• Colleen Murray

A Female Land Speculator in the Canadian West

Updated: Jul 26

A cousin that I recently connected with, thanks to DNA, lead me to some interesting information about my 2X great grand aunt, Victoria Lepage. I already knew a fair bit about her- as a child, my mother had proudly shown me Bellerose school at Fort Edmonton Park, and told me that Victoria had been an early teacher there. Victoria was born in 1847 and came to Alberta from Rimouski, Québec in 1890.[1] She and some of her brothers settled in Lamoureux, near Fort Saskatchewan. Victoria was the third schoolteacher at Lamoureux, and later taught in various places around Edmonton. She never married, and lived to be 94 years old.[2]


Photo of Victoria Lepage from her 1942 obituary

My cousin pointed me towards a book called Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Imperial Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies by Sarah Carter.[3] Here is the excerpt that mentions Victoria:


Alberta teacher Victoria Lepage used a variety of tactics including the purchase of Métis scrip to acquire land near Lamoureux. In 1895 she bought a military bounty scrip and located a nephew on a half section of land, assigning him the homestead duties, although he soon abandoned the tasks. She planned to pay cash for eighty acres and ‘apply a Half-breed land scrip upon 240 acres of the land in question’. Lepage purchased the Métis scrip, but for a variety of reasons she was not successful in this complicated venture, and her claim was cancelled. Among the causes was a neighbour (and likely a relative) Charles Lepage, who wanted her land for his son and who complained that no improvements had been made and believed that a single woman teacher was not a suitable owner of land. He wrote the land office that ‘there are lots of hands who would be too glad to improve [this land] and put them in a shape [sic] so that they would be a benefit to the country. The lady I refer to is a school teacher earning $600 a year, and a sure thing she does not need any land to speculate on.’ The Lepages were originally from Rimouski, Quebec. They came in a large family group to Lamoureux and amassed many sections of land in the district. Victoria Lepage, the youngest of thirteen children, was a celebrated pioneer teacher of Lamoureux but never able to acquire land of her own.


There is a lot to unpack here, but don’t feel too sorry for Victoria- as we will see later, she was an investor and land speculator who actually acquired quite a bit of property in the end.



Bid for Homestead

I looked up the homestead file to read the papers for myself.[4] Yes, it was Victoria’s own brother, my 2X great grandfather, Charles Lepage, who wrote the letter trying to jump Victoria’s claim! His son, Enoch, eventually ended up with the land, just as Charles had hoped. It’s pretty shocking that a brother would do this to his own sister, however, as shown below, the Lepage siblings had tumultuous relationships.


Victoria was a schoolteacher, and as the letter from Charles stated, made a good salary. In Québec, she was earning about $250/year, but in Alberta, she made $600/year.[5] She wanted to make use of that money, and sought out investments. As a single woman with no children, she wasn’t entitled to a homestead, but she could purchase land.[6] Or- she could obtain a homestead if she paid for it with land scrip. She would still have to follow the same rules as other homesteaders (clearing a certain amount of land, establishing residence), whereas if she purchased land outside of the government homestead deal, she wouldn’t have to do any of that. Perhaps she didn’t have the money to purchase the land outright, but more likely paying with scrip made sense financially. And as we will see, Victoria only really wanted this land as an investment.


Victoria purchased some military scrip to pay for a small part of the land, and she intended to buy some Métis scrip to pay for the rest. Land scrip was a government certificate that could be redeemed for land. Military scrip was given out to soldiers in compensation for their service. Métis scrip was given out to Métis in an attempt to extinguish their claims to the land. Scrip speculation became a large problem, where many Métis were exploited by being given a pittance of what their scrip was really worth, in exchange for ready money.[7] Brokers bought up the scrip and sold it to people like Victoria who could then use it to buy a homestead.


Victoria was required to settle on the homestead for three years, living there at least six months a year. She never intended to do that- she instead made a deal with a nephew to live on the land, but he left the country a year later. She never settled anyone else on the land, or made any further improvements to the land. The homestead program was specifically set up because the west needed settlers- not speculators- who didn’t intend to live on and cultivate the land.


Despite repeated promises found in various letters in the homestead file over numerous years, Victoria never made good on her promise to buy the Métis scrip, and therefore she never actually paid for the homestead. She held on to the land for four years. In the end, it appears that there wasn’t scrip available at the time, at a price she was willing to pay, so the deal fell through.


Frank Oliver, Member of Parliament and controversial historical figure in Edmonton, featured heavily in Victoria’s homestead file. He wrote several letters in support of Victoria, and is the main reason she held onto her land without paying for it for as long as she did. A third party wrote to Oliver, convincing him to act on Victoria’s behalf. The letter says “Miss L. says that if you obtain that for her she will be for ever the best canvasser you have in your district. I must admit that she would be pretty hard to meet on the stump. Hoping you might be able to do something for her.“ I think this refers to stump speeches given by politicians, suggesting that Victoria was a smart, well-spoken woman you wouldn’t want to debate against, or who would be a better political ally than enemy.


Excerpt of letter in homestead file urging Frank Oliver to intercede on Victoria's behalf
Excerpt of letter written by A. Prince to Frank Oliver, found in homestead file

Indeed, Victoria was a smart woman, fluent in both French and English, and a teacher of both Greek and Latin, which was very unusual for a woman of her times. Her eloquent writing shows up in the homestead file, where she describes that she had gone into these business dealings with only the best intentions, and she claims that her inability to follow through was certainly not her own fault. Her excuses seem a little thin when she does nothing to rectify the situation over the next four years, but it wasn’t a bad business strategy to hang on to the investment which was increasing in value, for as long as possible without paying- if she could eventually pull the deal together.


Excerpt of letter in homestead file written by Victoria, claiming she had acted in good faith in every part of the business deal
Excerpt of letter in homestead file written by Victoria

Transcription:

But to my great disappointment, Michel Beaudel failed to fulfill any of his obligations and consequently left me in a very false and ackward [sic] position, and more so still, on account of my being ineligible to an entry in the Lands’ Office.

I wish it to be well understood that I have acted with good faith in every particular of the transaction and that I never entertained for a moment the idea of extorting emoluments or privileges that would, in the minutest degree, bear upon the perpetration of an unrighteous deed.



Court Case

This wasn’t the last time that Victoria had to defend her questionable business practices. Victoria held a mortgage on her brother Louis Lepage’s homestead, for $4500. When he died in 1910, a bachelor without a will, she applied for the Letters of Administration, which is not unusual, since she would have had the most to gain by making sure his estate was administered.[8]


In 1914, Victoria’s sister, Martine Voyer, sued her over the administration of Louis’ estate. Two of their brothers gave evidence in the case- the siblings were all in their 70’s and 80’s at the time. Martine accused Victoria of having transferred Louis’ homestead and other property into her own name and selling it, and then keeping all the profits for herself. She did not believe that Victoria had actually provided Louis with a $4500 mortgage. She argued that Louis and Victoria were business partners, and involved in buying and selling property together. This seemed to be an important legal point in the case- I think because Victoria had a lot of property solely in her own name that her sister was trying to argue was also part of Louis’ estate.


Excerpt of court case stating that Victoria embarked on real estate speculation
Excerpt from court case

Reading through the court documents, it turns out that Victoria had used Louis to purchase some property on her behalf, with her money. She claimed it was because his English was better. I suspect that more likely she was making use of Louis as a front for some of her transactions- there would have been a lot of discrimination against women in the world of business, and employing Louis probably knocked down barriers. It turns out that Louis had registered some of this land in his own name, which complicated matters. The court examination of one of the siblings, Fortunat Lepage, shows that he testified that Victoria and Louis had been business partners. Another brother, Napoleon also testified, but his examination details are not included in the file. (Brother Charles was already deceased at this point.)


Victoria gave an emotional testimony, breaking into tears on the stand, and it was “several minutes before she could proceed with her evidence”.[9]


Newspaper account of Victoria's emotional testimony
Excerpt from newspaper article covering the court case

It seems that Victoria's testimony was compelling, and the judge ruled in her favour, saying that all Martine was owed was an accounting of the mortgage and proof that a proper price was obtained for the property.[10] Victoria got slapped on the wrist for how she dissolved the estate, transferring all the property into her own name and then selling it without judicial approval. The judge ruled that Louis and Victoria were not business partners, since Victoria provided all the money for the property they purchased and she was supporting Louis and paying him a stipend for the last several years of his life.


Martine appealed the case, but lost again. In his decision, the judge said this about Victoria: “…and although in the result she acquired considerable property through the means of real estate speculating where the same was rife in Edmonton, she seems at all times from 1891 until the decease of her brother to have undertaken to hold up, care for and maintain an unfortunate brother…”


Excerpt from court case showing that Victoria acquired considerable property through real estate speculation
Excerpt from ruling in the court appeal

Were the homestead and the mortgage fiascos the end of Victoria's business dealings? Surprisingly, no! Despite these rather two negative interactions in the world of real estate, her speculation continued into the years before WWI.


According to a 1935 newspaper interview of Victoria:[11]


And that is not all of the grand old lady’s adventures. In the boom days before the war, she made and lost a fortune in real estate- seven years of it. She says ruefully that she lost her money in a Peace River townsite deal. DISAPPROVES FINANCE “Oh no- that is no good. You buy $5000 worth of property, and you stay awake all night worrying how you can sell” is her summarizing of high financing.



Conclusion

No Alberta probate file was found for Victoria. She had been living with a great-niece in her final years, so perhaps she gave away her assets so that no one would need to go through the hassle of probating her estate- the tribulations of which Victoria had experienced first-hand. Or maybe she had so little left after her wheeling and dealing, that probate wasn’t necessary.


According to the court case, Victoria had quite a bit of property in 1914. She had even given one of her great-nieces “a handsome house and grounds” for her wedding present in 1912.[12] And it was sometime after this that she lost the $5000 worth of property in Peace River. She even managed to acquire a homestead in the end- although when finally in possession of the coveted homestead (Louis’ land), she sold it right away.


Victoria’s story isn’t one of being unable to acquire a homestead in the same manner as a man- it’s a story of how she managed to acquire a lot of property in exactly the same manner as many men in Alberta at the time- through real estate speculation. This was a rarity for a woman, and shows what an interesting person Victoria Lepage was.



[1] “Quebec, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-,” images, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com), Marie Victoire Lepage baptism (1847); citing Drouin Collection, Institut Généalogique Drouin, Montreal, Quebec. All website access dates are as of 15 July 2022. [2] “Pioneer Teacher, Mlle. Lepage Dies,” The Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), 2 Mar 1942, p. 9, col. 6; digital image, Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com). Photo is courtesy of this article. [3] Sarah Carter, Imperial Plots: Women, Land and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016), p. 916 of e-book. [4] “Alberta, Canada, Homestead Records, 1870-1930,” database, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com), entry for Victoria Lepage & other Lepages file 416715, digitized microfilm 2033, starting at digital image 1866 of 1304; Alberta Homestead Records, University of Alberta, Edmonton. [5] Edmonton Supreme Court Civil Files, File nos. 05251-05311 (1913), File 05257, Voyer vs. Lepage, et al.; Accession no. 86.375, microfilm roll 202, Provincial Archives of Alberta, Edmonton. [6] Sarah Carter, Imperial Plots: Women, Land and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies. The “Note on Terminology” chapter highlights the basic rules around homesteads, and the whole book highlights the challenges women experienced when trying to acquire farms. [7] Amanda Robinson, “Métis Scrip in Canada,” The Canadian Encyclopedia (https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/metis-scrip-in-canada), 2019. [8] Edmonton, Alberta, Probate records, Louis LePage (1910), file 3421; Accession number GR1995.0399, Box 107, Provincial Archives of Alberta, Edmonton. [9] “Continue Lepage Case,” The Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), 4 Mar 1914, p. 7, col. 4; digital image, Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com). [10] “Judgement given in Voyer-Lepage Case,” The Edmonton Bulletin (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), 12 May 1914, p. 1, col. 7; digital image, Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com). [11] “Modern ‘Speed’ Too much for young, says Alberta Teacher of 50 years ago,” The Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), 19 Mar 1935, p. 14, col.3; Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com). [12] “Le Compte Louis de Kermor claims Edmonton Bride,” The Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), 26 Nov 1912, p. 16, col. 3; digital image, Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com).