The annual migration of harvesters from central and eastern Canada to the prairies had been a regular event ever since 1890. As the wheat economy expanded, larger supplies of manpower were needed to bring in the harvest. In 1906 and 1923 British workers were enticed to western Canada with the promise of steady and lucrative employment plus a subsidized return fare after the harvest. In 1928, under pressure from London, the Canadian government reluctantly extended this scheme to unemployed British workers, in particular coal miners, who had been targeted by Whitehall for overseas migration assistance as early as June 1927. At one level, the assisted migration of approximately 8,500 British men, largely unemployed coal miners, in 1928, was nothing new – it was a sponsored continuation of the emerging pattern of short-term voluntary overseas labour migration.
The miner–harvester scheme provides a fascinating insight into several inter-related issues. This essay is not simply a study of yet another failed assisted migration scheme, one of many that floundered in the 1920s. What is crucial is the interplay between the competing and, at times, contradictory agendas set out by the imperial and Canadian governments at a time when both nations faced unrelenting waves of unemployment. Equally significant, the temporary transfer of unemployed industrial workers to Canada under the auspices of the miner-harvester scheme best encapsulates the tensions which continued to hamper relations between London and Ottawa over the competing aims and direction of Empire migration and settlement at this time.