumed. The move of such large buildings was big news and the Manitoba Free Press reported on their progress, as it took several weeks for each of the buildings to be relocated. [26] In addition, the old temporary hall on King Street at the CPR tracks was returned to service. The St. Lawrence Hotel was also in the way of the new CPR terminal so by April 1904 it was no longer available as an immigration hall. [27] North of the tracks, at the southwest corner of Sutherland and Argyle, as the Commissioner reported, the Department of the Interior rented a lot and erected a temporary hall and a large tent. [28] In all, during the summer of 1904, there were five immigration halls in operation in Winnipeg. [29]

Once the old buildings were in place, construction of the new hall could begin. The contract was let in the late summer of 1904 with an unrealistic completion date of 31 December 1904. It was not until April 1906 that the ground floor offices were occupied by Canada Immigration and only later in the summer were the floors above opened for immigrants. [30]

Dominion Immigration Building at 83 Maple Street, with the CPR tracks in the foreground, 1970.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Architectural Survey-Winnipeg-Maple St/1 28/69 N21668.

The New Immigration Hall No. 1 (Dominion Immigration Building)

The new CPR station had opened in 1904 and the huge new immigration hall, being constructed immediately to the east of the station, was designed to complement the architecture of the station. Both were to be clad with brick and trimmed with stone. In 1904, Cabinet approved a tender for $147,000 for the construction of the building, a huge sum for the time—indicative of how big the building was to be. [31] It was four storeys tall with a mezzanine over about a third of the main floor, and measured approximately 200 feet by 60 feet. [32]

This building at 83 Maple Street was the flagship of the immigration halls across the country. The ground floor offices were opulent with 19-foot ceilings, arched windows and beautifully polished wood counters and desks. On the three upper floors, the building could comfortably house up to 500 immigrants at any given time. At the height of the immigration season, however, this number might easily be doubled. [33] Each of these floors had about 33 rooms for families and a dormitory for single men. The rooms were small—those on the outside, with windows, were twelve feet square and those on the inside, with light coming only from the transom above the door, measured twelve by eight and one-half feet. [34] Each floor also offered large washrooms with baths, a communal kitchen, where immigrants could prepare their own food, and a dining hall. Laundry facilities and more washrooms were located in the basement. [35]

The immigration hall also contained the office of the Commissioner of Immigration for Western Canada. He was one of three commissioners, one located in Ottawa for eastern Canada, one in London, England for overseas operations, and one in Winnipeg. From here he ran the biggest inland immigration operation Canada has ever seen. This building was now designated “Immigration Hall No. 1” and the old hall was designated “Immigration Hall No. 2.” The Hospital was known variously as the Immigrant Hospital or “Hall No. 3.” Hall No. 1 was reserved largely for English-speaking immigrants and “foreign” immigrants had to put up with the less desirable accommodation in Hall No. 2. In order to improve the older buildings, it was decided to veneer them with brick to make them more fireproof and also to make them blend in with the new building. [36] The new Commissioner, J. Bruce Walker, reported that in the 1907–1908 fiscal year, Halls 1 and 2 provided 76,393 days’ accommodation to immigrants. [37] Given that the immigration season lasted only about 200 days, from mid-April to the end of October, this meant that the halls were housing, on average, 382 people per day.

The new building and its location started to pose problems within a few years. In 1913, the CPR proposed to raise the tracks beside the building by six feet, a change that would place the main entrance to the hall, facing the tracks, below grade and totally useless. [38] In addition, in 1914 the City of Winnipeg’s public health authorities banned the use of interior rooms for accommodation and this rendered forty-eight of the rooms in Hall No.1 uninhabitable. The solution recommended by Commissioner Walker, was a new immigration hall to replace the two existing halls and the Immigrant Hospital. [39]

What Might Have Been … and What Was

After Ottawa approved the idea of a new hall and acquired property for it nearby, plans were drawn up for a new and even grander Immigration Hall in Winnipeg. It was to be located two blocks south of Immigration Hall No. 1 at the corner of Maple Street and McDonald Avenue. The building would have had over 100 rooms for immigrants as well as large new offices for the Commissioner of Immigration, away from the noise of the CPR mainline. It was never built. Instead, Immigration Hall No. 1 was extensively renovated a few years later.

Immigration Hall No. 1 served many purposes through its career. During the First World War, the two upper floors were converted into a Convalescent Hospital for injured and disabled war veterans and it also served as a receiving depot for returning soldiers. [40] The Convalescent Hospital was only removed in the summer of 1922. [41] Also, in 1918, about one-third of the main floor, basement, and mezzanine was turned over to the Post Office for Postal Station “A”, which had grown too large for its space within the CPR station. [42] The new Department of Immigration and Colonization, created in 1917, was not able to get back full control of Immigration Hall No. 1 until 1924. It was then in need of major renovations to repair the damage done by the creation of the postal terminal and to bring the living space in the building up to standard. In addition to electrical and plumbing work, the issue of the inside rooms had to be addressed. The solution was to move the kitchen and dining rooms on the second and third floors from the outside of the building to the interior space. The former kitchen and dining areas were converted into dormitories. It was not considered necessary to make these changes on the fourth floor as the interior rooms received natural light from a large skylight that ran the length of the building. Also, the mezzanine was converted to improved detention facilities. The progressive renovations from 1925 to 1930 made 83 Maple a useful building once again. [43] During the Second World War, it was used as an army barracks. This fine building was last used to accommodate immigrants on 30 September 1962 but it remained the immigration office in Winnipeg until September 1969. [44]

Welcome to Manitoba. The interior of the Dominion Immigration Building was festooned with garlands to draw an immigrant’s attention to Manitoba’s agricultural bounty.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, C-075993.

Immigration Hall No. 2

Immigration Hall No. 2, as noted earlier, was the old hall moved from the corner of Higgins and Maple to its new site just fifty feet east of the new immigration hall. During the First World War, it was turned over to the army for use as a detention centre. [45] After the war, it was declared surplus by Canada Immigration and turned over to the Department of Public Works. Early in the 1920s it was used as a shelter for the unemployed. [46] However, as immigration picked up in the 1920s, it was needed again and the Department of Immigration and Colonization asked Public Works for its return. [47] It was completely renovated to the extent that when it re-opened in June 1924, it was considered to be a new Hall No. 2. [48] The Manitoba Free Press described the “new” Hall No. 2 as being “very spacious and well furnished.” [49] It continued to operate until the downturn in immigration in the 1930s.

The Water Street Immigration Hall

As early as 1914, E. J. Chamberlin, President of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, wrote the Minister of the Interior, J. D. Roche, seeking an Immigration Hall for the area near the new Union Station on Main Street which the Grand Trunk shared with the Canadian Northern Railway. He argued that the need for a hall near the Union Station was greater than the need for another new hall near the CPR station. [50]

During, and shortly after, the First World War, several railways, including the Canadian Northern and the Grand Trunk Pacific faced bankruptcy and were nationalized and merged to form the Canadian National Railway (CNR). With the resumption of immigration in the 1920s, the CNR actively sought immigrant business. It recruited immigrants overseas and delivered them to their destinations in western Canada in direct competition with the CPR. However, in Winnipeg the CNR was at a disadvantage because the two immigration halls were both near the CPR station on Higgins Avenue, not the Union Station on Main Street at Broadway. CNR officials complained to the press that “considerable dissatisfaction had been expressed by incoming immigrants” who had to trek up to Maple Street for overnight accommodation. The CNR lobbied the government to build a hall beside Union Station. This “would popularize, officials stated, Canadian National immigration very considerably.” [51] However, the Department of Immigration and Colonization was unable to obtain funds for another immigration hall.

The CNR’s solution was to create a third immigration hall at its own expense and at a location of its choice, near their station. They chose 168 Water Street, a building that was originally the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway Station, built in 1888. [52] The following year, the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway also opened Winnipeg’s first railway hotel, the Manitoba Hotel, on the triangular lot at Main and Water adjoining the station. The hotel offered the finest accommodation between Toronto and Vancouver for a decade but was destroyed by fire in 1899. The station, however, survived and continued in operation.

The Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway was later taken over by the Canadian Northern Railway and when the Union Station was opened in 1911, the Water Street station was converted into railway offices. The CNR then decided to convert the old station into an Immigration Hall in 1926. CNR Vice-President W. D. Robb wrote to acting Minister, Charles Stewart, on 10 February 1926, advising him of the railway’s intention and seeking the department’s cooperation. [53] The old station was a long, narrow, three-storey building approximately 230 feet by 30 feet. [54] The Manitoba Free Press reported at length on the opening of the new hall on 11 February 1927:

[The] Official opening of the new immigration hall constructed by the Canadian National railway on Water Street, took place yesterday and the building was handed over to the federal government, through Thomas Gelley, commissioner of immigration, by Sir Henry Thornton, president of the Canadian National railways…

The building, consisting of three stories, has two floors given over to sleeping accommodation, and one to office, kitchen, recreation and dining requirements, and it is considered to be the most modern building of its kind in Canada. The second floor is divided into two large dormitories for men while the third floor contains a number of separate rooms for the use of women and families. Both these floors have special laundry and bathroom facilities. The ground floor contains the office where the immigration authorities will conduct their business, rest rooms for the men and women, kitchens and also a lunch counter.

With the opening of the new hall, immigrant trains will run on to sidings close to the hall and the passengers will enter the facility without having to go out into public thoroughfares. [55]

The new hall had forty private rooms on the third floor with single or double bunk beds transferred from the immigration hall in Vancouver and the two dormitories for men on the second floor were equipped with 62 triple beds from the immigration detention facility in Saint John, New Brunswick. The capacity of the building was about two hundred and seventy-five persons. [56]

The Department of Immigration designated the new facility as Winnipeg Immigration Hall No. 3. The following fiscal year (1927–1928) it quickly became the busiest of all three Winnipeg immigration halls. It handled 10,973 immigrants, while Hall No. 1 handled 8,494 and Hall No. 2 handled 5,718. Taken together, one can see the magnitude of the immigration movement flowing through these facilities in the late 1920s. [57]

After fronting the investment in the hall, in 1928 Sir Henry Thornton appealed to the Department of Immigration and Colonization to cover the costs of operating the hall, arguing that the CPR did not have to pay for the operation of the halls near their station. The Minister, Robert Forke, responded that the “providing for and equipping of a third Immigration Hall at Winnipeg was undertaken on the initiative of, and by, the Canadian National Railways.” He added, somewhat disingenuously, that the two existing halls were adequate to handle all the immigrants passing through Winnipeg and were available equally to passengers of both the CNR and CPR. He concluded by stating that “the additional expenditure involved in the operation of the third Hall is not a situation for which the Department is in any way responsible and I cannot approve of the transferring of such expense to the Department.” [58] This was the first of many exchanges between Sir Henry and the Minister, all with the same result. [59]

The CNR facility had a short career as an immigration hall. With the advent of the Great Depression in 1930, immigration to Canada was effectively shut down. The immigration hall was used as a soup kitchen and hostel for the unemployed in the 1930s, [60] and as an army barracks during the Second World War. The CNR removed the top floor and converted the building back to offices in 1951. It was demolished in 1982. [61]

Dutchmen at Winnipeg. A group of Dutch immigrants pose for a photo upon their arrival at the Immigration Hall on 21 April 1893.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Martha Knapp Fonds, Photograph Series, No. 14.

After the Second World War

After the Second World War, only Hall No. 1 continued in operation. During the war, it had been used as a barracks and immediately after the war it provided accommodation for war brides. In 1950 it sheltered Winnipeggers who had been evacuated from their homes due to the Red River Flood. One of these was R. N. Munro, then the District Administrator of Immigration, and his family. Over time, the top two floors were closed off as fewer people sought to stay in immigration halls. However, during 1957 and 1958, the upper floors were opened again to house thousands of Hungarian refugees who arrived in Western Canada. [62]

The Hall served as the Western Regional Headquarters for the new Department of Citizenship and Immigration from 1950 until 1966, when the Immigration Branch was merged with the National Employment Service to create Manpower and Immigration Canada. The Regional Headquarters for Immigration was merged into the Regional Headquarters of the new department and relocated to the Royal Bank Building on Portage Avenue. The local Canada Immigration Centre remained at the Hall until September 1969. Then, sixty-five years after construction began in 1904, the building known variously as the Dominion Immigration Building, Winnipeg Immigration Hall No. 1, and, to the staff who worked there, simply as “83 Maple”, was closed and abandoned. [63]

Given the deterioration of the neighbourhood at that time, Crown Assets Disposal was unable to sell the grand old building. Valued at $115,000, it was now worth less than it had cost to build in 1904–1906 and the City of Winnipeg was the only interested buyer. The city originally offered $60,000 and that offer was accepted by Crown Assets Disposal, but in an extremely short-sighted move the city reduced its offer to $1, which was refused. [64] Finding no other buyers, it was demolished in 1975. The era of the immigration hall in Winnipeg had come to an end. [65]


Canada no longer operates immigration halls staffed by government employees. However, through the Resettlement Assistance Plan, Citizenship and Immigration Canada funds several “reception houses” in major centres across Canada, including Winnipeg, to provide short-term accommodation to government-sponsored refugees when they first arrive in Canada. These reception houses are operated by not-for-profit immigrant settlement agencies. The concept that worked so successfully in Canada’s early days is kept alive in modern refugee programs.

In the 1990s, the Canada Immigration Centre in Winnipeg and Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s Prairies and Northern Territories regional office both moved into the newly renovated Johnston Terminal Building at The Forks. The building, formerly known as the National Cartage Building, was built in 1928 with an extension added in 1930 for CN’s subsidiary, National Cartage and Storage. [66]

It is most appropriate that Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration department has chosen to locate its modern Winnipeg offices in a restored railway building just steps away from the location of Canada’s first Winnipeg immigration facilities, built almost a century-and-a-half ago at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

In the modern age Winnipeg is no longer the major immigrant gateway that it once was. The city’s important role as the distribution point for managing the flow of hundreds of thousands of immigrants annually to the Canadian west in the late 19th and early 20th centuries truly made it the “Gateway to Canada’s West.” However, this part of Winnipeg’s history has now been largely forgotten. Telling the story of the buildings that housed both immigrants and immigration staff in Winnipeg may help to revive the larger story of the importance of the city in the settlement of Western Canada.


1. Library and Archives Canada (hereafter LAC), Order-in-Council, PC1872-0062B, 21 June 1872, RG2, Privy Council Office (PCO), Series A-1-a, [, retrieved 11 January 2010]

2. Minister of Agriculture, Report of the Minister of Agriculture of the Dominion of Canada for the Calendar Year 1871, (Sessional Paper 2A), I. B. Taylor, Ottawa, 1872, p. 72.

3. Minister of Agriculture, Report of the Minister of Agriculture of the Dominion of Canada for the Calendar Year 1872, (Sessional Paper 26), I. B. Taylor, Ottawa, 1873, p. 72.

4. Rodger Guinn, The Red Assiniboine Junction: A Land Use and Structural Study 1770–1980, (Manuscript Report No. 355), Parks Canada, Ottawa, 1980, pp. 108-110 passim.

5. Marjorie Gillies, “Western Canada’s ‘Ellis Island’” in Huck, Barbara, editor, Crossroads of the Continent, A History of Forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, Heartland Associates, Winnipeg, 2003, pp. 118-125 passim.

6. Minister of Agriculture, Report of the Minister of Agriculture of the Dominion of Canada for the Calendar Year 1873, (Sessional Paper 9), I. B. Taylor, Ottawa, 1874, p. xi.

7. Henderson, Manitoba Directory for 1876–77, p. 49, and Henderson, Manitoba Directory for 1880, p. 83.

8. LAC, Order-in-Council PC1881–1684, 20 December 1881, RG2, PCO, Series A-1-a, [, retrieved 9 April 2010], and Manitoba Free Press (hereafter MFP), 23 November 1882, p. 2 and 28 May 1910 (historical article on the Winnipeg General Hospital).

9. LAC, Order-in-Council PC1882-0004, 4 January 1882, RG2, PCO, Series A-1-a, [, retrieved on 9 March 2010]

10. Henderson, Manitoba Directory for 1882, p. 138.

11. Henderson, Manitoba Directory for 1888, p. 588.

12. LAC, Order-in-Council PC1887-2213, 14 November 1887, RG2, PCO, Series A-1-a, [, retrieved 9 March 2010]

13. Henderson, Manitoba Directory for 1890, p. 945.

14. LAC, RG76, Vol. 18, File 179-1, memorandum dated 15 August 1892 from Immigration Agent F. Fitzroy Dixon to Acting Commissioner of the Dominion Lands Office W. Pierce; and MFP, 17 August 1892.

15. LAC, RG76, Vol. 18, File 179-2, letter, dated 7 January 1899 from W. F. McCreary, Commissioner of Immigration, to Frank Pedley, Superintendent of Immigration, Ottawa.

16. LAC, RG72, Vol. 150, File 35883, memorandum, dated 20 January 1897, from John R. Hall, Secretary, Department of the Interior, to E. F. E. Roy, Secretary, Department of Public Works.

17. LAC, Order-in-Council PC 1902-0733, RG2, Privy Council Office, Series A-1-a, [, retrieved 17 May 2010]

18. LAC, RG72, Vol. 150, File 35883, blueprints of hospital, and memoranda, dated 12 February 1903, and 12 May 1906 from J.O. Smith, Commissioner, to W. D. Scott, Superintendent of Immigration.

19. MFP, ‘How Settlers are treated in Winnipeg’, 31 August 1907, p. 17.

20. LAC, RG76, Vol. 19, File 179-10, memorandum, dated 23 November 1923, from Thomas Gelley, Commissioner of Immigration, Winnipeg, to W.J. Egan, Deputy Minister, Immigration and Colonization.

21. LAC, RG76, Vol. 18, File 179-2, letter, dated 26 December 1900 from James A. Smart, Deputy Minister of the Interior, to W. R. Baker, CPR, Winnipeg.

22. LAC, RG76, Vol. 18, File 179-2, letter, dated 1 December 1902 from James A. Smart, Deputy Minister, to Clifford Sifton, Minister of Interior.

23. Minister of the Interior, Annual Report of the Department of the Interior for the year 1903–04 (Sessional Paper 25), Part II Immigration, King’s Printer, Ottawa, 1905, p. 71.

24. LAC, RG76, Vol. 19 File 179-4, Surveyor’s Plan of the locations of buildings in the new immigration complex, 21 June 1905.

25. LAC, RG76, Vol. 18, File 179-3, memorandum, dated 2 March 1904, from Smith to Smart.

26. LAC, RG76, Vol. 18, File 179-3, various correspondence, Smith to W. D. Scott, Superintendent of Immigration, and Smith to Sifton, 11 March to 5 May, 1904; and MFP, 31 March 1904, p. 10.

27. LAC, RG76, Vol. 18, File 179-3, Smith to Scott, 20 April 1904; and MFP, 22 April 1904, p. 6.

28. LAC, RG76, Vol. 18, File 179-3, lease for property at Sutherland Ave. and Argyle St., dated 18 February 1904.

29. MFP, 8 June 1904.

30. LAC, RG76, Vol. 19, File 179-4, telegram, dated 14 March 1906 from Smith to Scott.

31. LAC, Order-in-Council PC1904-1569, 10 August 1904, RG2, PCO, Series A-1-a, [, retrieved 9 March 2010]

32. Saunders, Ivan J., Rostecki, R.R., and Carrington, Selwyn, Early Buildings in Winnipeg, Vol. III, Parks Canada, Ottawa, 1974-77, p. 76.

33. Department of Manpower and Immigration, Information Service, Prairie Region, Winnipeg’s 83 Maple Retired in 65th Year, in ‘Prairie Points (of View)’, Vol. 1, No. 4, December 1969, p. 2; and LAC, RG76, Vol. 18, File 179-5, Smith to Scott, 24 April 1907.

34. LAC, RG11M-79003/36, Architectural plans of public buildings in the Prairie provinces–architectural drawings, Microfiches NMC47122-47284.

35. Early Buildings in Winnipeg, pp. 76, 77.

36. LAC, Order-in-Council PC1906-0356, 8 March 1906, RG2, PCO, Series A-1-a, [, retrieved 10 March 2010]

37. Minister of the Interior, Annual Report of the Department of the Interior for the Fiscal Year ending 31 March 1908, (Sessional Paper 25) Part II Immigration, King’s Printer, Ottawa, p. 91.

38. LAC, RG76, Vol. 19, File 179-6, memorandum dated 8 September 1913, Walker to Scott.

39. LAC, RG76, Vol. 19, File 179-7, memorandum dated 15 January 1914, Walker to Scott.

40. The Convalescent Hospital was operated by the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE). MFP, 25 February 1916, p. 5 and 18 May 1917, p. 5.

41. LAC, RG76, Vol. 19, File 179-10, letter dated 4 July 1922, from W.H. George, Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment to Secretary, Department of Immigration and Colonization.

42. LAC, RG76, Vol. 19, File 179-8, Walker to Scott 20, December 1918.

43. LAC, RG76, Vol. 19, File 179-10, memorandum, dated 6 December 1924, from T. W. Fuller, Assistant Chief Architect, Public Works, to Deputy Minister, Department of Immigration and Colonization.

44. Winnipeg’s 83 Maple Retired in 65th Year, in ‘Prairie Points (of View)’, p. 3.

45. LAC, RG17, Vol. 19, File 179-7, Walker to Scott, 2 February 1916.

46. LAC, RG17, Vol. 19, File 179-9, letter dated 3 December 1921 from F. C. Blair, Secretary, Department of Immigration and Colonization, to Assistant Chief Architect, Department of Public Works.

47. LAC, RG76, Vol. 19, File 179-10, memorandum dated 29 December 1923 from W. J. Egan, Deputy Minister, to James A. Robb, Minister of Immigration and Colonization.

48. LAC, RG76, Vol. 19, File 179-10, letter, dated 7 June 1924 from Thomas Gelley, Divisional Commissioner, Winnipeg, to A. L. Jolliffe, Commissioner, Ottawa; and LAC, RG76, Vol. 20, File 179-11, memorandum, dated 11 February 1930, from Architect (in charge of Maintenance, etc.), Public Works Department, to Commissioner, Department of Immigration and Colonization.

49. MFP, ‘New Depot Built beside Hall No. 1’, 11 June 1924, p. 10.

50. LAC, RG76, Vol. 19, File 149-7, E. J. Chamberlin to J. D. Roche, 8 June 1914.

51. MFP, 8 April 1924, p. 11.

52. City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee, The Year Past: Report for 1982, City of Winnipeg, pp. 51, 52, [, retrieved 9 March 2010]

53. LAC, RG76, Vol. 272, File 230737-1, letter dated 10 February 1926, from W. D. Robb, Vice-President, CNR, to Charles Stewart, Acting Minister of Immigration and Colonization.

54. City of Winnipeg Archives, Fire Insurance Plans for the City of Winnipeg.

55. MFP, ‘Immigration Hall Opened By Thornton,’ 12 February 1927, p. 6.

56. LAC, RG76, Vol. 272, File 230737-1, correspondence and blueprints on file April 1926 to February 1927.

57. Minister of Immigration and Colonization, Annual Report 1926-27, King’s Printer, Ottawa, 1928, p. 6.

58. LAC, RG76, Vol. 272, File 230737-1, Forke to Thornton, 12 June 1928.

59. LAC, RG76, Vol. 272, File 230737-1, various correspondence from 12 June 1928 to 26 December 1929.

60. LAC, RG76, Vol. 272, File 230737-1, telegram Gelley to Jolliffe, 29 October 1930.

61. City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee, The Year Past: Report for 1982, City of Winnipeg, pp. 51, 52, [, retrieved 9 March 2010]

62. Interview on 30 March 2010 with Marion Bruno, long-time Immigration employee, who worked in Hall No. 1 from 1946 until it closed in 1969.

63. Winnipeg’s 83 Maple Retired in 65th Year, p. 3.

64. Winnipeg Free Press, ‘Immigration Hall: City Offers $1,’ 3 April 1970, p. 1.

65. Winnipeg Tribune, 13 March 1975, cited in Early Buildings in Winnipeg, p. 79.

66. City of Winnipeg, Buildings Conservation List, 25 Forks Market Road – Johnston Terminal Building (National Cartage Building), [, retrieved 9 March 2010]

Page revised: 4 August 2016