Canadian History: Post-Confederation

Canadian History: Post-Confederation

John Douglas Belshaw



This book is dedicated to the open educational community and, also, to the reconciliation generation  on whom so many hopes are pinned.



About the Book

Canadian History: Post-Confederation was written by John Douglas Belshaw. This book is a part of the BC Open Textbook project. This book is the second in a two part collection by this author; also see Canadian History: Pre-Confederation.

In October 2012, the BC Ministry of Advanced Education announced its support for the creation of open textbooks for the 40 highest-enrolled first- and second-year subject areas in the province’s public post-secondary system.

Open textbooks are open educational resources (OER); they are instructional resources created and shared in ways so that more people have access to them. This is a different model than traditionally copyrighted materials. OER are defined as “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others” (Hewlett Foundation).

BC Open Textbooks are licensed using a Creative Commons license, and are offered in various e-book formats free of charge or as printed books that are available at cost.

For more information about this project, please contact If you are an instructor using this book for a course, please let us know.



This open textbook follows on the Canadian History: Pre-Confederation volume produced under the auspices of BCcampus, and it continues along a nicely oscillating learning curve begun just over two years ago. The original goal was to assemble Open Educational Resources (OER) for Canadianist historians; it became something vastly more ambitious. Along the way there has been much to learn about the nature of copyright law, the extent of resources available online, and who was at the cutting edge of research on Canadian history.

There have been several formal opportunities to reflect on the process of developing an open textbook. OER symposia, BCcampus’ Open Textbook conference, and developing presentations to potential user groups have been important developmental moments. Co-writing a study on different ways to build open textbooks with Rajiv Jhangiani (Kwantlen Polytechnic University) and Arthur “Gill” Green (Okanagan College) added new wrinkles to my understanding of process and issues; it was also great fun.

My colleagues at Thompson Rivers University, particularly in the Open Learning division, played an important role in this project. The Instructional Design Group, led by Michelle Harrison, and the Curriculum Services department, led by Naomi Cloutier, provided both resources and editorial support in the form of Danielle Collins, Carolyn Hawes, Wayne Egers, Mona Hall, Dawn-Louise Macleod, and Christopher Ward. Many thanks for keeping me on my game. Open Learning also found resources to build a suite of video interviews with historians in BC and Ontario. These were planned out by Norm Fennema (a talented historian at TRU-OL and the University of Victoria) and executed by the gifted Jon Fulton (TRU-OL). Some of the interviews are incorporated into both the Pre– and Post-Confederation Open Learning courses, so I would like to acknowledge the more than two dozen historians who participated. I’m pleased, as well, to acknowledge the continued resourcefulness of TRU Librarian, Brenda Smith.

BCcampus continues to contribute leadership to the task of making quality resources available to students for free. More than that, the organization is committed to the ideal of pedagogical assets that enable the transformation of teaching and learning. Using this open textbook as one would a conventional textbook is a bit like employing a smartphone exclusively as, well, as a telephone. This is the message that Mary Burgess (Executive Director), Amanda Coolidge (Senior Manager), Clint Lalonde (Manager, Education Technologies), Lauri Aesoph (Manager, Open Education), and Denise Goudy (Director, Education Projects) are working hard to get out. Looking at adoption rates for the open textbooks in British Columbia and Canada generally, I’d say they are succeeding. My thanks to everyone at BCcampus for their commitment to this project and for their patience as one deadline after another slipped silently by.

And a shout-out to the Ministry of Advanced Education (AVED). The open textbook initiative came from the Ministry a few years ago with significant resources attached. The results have been remarkable and British Columbia is now, pound-for-pound and ounce-for-ounce, the leading jurisdiction in this field. This is worth bragging about, not least because being the leader in OER means being the most enthusiastic to share, to make freely available, to eschew petty proprietorship for the greatest possible benefit of students and in the interest of energized teaching. That’s real leadership, AVED.

Early on in the development of the Post-Confederation textbook it occurred to me that it would be enriched by the direct involvement of the leading lights in our field from across the country. These bright and dedicated folks are listed by name on the “About the Author and Contributors” page. I am privileged to be part of this community of scholars, and I am inspired by their work.

As this project was underway the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was wrapping up in the form of an enormous, multi-volume report. There are times when, if one looks closely, it is possible to see History with a capital-H pressing its thumbprint on our times. The TRC’s proceedings and report are just such a moment. It marks a watershed in the national, social, legal, moral, cultural, environmental, and human history of many peoples in the northern half of North America. There will be no turning back. The TRC provides generations to come with testimony that repositions what we have written to date on the post-1867 era. I am glad to have lived in a time when so many voices are set free and allowed to speak. As a Canadian who lives on the unceded territory of three Aboriginal communities, I acknowledge the contribution made to this history by Inuit, First Nations, and Métis peoples.

Family and friends have provided encouragement in the course of this enterprise, though none more than Diane Purvey. How often can I thank you? As this project reached its conclusion we lost our cat and companion of 21 years, Reepicheep, without whose demands for feeding and entertaining I might never have got out of my chair. I shall not be able to think of the open textbook without remembering her as well.

Finally, although many people have contributed to what is great about Canadian History: Post-Confederation, only one individual may lay claim to its faults, and that is me.



The interesting times in which I have been fortunate to live include the 1960s – most of which I remember. On reflection, what stands out is how one age seemed to be closing while another opened.

We started school days with The Lord’s Prayer, until that stopped. At assemblies we sang God Save the Queen, until we did so no longer. There was one particularly fearsome Grade 4 teacher who kept a strap in the top drawer of her desk and she wasn’t afraid to use it, until she was no longer permitted to do so. There was a class project on the new flag and bitter muttering on the part of the plentiful WWII vets in the neighbourhood about losing the old Red Ensign. We stopped singing God Save the Queen in favour of O Canada, the lyrics of which changed a few years later. (I remain conflicted as to which version I should sing at sporting events.) We used Imperial measures until, in 7th Grade, Canada annoyingly went metric.

All the children in my class were White, with the possible exception of a small number who might now be comfortable identifying as Métis; I don’t remember more than a couple of Chinese Canadians in the whole school. By the end of the 1960s there were Indo-Canadians in our suburban neighbourhood, a pioneer wave of the Asian immigration that would transform Greater Vancouver’s demographics in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Homosexuality, in those days, was illegal and punishable in brutal ways; consequently no one was “gay”, a term that itself would not emerge for nearly decade. “Normal” was carefully policed. For the most part “diversity” was a couple of Ukrainian families, a very small contingent of Catholics, and an African-Canadian household. Not much diversity, really.

The focus was on belonging, not on differentness. There was a profoundly nationalistic world’s fair in Montreal in 1967, and we all learned rather sappy nationalistic songs, which we sang at the top of our little nationalistic lungs. The world was divided neatly into Leafs fans and Habs fans until, in 1970, the Canucks joined the NHL.

Our mothers were all stay-at-home housewives, or at least that’s how it seemed. Many of them, my own included, had been Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWACs) or nurses during World War II, a couple were war-brides, some had worked in the Vancouver shipyards. My mother had a piece of shrapnel that nearly claimed her life during the Blitz in London, and she had been involved in the relief of a concentration camp in Germany. She wasn’t the only woman whose quiet life in suburbia was in sharp contrast with dramas in the past. By the end of the ‘60s many of her cohort were shedding domesticity and finding their way back into employment.

Our parents – nearly all of them, it seemed – had false teeth; women talked about the wisdom of getting their chompers pulled in their early 20s because, after all, who had the time or money for dental pain and surgery? Then, rather suddenly, dental hygiene became a suburban cult and people just got caps, but nothing more, for the one or two “Chiclets” they lost playing ball or hockey.

The other thing about teeth was they were almost always stained yellow by tobacco. Black and white television – a technology that persisted until around 1969 in our household – spared us from the worst blemishes and disfigurements of world leaders. Those who had hung around since the 1950s or earlier all had the same puffy and jowly faces, haggard and creased like old leather shoes. The suits they wore seldom fit well. Their wives always seemed terrifically myopic. Then, overnight, they were all replaced by angular, smooth-featured, telegenic, less Kremlinesque figures who didn’t wear trilbies or fedoras. Diefenbaker and Pearson, like Dwight Eisenhower and Harold MacMillan, were all born in the 19th century.

Kennedy and Trudeau were not part of that generation. In fact, the new generation of leaders and journalists were born after the Great War, the war to end all wars, the war that had an even bigger sequel, the war that everyone feared would turn out to be the first in a trilogy with a still bigger atomic finish. One of my earliest memories of watching the TV news – and this is something I recall with uncharacteristic clarity – came during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. I was nearly five years old. They presented a map that showed the probable striking-range of Soviet nuclear missiles launched from Cuba. I was pleased to see – and to have confirmed by my parents – that although Toronto and Montreal would be incinerated (too bad about the Habs, I remember thinking), Vancouver was just beyond the missiles’ reach.

Being part of the baby boom generation, even a later part of it, means that most of my memories are in some measure shared with a very large share of the current Canadian population. People my age and older talk about where they were when John Kennedy was shot, Woodstock (c’mon, I was 10 – of course I didn’t go), and hearing The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine played repeatedly – yes, the entire album – on one of a small number of rock radio stations. This was another way in which our lives changed: Media was being transformed. Suburban flocks of birds roosted on ridiculous television antennae on long poles attached and lashed like tallship masts to the rooftops of homes. Ours picked up two local stations, a redundant channel from Victoria, and a slightly exotic CBS station from over the border in Washington State. Occasionally a phantom station – Channel 11 from Tacoma – would come in clear enough to make out a few foggy images. Then cable arrived and we had twelve channels, albeit still in black and white. The rooftop antennae were dismantled and redeployed as badminton net posts. FM radio arrived around the same time, utterly changing our music choices and sources of information. The possibility of another Yellow Submarine moment – when everyone in the country listened to the same album on the same day – had passed.

These changes are recalled in one way or another by almost everyone my age who grew up in Canada’s cities and suburbs in the 1960s. In some respects they are sharply Canadian memories; in others they are borrowed wholesale from the United States. As a historian, I look over this flotsam and jetsam of baby boom nostalgia and see transitions and continuities, the end of one vision of Canada leading seamlessly into a very different set of expectations.

The country turned 100 years old in 1967. In this respect it was a success.  It had endured a whole century, during which time it had grown geographically, matured technologically, and – in the twenty-five years before the Centennial – transformed economically. Ironically, Canada was about to enter into a period of renegotiated federalism, an age of uncertainty in which the dissolution of the Dominion was a real possibility. Bombs were exploding in mailboxes in Montreal; political hostages were murdered; martial law was declared. People – informed and rational people – would talk seriously about the possibility of border wars along the Labrador frontier and in the Eastern Townships. Our current culture places a high value on ironic detachment; in the 1960s and ‘70s the joys and trials of being a Canadian were enough to reduce folks to genuine tears.

Canada since 1867

This textbook introduces aspects of the history of Canada since Confederation. “Canada” in this context includes Newfoundland and all the other parts that come to be aggregated into the Dominion after 1867.

Where it begins is relatively easy to pinpoint. Where it ends is not. We are now well into the 21st century. Our feet have crossed the threshold and the welcome mat as well. Some of the developments of the new millennium are possible to contextualize in longer histories, while others, of course, are too recent to interpret. History is not tea-leaves waiting to be read: We cannot reasonably predict how events will unfold based on what has occurred in the last 10 or 20 years. What can be shown, however, are the many ways in which the past pursues us into the future, clinging to our heels and ankles, refusing to release us entirely or ever. This is one reason why we study history.

Another benefit of history is to grow analytically. Being able to interpret evidence and to revisit established versions of events is key to being a good historian and an alert human being. There are historical traditions about Canada that arise in the 19th and 20th century that merit revisiting. Demonstrating how that work has been done and suggesting ways in which you might continue that work is part of the purpose of this textbook.

The Challenge of Canada

Canadian history since 1867 involves an over-arching constitutional narrative: the story of a country forged not in fire but at a bargaining table. How it transforms from a mutually convenient administrative arrangement into a country for which individuals have real sentiments and a collectivity that can and occasionally does accomplish something of consequence is, certainly, at the heart of that story. As well, however, it is the story of how “Canada” – initially a consortium of four rather bickersome colonies – came to dominate half of a continent. Inevitably that tale involves the imposition of one group’s rule over others. Canada is an empire in its own right. It has had its own colonies and it continues to engage with certain of its citizens in ways that can only be described as “colonial”. As well, it is an economic machine. The British North America Act was designed in part to enshrine the private ownership of property, facilitate commerce, and enable the making of profit. It is an artifact and an instrument of 19th century capitalism and, as such, it has framed relations between social classes. And, at the very heart of Canada there is an implicit assumption about the relationship between humanity and the environment. It was originally called the Dominion of Canada to distinguish it from the Republic to the south and the United Kingdom to the east. The word derives from the biblical story of Genesis, in which humanity is given “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the Earth.” As a nation of “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” Canadians have imposed themselves with force on their landscape and, occasionally, on one another.

This makes the writing and reading and understanding of Canada challenging. An older generation of historians of Canada emphasized the ways in which the country grew politically and as a civic experiment. Alternative identities, such as those described by gender, sexual orientation, race, Aboriginality, and social class (to name only a few), were viewed by older historians as divisive. Canadian historians since the 1980s have struggled with this task of describing a people and a nation at the same time when the two things are not, clearly, the same thing.


Much of this text follows thematic lines. Each chapter moves chronologically but with alternative narratives in mind. What Aboriginal accounts must we place in the foreground? Which structures (economic or social) determine the range of choices available to human agents of history? What environmental questions need to be raised to gain a more complete understanding of choices made in the past and their ramifications?

Each chapter is comprised of several sections and some of those are further divided. In many instances you will encounter original material that has been contributed by writers other than myself. These sections are the work of university historians from across Canada who are leaders in their respective fields. They provide a diversity of voices on the subject of the nation’s history and, thus, an opportunity for you to experience some of the complexities of understanding and approaching the past.

Pedagogical Tools

Canadian History: Post-Confederation includes several learning and teaching assets. The first section (the x.1) of each chapter includes Learning Objectives. These are, I think, consistent with what most introductory Canadian History courses hope to accomplish.

Key Points are provided in most chapter sections. These are intended to help you identify issues of over-arching importance. There are, of course, other “key points” to be found in the chapters, so do read carefully.

Recent interviews with historians from across Canada have been captured in video clips that are embedded throughout this book. These, and links to other videos, are highlighted by placing them in a shaded textbox. If you reading a hard copy or e-reader, refer to the web version of this book ( to view these videos.

At the end of each chapter, the Summary section includes additional features: Key Terms, Short Answer Exercises, and Suggested Readings. The key terms are bolded in the text, but it is likely that there are additional (or fewer) terms for which you’d like to see definitions. One of the advantages of an open textbook is that you can do something about that. The key terms are collected in a Glossary at the very end of the textbook. The Short Answer Exercises are a means of testing your understanding of the material covered. And, of course, the Suggested Readings are there to help you launch your research and further your voyage of discovery into the history of Canada and its peoples. Everything listed in the Suggested Readings ought to be available through your university or college library.

You will also find Exercises throughout the textbook. No one likes doing exercises but, then, no one likes that cramped feeling you get from sitting too long in front of the computer either. Think of these as a chance to stretch and renew yourself as you work your way through the textbook. They are designed as a chance to get you thinking like a historian. And one of the things that historians do is see the past around them manifest in buildings, landscapes, faces, music, plants and animals, and even smells. For the mind that is trained to understand history, historical processes, and historical actors, the world is perceptible in many dimensions. It is an incredibly impressive feeling and we want to share it with you.


What is Canada? Is it what it encloses now or what it was on 1 July 1867? Is it its people or its geography? These sound, probably, like hair-splitting questions but think about it for a moment. Much of the Acadian population in the Maritimes was sent into exile in 1755, where large numbers of their descendants remain today. If Canadian history is about the “Canadian” people, then the Acadians are part of that story, regardless of their zipcode. In the 19th century Euro-North Americans drew brutally straight lines across the continent and, in the process, chopped in half the Niitsitapi Confederacy, sheered off large Anishinaabe communities from one another, and deeply inconvenienced the Stó:lō of the Fraser Valley. So, whose history are we studying and to what extent are we really concerned with the “Canadian peoples”? If we prefer to look at the geography as the determining factor, what if this course stopped in 1948? No Newfoundland! But since we cover the time since the union of the two Dominions, Canada inherits Newfoundland’s history as though it were some kind of dowry. What if, just imagine, Canada annexed the Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indies? Or Belize? This might sound ridiculous but the proposal to do so has been made several times over the last century or so. Would “Canada” thus inherit their history as well? Could Manitobans thereafter intone on their Mayan heritage the way those of us who have never been to Newfoundland have appropriated the story of Guglielmo Marconi’s telegraph breakthrough in St. John’s in 1902?

The point is that we make some choices about what is to be covered, and those choices are often arbitrary. That should not stop us, however, from remembering that the decision of Newfoundlanders to join Confederation in 1949 was not inevitable; nor does it delete the island colony’s own historical identity. What it does, however, is reveal the extent to which “Canadian” history is “national” rather than transnational or even hypernational.On this topic, see Allan Greer, "National, Transnational, and Hypernational Historiographies: New France Meets Early American History," Canadian Historical Review, 91, 4 (2010): 695-724.

The same is true, if not more so, of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The First Nations have histories that are vastly older than Confederation. The period since 1867 may have presented challenges to Aboriginal communities – no one would argue otherwise – but it is, in terms of time and historical encounters, a blip on the radar screen. The depth of First Nations’ history is not a topic into which this textbook goes, but it is one that this textbook assumes. To that end, the nomenclature preferred by Aboriginal groups is, as often as possible, used here. If the Heiltsuk tell us that they have always been Heiltsuk and that “Bella Bella” was just a convenient term used by Europeans, who am I – a Euro-Canadian – to question that? Heiltsuk it is, then. The question of terminology, however, is complicated by centuries of colonialism. If you’re reading a 19th century account of Aboriginal-White relations, you’re bound to encounter the colonial terms. To help, this textbook provides the current (and usually ancestral) name along with the most well-known alternative where it seems appropriate to do so. For example: Niitsitapi (aka: Blackfoot); Stó:lō (Coast Salish); Innu (Montagnais or Naskapi).

As is the case with the companion text, Canadian History: Pre-Confederation, an exception to this rule has been made of the Cree. In the post-1867 period the various people associated with this term – whose lands stretch from northern Quebec west through Ontario and across the central plains to northern Alberta – have developed a common, if occasionally fragmented, collective identity. The use of “Cree” may be problematic and even artificial, but it has been reinforced by the experience of the Numbered Treaties and Canadian imperialism, and sustained by a shared language and historical heritage. For want of a better metaphor, Cree is used as a flag of convenience here.

Inevitably the word “Indian” comes into play. There was, of course, a Department of Indian Affairs and a slew of Indian Residential Schools. Journalists spilled gallons of ink on various “Indian issues”, and Aboriginal leaders themselves appropriated the term. I have endeavoured to use these vexed terms with historic accuracy and with sensitivity; I would encourage you to do the same.

Think Like a Historian

There are ways to get history wrong. Clearly, events that come after cannot be used to explain events that came before (not causally, although they may reveal something of intent). The person that a historical figure becomes is not the person that they once were; We might look for evidence of poor ethical choices in the youth of John A. Macdonald to explain how he winds up entangled in the Pacific Scandal, but the Pacific Scandal does not prove that he was always morally lax. As well, the absence of something does not prove that it once existed. (Given the fact that the universe is overwhelmingly an airless and gravity-free blackness, there’s clearly no truth to the rumour that nature abhors a vacuum.) An outcome with which we have become comfortable (e.g.: Allied victory in 1945) is by no means pre-determined. And it is very seldom the case that human beings have no choice: Sometimes they have alternatives that are simply very bad alternatives. That doesn’t mean they are not historic actors; it just means they are historic actors faced with rotten decisions.

Of all the historic fallacies and bad practices, the one that looms largest in a subject area like modern history is that of presentism. This is the representation of the current state of affairs as the pinnacle of historic development. It projects current circumstances into the past in such a way as to suggest a direct connection between earlier events and the here and now. For example, one often reads that it is thanks to the sacrifices made in the Great War that we enjoy the freedoms we have today. This, of course, eclipses generations of struggle to translate the events of 1914-18 into laws that actually provide real “freedoms”. It overlooks the many challenges to those “freedoms” in the interim. It pays no heed to the fact that “our freedoms” are not shared by everyone equally and so are demonstrably not “our” freedoms at all. Worse, it has the immodesty to assume that our “freedoms” are greater and/or better than those of past generations. Worst of all, it neglects to consider how one might consider those sacrifices if “freedoms” were to be lost. I write this in the shadow of the passing of Bill C-51, which – palpably – reduces the freedoms of some if not all members of our country with an eye to mitigating a perceived terrorist threat. I do not judge this legislation here but I do say this: We now have fewer freedoms than we did a few months ago. In that light, should one interpret the events of WWI thus? It is due to the sacrifices made in those terrible years of conflict that many Canadians feel their rights have been compromised.

The point is to look at the past and people in the decades and centuries gone by as acting and living in the past. If they hoped for a future, they certainly didn’t have yours in mind. The present is special; so too is the past.




Introduction to Post-Confederation Canada

"Benched" – a collectors' card in the "Canadian Hockey Girl" series of 1903. Documents like this one remind us that the past may be a foreign country, but it's not necessarily a dull old place. (Canadian Copyright Collection, Picturing Canada Project, British Library),_photo_no_2_(HS85-10-15498).jpg

Figure I.2 “Benched” – a collectors’ card in the Canadian Hockey Girl series of 1903. Artefacts like this one remind us that the past may be a foreign country, but it’s not necessarily a dull, old place.

Canada is a physically difficult place to govern and a difficult place to adequately conceive of as well. Culturally it presents enormous and largely unique challenges. There are other bilingual countries, such as Belgium, but they are typically small countries. There are other nations that claim vast territories, such as the United States, Russia, and China, but their populations are comparatively gigantic. There are other federations, though most share some definitive historic moment or condition that binds them together (revolutionary America, isolated Australia, and post-Berlin Wall Germany come to mind). Some former colonies threw off the imperial yoke in such a way as to create a common vocabulary of independence, but Canada did not. Internal division between communities in some countries – Northern Ireland, Spain, and South Africa, to cite only three examples from the developed nations – were bloody and lethal in the 20th century; by contrast, Canada’s internal fractures seem much less severe. How, then, did the exercise of creating, managing, and living within a country of this scale and complexity play out in the 19th and 20th centuries?

The Long 19th Century

Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), a historian of Britain and the world, coined the term “the long 19th century” to describe the period from the French Revolution (1789) to the outbreak of global war in 1914. It is a useful concept because, first, it invites us to think outside of calendar boundaries and look at long-term trends in human experience; and second, it underlines the persistence and continuity of historic relations rather than focusing on less consequential ruptures. In the long 19th century the ideals of democracy spread across Europe and the Atlantic. Indeed, one could argue that this process began a decade sooner in what would become the United States. Regardless, it influences the development of colonial cultures like those in British North America. The three ideals of the French Revolution – liberté, égalité, fraternité – make it possible to question institutions like slavery, and they provide a vocabulary with which to challenge oligarchies and exploitative employers later, in the age of industrialization.

This set of beliefs becomes foundational to the 19th century philosophy of liberalism. The individual – understood to be, in practice, an adult male – has rights; such a concept would have been impossible to sustain before the 1780s and yet it was generally embraced around the time of Confederation. When one looks at the history of colonies in the 17th and the 18th centuries, one finds a much more biological language of settlement, population, and sustenance. The village and the commons, the seigneury and the Clergy Reserves are all more corporate ways of seeing the world. By the late 19th century the homestead emerges as a model of colonization based on the emergent ideal of the nuclear family. The paternalism of earlier generations does not go away, but it is refashioned so as to emphasize the authority of the senior adult male in a household of dependants rather than the relationship of many males to the seigneur, or the lord of the manor, or the slave owner.

This kind of liberalism is difficult to escape when one looks at Canada from 1867-1914. Loyalty to the monarchy is unshaken and there is important continuity there but, in practical terms, Parliament in Ottawa and in Westminster is sovereign. And it becomes sovereign by the will of the electorate. Every addition to the landscape of Canada is conceived within the context of a language of individual rights: voters’ rights, land rights, the freedom to believe in whatever creed appeals (providing it is Christian), and a vocabulary of reciprocal obligations to the maintenance and protection of the source of these liberties. It is for this reason that so many conflicts undertaken in the years from 1850-1918 are conceptualized as battles for freedom and the protection of liberties. This is a kind of language almost reflexively associated with the United States but it resonates around the Atlantic rim and across Canada in 1914 every bit as much. Too, the Canadian version incorporates the notion of freedom from the United States. This aspect is invoked in 1869-70 when talk of American annexation of Rupert’s Land catalyzes Canadian imperialism in the West; it is invoked again in 1885 when Louis Riel returns from exile in the United States to lead further resistance to Canadian authority. At that juncture we see collective identities – Métis, Aboriginal, and others – being invoked by Riel and others (some in Quebec) as concepts equivalent to if not greater than that of the individual. The victory of Canada in the North-West Rebellion is, therefore, interpreted by the Canadians themselves as a triumph of democratic and individual values over something closer to “tribal,” an concept that is dismissed as older and less progressive.

Progress and Modernity

Indeed, no word so fully captures the spirit of the 19th and 20th centuries as “progress.” It is bound inexorably with the notion of modernity. Clearly, social changes occurred repeatedly in the pre-19th century world but the combination of scientific and philosophical developments led to a widespread belief that the past was largely static and the present – not to mention the future – were domains of positive transformation. Scientific knowledge – progress – was increasingly viewed as key to improving human life and social conditions. As society progressed, so too would the individual. Progress thus became an all-consuming force, a tide of change that led in only one direction: toward continuous improvement.

Among historical writers, this view of onward-and-upward change was embodied by the Whig School. They looked to the past for evidence of human, social, and material progress and understood recent historical events as further proof that the world was improving. Indeed, this has proved to be a powerful and persistent way of viewing past events and peoples. If we are the product of progress, then those who came before us were necessarily less advantaged and we are merely a stage on the path toward something better still. It is a view that does not easily accommodate setbacks and, of course, it privileges what it views as progressively valuable: reason, democracy, rights, equality, greater human numbers, technological innovation, the conquest of nature, and so on. It is no coincidence that the ideals of progress are contemporary with the ideas associated with biological evolution and Charles Darwin.

The whole package came to be understood as “modernity.” The modern world is marked by a break with the pre-modern. Science versus superstition; individual merit and upward social mobility versus a life-sentence in a single social class determined by the status of one’s parents; cities rather than the countryside. In each respect, modernity constitutes a revolution in its own right, a rejection of the norms of previous centuries wherein authority resided in the landed gentry and the clergy.

Modern Canada was, as one might expect, created in the forges of modernity. The values of that day and age were hard-wired into its constitution, and many were embraced and advanced by advocates of the new nation-state dominion. In this sense, the history of Canada since 1867 is the story of an idea: modernity. Much else happened, to be sure, but this intellectual context – one that is shared and advanced by more than 150 years worth of media and educational institutions – is not to be ignored.

Contrary Winds

There are contradictions bolted onto the framework of late 19th century modernism. The most outstanding and portentous of these are race, class, and gender. While the individual was increasingly viewed as a self-defining and free-acting agent of his (definitely “his”) destiny, that doesn’t mean that the modern mind is free of the notion of collectivities and categories. Racial categories were widely accepted as commonsensical, scientific, and essentially immutable. These categories extended to what we might now think of as ethnicities or visible minorities in a culture dominated by what were increasingly called “Caucasians”: White Europeans descended mostly from the British or French. The emergence of the industrial working class produced a collective response to grim working conditions, poor compensation for labour, and political oppression. That collective response — which sometimes took the form of labour organizations like unions — was viewed by the Canadian middle- and upper-classes (and by many artisans as well) as corrosive of individual values. Finally, the language of individual rights was challenged very directly by the call for women’s rights. So long as the definition of individual was inherently male, movements that were led by women (mostly middle-class women at that) and which called for social reform, electoral reform, and general equality for women would be viewed by the male establishment as problematic at several levels.

And here is the twofold contradiction. Generations that called for individual rights denied them to groups that were described as collectivities outside of the paradigm of individualism. That’s one contradiction. Individual Aboriginal people, individual Asian immigrants, individual women from any quadrant of Canadian society — they were all denied individual rights and equality. What’s more, in racializing the Chinese and the First Nations, White Canada racialized itself. In classifying working people as an other, middle-class Canada held up a mirror to itself as a distinct social element with its own collective identity. In essentializing women as a population that lacked a claim on rights, or the intellectual, moral, or physical ability to participate in civic life alongside men, male Canadians were essentializing themselves as a set of values at the same time.

In so many respects the Great War challenged these perspectives and changed the course of modernity. Before conscription there was voluntarism — the individual male choosing to serve king and country. Women’s suffrage was repeatedly rejected, as were working-class demands for improved conditions and wages. As the war wore on, however, women gained the vote, the relationship of labour and the state was revisited, and conscription was introduced to override individual choice and (without irony) to force Canadian males to fight for their liberty.

The Short 20th Century

Whether measured from August 1914 or the Treaty of Versailles that ended the Great War, the “short 20th century” is said to have concluded in 1991. The collapse of Europe’s old dynastic regimes gave way to a century of modern nation-building, the rise of two conflicting ideologies and, after 1945, two superpowers. It ends with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. In this phase, modernity becomes bound up in the nature of industrial and commercial production, comprehensive liberal democracies at odds with tyrannies on the right and left, a more expansive state that moves into fields associated with energy production, healthcare, and social welfare, and a reconsideration of race and inclusion.

For Canadians the short 20th century starts badly. The economy is in tatters on the eve of the Great War and it barely recovers in the Interwar period. The prosperity of the post-World War II era is all the more important, historically, because of the long period of denial and hardship that preceded it. Racism and xenophobia were commonplace during World War I, and they never fully abated. There were internment camps for the enemy population in WWI whose loyalty to foreign and hostile regimes was assumed to be visceral and not a matter of choice. These would be reopened and expanded in the 1930s to house unemployed men, and then again in 1939-45 when Italian, German, and Japanese Canadians found their liberties severely curtailed. Asian and Aboriginal Canadians would have to wait until 1948 and 1960 respectively to get the franchise and access to professions that racist legislation previously closed off. Working-class movements were lively and effective in the years between 1914-1920, but they were so in the face of considerable opposition. Women (that is, White women) got the vote, but their conditions under the law were largely unchanged from Victorian constraints.

Two World Wars and a Cold War later, Canada was a very different place from what it had been in 1867. In the space of little more than a century it passed from industrialization through de-industrialization. Its city centres transformed from commercial centres, to industrial hubs, to hollowed out postwar strips, to revitalized and densely repopulated metropolitan capitals. Gender roles transformed repeatedly with no apparent constant course of direction for many decades. Aboriginal peoples, who were systematically contained on small pockets of land with their movements restricted, their choices narrowed, and their culture under continuous assault, found themselves increasingly taking a leading role in redefining and reorienting the country as a whole. These themes of change and contradiction are at the heart of the history of Canada since Confederation — the theme of continuity is as well.


Figure I.2
Benched The Canadian hockey girl Series no 2, photo no 2 (HS85-10-15498) by British Library is in the public domain.


Chapter 1. Confederation and the Peoples of Canada


1.1 Introduction

Canada's territorial evolution from 1867 to 2003.

Figure 1.1 Canada’s territorial evolution from 1867 to 2003.

Canada in 1867 covered an area roughly equivalent to the original Thirteen Colonies of Britain – the core elements of the United States of America (U.S.) in 1783. However, Ontario (formerly Canada West), Quebec (formerly Canada East), New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia were much more sparsely populated, and the new Dominion was a curious mix of highly concentrated and urban populations on the one hand, and overwhelmingly rural and remote on the other. For example, much of southern Ontario was farmland, and the northern coastline of Lake Superior was forestry and mining territory in which only small clusters of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people lived. There was some degree of industrialization underway from which a Canadian working class  emerged. Cities like Hamilton, Ontario transformed from leafy commercial towns in the 1850s to smoky industrial engines in the late 1860s. The former colonies — now “provinces” — were not uniformly happy to be part of the new federation. Britain’s role in the post-1867 era was still unclear. Indeed, the meaning of the new federal union of colonies (and, to be clear, although they were provinces they were all still colonies as well) was not entirely obvious to the British North Americans themselves.

Historians have debated for many years just what was accomplished in the British North America Act (BNA Act) of 1867. There is the matter of what the so-called “Fathers of Confederation” believed they were doing and agreeing to. And there was also the question of Britain’s objectives: The new constitution might have signaled greater decision-making autonomy when it came to internal matters, but there was no suggestion of colonial independence. What, too, did the rest of the British North Americans — the people of the Plains and British Columbia, for example — believe was underway? Was the BNA Act a pivotal moment for them? And what of the Aboriginal peoples whose ancestral and current territories were now captured within the boundaries of the new “Dominion”? This chapter summarizes the steps that led to the new constitution, and identifies the many peoples who both comprised the emergent country and who were soon (or not so soon) going to be entangled in Canadian expansionism. It may be convenient to think of 1 July 1867 as a new beginning but it was, in a great many respects, more about continuity than change.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the political and economic background to Confederation.
  • Identify the principal features of the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in the northern half of North America.
  • Explain the residual uncertainty about, and the hostility toward, the Canadian project.


Figure 1.1 
Canada provinces evolution 2 by Golbez is used under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.


1.2 Historical Demography of Canada, 1608-1921

Lisa Dillon, Département de démographie, Université de Montréal

Sustained settlement of Canada by Europeans began in the St. Lawrence Valley, where the colony named “le Canada” stretched over 500 km from Quebec City to present-day Montreal.Hubert Charbonneau, Bertrand Desjardins, Jacques Légaré and Hubert Denis, “The Population of the St. Lawrence Valley, 1608-1760,” in Michael Haines and Richard Steckel, eds., A Population History of North America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000): 99. From its founding in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, the colony grew modestly until 1663, when the King of France, Louis XIV, and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, his minister of finance, instituted measures for the colony to grow through natural increase. Male immigrants dominated the colony in its early years, creating a severe sex ratio imbalance. However, between 1663 and 1673, the arrival of 716 filles du roi — French women whose immigration was financed by the King — allowed marriages and families to form in more significant numbers.The Programme de recherche en démographie historique (PRDH) list of the «Filles du Roi» (the King’s Daughters). Montreal: Université de Montréal, By 1760, the population had risen to 70,000.Charbonneau et al., “Population of the St. Lawrence Valley,” 131. Considered a founder population, a population deriving from a small initial influx of immigrants, present-day Quebecois who trace their origins to the French colonists are descended from just 8,573 men and women who married, had children, and whose children married in turn.Bertrand Desjardins, “La contribution différentielle des immigrants français à la souche canadienne-française,” Annales de Normandie, no.3/4 (2008): 74.

A family reconstitution database of the Quebec Catholic population, the Registre de la Population du Québec Ancien (RPQA), allows us to trace the growth of this population throughout the French and British colonial period. The Quebec population was long considered exceptional because of its very high fertility: Married women bore on average seven to eight children, while women who lived a complete reproductive period could have 11 children. Since the inception of the RPQA database, scholars have emphasized the exceptionalism of this population in terms of comparatively generous land availability for new farm establishment, concomitantly large proportions of children marrying, and high fertility. More recent research, while confirming these trends, now emphasizes the differentiation of patterns. Such research has shown that while most Quebec youths married, eldest daughters had the highest propensity to marry and married the fastest, and about three-quarters of Quebec children married in birth order.Lisa Dillon, “Parental and Sibling Influences on the Timing of Marriage, 17th- and 18th-century Quebec,” Annales de Démographie Historique, no.1 (2010): 139-180. Through high fertility and intermarriage, Quebec families developed dense kinship networks: Nearly a quarter of families married their children in exchange marriages in which brothers and sisters married siblings from the same family.Marianne Caron and Lisa Dillon, “Exchange marriages between sibsets: A sibling connection beyond marriage, Quebec 1660-1760,” Paper presented to the IUSSP Conference, Busan, Korea, 2013, p.14. Fertility and mortality were intimately intertwined in this population. Mothers who bore the largest number of children also experienced the highest infant losses;Marilyn Amorevieta-Gentil. Les niveaux et les facteurs déterminants de la mortalité infantile en Nouvelle-France et au début du Régime Anglais (1621-1779). Doctoral thesis. Montreal: Université de Montréal, 2010. on the other hand, women gave birth to their last child on average at age 40, and a late age at last birth was associated with an older age at death.Alain Gagnon et al., “Is There a Trade-off between Fertility and Longevity? A Comparative Study of Three Large Historical Demographic Databases Accounting for Mortality Selection.” PSC Discussion Papers Series, vol. 22, no. 5 (2008).

Over the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Quebec population experienced increased pressure and risks. While adult mortality remained stable, the growth of the colony and circulation of its inhabitants resulted in rising infant mortality, which increased from 50 to 100 per thousand before 1700 to 250 to 300 per thousand in the period 1750-1775.Amorevieta-Gentil, Les niveaux et les facteurs déterminants, 131. The colony passed from control of the French crown to the British in 1760, joining Nova Scotia. Several thousand immigrants to Nova Scotia and the newly-formed colony of New Brunswick arrived from the New England colonies, both before and after the American Revolution, with a African-American community established in Nova Scotia. Meanwhile, the Quebec population continued to grow exponentially. English-speaking immigrants from the United States also began to settle parts of present-day Quebec and Ontario, while Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island’s populations were boosted by British immigrants, particularly Scottish Highlanders. The new colony at Red River likewise grew from Scottish sources in these years. Following the War of 1812, the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada began to receive more British immigrants in general.Marvin McInnis, “The Population of Canada in the Nineteenth Century,” in Haines and Steckel, eds., A Population History of North America: 374-8.

Despite these important inflows, childbearing was an important source of Canadian population growth during the 19th century. McInnis estimates that between 1811-1861, when Canada grew from 511,000 persons to 3,175,000 persons, 84% of population growth was on account of natural increase — which makes natural growth more important than immigration.Ibid.: 379. Quebec’s population itself increased thirteen-fold from 1761-1851; at the same time, the mean size of farms declined by a third.Serge Courville, Quebec: A Historical Geography (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2009). Children who could not launch a farm household instead moved to cities or to the United States. From 1840-1940, Lavoie estimates that one in ten French Canadians emigrated to the U.S., of whom about two-thirds headed to New England.Yolande Lavoie, L’émigration des Québécois aux États-Unis de 1840 à 1930 (Quebec, 1981): 53; Yves Roby, Les Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle-Angleterre: Rêves et réalités (Sillery, Quebec: Les éditions du Septentrion, 2000).

Sources of growth were countered by significant mortality rates. Infant mortality levels across 19th century Canada differed on the basis of urban-rural residence and francophone and anglophone identity. The infant mortality rate for all of Quebec (190 per thousand) was higher than that for Ontario (115) as well as New Brunswick (132, excluding Saint John), Nova Scotia (120, excluding Halifax) and Prince Edward Island (116).McInnis, “The Population of Canada,” 403-4. Rising population density in Montreal and Quebec City created a sharp urban-rural contrast in death rates within Quebec, with as many as 285 infant deaths per thousand births in Montreal.F.Pelletier, J.Légaré, and R.Bourbeau, “Mortality in Québec during the nineteenth century: from the state to the cities,” Population Studies, 51(1) (March 1997): 93-103; McInnis, “The Population of Canada,” 403.

Although fertility was relatively high in mid-19th century Canada compared to European countries, it began to fall during the last third of the 19th century. Married couples began to limit their childbearing; in Ontario, declining marital fertility has been linked to urban development and land availability. More recent research on Quebec demonstrates class and ethnic differentials in childbearing behaviour, with French Canadian married women manifesting higher fertility than their Quebec anglophone counterparts. Yet, among French Canadian women alone, those living in medium-sized and large cities had lower fertility than rural French Canadian women.Danielle Gauvreau, Diane Gervais and Peter Gossage, La Fécondité des Québécoises 1870-1970: D’une exception à l’autre (Quebec: Boréal, 2007): 128-30. Intensive historical demographic research on Montreal has demonstrated further important cultural differences in demographic behaviour. By 1901 in Montreal, the total fertility rate, or the average number of children a woman would bear, with all married or unmarried women included in the measure, was 5.6 for French Catholics, 3.6 for Irish Catholics and 3.9 for Protestants. The earlier age at marriage of French Catholic women accounted for this ethnic differential: the percentage of women aged 20 to 24 who were married in Montreal during the 1890s was 43% for French Catholics, 32% for Irish Catholics, and 27% for Protestants.Sherry Olson and Patricia Thornton, Peopling the North American City: Montreal 1840-1900 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011), 137-9. These analyses portray a set of distinct ethno-religious demographic regimes within the city which, with further research, could potentially be generalized to the broader Canadian population.

The principal instrument of demographic history is the census, particularly the enumerators' ledgers, like this one from Winnipeg in 1901.,_Manitabo,_Canada_census.jpg

Figure 1.2 The principal instrument of demographic history is the census, particularly the enumerators’ ledgers, like this one from Winnipeg in 1901.

Following Confederation, Canada expanded its territory to the Pacific coast; whereas the 1871 Census of Canada enumerated the populations of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Ontario, the 1881 Census of Canada encompassed provinces from British Columbia to Prince Edward Island (PEI). By 1901, the population numbered 5,371,000 and the country had undergone significant urbanization, with rapid growth in Montreal and Toronto and the emergence of new cities to the west including Vancouver and Winnipeg.McInnis, “The Population of Canada”: 419. The first decade of the 20th century was marked by a rate of immigration that was 2.8% of the average population; according to McInnis, immigration in this decade was “one of the most pronounced episodes experienced by any nation in recorded world history.”Marvin McInnis, “Canada’s Population in the Twentieth Century,” in Haines and Steckel, eds., A Population History of North America: 534. These new immigrants helped to populate the new western provinces, and by 1921, when Canada numbered 8,788,000 persons, more than 25% of Canada’s population was living in BC and the Prairie provinces.Ibid.: 539. During these years, marital fertility in Canada continued to decline, but an increase in the proportion of women marrying offset this trend.Ibid.: 547. Canadians suffered some 50,000 deaths from the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, notably in the age group 20 to 40 years.A. Gagnon, M. Miller, S. Hallman, R. Bourbeau, D. A. Herring, D.J.D. Earn and J. Madrenas, “Age-Specific Mortality During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Unravelling the Mystery of High Young Adult Mortality,” PLOS-One, August 5, 2013. But more generally, infant mortality in Canada fell after 1910 on account of improved sanitary practices, the creation of pasteurized milk distribution stations, and the promotion of cleanliness in the care of infants.Neil Sutherland, Children in English-Canadian Society: Framing the Twentieth-Century Consensus (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1973), 59-61. Thus, western development, high immigration, rapid urbanization, and declining fertility and mortality set the stage for “Canada’s century.”

Exercise: Think Like a Historian

The Manuscript Census

For anyone interested in demographics, family reconstitution, community histories, occupational mobility, and many other population behaviours, the census-takers’ manuscript record is invaluable. As well, they provide information on people who generally didn’t leave other kinds of records behind; children, prisoners, and immigrant enclaves — like the Chinese — are all covered.

The job of census-taker was a small piece of patronage that was handed off to a party loyalist attached to the local constituency. There were, necessarily, hundreds of census-takers in late 19th century Canada, each one facing particular challenges, applying idiosyncratic methods, and demonstrating varying levels of conscientiousness. In 1891 the census-taker in Kamloops asked his bosses in Ottawa what he should put in the ‘occupation’ category when it came to sex trade workers (aka: prostitutes, brothel keepers, and a half dozen other euphemisms). The reply he received tells us a lot about late Victorian sensibilities: write them up as “dressmakers.” As a result, one can find in many towns of the far west what looks like a substantial textile industry.

The manuscripts were transcribed into aggregate data and published as the decennial Canada Census. Century-long — and then 90-year long — restrictions on access to the manuscripts meant that we are only now able to access 1911 data here. (The 1921 records have been farmed out to

Take a look at these examples from 1891. The Vipond household in Nanaimo is a big one and includes Jane and George’s son-in-law (although their eldest daughter appears to be missing). What does the record reveal about migration, religion, occupation, fertility, and birth intervals? The second block shows three neighbouring coalmining households headed respectively by Cuthbert, Cornish, and Scales. Tragedy has struck these people. The Elliott children have evidently been adopted by the Cuthberts, as has one of the Cornish children, Mamie, whose mother (born in Mauritius) has apparently died, leaving Thomas a widower and able to manage only three children on his own. One of those children, William Cornish, is 14 and working in the mines – not as a labourer but as a “miner,” which indicates he’s been doing this for a while. Hannah and David Scales have taken in Mamie’s sister Lily. What we’re seeing here are survival strategies. What else is visible? Religious affiliation (“C.E.” denotes Church of England, “Meth.” is Methodist, “Presb.” is Presbyterian, “S.A.” = Salvation Army), birthplace, occupation. Make a list of the ways in which identities congeal, intersect, are transmitted from generation to generation.

Key Points

  • Population growth under the French regime and between 1763 was principally driven by natural growth (that is, high marital fertility).
  • Following a rush of immigration to Nova Scotia and Upper Canada, childbearing resumed its position as the leading source of growth.
  • Mortality rates were high in pre-Confederation Canada, especially infants.
  • Canada began the process of a demographic transition to lower fertility around the time of Confederation.
  • By the early 20th century, immigration, urbanization, and the opening for resettlement of the Prairie West and British Columbia changed the character and distribution of the population.


Figure 1.2
1901 Winnipeg, Manitabo, Canada census by Valorc is in the public domain.


1.3 The Age of Federation

Most Confederation-era Canadians were engaged in work that had not changed a great deal in hundreds of years. Harvesting Hay, Sussex, NB, by William G.R. Hind, ca. 1880. (Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1982-204-9)

Figure 1.3 Most Confederation-era Canadians were engaged in work that had not changed a great deal in hundreds of years. Harvesting Hay, Sussex, NB, by William G.R. Hind, ca. 1880.

One month after the creation of the Dominion of Canada, the United States finally acted on its threats to annex territory to the north. Instead of some part or all of British North America (BNA), however, the Americans purchased Alaska. This was an audacious move. The idea of claiming territory that was thousands of kilometres away from the nearest American settlement, cut off by the presence in between of British North American territory, was a far cry from annexing contiguous lands. The same, of course, could be said for the Americans’ earlier wresting of California from Mexico. While much more of the American Empire was captured incrementally by squatters, settlers, and cavalry charges, the Alaskan purchase stands out for what it implies. That is, it was possible now for former colonies to administer sovereignty in remote lands. Canada watched and learned.

Fragile Unions

Canada had its own imperial ambitions. George Brown — Toronto newspaperman, Clear Grit reformer, coalition government partner, and a Father of Confederation — made his support of the coalition and Confederation conditional on the purchase of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson Bay Company (HBC). The sale of the vast territory (encompassing the whole of the Prairie West from Hudson’s Bay to the Rockies and from the 49th parallel to the Arctic Ocean) went through in 1869, but the process was badly flawed. The Canadians (in Ottawa and on the ground in the Red River Colony) rushed matters and aggravated local sentiment. The Métis community around the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers wasn’t alone in its dissatisfaction with Ottawa, but their resistance and the Provisional Government became understood in the new Dominion as an act of hostility against a legitimate government by an illegitimate junta. The execution of Thomas Scott by the Provisional Government would embitter Canada against the Manitobans and the Métis for years to come (see Sections 2.52.6, 2.7 and 2.8).

All in all, the Dominion of Canada was off to a rather poor start. Provincial leaders in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were able to muster widespread support for taking a second look at Confederation. The possibility of secession might be ruled out by Westminster, but as far as Halifax and Fredericton anti-Confederationist politicians were concerned this was a matter of popular consent and/or discontent.

Federations, as the 1860s and ’70s would demonstrate, are difficult creatures. In this respect, the timing of the creation of the Dominion of Canada is important. It took place at a time when similar experiments were being launched or revised around the world. The most obvious case is that of the United States, where a century-old federation came apart along the Mason-Dixon Line. Although the South and the North were eventually re-united and re-federated, that change came about after years of a terrible civil war. Similarly, the 1860s saw a bloody campaign across the Italian States that completed the main work of the Risorgimento (the unification of Italy) by 1870. Less than a year later, the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871, produced a unified Germany under Prussian leadership. Federations including the Canadian one are generally understood to be consensual partnerships between sovereign or semi-sovereign jurisdictions. What these other federations/unifications and the suppression of the Red River Rebellion in Manitoba point out is that federal membership is occasionally helped along by the point of a bayonet.

Why is that the case? Modern historians have wrestled with the meanings of Canadian confederation just as their Victorian contemporaries did. Was it an Act or a pact? That is, was it a reorganization of colonies stickhandled along and then imposed by Britain, or was it an agreement by (essentially) sovereign parties to share some of their authority with a new entity, the Federal Government? Were the provinces junior partners in the new federation or key stakeholders? This became a pressing matter (as we shall see) when Ottawa invoked its ability to kill any provincial legislation with which the central government did not agree. It persists as a pressing matter when one looks at the rhetoric of séparatisme in the late 20th century, a discourse that positions the province of Quebec as a partner with the ability to leave the table if and when it should decide to do so. Nova Scotians clearly held to the same belief in the late 1860s; they were persuaded to stay and not compelled by Westminster (let alone Ottawa) to stay.

Another lens through which to view Confederation is as a means to colonial independence, an apparent contradiction in terms. Britain in the Age of Free Trade was eager to offload some of its colonial responsibilities and to normalize relations with the United States. Giving the British North Americans greater responsibilities and authority in their own domain was one way of doing that. However, the Americans recognized that Britain was still invested in North America and they were slow to recognize Canada’s own national authority.

Unity, Disunity, and Nationhood

The ongoing fragmentary identity of Canadians is, thus, something that existed at the time of Confederation and has persisted. John A. Macdonald sought union but not necessarily unity, although it is difficult to speak of one without implying the other. George-Étienne Cartier’s vision was more along the lines of collaboration in a “duality” of French and English cultures. Outlying provinces Nova Scotia and British Columbia, for example were principally concerned with the economic advantages promised by Confederation.

Many of the challenges that Canada would face in the century and a half that followed Confederation stem from its timing and a lack of consensus as to what it all meant. At the heart of the problem is the idea of the nation state.

A nation is generally understood to be a culture or peoples, the main features of which include a shared language, ancestry, and perhaps a shared creed. A state is, more plainly, an administrative organization and a geopolitical realm. For Germany in 1871, the challenge was to inflate shared cultural features while downplaying sectarian differences, lingering loyalties felt in some regions to their neighbours (including France, Austria, and Switzerland), and the fact that some of the German states had been at one another’s throats for centuries. Old histories of difference had to be superseded by histories of sameness and mutual interest. Italy a linguistic patchwork that at least shared a common Catholic heritage (however vexed relations might have been between Italy and the Papal States) seized upon Dante as the father of the Italian language and, like Germany, sought to minimize historic rivalries between regions. A new iconography of the Italian state, with General Giuseppe Garibaldi at its spiritual centre and a new king in a shared capital, were key to creating an “Italian” nation state. Increasingly the United States would invoke the language of “nation” as well, most notably in its Pledge of Allegiance in 1892 in which the “nation” and the federal “state” become indistinguishable.

Clearly some nation states in the late 19th century were less unified culturally than others. Canada’s odds in this respect were hardly worse than those of many other newly emergent countries. But it is worth noting that there was, at the time of Confederation, confusion about what constituted a nation state, a sense that expansion and territorial unification was a legitimate part of building a country, and that “nation building” involved more than a railway or two.

Key Points

  • The last half of the 19th century witnessed the organization and reorganization of several federal nation states.
  • Scholars and politicians are divided on whether Confederation constitutes an Act imposed by Britain or an agreement between sovereign colonies.
  • The concept of the “nation state” was still emergent and definitions were flexible.


Figure 1.3
Harvesting Hay, Sussex, New Brunswick (Online MIKAN no.2835767) by Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1982-204-9 is in the public domain.


1.4 Contributory Factors of Confederation

The 60th Battalion braces itself for a Fenian Raid in May 1870. (Photo by William Sawyer / Library and Archives Canada / C-033036)

Figure 1.4 The 60th Battalion braces itself for a Fenian Raid in May 1870.

Confederation answered constitutional questions about Canada’s organization and governance, but it was also an economic strategy, and it had a military and diplomatic face as well. British North Americans bought into the new federal structure in part because it promised a more certain future. Its success, to some extent, has to be measured against these concerns.

Civil War America

The American Civil War in the 1860s, coming to a close in 1866, consumed the United States. It entailed carnage on a massive scale and national productive capacity was severely damaged. It did, however, leave the United States with the largest standing army on the planet, and it was a battle-hardened army at that. The Aboriginal peoples of the western half of North America would see this massive military machinery deployed in their territories. British North Americans had cause to be concerned that they would confront this military machinery as well.

British diplomatic missteps during the Civil War hardened American opinion against both Britain and British North America. The Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 which enabled freer trade between the colonies and the United States was cancelled by the Americans at the end of the war. Fear grew of further retributive moves by the Americans. Indeed, a series of largely ineffectual invasions of British North America (BNA) by Irish-Americans, bound together as an anti-British Fenian Army, catalyzed colonial will to build a united regime that would offer greater mutual protection. Invasions took place across the borders of the three contiguous BNA colonies (Canada East, Canada West, and New Brunswick), and of those that were spared, Nova Scotia, PEI, and British Columbia shared in the sense of pending attacks. American acquisition of Alaska, in 1867, reminded British Columbians and other Westerners that the Americans held on to their belief in a manifest destiny to rule the whole of the continent.

Was a Canadian federation any more able to defend itself against an American invasion than the separate colonies? Probably not. The population discrepancy between BNA and the re-United States as well as the enormity of the experienced American forces, not to mention the superiority of American arms, makes the question absurd. Confederation reduced British military obligations and did little to increase the size and preparedness of Canadian militias. It did, however, create the impression of unity and an emergent nation state, rather than low-hanging colonial fruit that might be picked at the convenience of the United States. The emergence of a Canadian military culture after 1867 was slow in coming, and the almost calamitous performance of militia units in the North West Rebellion in 1885 only underlines the extent to which fear of America did not result in any palpable steps to improve Canadian defense.

A Post-Mercantilist World

In the mid-19th century Britain moved inexorably toward freer trade. Laissez-faire capitalism became the order of the day. For the BNA colonies, this meant an end to preferred access to markets in the British Isles. Reciprocity with the United States was a step designed to offset market losses across the Atlantic. The end of Reciprocity raised serious questions about whether the British North American economy could survive. Confederation, in this context, was represented as a commercial as well as a political union. Clearly, the colonies could have achieved commercial union without putting political union on the table as well; the former did not necessitate the latter. After all, the point of reciprocity with the United States was to prevent political annexation, not pave its way. Nevertheless, federal union held out the prospect of improved inter-colonial trade.

There are problems with the inter-colonial trade scenario, the foremost of which is the absence of complementary products. All of the BNA colonies from Canada West (Ontario) to the Atlantic Coast produced lumber, shipping, mostly the same cereal crops, and fish. What was left to trade? Increasingly coal and iron ore were considerations, but these would benefit few Canadians directly. For Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario) in particular, the two Maritime provinces were hardly a substitute for the millions of customers south of the border. Nevertheless, the prospect of new infrastructure connecting the colonies, access to ice-free ports in Halifax and Saint John, and accelerated trade was yet another reason presented for pulling the colonies together into some kind of union.

The Railway

Commercial success was predicated on the idea of a railway. The Intercolonial Railway had been touted for years before Confederation, and it was so central to the whole project that it is enshrined in Section 145 of the BNA Act (1867). It took another decade to complete, and its round-about route far from the American border via Chaleur Bay and the Miramichi Valley reflected the contemporary fears of an attack from the United States, but this was meant nevertheless to be a key element in the economic union. Obviously the colonies might have built a railway regardless of Confederation. Less obviously, the railway itself was an engine for economic growth: Railways require miles of steel rails, thousands upon thousands of wooden ties, and significant rolling stock as well. The Intercolonial and the railways that followed its construction were thus meant to do more than connect economies: they were meant to generate industrial activity.

Key Points

  • British North Americans saw in Confederation a solution to several pressing issues.
  • The American Civil War and the Fenian Invasions compelled border colonies to consider unification as a step toward improved defence.
  • The loss of Reciprocity and the introduction of Free Trade encouraged colonial elites to find ways to increase intercolonial commerce.
  • Railway technology held out the promise of greater security, increased intercolonial trade, and an industrialized economy.


Figure 1.4
The Pigeon Hill (Eccles Hill) camp of the 60th Battalion which played a major part in the Fenian Raid of 25 May 1870 (Online MIKAN no.3192302) by William Sawyer / Library and Archives Canada / C-033036 is in the public domain.


1.5 Constitutional Crisis

While it is true that the British North America Act, 1867 marks a point of departure, it is also just another step along a treacherous path of constitutional crises. This was especially true for the two largest parties in the new federation.

On 1 July 1867 it became possible, for the first time, to describe Nova Scotians and New Brunswickers as “Canadians.” The coolness with which this change was received in the Maritimes is discussed below. Names changed, as well, in the old “Province of Canada.” The changing nomenclature and identities might appear to be cosmetic, but they were much more than that.

The End of Canada

While it is true that delegations from Canada West and Canada East were present at the constitutional discussions in Charlottetown and Quebec City in 1864 and in London in 1866, the fact is they represented one colony, not two. The Province of Canada created by the Act of Union in 1840-41 was a single entity hinged at the middle, along the Ottawa River. The BNA Act thus simultaneously divided Canada into two provinces and united what was Ontario and Quebec into a federal system. Unification, that is, was predicated on division.

Why was this the case? The Act of Union was the fourth Canadian constitution since the Conquest in 1763. Like its predecessors (the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the Quebec Act of 1774, and the Constitutional Act of 1793), the Act of Union contained measures for the management of the French Canadians. The Act of Union was less concerned than the earlier efforts with the Catholic Church in Canada, but it was built on the premise outlined by Lord Durham’s 1839 Report on the Affairs of British North America that assimilation of the French Canadians was essential to the future of the larger colony. Giving an equal number of seats to predominantly French-Catholic Canada East and almost wholly English-Protestant Canada West advantaged the anglophones because Montreal (in Canada East) was an important and politically powerful node of anglophone parliamentary seats. The Act of Union effectively reunited anglophone Canada West with anglophone Montreal (and outlying anglophone constituencies as well), creating what Durham imagined would become a majority Anglo-Protestant government. That is not, however, how things turned out.

Ideology stepped in to complicate linguistic and sectarian differences. Reformers and Tories, Rouges and Bleus, along with an assortment of smaller parties, turned Durham’s famous phrase inside out. Instead of “two nations warring within the bosom of a single state,” Canada’s political culture quickly evolved into factions of two nations who occasionally cooperated within the bosom of a united colony. There were, of course, issues that kept potential allies apart, and by the late 1850s it was virtually impossible to forge a coalition in the Legislative Assembly that could muster enough votes to build a government. Non-confidence motions spelled the end of one administration after the next. Some politicians and commentators felt that Canada was effectively ungovernable under these circumstances.

Two critics of the status quo were also two of the most effective participants when it came to exploiting its weaknesses. George-Étienne Cartier and John A. Macdonald dominated the colony’s administration from 1857-1862. Out of power for the next two years, they were nevertheless able to hobble the Clear Grit administration of John Sandfield Macdonald (unrelated to John A.) and wrestle his chief ally, George Brown, into a new Great Coalition in 1864. The Cartier-Macdonald-Brown alliance had two primary goals: resolving the impasse that the Act of Union created and acquiring new territory for agricultural settlement. Brown, the Grits, and much of southern Canada West (Ontario) were increasingly concerned about the shrinking amount of available farmland in the colony. The Americans were extending their reach deep into the “New Northwest” of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Rupert’s Land, just to the north, was vulnerable to the expansionist Americans and desirable to the Ontarians. A commitment on the part of Cartier and Macdonald to acquire Rupert’s Land secured the Grits’ agreement to explore the prospect of dividing the Province of Canada once again and forging a federal relationship between the two partners. Happenstance and a bit of vision allowed the Canadians to expand this prospective union to include other British North American colonies.

Responsible Government and Constitution Building

There are distinctive features to this process. For all intents and purposes, colonial politicians were writing their own constitution for the first time. All previous constitutions had been imposed by the British regime. Some, if not all, of those earlier efforts reflected the British experience with the Thirteen Colonies that became the United States. Too much legislative autonomy might create forums for unrest and revolutionary talk. Better to have a handpicked local and loyal Executive, at least that was the view until the 1840s. At that time, British enthusiasm for Free Trade in the age of laissez-faire capitalism was taking off. It raised the question of whether old-style, mercantilist colonies like the Province of Canada or Nova Scotia were consistent with new economic and market philosophies. On the whole, the British realized there was a contradiction and began cautiously allowing for colonial responsible government (that is, making the Executive responsible to the majority of votes in the Assembly). Responsible government came first in Nova Scotia, then in Canada (both in 1848). It was allowed subsequently in Prince Edward Island (1851), New Brunswick (1854), and Newfoundland (1855). By the time of the September 1864 Charlottetown Conference of colonial leaders, each of the colonies had experienced nine to sixteen years of trying to make their constitutions work (as opposed to decades of criticizing their failings).

It is also important to note that no one in the Great Coalition could say for certain how this would turn out. Separating Canada West from Canada East might create competitive units incapable of cooperating on economic goals. Macdonald believed in the ability of the federal level to moderate those tendencies and to override provincial autonomy when it came to the cross-boundary movement of goods. But that had to be tested to destruction in the laboratory of constitutional practice. In short, there were risks.

No colony more desired a federal system than Canada West (Ontario): Its economy was rapidly expanding; its towns were growing into cities; production was industrializing; and the population was increasing at a prodigious rate. The political stalemates of the 1850s and 1860s were holding it back, and the Anglo-Protestants of the inland colony inevitably regarded French Canada as a drag on their progress. Did the soon-to-be-Ontarians seek the elimination of the French language and the Catholic religion? Certainly some regarded the Church as a secondary and competing centre of authority whose influence was governed from Rome. But most folks in Canada West saw far more Irish Catholics than French Catholics in the course of a lifetime. Cartier and Macdonald, not to mention Baldwin and LaFontaine before them, demonstrated that collaboration was possible, but autonomy would be better. And at the federal level, the Anglo-Protestant interest would be inflated by members from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Best of all, the influence of Montreal would be reduced and Toronto could really spread its wings as the centre of influence west of the Ottawa River.

Canada East approached the question with more equanimity. A French-Catholic dominated provincial Assembly was appealing. No less than Canada West, Canada East had suffered from sluggish administration during the years of political quagmire, and no one among the Franco-Catholic political community could forget that the Act of Union had, at its heart, the goal of assimilation into an Anglo-Protestant mould. George Étienne Cartier had worked non-stop since 1840 to manage the constitution that bound the two Canadas together; he achieved much by asserting Canada East’s power to control the Assembly and thus the Executive. His pre-eminence in political circles for more than two decades created the very logjam that Brown wanted to dislodge. Cartier’s strategy in the 1860s was to forego complete independence as unachievable, and pursue a federal union instead. Cartier’s Francophone opponents in Canada East wanted more and less at the same time: If they were going to enter a new era free of Canada West then independence and, possibly, annexation to the United States was preferable to a federal union with the Ontarians; conversely, the status quo was working out rather well for Canada East’s interests there were good reasons to object to change of any kind. Cartier’s enemies, moreover, complained that he gave away too much at the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences. Francophones would be outnumbered by anglophones in the federal Assembly, which was a little like handing the English-speakers the rep-by-pop they’d been clamouring for since 1851. Cartier’s pro-Confederation side won the day, albeit narrowly. This victory was the sine qua non of Confederation: If Cartier had failed, then the whole project would have crumbled. Pragmatic Quebec politicians thereafter looked for ways to make the new system work to continue preserving French culture and values, while promoting their economic advantage and while retaining a historically-rooted fear that things might turn out badly in this sea of anglophones.Claude Bélanger, "Quebec and the Confederation project (1864-1867)," Quebec History (Marianopolis College, 2004), accessed 27 August 2015,

The Conflicted Atlantic Colonies

First and foremost, the federal solution was the answer to a Canadian question. The Atlantic colonies weren’t constitutionally disputatious: They had no Constitutional Act to throw off; there was no Act of Union that forced them to work together; and no colonial culture was regarded as inferior when compared to any other. Assimilation was simply not an issue for anyone in mainstream society in the four colonies (although Aboriginal and Acadian peoples were constantly confronted by assimilationist attitudes). The principal question before the three Maritime colonies, in 1864, was whether it made sense to reunify the region, to restore the shape of 18th century “Nova Scotia” so that it once again included PEI and New Brunswick. It was over this issue Maritime Union that they assembled at Charlottetown when the Canadians came calling.

A union of the three colonies PEI, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia was endorsed by Britain, and the local economic elites for the most part agreed. The Reciprocity Agreement with the United States was still in effect (the Americans would cancel it in 1866) and trade around the whole of the Atlantic Rim was generally thriving. But these were three small colonies small in area and small in population that had to adjust to Britain’s retreat from direct colonial involvement and support.

Each of the four Atlantic colonies had three possible options. First, unite with one or two or three other regional colonies. Second, pursue the Canadians’ suggestion of a larger British North American union. Third, carry on with the status quo. Half of the Atlantic colonies chose the Canadian path, and the other half chose the status quo.

An 1864 map of the Atlantic colonies (less Labrador). Geography and sealanes pulled them in many directions, including into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. (Alvin Jewett Johnson, 1827-1884),_Nova_Scotia_and_Newfoundland_(Canada)_-_Geographicus_-_NewBrunswick-j-1864.jpg

Figure 1.5 An 1864 map of the Atlantic colonies (less Labrador). Geography and sealanes pulled them in many directions, including into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. (Alvin Jewett Johnson, 1827-1884)

New Brunswick the “keystone” colony had a role to play in bridging the geography and economy between the St. Lawrence colony and Nova Scotia. There was resistance to the idea of union with the other colonies, and in 1865 it took the form of an Anti-Confederation Party. Led by Albert Smith (1822-1883), a Conservative politician, the Party pulled into its ranks a small but vocal cross-section of New Brunswick figures. The resultant alliance of Tories and Reformers won the general election in 1865 but were defeated by the Confederation Party in 1866.This did not, however, spell the end of New Bruinswick's concerns: In the first federal election in 1867, five of the province’s 15 seats were won by Anti-Confederates. With a fresh and massive majority, the Confederationists pursued what they viewed as a comprehensively good package: defense against the United States and its Fenian armies, a completed railway, Canadian goods pouring through the ice-free port of Saint John, and a protected Dominion market for New Brunswick products.

The Nova Scotians were also prepared to come on board with Confederation. Like the merchants of Saint John, the Haligonians saw themselves as probable beneficiaries of Canadian plans for an ice-free port. A railway across New Brunswick and the Chignecto Isthmus would connect the industrial heartland of Canada East to the largest Nova Scotian port. Halifax, Sydney, and Yarmouth were already leaders in shipping production; handling more Canadian exports and more foreign imports would be a further boon. By the same token, the Nova Scotian economy was resilient and far reaching. Opposition existed and was narrowly contained in the lead up to 1 July 1867. There existed in the province fear that the Canadian giant would overwhelm the smaller Maritime economies and that the federal government (sure to be located in Ottawa rather than a Maritime centre) would be heavily dominated by Ontarians and Quebeckers. These fears continued after the BNA Act was proclaimed, and are considered further in Section 2.2.

Both Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island demurred when the offer arrived to join Confederation. Newfoundland traded little with the other British North American colonies, its cultural and economic orientation was toward Europe (with some West Indian trade as well), and its economic circumstances were on the rise (see Section 2.13). While the Canadians and New Brunswickers might have been motivated to bond together in mutual defense against American or Fenian attacks, those threats did not resonate in St. John’s, Newfoundland. What’s more, if Newfoundland had to defend itself against an assault on its territory, such an attack would come from the sea precisely the same place from which the colony would be defended. The Canadians and the Maritimers had no navy, nor were they likely to get one soon. Britain’s Royal Navy, on the other hand, dominated the Atlantic. Jeopardizing that protection in the hope that some benefits might be forthcoming in the future simply did not appeal to the leaders of Newfoundland.

Key Points

  • Creating Confederation meant dissolving the union of Lower and Upper Canada.
  • Each colony had its own particular reasons for entertaining or rejecting Confederation.
  • The attractions of Confederation were not evenly felt.


Figure 1.5
Johnson’s New Brunswick by BotMultichill is in the public domain.


1.6 Summary

Figure 1.6 What an ice-free port does not look like. Montreal harbour, ca.1880. Photo by William Notman, Notman photographic Archives - McCord Museum, VIEW-1146.

Figure 1.6 What an ice-free port does not look like. Montreal harbour, ca.1880.

Let’s consider one decade: 1863-1873. At the start, there were seven colonies in British North America (one of them a combination of two very large colonies), and a massive commercial district in the West and North. At the end, there were two colonies: Canada and Newfoundland. This represented a very significant administrative reorganization. In roughly the same period, the population of the colonies rose from about 3.17 million to just short of 3.7 million.Statistics Canada, "Estimated population of Canada, 1605 to present," accessed 22 April 2015,

The fur trade across BNA was shrinking by the 1860s, but it was in crisis in the 1870s. Aboriginal peoples on the Prairies were at war with one another and with the American cavalry in the 1860s, trying to decide who had control over the remnants of the bison herds; by the 1870s they were facing famine. There were false starts in other resource-extraction sectors, such as the gold rush in British Columbia’s Cariboo district, which peaked around 1863, and then slipped into an irrevocable decline. The beginnings of a continent-wide environmental transformation were also visible: pristine landscapes and watersheds  in Cape Breton, on Vancouver Island, on the Cariboo Plateau, around Lake Superior, and throughout northeastern New Brunswick were being denuded of trees and subjected to the leeching of soils and heavy metals.

In the 1870s the Industrial Revolution in British North America got underway in earnest. The people of BNA, for whom Confederation was meant to create a particular kind of polity, were themselves being changed by new economic and social relations. Confederation came along at a time when so many other elements of life in the colonies were quickly changing. While it is tempting to think of 1 July 1867 as a turning point, the constitutional changes that took place in the Victorian years (1837-1901) were less consequential than the social and economic changes that began earlier, and were to continue into the post-Confederation years.

Key Terms

Act of Union: The third Canadian constitution since the Conquest in 1763. The Act of Union contained measures for the management of French-Canadians, built on the premise (from Lord Durham’s 1839 Report on the Affairs of British North America) that assimilation of French-Canadians was essential to the future of the larger colony.

Clear Grits: Reformers in Canada West (Ontario) before Confederation. Anti-Catholic and largely anti-French, the Grits opposed John A. Macdonald’s Tories and advocated the annexation of Rupert’s Land. In the post-Confederation period they became one section of the Liberal Party.

Executive: Also called the Cabinet. The highest offices — either elected or appointed — in Canadian politics: before the 1840s, a mostly appointed Executive Council led by the Governor General; after 1867, an elected body comprised of members of the current House of Commons and supported by a majority of votes in the House of Commons.

family reconstitution: In demographic studies, the consolidation of population information from censuses, church records, and civic documents to enable a complete history of a family, street, or community in terms of births, marriages, deaths, divorces, movement, and other demographic behaviours.

Father of Confederation: Term used to describe anyone involved in the Charlottetown or Quebec Conferences leading to Confederation; sometimes extended to the first premiers of the new Dominion as well; term sometimes used to describe Newfoundland Premier Joey Smallwood from 1949.

federation: An assemblage of states or provinces with roughly comparable rights in which all the constituent parts relinquish some of their authority to a separate, central government.

Fenian: Irish-Americans, bound together as an anti-British army; mounted and/or threatened invasions of British North America in the 1860s and ’70s.

founder population: A population deriving from a small initial influx of immigrants.

Great Coalition: In 1864, an alliance between the Bleu-Conservatives and the Clear Grits in the Province of Canada. The Great Coalition launched a renewed effort to revise the Canadian constitution, a campaign that culminated in Confederation.

Legislative Assembly: Until 1968 all Canadian provinces had a Legislative Assembly, either as their only house of elected representatives or as a lower house — in either instance equating to the federal and British House of Commons. In 1968 the Quebec Assembly was renamed the National Assembly of Quebec. Sitting members are described in most provinces as Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and in Ontario as Members of the Provincial Parliament (MPPs). In Quebec they are Members of the National Assembly (MNAs).

manifest destiny: American notion that it could control, and was destined to control, the whole of North America; literally, it was the will of God (destined) and it was apparent (manifest) in the incremental territorial expansions of the United States.

Maritime Union: A proposal to create one colony out of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island; the original impetus for the Charlottetown Conference; abandoned in favour of Confederation.

Mason-Dixon Line: Boundary between the American colonies, then states, of Maryland and Pennsylvania; also used to define the American South from the American North, and slave and non-slave states.

natural increase: The growth of population from more births than deaths; that is, not by immigration and not factoring in emigration.

Reciprocity Treaty (ch 1): 1854 agreement between the British North American colonies and the United States; enabled freer trade; was cancelled by the Americans at the end of the Civil War.

responsible government: Government in which the Executive level (or Cabinet) is responsible to — and can be dismissed from office by — the majority of votes in the Assembly. In contrast to pre-Confederation systems in which the Executive was appointed by and was responsible to the Crown or its representative.

rep-by-pop: Representation by population; the higher the population of a province, the higher the number of seats allocated for that province in the House of Commons.

sex ratio: The ratio of men to women. A sex ratio of 2:1 indicates that there are two men for every one woman.

Thirteen Colonies of Britain: The Atlantic Coast colonies established in the 17th and 18th centuries; rebelled against British rule in 1775-83 and became the core elements of the United States.

Westminster: Refers to the seat of British parliamentary government in Westminster, London.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. What were the main engines of population growth in the 19th century?
  2. How had the population of Canada (or British North America and Newfoundland) changed between the pre-Confederation period and the early 20th century?
  3. What was the context of Canadian nation-building and federation?
  4. What external and economic factors catalyzed the conversation about a union of British North American colonies?
  5. Why federalism? What questions did such a structure answer?

Suggested Readings

Ajzenstat, Janet. “Human Rights in 1867.” In Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament, 49-66. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007.

Dunae, Patrick A. “Sex, Charades, and Census Records: Locating Female Sex Trade Workers in a Victorian City,” Histoire Sociale/Social History, 42, no. 84 (Novembre-November 2009): 267-297.

Macdonald, Heidi. “Who Counts?: Nuns, Work, and the Census of Canada,” Histoire Sociale/Social History, 43, no. 86, (Novembre-November 2010): 369-391.

Smith, Andrew. “Toryism, Classical Liberalism, and Capitalism: The Politics of Taxation and the Struggle for Canadian Confederation.” Canadian Historical Review 89, no. 1 (March 2008): 1-25.


Figure 1.6
Ice shove, Montreal harbour, QC, about 1880 by William Notman / McCord Museum / Notman photographic Archives – McCord Museum has no known copyright restrictions.


Chapter 2. Confederation in Conflict


2.1 Introduction

There are, today, approximately 35 million Canadians. Coincidentally, that is almost exactly the number of people who were living in the United States in 1867. At the time of Confederation, there were 3.4 million people in all of Canada (that is, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia), and today there are more people than that in metro Montreal. In other words, in 1867, Canada contained fewer people than exist today in the country’s second largest city and yet the Dominion’s original government had the temerity to think they could capture the whole northern half of a continent and thus foil the expansionist interests of an incredibly well-armed country to the south, whose population outnumbered the Canadians 10-to-1. It seems improbable.

It is perhaps even more improbable that the original 1867 version of Canada would eventually claim enough territory to become the second largest country in terms of area on Earth. At the time of Confederation, Canada was hardly more than the core elements of New France. Its boundaries did not include much beyond Acadia and the St. Lawrence Valley, along with what had once been Wendake (or Huronia), and the lands of a clutch of other Iroquoian confederacies, most of which were allied to New France in the 17th century.

Exponential Expansion

In 1869-70, Canada’s tumultuous annexation of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory gave the new Dominion access to the whole of the West and the North. What lay beyond the Rockies joined the federation in 1871. Two years later, Prince Edward Island assented as well. In 1880, the British Arctic Territories were transferred to Canada. New administrative territories were carved out of the North: Keewatin in 1876; Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, Athabasca, and Alberta in 1882; Franklin, Mackenzie, and Ungava in 1895; and the Yukon Territory in 1898.

Although Manitoba negotiated its way into the Dominion, both Alberta and Saskatchewan were created (in 1905) by bureaucrats in Ottawa wielding straight-edged rulers with willful disregard for historic and topographic boundaries. In 1912, Manitoba would benefit from this exercise as well, when Ottawa transferred much of the District of Keewatin to the original western province. At the same time, Ontario and Quebec would each engorge enough of the lands of the Lowland/Swampy Cree and Innu as to double in size. The Sverdrup Islands in the Arctic were ceded to Canada by Norway in 1930. In 1949, 82 years after the Charlottetown Conference that first introduced the idea of a colonial union, the Dominion of Newfoundland (with Labrador, the mainland annex assigned to it by Britain in 1927) joined the federation. Since then, the only significant additional adjustment of the map has been to establish the District of Nunavut in 1999 out of portions of the Districts of Franklin, Mackenzie, and all of what remained of Keewatin.

What this litany of administrative and boundary changes indicates is that the question of how to govern lands and peoples that are remote from one another has been at the forefront of the Canadian project from the outset.

Confederation and Cultures

Culture has also played a critical and central role in the history of Canada over the last 150 years. This is a country that began with a duality at centre stage. In 1867, there was rough parity between the anglophone population of Ontario and the francophone peoples of Quebec. That model of dichotomy the idea that the two provinces are culturally the yin to the other’s yang has never been true. There were always francophones in what emerged as Ontario. Likewise, an anglophone and Protestant elite, centred in Montreal, dominated Quebec society and economy while the majority descended from the colonists of New France inevitably took on many British values and habits.

Indeed, no province then or since has been without cultural complexities. Provinces and colonies that present as “mainstream” anglophone contain many different tributaries. The former Acadian lands in the Maritimes have always contained strong Franco-Catholic communities; likewise, Manitoba was erected on a (quickly challenged) principle of duality, one that was led by the Métis. Francophones comprised a considerable portion of the population across the Prairies in the early 20th century. A little over a century ago, the Port au Port Shore (or “French Shore”) on the west coast of Newfoundland was a slice of French commercial and settlement activity that survived from the 18th century and was populated by Breton and Norman fishing households. Francophone nodes could be found, as well, in pre-1914 British Columbia, although what stood out more were the resilient settlements of Chinese, Japanese, and Indians. Anglophone-Protestant dominance was often challenged by Anglo- and Irish-Catholicism too – not to mention by Canadian Protestantism, which splintered into Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist, and other sects.

The strength of a Canadian’s national identity was thus counterbalanced by their identification with language, creed, and increasingly ethnicity. Regional identity was another obstacle to erecting a national sensibility in the years immediately after Confederation. Maritimers may have had common interests but they also had a century of intercolonial competition and rivalry under their belts. British Columbians referred to “Canadians” contemptuously and regarded the BNA colonies on the other side of the continent as at least as foreign as Americans. Regional and provincial accents were strong, even among the English-speaking populations.

This chapter examines the new federal union’s growth in the years from 1867 to about 1900. During these years, it became clear that there was no singular vision of “Canada” to which everyone could subscribe. The conflicts that arose between several of these competing views were very often vocal and sometimes lethal. Keeping in mind that the previous Canadian constitution the Act of Union of 1841 lasted a mere 26 years before being tossed out, one can understand how the three decades after Confederation were understood to be pivotal.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the territorial growth of Canada from 1867 to circa 1914.
  • Account for Canada’s struggle to attract certain colonies into the fold.
  • Explain the rise of secessionist movements in the 19th century.
  • Outline the relationship between Canada and First Nations during this period.
  • Detail the institutions that were created and utilized for the purpose of expanding the Dominion of Canada.


2.2 Nova Scotia's Second Thoughts

Nova Scotia was, of course, one of the original parties to the federal union. From the outset, however, there were political and economic leaders in the colony who had qualms. Nova Scotia would have been the leading third in the proposed Maritime Union with New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Halifax was easily the largest city and one of the most industrially advanced. Even if it didn’t become the political capital of the “United Maritimes,” it would emerge almost certainly as the economic capital of this new configuration. The 1864 Maritime Union plan was put aside to make way for Confederation, and many Nova Scotians continued to think that was a mistake.

Buyer’s Remorse

The most prominent and highly appealing opponent of Confederation was Joseph Howe. A journalist and writer, his political speeches and editorials were of an exceptional calibre. His initial opposition to Confederation stemmed from a belief in a broader British imperial federation that might include the West Indian islands with which Nova Scotia had deep and vital links. Unable to stop the union between Nova Scotia and the other British North Americans, he sought to reverse it as early as the autumn of 1867.

In elections that season, Nova Scotia’s pro-confederate candidates were routed provincially and federally. The anti-confederates (led by Howe) won 36 of 38 seats in Nova Scotia and 18 of 19 seats in Ottawa. Their winning rhetoric underscored the colony’s orientation toward the Atlantic and not toward the heart of North America. Repeatedly, the image was invoked of a once-proud colony being reduced to poverty by avaricious Canadians obsessed with over-ambitious railways and colonization of the West.

Howe led a repeal delegation to London to have the British North America Act overturned; the best he could obtain, however, was a commitment to have Ottawa re-examine proposed tariff and fisheries policies. This failure was compounded in 1868 when the new British government confirmed its commitment to the Dominion model. Howe, a strident loyalist, was deeply disappointed by Westminster, and his sentiments were probably shared by many others in the province. Certainly there were elements among the anti-confederates who considered annexation to the United States a preferable option, and still others who preferred outright independence. Howe was speaking for that last position when he said that, were it not for his continued loyalty to Britain, “I would take every son I have and die on the frontier before I would submit to this outrage” – meaning Confederation.Quoted in J. Murray Beck, “HOWE, JOSEPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003), accessed 30 April 2015,

Be that as it may, Howe and his followers acquiesced. He was able to negotiate better terms for Nova Scotia and agreed to give the federation his backing by standing for a federal seat. He won, but it cost him his health and much of his reputation for integrity in Nova Scotia. It is perhaps one of the great ironies of early post-Confederation history that Howe, in his capacity as Secretary of State for the Provinces, was instrumental in persuading the Manitobans that federal union was a deal worth pursuing.

Many Nova Scotians used to carry a portrait of Joseph Howe in their wallets. It looked like this.

Figure 2.1 Many Nova Scotians used to carry a portrait of Joseph Howe in their wallets — it looked like this.

Howe’s vision of an imperial federation would find an echo in the last decades before the Great War (World War I). “Imperialists” in English-Canada would articulate an ambition and a model that was first brought to public attention by Howe (see Section 4.5). Before then, the Nova Scotian Repeal Movement would take a last stab at secession.

The Repeal Movement

The Dominion of Canada was not two decades old when Nova Scotians would again reconsider their place in Canada. The Maritime economy had slowed and a structural decline was underway. Ship construction had plummeted from a high point in 1864 of 73,000 tons to 21,000 in 1886, and 14,000 tons in 1887. Population growth slowed severely to only 2% in the 1880s. Natural increases (more births than deaths) were offset by out-migration mostly to the western reaches of the new Dominion and to New England. Rural Nova Scotia was changing at a particularly rapid rate, as the industrializing centres of Cape Breton’s collieries (coal mines), Halifax, Lunenburg, and a half-dozen other port towns attracted young women and men from the countryside. Lobster exports from Halifax to American ports fell by 75% in 1885 alone, and other trade with the United States was similarly affected. In this context, the pre-Confederation era of Reciprocity with the Americans, robust population growth (of around 15%), powerful shipyard industries in the major ports, and thriving rural communities including their proud churches, energetic civic organizations, and densely networked families seemed like a golden age in Nova Scotia’s recent history.Colin D. Howell, “W.S. Fielding and the Repeal Elections of 1886 and 1887 in Nova Scotia,” Acadiensis [online], VIII, No.2 (Spring 1979), 28-30, accessed 24 August 2015,  What had changed? Confederation.

Party politics in Nova Scotia increasingly coalesced around Conservative and Liberal parties. If the former was in power federally, the latter stood a better chance of holding power provincially. This was certainly the case in 1886 when William S. Fielding (1848-1929) a self-described anti-confederate led the Liberal Party to victory with a simultaneous call for secession and better subsidies from Ottawa. The two options reflected divisions between unionists and secessionists within the Liberal Party. If the subsidies were not forthcoming, Fielding insisted that Nova Scotia’s legislature would vote for a repeal of the BNA Act. He was also inclined to take Nova Scotia, with New Brunswick and PEI, out of Confederation and into a revived version of Maritime Union. This was a project in which neither of the other two colonies showed much interest.

In the end it was a combination of internal disagreement within the provincial Liberal Party and the federal election of 1887 that defeated the movement. Insofar as the campaign against Canada could be personalized, it was an attack on the policies and practices of the Conservative Party’s John A. Macdonald, effectively the face of federal rule. When Fielding’s Liberals took to the polls in 1887’s federal election, they found it difficult-to-impossible to campaign for the federal Liberal Party and against remaining in Confederation. Conservative candidates held 14 of the 21 federal seats and showed special strength in areas where industrialization was speeding ahead. In those areas, the National Policy (see Section 3.3) appeared to be working.Ibid., 43-4. As a measure of popular support for secession, the federal election results were the exact opposite of what was suggested in the provincial elections a year earlier. This would not be the last election in which specific issues (like separation) would become confused with voter decisions about who might constitute the better government. Nor would it prove to be the last time the country looked likely to come undone.

Key Points

  • The anti-Confederation movement in Nova Scotia was a significant political force from the 1860s-1880s.
  • Britain’s support for Confederation was critical in undermining the anti-Confederation movement under Joseph Howe.
  • Support for repeal and secession reflected substantial and rapid social and economic change in Nova Scotia.


Figure 2.1
881 $5 Bill Bank of Nova Scotia by Hantsheroes is in the public domain.


2.3 British Columbia and the Terms of Union

The HBC bastion overlooking the busy coal harbour at Nanaimo, 1906. (By Howard King - This image is part of the Canadian Copyright Collection held by the British Library, and has been digitised as part of the "Picturing Canada" project.It was deposited with copyright number 18676, and is indexed with Dalhousie number 717.English | français | македонски | +/−This file has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections. It is also made available on a British Library website.Catalogue entry: HS85/10/18676This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.Deutsch | English | Español | Français | Македонски | 中文 | +/−, Public Domain,

Figure 2.2 The HBC bastion overlooking the busy Coal Harbour at Nanaimo, 1906.

Nowhere was the ambition of the new Dominion more evident than in the recruitment and securing of British Columbia as the sixth province in 1871. Canada had not yet subdued and annexed Manitoba when it turned its attention to the Pacific Slope. As the crow flies, the nearest settlement of any size would have been Kamloops 2,000 km west of Winnipeg with no road in place. By sea, in the days before the Panama Canal, it would involve a voyage of more than 13,000 nautical miles from Halifax to Victoria via Cape Horn. Annexing islands in the West Indies would make more sense logistically, as would making British Honduras (now called Belize) a province (an idea that was touted from time to time). Canadian interest in the farthest west carried forward themes that can be found in all the other annexations, but it reflects unique interests as well. Why British Columbians decided to join a remote and essentially alien federal state is perhaps less obvious.

A Big Country

British Columbia’s boundaries in 1867 were a little uncertain, especially concerning Alaska and the Peace River valley. Nevertheless, even the most constricted view of its geography at the time would make it the largest of the British North American colonies and also the most sparsely populated. This points to one of the paradoxes of BC: It is a big area with few people, but the population is more tightly concentrated than is the case elsewhere in North America.

Topography and resources tell the tale. Narrow mountain valleys, canyons, deep coastal fjords, and one range of towering peaks after the next meant that options for settlement sites (before and after contact) were limited, and the colony’s geology was exposed and invited exploitation. It created conflicts as well, given that the Aboriginal population was large in the 1860s (especially before the smallpox epidemic of 1862-1863) and the European tide demanded access to cleared and arable land.

There was a long list of gold rushes in the 1850s-1860s in the mainland colony, and these did much to shape the character of the colonial administration. Gold found in the Queen Charlotte Islands (aka: Haida Gwaii) led to very limited intrusion, but the mainland was far more penetrable. The first discoveries near Kamloops were followed up by the more famous and lucrative placer opportunities along the Fraser and the Thompson rivers in 1858. At around the same time, smaller pockets of activity appeared along the Similkameen River, near what is now Allenby (near Princeton), at Rock Creek (east of Osoyoos), and in the Peace River district. The largest strike was made in the heart of the Cariboo in 1861, centred on Barkerville. There were other, less noteworthy gold rushes along the Stikine River in the same year and in the Shuswap district shortly thereafter. In 1864-1865, mining operations appeared at Leechtown (west of Victoria), Cherryville (east of Vernon), at Fisherville (near Fort Steele), and on the Big Bend of the Columbia River. The Omineca Gold Rush launched in 1869, and there was a small rush into the Burnt Basin near the Kettle Valley. In short, the colonial map was dotted with gold finds and compact and energetic mining centres. In addition, service communities sprang up to feed and fleece the miners, including everything from cattle ranches to dance halls.

The distribution of these new towns presented administrative challenges for the colonial regimes. Civil suits at the local level constituted an important part of a decentralized system of government. Itinerant jurists and local county courts were important features of life in a colony with a very high homicide rate, a sobering track record of public hangings, and predictable conflict over competing claims to mining leases and other property.Tina Loo, Making Law, Order and Authority in British Columbia, 1821-1871, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994). Until 1866, the mainland was governed from New Westminster; thereafter, the colonies of British Columbia (the mainland) and Vancouver Island were united and governed from Victoria. The distance between the capital and Barkerville is 900 km a longer and rougher road than that between Fredericton and Montreal. The Big Bend, Cherryville, Fisherville, and the Similkameen were all more easily accessed from the Washington Territory (later Washington State). Indeed, Rupert’s Land was easier to reach from the Kootenays than the Kootenays were from the coast. The existing transportation infrastructure was limited. There was a wagon road system between the Fraser Canyon and the Cariboo; paddlewheelers worked the Shuswap and the coastline, but the inland systems were susceptible to freeze-up and to violent seasonal fluctuations in water levels, and the coastal network was exposed to storms. The ability to assert colonial authority under these circumstances was limited, although symbolic efforts were repeatedly made.

A Vulnerable Colony

Building the Cariboo Wagon Road had effectively bankrupted the united colony of British Columbia. It was the first of what would be many government subsidies to private enterprise, the hope being that royalties and license revenues would offset the heavy capital investment in infrastructure. Another was the graving dock at Esquimalt that made the Vancouver Island port, in the calculations of the Royal Navy, even more critical.

The heavy capital investment at Esquimalt had the added benefit of increasing interest in the coal mines at and around Nanaimo. Industrial production in the Victoria area was on the increase as demand grew for chains, saw blades, and nails. Logging was well underway in several locations, including the Burrard Inlet nodes of Port Moody, Moodyville, and Stamp’s Mill, that harvested what were reckoned to be some of the largest trees on earth. This steam-powered economy further stimulated the collieries and reinforced connections with markets in California, Hawaii, China, Mexico, and Chile. Virtually nothing, at this time, was exported to Canada. Given the prevailing winds of the Atlantic, Liverpool was regarded as closer to British Columbia than Quebec City; therefore, that’s where the sea traffic gravitated.

That is not to say that Canada did not exercise any influence on the colony. It did so in a variety of ways. First, like the rest of British North America, British Columbia had a fraught relationship with the United States. The boundary with the American territories to the south was established in 1846, but the fear remained that American gold-seekers were probing for weaknesses and opportunities to see the BC mainland annexed to the American republic. Likewise, the dispute over the San Juan Islands (known colloquially as the Pig War) percolated along from 1859-1873. The American purchase of Alaska in 1867 was an additional reminder to the local colonial regime that the United States was not merely talking about a manifest destiny, it was acting on it. In this light, British Columbians saw the welcoming arms of Canada as a refuge from American imperialism, although they preferred the idea of continuing with the Royal Navy and British power.

Canadians in British Columbia

The gold rushes brought to the West Coast a complex mix of peoples. The multitude of Aboriginal peoples and nations were invaded by thousands of Americans (Euro- and Afro-), Chinese, Europeans (including British, of course), as well as Mexicans, South Americans, Hawaiians (aka: Kanakans), and fortune-hunters from even further afield. They also attracted Canadians, Nova Scotians, New Brunswickers, and a few Prince Edward Islanders. Two of these Amor de Cosmos (a Nova Scotian) and John Robson (a migrant from Canada West) brought their journalistic careers to the Far West. They also undertook political careers that echoed the language of eastern BNA. Together they were founders of the Confederation League in 1868, using their newspapers to promote the idea of union with Canada while directly lobbying administrations in Victoria, Ottawa, and London. Meeting at the Yale Convention that year, they set out their goals: responsible government in the colony, reciprocity with the United States, and austerity measures to address colonial debt. The British-appointed Governor, Frederick Seymour (1820-69), was cool to these ideas; his successor, Anthony Musgrave (1828-88), less so. Musgrave had served as Governor of Newfoundland when its assembly failed to endorse union with the rest of British North America. He had made mistakes and wasn’t about to repeat them on the West Coast.

The Canadians’ position was further helped by fears that a Fenian invasion was pending. Beginning in 1866, it was believed that Fenians were mustering in San Francisco with the goal of completing the American coastline from California to Alaska. Pro-annexationist voices in the colony were muted, however, until an Annexationist Petition was sent to Washington, DC in 1869 by a group of Victorian merchants. Their audacity in this regard served to increase support for the Confederation League.

By this time, it was clear to British Columbians that Britain could not be trusted not to abandon the colony. “I do not know why,” wrote one British emigration officer in London to his superior,

…we should go out of our way to lead settlers to make an erroneous choice…. I by no means agree that it is good general policy to try to swell the English population in B. Columbia [sic]. The fewer Englishmen that are committed to the place, the better it may prove to be in no distant times. As to hoping that we can by Emigrants round Cape Horn outnumber the natural flow of Emigrants from California and the United States, one might as well make the old experiment of keeping out the Ocean with a mop.Letter from T.W. Murdoch to F.F. Elliot, 26 April 1867, (marginal notes), Public Records Office, Colonial Office 60 (30), Kew, UK.

Britain’s commitment to the Pacific Coast continued to shrink. Pressure grew to consider the Canadian option.

In 1871 the newcomer population in BC was still badly outnumbered by Aboriginal people who were, nevertheless, being hustled onto reserves – and mostly without treaties. A Stó:lō woman, weaving baskets, n.d. (Photo by Royal British Columbia Museum - PN996, Public Domain,

Figure 2.3 In 1871 the newcomer population in BC was still greatly outnumbered by Aboriginal people who were, nevertheless, being hustled onto reserves – and mostly without treaties. A Sto:lo woman, weaving baskets, n.d.

The Terms of Union

Governor Musgrave selected a delegation to send to Ottawa, consisting of: Dr. R. W. Carrall, a physician from Goderich, Ontario, who had practiced in Nanaimo before moving to Barkerville in the late 1860s; Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works, Joseph Trutch, an Englishman with a familial connection to Musgrave; and Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, a Londoner, another physician, and a holdover from the days of the HBC. The party had significant interests in the outcome of the talks with the Canadians. Helmcken, for his part, played the role of delegation skeptic. He said that British Columbia “had no love for Canada; the bargain for love could not be,” and was more inclined to continuing with the status quo.Quoted in Jean Barman, The West Beyond the West: A History of British Columbia (Toronto:University of Toronto Press), 346. Carrall was an enthusiastic supporter of Confederation and the whole concept of the Dominion. As a Cariboo resident, he had a keen sense of the necessity for improved infrastructure and of its cost. Trutch, for his part, was a career administrator who was concerned that Ottawa would oblige Victoria to make concessions to the Aboriginal people for whom he had a very low regard, even by contemporary standards. Unlike the Confederation League, these men were never enthusiastic supporters of responsible government.Jack Little, “Foundations of Government,” The Pacific Province: A History of British Columbia, gen. ed. Hugh J.M. Johnston (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1996), 88-91.

The deal they struck with Ottawa included elimination of the colony’s debt, funding for the graving dock at Esquimalt, and the building of a railway from Canada to the West Coast, the construction of which was to be complete within ten years (see Section 2.9 for more details). The Canadians accepted an inflated population figure for the colony (on which financial and electoral issues would be based), but not as inflated as the delegation proposed. Ottawa was careful, as well, not to wade into the murky local debate over responsible government and colonial handling of Aboriginal affairs, and so left both to the British Columbian administration to resolve in its own time. On the last point, the language of the British Columbia Terms of Union, 1871 (the Terms) suggests that Trutch very effectively misrepresented his approach to reserve lands:

[Article] 13. The charge of the Indians, and the trusteeship and management of the lands reserved for their use and benefit, shall be assumed by the Dominion Government and a policy as liberal as that hitherto pursued by the British Columbia Government shall be continued by the Dominion Government after the Union..Senate of Canada, Article 13 of Schedule: Address of the Senate of Canada to the Queen, in British Columbia Terms of Union (UK: Court at Windsor, 16 May 1871), accessed 13 May 2016,

Ottawa’s hands were now tied; successive administrations in Victoria would monitor Aboriginal policies to ensure that they were “as liberal” as Trutch’s, but not more so.

John Helmcken at 93 years in 1917. He had little affection for Canada and his insistence on "The Terms" helped earn BC the nickname "Spoilt Child of Confederation." (Canadian Copyright Collection, Picturing Canada Project, British Library)

Figure 2.4 John Helmcken at 93 years in 1917. He had little affection for Canada and his insistence on the Terms helped earn BC the nickname “Spoilt Child of Confederation.”

With the Terms in hand, the British Columbians were inclined to watch their Canadian suitors closely. The delegation had hoped for a wagon road; they were promised a railway. The Canadians were clearly motivated by both their own faith in modern infrastructure and the economic opportunities it presented, on the one hand, and on the demonstrable advantage a railway to the West Coast would lend them in terms of territorial conquest. No one, however, had given sufficient thought to the business of crossing the Rockies and reaching the coast. They had given themselves a decade to get it done and the clock was ticking loudly in British Columbia from the very start.

Nothing but the Terms

Resistance to the whole idea of Confederation was perhaps strongest among the old British elite in Victoria and New Westminster. These were people with strong HBC ties and few connections to Canada. They were also staunchly opposed to responsible government. Individuals like the province’s Senators, Clement Cornwall (the owner of Ashcroft Manor) and W. J. Macdonald, allied with Edgar Dewdney (MP and colonial road-builder) to warn John A. Macdonald of the problems brewing in BC politics. Even the province’s limited male suffrage drew their criticisms and accusations that it had produced a populist assembly.

The present Legislative Assembly is perhaps taken together as inferior a body of the sort as could well be imagined; and if the Province is to be unmistakably [sic] given up to their tender mercies without the interposition of experienced guidance and some extent repression from Ottawa, no thoughtful mind can view the picture without the gravest apprehension.Draft of a Memorandum from Cornwall, Macdonald, and Dewdney to Sir John A. Macdonald, sent 7 May 1879, quoted in Hamar Foster, “The Struggle for the Supreme Court: Law and Politics in British Columbia, 1871-1885,” Louis A. Knafla, ed., Law and Justice in a New Land: Essays in Western Canadian Legal History (Calgary: Carswell Legal Publications, 1986), 168. Emphasis in original.

However appalled the senators and the MP may have been, the Assembly looked far more British than Canadian. British North America-born politicians remained a minority in the Legislature until the 20th century. According to mid-20th century historian, Walter Sage, Canadians were regarded contemptuously as tight-fisted spendthrifts who were more likely to send money home to families in the East than leave it in the local stores.Walter N. Sage, “British Columbia becomes Canadian, 1871-1901,” Historical Essays on British Columbia, Jean Friesen and Keith Ralston, eds. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976): 58. Confederation delegate Dr. Helmcken shared some of this anti-Canadian sentiment. He recognized that British Columbia’s loyalty to Canada would come only with material benefits and, perhaps, with time. “Love for Canada,” he wrote in 1870, “has to be acquired by the prosperity of the country, and from our children.”Quoted in ibid.: 57.

Prosperity and advantage were key to retaining British Columbia’s involvement in the Canadian project; the stage was set for wrangling over the progress of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Key Points

  • British Columbia was a sparsely populated, geographically huge colony with concentrated settlements that were mostly devoted to mining.
  • Size and the expense of building roads, as well as fear of American expansionism, turned the colony toward the Canadians.
  • British Columbia’s willingness to join the Dominion depended on the construction of a trans-continental railway, Ottawa’s absorption of colonial debt, and funding for a dry dock on Vancouver Island.


Figure 2.2
View of Nanaimo Harbour showing the bastion and shipping (HS85-10-18676) by LibraryBot is in the public domain.

Figure 2.3
Sto:lo woman with cedar basket (PN996) by Themightyquill is in the public domain.

Figure 2.4
Photograph of Hon John Sebastian Helmcken (HS85-10-33253) by LibraryBot is in the public domain.


2.4 Prince Edward Island

Islander indifference to Confederation had its roots in a thorny land ownership issue that had irritated local affairs for nearly a century. This question stretched back to the colony’s early days under British rule.


In 1767, the British government divided up the island into 67 lots of about 20,000 acres apiece and gave title away in a lottery involving wealthy and well-connected British landlords in London. The owners were expected to send settlers to the colony; few did so, most failed to maintain their properties or meet their obligations to settlers and the colonial administration. The Colonial Office consistently backed the absentee proprietors against the colonial tenants. In the mid-19th century, this was the issue that dominated Island politics; the search for a mechanism for gaining ownership of the proprietors’ lands and selling them on to the tenants called escheat  was regarded as an economic issue and also one that would help PEI society grow and thrive. In 1864, there was nothing the Canadian government could do to help this process along. Islanders believed they were at last making headway with Westminster and that a resolution was in sight. Staying with Britain at least until absentee landlordism was addressed was the most prudent path to follow.

PEI’s links to the mainland colonies were important and unlikely to change by staying outside of Confederation. Islanders regularly took seasonal work in the mines and forests of New Brunswick, Cape Breton, and mainland Nova Scotia. Their labour was welcomed and no treaty or constitutional change was necessary to this relationship’s continuance. The colony had good trade relations with the United States as well, and produced enough shipping to be active in the West Indies and cross-Atlantic commerce. There was some talk of exploring annexation to the United States and about as much interest in becoming a Dominion in its own right, as Newfoundland would do in 1907. On the whole, the status quo appealed most of all.

This inertia reflected divisions within Island society and the lack of advantages to be gained in joining Confederation. The PEI Liberals and Conservatives were supported, respectively, by comparable populations of Catholics and Protestants. The Tenant League advocates for an end to the system of absentee landlordism was more associated with the Liberals and thus with Catholicism. These were fracture lines that preoccupied the colony’s leaders. Against that, the PEI delegates at the 1864 Charlottetown Conference articulated a reasonable fear that the colony would be lost within Confederation. Being one-third of a Maritime Union was one thing; being a tiny sliver of a federated Canada was quite another.

The Cradle of Confederation

What changed? The Island’s government hoped that it could expand economic prospects by negotiating freer trade with the United States. Without British support this could not happen. Concern for the colony’s economy began to grow – which set the stage for a bout of railway fever. A colonial railway that was meant to be the key that would unlock economic diversification and tourism swallowed up the colonial budget. By 1871, PEI was looking at a desperate financial situation. Stagnant trade, government deficit, incomplete infrastructure, and the lack of funds with which to resolve the absentee landlord issue were the ‘pushes’ that the colonial elite needed to pursue new terms with Canada. Ottawa provided the necessary ‘pulls’: it would pay off the railway debt, guarantee a year-round steamship link to the mainland, and buy out the landlords. The Island’s Liberal government, under R.P. Haythorne (1815-91), had spent the colony into near-bankruptcy and placed the end to tenancy at the top of PEI’s political agenda; the Conservatives, under James Pope in 1873, were able to use their leverage with John A. Macdonald to win better terms. In this case, both parties were eager to see Confederation succeed, and they were able to obtain everything the colony required at the time. On 1 July 1873, PEI entered the federal union; despite having dismissed the idea of Confederation in 1866, the newest and smallest colony began a long tradition of packaging itself as the “Birthplace of Confederation.”

Key Points

  • Land ownership issues dominated in pre-Confederation Prince Edward Island.
  • The Escheat Movement worked to eliminate leasehold tenures and absentee landlordism.
  • PEI rejected Confederation in the 1860s, and reconsidered its position in the 1870s  mainly due to colonial debt.


2.5 Canada Captures The West, 1867-70

George Brown entered into a coalition government with John A. Macdonald and George-Etienne Cartier in the 1860s with a grocery-list of conditions. One of the Toronto newspaperman’s demands was that Canada in whatever form it was to take would annex Rupert’s Land. There was no talk in 1867 no serious talk at least about adding British Columbia to the mix. After all, as the crow flies, Victoria was as remote from Toronto as British Honduras; a sea voyage to New Westminster from Halifax could take months.

The relationship between the West and the core elements of the Dominion of Canada was complex. They had a history together and it was sometimes invoked to justify the extension of Canadian control into the Northwest. But that history was not straightforward and the Canadians tended toward the simplest understanding imaginable: the West had been British and, as of 1870, it simply belonged to the Dominion.

French traders, explorers, and diplomats had ventured into the southern regions beginning in the 1730s. After the Conquest of New France in 1763, there was a struggle for control of the southern and western fur trade — a struggle that was eventually won by the North West Company (NWC). The Montreal-based fur trading consortium pressed further westward and aggressively extended its commercial reach. By 1812 the NWC had established posts throughout the Interior of what would become British Columbia, and was operating a network that reached the Pacific Ocean. Nine years later, however, the Canadian firm was forced into a merger with the larger, older Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), the commercial monopoly incorporated in London in 1670. The HBC claimed exclusive right to trade across the northern half of the continent, in “all the lands draining into Hudson Bay.” This territory, called Rupert’s Land, includes what is now northwestern Quebec, northern Ontario, eastern and northern Manitoba, the northern two-thirds of Saskatchewan, the northern half of Alberta, and almost all of Nunavut. The merger gave the British firm effective trading, and nominal administrative control over everything north of the 49th parallel and all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

By the 1860s land in Ontario was becoming scarce, and the same was true in the Dominion’s three other founding colonies. Young families were, consequently, migrating out of Canada and into the United States where land was as yet abundant and effectively free. Grafting the West onto Canada and, in particular, onto Ontario would mean free land for generations. Obtaining Rupert’s Land from the HBC would also reunite this economic hinterland with its old commercial metropolis in the St. Lawrence (in effect, reversing the consequences of the 1821 corporate merger).

The diversity of nationalities and syncretic cultures arising from a fur trade society is a feature of the utmost importance to the history of Western Canada. Most of the people in the Red River Settlement what would become the core of the new province of Manitoba were Métis. They were the genetic heirs of Europeans (mostly French-Canadians but also, French, Swiss, and Scots) who traded out of Montreal from the 18th century on. They were, as well, descended from a range of Aboriginal cultures, especially Anishinaabe (aka: Saulteaux), Cree, and Assiniboine but also Chipewyan and others. Culturally, they were more than the sum of their ancestral parts: the Métis were a “new nation” with their own dialect, economic practices, organization, and values. Catholicism was an important part of the mix and many Métis demonstrated an easy ability to move from the bison hunting society to the parlours of Montreal and back again. As the 19th century advanced, however, their awareness of their different-ness (the fact that they were related to, but not identical to, their Aboriginal and European neighbours) grew stronger.

Another group, described by historians as the “country born,” was also significant in numbers around Red River and to the north. This community was the product of intermarriage between HBC employees (mostly English and Scottish men) and Chipewyan, Cree, and Anishinaabe women. Their journey to a truly syncretic culture was different from that of the Métis. They tended to be Anglican or Presbyterian in their religious beliefs, usually spoke English, and were not part of the Plains culture of the bison hunt. While some were, for all intents and purposes, Aboriginal, others were de facto Europeans.

Through the 1860s, Anglo-Canadian expansionist ambitions would inform relations between the West and Canada. In 1864 at the Charlottetown Conference and again at the Quebec Conference, the prospect of an expansive and clearly imperialist Canada dominating the West was promoted. The desire of Franco-phobes like Brown to encircle and overwhelm Quebec with Anglo-Protestant populations was no secret. Toronto-based advocates agitated for annexation of the West, many of them with an outspoken assimilationist agenda. Quebec francophones, for their part, weren’t opposed to annexation, but they feared that Anglo-Protestants would interfere in what should be a reunion between two branches of the Franco-Catholic family.

In 1867, London was getting ready to divest the HBC of its trade monopoly and administrative role in Rupert’s Land. At the same time, the Americans were in an annexing mood. As far as the Canadians were concerned, time was of the essence; the timeline of Canadian expansion into the West would need to be brought forward. As far as the Métis majority at Red River was concerned, they had some important choices to make, and they felt strongly that these choices were theirs alone.

Historical accounts of relations between the Métis and the country born are sometimes contradictory, no doubt because every attempt to draw a composite picture is complicated by the existence of numerous and compelling exceptions. Sectarian boundaries were probably more critical in the mid-19th century than language, and persistent Scottish-French sympathies complicated things further. Broadly speaking, however, Westerners of Anglo-Protestant heritage viewed themselves as politically on the ascendant, mainly because of increased Anglo-Canadian interest in the region. This led to significant divisions among the Métis and Country Born communities of the Red River. Other historical interpretations have the two communities more fully recognizing their shared interests as they were increasingly subject to the rising racism boiling out of Canada West. Certainly, this was the dawn of modern racism: increasingly, what Anglo-Canadians saw when they looked at the country born were inferior “half-breeds” rather than co-religionists or champions of Anglo-Celtic culture. As for the the Métis in these years, the Anglo-Canadians only had more contempt for them.

The community would, in 1869, resist Canadian annexation and demand provincial status. Red River was daring in some respects. It had grown dramatically in the 1860s, but only to about 12,000 people (about one-eighth the size of Prince Edward Island). The majority was still Métis, followed by Scots and country born, but many of their neighbours were Ontarian Anglo-Protestants drawn by the promise of cheap land and the prospect of being pioneers in the colonization of the West by English Canada.

The West Resists

The relationship between the people of Red River and the HBC was far from straightforward. The company was an important source of imported goods and a source of revenue. It had acted for years as the local administration. Many of the local residents were former HBC employees, some of them retired from work much further north. In some respects the HBC was exploitative and put its own interests first; in others, it was a benevolent and paternalistic firm that had invested nearly 200 years in the region. Suddenly that continuity was broken.

In the 1860s, Canada began a campaign to win Rupert’s Land away from Britain. Westminster was happy to cooperate. The HBC’s monopoly (which was, from 1849, more myth than reality) was purchased for £300,000, and administrative control of the region was passed to the Dominion government. Certain conditions applied. The Canadians had to negotiate treaties with the Aboriginal populations before the deal would be formalized. Ottawa proved far too hasty in this respect and others. Lieutenant-Governor William McDougall (1822-1905) was appointed even while the HBC Governor of Assiniboia, William Mactavish (1815-1870), was still in charge. The Canadians sent in land survey teams to redraw the map of the Red River settlement using the section and quarter-section block system, which ran lines right across existing colonists’ farms; all of these older farm lots were arranged along the riverfront in long narrow strips, as was the case under the seigneurial system of New France. This upset the Métis and it alerted the country born and Scots that their rights were not secured. The surveyors were duly chased out of the colony. No consultations took place between Ottawa and the Red River colony, which further inflamed local opinion. And, of course, no attempt was made to address the issue of treaty negotiations.

The beginning of the Section Land Survey in the Red River Plain (1869). Canadians were imposing their system of geography over top of others. (Wyman Laliberte,

Figure 2.5 The beginning of the Section Land Survey in the Red River Plain (1869). Canadians were imposing their system of geography.

Events proceeded quickly. Only a month passed between the Rupert’s Land deal and the creation of a Provisional Government in Red River. Days later, at the end of December 1869, Louis Riel (1844-1885) would become its president. Riel’s father (Louis senior) was himself a Métis lawyer and leader who played a key role in the 1849 Sayer Trial. Julie Laginmonière, Louis junior’s mother, was part of the French-Canadian community at Red River. She provided connections with relations in Montreal to whom Riel would later turn. Young Louis grew up in the French parish of St. Boniface opposite modern-day Winnipeg, and had an interest in joining the priesthood. He travelled to Montreal in the 1860s to study, fell in love, became engaged, and then found himself jilted because the Canadienne woman’s parents were intolerant of Riel’s mixed-race ancestry. Depressed and perhaps heart-broken, he abandoned his studies and returned to Red River when his father died in 1864. Riel’s familiarity with the Canadians, his ability to conduct himself credibly in English, and his apparent intellectual ability made him a good candidate to lead the Métis National Committee. Photographs of Riel in 1870 show a man with broad shoulders and a large head; it is easy to overlook the fact that he was only 25 years old.

The Provisional Government with Riel in the centre. (Library and Archives Canada / PA-012854)

Figure 2.6 The Provisional Government with Riel in the centre.

Ottawa regarded the Provisional Government as something akin to treason. The Canadians’ tactical errors, however, meant that their takeover of Rupert’s Land was to be stalled. In the absence of a legitimate Canadian claim, the sovereignty of the whole of the Northwest was now a grey area. The possibility that Riel’s government might take Red River into the United States stoked Canadian fears. At the same time, the Provisional Government’s proposals for provincehood for the Northwest were unacceptable to Ottawa. Red River was demanding the same kind of provincial status enjoyed by the four former British colonies that formed the heart of the Dominion. That included control over natural resource revenues. Ottawa’s perspective was that Red River had never been a British colony per se, and that the whole point of annexing the West was to enrich the Canadian project with resources, not to hand them over to the Métis in perpetuity.

In Red River, there was an influential and potentially dangerous Canadian faction that plagued the Provisional Government. Riel and the Métis addressed the issue of community solidarity by doubling the size of the government and adding a number of English/Scottish/Country Born members to balance the Franco-Catholic representatives. The local Canadians, however, were unwilling to be brought to the table. Led by Dr. John Schultz, the Red River Canadians included recent arrivals from Ontario, and individuals who would benefit directly from Ottawa’s surveying contracts in the region. A brief skirmish led to the arrests of several in the Canadian Party, including a young Orangeman from Northern Ireland, Thomas Scott. By all accounts, Scott was toxic a hateful, violent man fueled by an anti-Catholic rage. While all of the other Canadian prisoners were released in an effort to cultivate goodwill, Scott was executed.

The execution of Scott is seen by most historians as the turning point for Red River and Canada. While negotiations between the two governments became more fruitful, a public campaign calling for revenge for the “martyrdom” of Scott took off in Anglo-Protestant Canada. Clearly this would have ramifications for Red River, but it would also fracture the delicate relationship between Ontario and Quebec — only three years after Confederation. The Red River delegation was unable to secure resource revenue, but it did get provincial status for Manitoba and the promise that Métis’ and other existing farms in the region would be respected and registered. Amnesty for the leadership of the Provisional Government was not forthcoming.

Riel fled to the United States. Still a young man, he was restless and as would become clear in later years deeply disturbed by the events of 1869-70. He was so (rightly) fearful of being captured and murdered by Ontarian Orangemen, that much of his time was spent on the run. The Manitoba Act (1870) offered up the possibility of a dualist (French/English, Catholic/Protestant) province created by the federal government. For some Canadians this was a hopeful sign, but that hope would be dashed. The Canadian troops that arrived in Red River, hard on Riel’s heels, intimidated and brutalized the Métis population. Land registrations did not take place, and within a couple of years the core Métis population deserted the new province for opportunities further north and west.

Canadian troops on the shores of Lake Superior, on their way to Red River, 1870.(Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1969-3-1)

Figure 2.7 Canadian troops on the shores of Lake Superior, on their way to Red River, 1870.

Politics and Personality

Dr. John Christian Schultz (1840-1896) would emerge from all of this as one of history’s big winners. The creation of Manitoba gave him several stages on which to perform as a political leader. He was elected repeatedly (and always under suspicious circumstances) to Ottawa, was appointed to the Senate by Macdonald in 1882, and then became the Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba in 1888. His motives are likely to be called into question, but Schultz’s record on Aboriginal (especially anglophone Aboriginal) affairs as an advocate is noteworthy. He even advocated for the Métis to some extent but remained a vocal opponent of Riel. Schultz’s rising star was entirely due to the displacement of the Métis from Red River and Manitoba’s resettlement by English-Canadians. As an out-rider of colonial power, Schultz demonstrated unwavering contempt for the First Nations at the outset, and then demonstrated the imperialist’s urge to act as their guardian once institutions were in place.

Key Points

  • One of the objectives of the leaders of the confederation movement was the annexation of Rupert’s Land the West to enable the agricultural expansion of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.
  • Annexing Rupert’s Land was made urgent by the loss of population to the United States, and American interests in expansion in the region.
  • The inhabitants of the West included the Métis, the country born, some Canadian migrants, and First Nations. Of these, only the Canadians were particularly interested in the prospect of annexation.
  • The Dominion, in its haste, rushed administrative representatives into place (specifically, land surveyors) and it failed to negotiate treaties with the Aboriginal population. These errors would provoke reactions from the locals.
  • Late in 1869 the Métis-dominated community at Red River established a Provisional Government and mounted a resistance to annexation. The local Canadian faction responded with attempts to subvert the authority of the government led by Louis Riel.
  • The execution of Thomas Scott by the Provisional Government divided feeling in Ontario and Quebec, hardened Protestant Ontarian resolve to drive out the Catholic Métis, and sent Riel into exile.
  • The Provisional Government’s negotiations with Ottawa produced the Manitoba Act and the colony’s willing entry into Confederation as a more-or-less equal partner.


Figure 2.5
The Beginning of the Section Land Survey as Shown on J.S. Dennis’ Plan for the Survey of the Red River Plain (1869) by Wyman Laliberte is used under a CC-BY-2.0 license.

Figure 2.6
Councillors of the Provisional Government of the Métis Nation (Online MIKAN no.3194516) by Library and Archives Canada / PA-012854 is in the public domain.

Figure 2.7
Red River Expedition, Colonel Wolseley’s Camp, Prince Arthur Landing on Lake Superior (Online MIKAN no.2833387) by Library and Archives Canada / PA-012854 is in the public domain.


2.6 Canada and the First Nations of the West

Change swept across the Prairies in the 15 years after the Manitoba Act. Commitments made to the Métis of Red River in the Confederation negotiations were, in effect, dismissed if not broken. The possibility of cultural dualism was crushed in the Manitoba Schools Act. The numbered treaties were signed and reserves established, but famine and dislocation could be found everywhere. Aboriginal populations were increasingly concentrated and managed by newcomers as the bison herds collapsed across the continent. Immigrants were coming swiftly to the southern plains along the CPR route, and the railway itself was changing the shape of the local economy. In less than a generation, Winnipeg had emerged as a respectably-sized city of 27,000 while, by 1881, there were approximately 118,000 people on the Canadian Prairies. This was a comprehensive wave of change that took place quickly and relentlessly. For many, it was experienced as nothing less than a crisis of the first order.

The Canadian Northwest

The Canadian administration of the Northwest gradually took form in the 1870s. The District of Keewatin was carved out around Hudson’s Bay in 1876. From 1882 the name Assiniboia, formerly associated with the Red River Settlement, applied to the borderlands stretching west from Manitoba to the Cypress Hills. This was the territory most heavily populated by the Cree. In the same year, the District of Alberta was created next door and north along the spine of the Rockies, covering almost all of the Canadian Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) territory. Saskatchewan was the heartland of the Métis, encompassing much of the river drainage, and it was also home to large numbers of Cree. The District of Athabasca, also created in 1882, ran north from Alberta; the District of Franklin extended north of Saskatchewan into what is now the Northwest Territories. There were thus seven administrative units on the Plains, including Manitoba, of which six were governed either directly or indirectly from Ottawa.

The key administration in the context of the 1885 rising was Assiniboia. Its capital was Regina which, but for the southern route of the railway, would have been of very little consequence. The site was chosen by Lieutenant-Governor Edgar Dewdney, the surveyor and politician from British Columbia whose career was, according to his biographer, a continuous quest for a sinecure. “The selection of the site of the new territorial capital adjacent to his personal landholdings in 1882 was the most egregious example of self-serving opportunism.”Brian Titley, The Frontier World of Edgar Dewdney (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999), 143. Dewdney’s execution of his responsibilities have drawn much criticism from historians. In one well-documented case, we find him turning away cut-rate cattle sales from local ranchers whose stock might have addressed Aboriginal famine, in all likelihood because he had a financial interest in another source of beef. Venal and lacking empathy, Dewdney is outstanding for his singular dedication to Canadian expansion into the region regardless of its impact on the native population.

Canadian trepidation about Aboriginal and Métis affairs in the West crossed party lines. The Métis resistance of 1869-70 had, after all, won provincehood for Manitoba something that Ontario’s leadership deeply resented. George Brown and the Clear Grits had been drawn into the Great Coalition and the Confederation plan largely on the strength of their desire to see Ontario settle the Plains. No one could or would say for sure that the Métis might not have further plans or the ability to upset Canadian ambitions again. As for the Cree, Niitsitapi, and Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) of the southwestern Prairies, the Canadians could be only less certain. Wars between the much better armed US Cavalry and the Indigenous peoples of the lands south of the 49th parallel were in full swing. The Sioux and the Niitsitapi moved freely back and forth across the Medicine Line and thus posed a threat to both Euro-North American nation states. On 24 October 1870, the Cree and Niitsitapi engaged in a bloody confrontation: the Battle of Belly River, near Fort Whoop-Up in present-day Lethbridge. At the time, there was no way of knowing that this was to be the last major Aboriginal war on the Plains. The Niitsitapi’s upset victory over the Cree (who lost as many as 300 warriors) would only serve to reinforce a growing sense in the popular mindset of Canadians that the native people of the Plains were warlike and an obstacle to national progress. Somehow that threat would have to be diminished.

The first step to doing so was the numbered treaties. Of the first seven signed, three were drawn up under Macdonald’s Conservative regime and four under the Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie (1822-92). These met, in the barest sense, Ottawa’s obligation to get treaties in place, but their principal goal was to pacify the West and make it attractive to non-Aboriginal settlers. A large part of that, of course, involved getting individual Aboriginal leaders to “take treaty” by selecting and accepting reserve lands. Everything else could be opened to settlement. As for the Métis, Ottawa’s approach was once burned, twice shy. There was no love lost between the Métis and the Canadians, and the federal government believed that it had met all its obligations to the former residents of Red River. When the Métis protests began, the Canadians were inclined to dismiss them as evidence of insatiable greed on the part of a population too feckless to get on with successful farming.

The Numbered Treaties

Figure 2.8 The numbered treaties.

Not all Canadians shared the priorities of Ottawa. Settlers in the Northwest, for example, were witness to the desperate plight of the Aboriginal peoples. While some were less sympathetic than others, former HBC employees who had a longer-term perspective on Cree, Assiniboine, and Niitsitapi societies decried the state of affairs facing First Nations. Canadian settlers, too, shared in some of the grievances registered by the Saskatchewan Métis. The original course of the CPR was to come north through the Saskatchewan River valleys, where the best farmland was to be found. Canadian migrants had rushed into the area as a consequence, and the CPR’s decision to use the southern route instead left them hundreds of kilometres from a rail link. Among these farmers was William Henry Jackson (aka: Honore Joseph Jaxon, 1861-1952), a Torontonian whose family relocated to Prince Albert. Offended by Ottawa’s apparent arbitrary behaviour and the duplicity of the CPR, Jackson headed to Batoche to join the growing Métis protest. University-educated, Jackson filled the position of secretary to Riel and was the draughtsman of the 1884 grievances. (It is an interesting contrast, one that French-Canadians did not miss, that Jackson was arrested at the end of the uprising and tried for treason, like Riel, but found not guilty by means of insanity. He was thus spared the noose and committed to an asylum at Fort Garry, Manitoba.)Donald B. Smith, "William Henry Jackson,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, August 2014, accessed 15 May 2015, Canadian settlers in Assiniboia and Saskatchewan, too, complained that they were being administered like a branch of an Ottawa bureaucracy and they demanded provincial status.

The Aboriginal West

One of the conditions of Canada’s acquisition of Rupert’s Land was that the new Dominion would enter into treaty-making with the Indigenous peoples. This was a necessary prerequisite to confirming Canadian power in the region. Stabilizing the area for settlement was certainly another motivation for doing so. Either way, speed was thought to be of the essence. For these reasons the process of negotiating and signing the numbered treaties was a rushed business. Historians remain uncertain as to what it was the Aboriginal signatories thought they were agreeing to. In Treaties 4, 5, 6, and 7 there were promises of land, medicine chests, farming training, agricultural equipment, and even livestock. From the Canadian perspective this was a package aimed at transitioning Aboriginal peoples into Canadian farmers. From an Aboriginal perspective it was consistent with the gift-giving diplomacy of past generations, it offered up emergency relief in the face of hardship from famine or disease, and it purchased peace. Some Aboriginal leaders refused to sign, mostly because they recognized that the treaties didn’t really promise land; instead, the treaties proposed to take all of the land away, except for a small amount that would be marked on maps as reserves. Extinguishing Aboriginal claims to the land was not something likely to succeed quickly. Circumstances, however, would soon work against the Aboriginal hold-outs.

Until the 1980s, historians writing on the topic of the Riel Rebellions typically emphasized the role of the Métis leader and tended to subsume the Aboriginal agenda. In fact, this was a three-cornered confrontation and the Aboriginal situation was very distinct from that of the Métis not to mention the Canadians.

The crisis that brought the Indigenous peoples of the Plains to the treaty table in the 1870s was rapidly worsening. What was left of the bison herds was now under assault by better-armed hunters (native and non-native). The repeating rifle was only one of several technological innovations that would severely compromise the remaining herds. Pressures from the American side of the 49th parallel which includes increased access to bison grounds by rail and the rise of the sports hunter resulted in herds pressing into the southwest corner of Alberta. The process began in the 1860s, and by the late 1870s even the Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) Confederacy could no longer count on this resource. What had only decades earlier been a continental population of hundreds of thousands of plains bison was reckoned to have plummeted to a few hundred in the early 1880s.

For the Cree in the 1870s, the inevitable crisis was delayed, thanks to shared access to what was left of the bison herds in Niitsitapi territory. The peace the Cree had negotiated with Canada in Treaties 1 through 6 (1871-76), however, meant that even a much reduced version of the older Plains lifestyle could continue for less than a decade. Although reserves had been mapped out, they were not immediately enforceable. There was nothing to stop the Cree in particular from heading out to the last vestiges of promising hunting territory: the Cypress Hills. Indeed, the terms of treaties encouraged the Indigenous signatories to stake out their territories, something on which Canada would later renege. By 1879, even the Cypress Hills resource was largely played out.John Milloy, The Plains Cree: Trade, Diplomacy and War, 1790 to 1870 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1988), 120. It wasn’t so much the case that the clock was ticking; for the Cree and their neighbours, alarm bells were ringing.

Additional pressure was applied on the foodstocks of the Plains by the arrival of refugees in the 1870s and 1880s. This is an often overlooked aspect of the period. We have become accustomed, in the 21st century, to seeing images of people fleeing war-torn homelands and setting up rag-tag camps in which disease and starvation stalk the population. In the Victorian era, there was no United Nations to intervene with aid or food, no Médicins sans Frontières to stay the progress of epidemics, no international corps of journalists to bring attention to suffering. What occurred on the Great Plains in these years thus went largely unobserved by the rest of the world. The crisis begins in 1877, when the Sioux and their allies combined for one final push against the genocidal attacks of the US Cavalry and, at Little Bighorn, they inflicted the most severe defeat that United States forces would suffer until Pearl Harbor. Theirs was a pyrrhic victory, however, and Ta-tanka I-yotank (aka: Sitting Bull, 1836-1890) and his people were forced to flee to sanctuary across the Medicine Line. Their refugee camps were swollen with newcomers in the years that followed, and by 1880 their plight was desperate.

Beginning in 1879, famine swept across the Prairies. Provisions meant to be delivered under treaty were not supplied. What cattle that did arrive on the Plains to be used as draught-animals were, instead, eaten. The Cree, Assiniboine, and Saulteaux who conformed to Ottawa’s expectations and remained on reserve were, as a consequence of their choice, vulnerable to starvation when Canada failed to meet its obligations. Those who rejected treaty and the reserves including Cree under the leadership of Piapot (1816-1908), Mistahimaskwa (aka: Big Bear, 1825-1888), and Minahikosis (aka: Little Pine, 1830-1885) faced hardship just the same. What’s more, Ottawa exploited these conditions to try to reorient the recalcitrant factions onto reserves and into a European-style regime of agriculture. To be clear, Canadian authorities knew that famine was on the march. They had resources warehoused nearby, and yet withheld supplies in order to achieve a political goal: the submission of the Cree and their neighbours to Canadian authority.

The situation was no better for the Niitsitapi. Reports of twenty-five starvation deaths in the last days of 1879 signalled that the last refuge of the bison was also in peril. Successive hard winters compounded conditions for everyone in the southwest Prairies and along the foothills. Despite fears of American attacks, many of the Niitsitapi relocated to the United States in pursuit of food or, perhaps, rations.

By 1881-83, most of the groups that had resisted taking treaty were on reserves. Minahikosis buckled in 1879 and signed Treaty 6, but he worked for the remaining six years of his life to expand and draw together the reserve lands into a contiguous pattern so as to create a Plains Cree homeland. Ottawa, however, feared Aboriginal efforts to create contiguous reserves that would constitute an “Indian Territory” and enable the growth of stronger political and military resolve. As a result, the Cree reserves were dissolved into smaller and more distinct parcels. This approach, of course, made the administration of aid still more difficult. What’s more, these concentrated populations also created promising conditions for epidemics to emerge. As if disease was not enough, food poisoning appeared. Tainted meat was, in desperation, consumed on many reserves and in many towns, with predictable results.

Still the Canadian government adhered to an austerity-first policy and the notion of the “vanishing Indian” gained ground. Some late 19th century Canadian critics of rationing and relief argued that supporting native peoples was throwing good money after bad: if the Aboriginal population was doomed to disappear, what would be the point? In this respect, both the Liberals and the Conservatives in Ottawa were on the same page. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald took the view that relief to anyone who was not actually starving would create dependence rather than self-reliance. And yet even in famine the Plains peoples were not being supported. One of the last big pushes to get bands onto reserves came in the spring of 1882 to clear all the lands south of the CPR route in Assiniboia (now southern Saskatchewan). As one historian frames this, every move made by Ottawa had cynicism at its heart: “Within a year, 5,000 people were expelled from the Cypress Hills. In doing so the Canadian government accomplished the ethnic cleansing of southwestern Saskatchewan of its indigenous population.”James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013), 123.

One strategy for minimizing Aboriginal dependency was agricultural education, something which was promised in the treaty-making process. The Cree, in particular, were prepared to transition into a farming economy ideally on their own terms and provision was made for farm instructors to be sent out from Ontario. Needless to say some instructors were better than others, and many were used as de facto administrators and Canadian diplomats. Progress on this front, as with rations, was too slow for the Cree and the Niitsitapi. In 1883, several Cree leaders petitioned Ottawa, clearly stating that they felt betrayed by Canada’s lacklustre commitment to the terms of the treaties:

Nothing but our dire poverty, our utter destitution during this severe winter, when ourselves, our wives and our children are smarting under the pangs of cold and hunger, with little or no help, and apparently less sympathy from those placed to watch over us, could have induced us to make this final attempt to have redress directly from headquarters. We say final because, if no attention is paid to our case we shall conclude that the treaty made with us six years ago was a meaningless matter of form and that the white man has indirectly doomed us to annihilation little by little…. Shall we still be refused, and be compelled to adhere to the conclusion spoken of in the beginning of this letter, that the treaty is a farce enacted to kill us quietly, and if so, let us die at once?Bobtail, Ermine Skin, Samson, et al. to John A. Macdonald, 7 January 1883, quoted in Jennifer Reid, Louis Riel and the Creation of Modern Canada: Mythic Discourse and the Postcolonial State (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), 15.

By 1884 the Cree were prepared to respond as a single body under the leadership of Mistahimaskwa. In response, the Canadians led by Dewdney and embodied in the newly-formed North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) began detaining native leaders as they attempted to travel to meetings, breaking up gatherings where legal resistance and court challenges were being discussed, and once again using rations to squeeze the Plains peoples into submission. The government also turned to the banning of Indigenous cultural practices. In 1884-85, Aboriginal movement was restricted as a “pass system” emerged (see Section 11.6) and arrests were made of native diplomats visiting reserves other than their own. Disagreements between the Niitsitapi under Isapo-muxika (aka: Crowfoot), the Sioux, led by Ta-tank I-yotank, the Cree, and the Métis further weakened the possibility of a united front emerging across the Plains.J.R. Miller, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada, revised edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 170-5.

As 1885 approached, relations between Aboriginals and Canadians in the West were at a low ebb. The worst of famine had passed in some quarters but the trauma and the death toll were hardly going to be expunged overnight. Cree leaders like Piapot and Mistahimaskwa had watched for more than a decade as the Canadians neglected their treaty obligations and communities were purposely shattered and brought to heel.

Ironically, it was the Dakota Sioux who fared the best in these years; they brought their farming skills (honed for more than 50 years) to their existing settlement hubs in Canada. They were not covered by numbered treaties and, as a result, fell between the administrative cracks. They were thus able to get on with adjusting to the new paradigm without willful mismanagement by the Canadians. How serious was this distinction? Very. Of the Plains people in the 1880s, only the Sioux escaped the tuberculosis epidemics and they did so likely because they were better fed, more self-sufficient, and not economically destabilized.

Key Points

  • The period between 1870-85 in the West saw dramatic and catastrophic changes take place among the Aboriginal communities.
  • Ottawa’s administrative presence in the West was reflected in the creation of new territories, new political offices, and the creation of the NWMP.
  • The crisis among First Nations was precipitated by an accelerating decline in bison populations, leading to a final armed conflict over the remaining herds at Belly River, 1870.
  • Facing food shortages and the arrival of migrants from Canada, the First Nations of the region agreed to the numbered treaties, which they understood to be an ongoing relationship and not a once-and-for-all submission to Canadian authority.
  • Non-Aboriginal settlers in the West were often critical of Ottawa’s approach to the region.
  • Famine years began in 1879 and continued through 1885. These conditions were exploited by Ottawa to win further treaties, resettle signatory nations on reserves, and secure the submission of First Nations to Canadian rule.
  • Aboriginal support for protest and resistance was growing by 1884, creating conditions that would contribute the the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.


Figure 2.8
Map of Numbered Treaties of Canada by Themightyquill is used under a CC BY SA 2.5 license.


2.7 Rebellion 1885

Efforts by the Anglo-Ontarian population in Winnipeg to dominate the Francophone community included an election riot in 1872 that targeted newspapers that were critical of John Schultz — including these printing presses at The Manitoban. (James Penrose. Library and Archives Canada / PA-165779)

Figure 2.9 Efforts by the Anglo-Ontarian population in Winnipeg to intimidate the francophone community included an election riot in 1872 that targeted newspapers that were critical of John Schultz — including these printing presses at The Manitoban.

After the Canadians arrived in Red River, much of the local Métis population departed. Canadian failure to respect the scrip they issued to the Métis for land was one factor, as was the virulent hostility of Orangemen outraged at the “martyrdom” of Thomas Scott. The Métis had options and there were many other communities on the Prairies to which they might turn. The most promising of these were arranged along the Saskatchewan River, particularly the South Branch.

Métis Discontent

By 1875, Canadians had pretty much over-run the old Red River colony and Winnipeg was, for all intents and purposes, a Canadian city. More Métis, disenchanted with the ways in which the Canadian regime neglected to address the issue of land entitlement, drifted toward the Saskatchewan Valleys. There were just enough bison left on the plains in the mid-1870s to create hope among the Métis that at least one aspect of their old livelihood might continue. They established new farms – made up of long and narrow strips that were a legacy of the seigneurial system in New France – and erected churches and other elements of established communities. The most important settlements were Qu’Appelle, Duck Lake, and Batoche. It wasn’t long before Canadian surveyors arrived in the region and began redrawing local maps along the square section plan that had, in 1869, caused unrest to erupt in and around Red River.

In 1884, the dissatisfied and worried Métis of the South Saskatchewan sought out Louis Riel.

Riel after 1870

The life and times of Louis Riel are dominated by his two confrontations with the power of Ottawa and the ambitions of Canada. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that he was very young in 1869, and a persecuted and confused man entering middle age in 1885.A very good survey of the many historical representations of Louis Riel is Douglas Owram, “The Myth of Louis Riel,” Louis Riel: Selected Readings, ed. Hartwell Bowsfield (Mississauga: Copp Clark Pitman, 1988): 11-29.

Soon after negotiations with Canada were concluded in 1870, Riel decided to flee to the United States. He was only a few steps ahead of the Ontarian Orangemen who had volunteered for regiments that staggered toward Manitoba with a vendetta for Riel’s execution in mind. On three occasions he was elected by voters in the West to represent them in the House of Commons in Ottawa; fearing for his life, he never took his seat.

Depictions of Riel run the gamut from opera to nude statues. Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (Drawn and Quarterly, 2003) is an example and evidence of the continuing purchase Riel has on the public imagination.

Figure 2.10 Depictions of Riel run the gamut from opera to nude statues. Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography is an example, and evidence, of the continuing purchase Riel has on the public imagination.

Macdonald, eager to avoid a rupture in Canada, sent Riel money to remain in the United States. He was granted amnesty, provided he stayed out of Canada for five years. But Riel suffered a mental health collapse and travelled to Quebec where he was a patient in two asylums. In one, according to historian Dan Francis, Riel’s treatment was brutal:

He was routinely trussed up in a straitjacket because of his violent behaviour. He was allowed to exercise only under guard in the yard behind the main building and, he complained in a letter, ‘I spend the night with chains around my feet and hands.’ Daniel Francis, “Sane or Insane? The Case of Rose Lynam,” Reading the National Narrative,, accessed 15 May 2015.

The Science of Cheek; or, Riel's Next Move. Riel (loq.) – "Five Toussand Dollares! By gar, I shall arrest ze scoundrel myself!" J.W. Bengough is widely regarded as the pioneer of political cartooning in Canada. This one from April 1874 finds Riel in Ottawa, where it was alleged he stole into the Commons, signed the register, and snuck off again.

Figure 2.11 The Science of Cheek; or, Riel’s Next Move. Riel (loq.) – “Five Toussand Dollares! By gar, I shall arrest ze scoundrel myself!” J.W. Bengough is widely regarded as the pioneer of political cartooning in Canada. This one from April 1874 finds Riel in Ottawa, where it was alleged he stole into the Commons, signed the register, and snuck off again.

He thereafter joined a Métis community in Montana the American Northwest and Pacific Northwest was peppered with such enclaves, some of which dated to the 18th century. He married a Métis woman (Marguerite Monet, née Bellehumeur) and they had three offspring, none of whom survived childhood. Riel’s mental health issues may not have been fully resolved, as he announced that he was receiving visions of a sovereign Métis state in the Prairie West. He wrote prolifically, taught at a Montana school, joined the Republican Party and took out American citizenship. In June 1884, Gabriel Dumont (1837-1906) arrived with a delegation of Métis, anglophone country borns, and Canadian settlers. They persuaded Riel to return to Canada (that is, to the Northwest), and initiate a new round of negotiations with Ottawa. Riel agreed, with conditions. It would dawn on Dumont and the rest of the delegation only later that Riel was not the man he had been in 1870.

From Protest to Rising

At the start, Riel demonstrated good organizational skills and made use of key personnel. He set about building a coalition of disaffected peoples on the Prairies. Under Riel’s leadership and by the hand of Canadian settler William Henry Jackson, the communities of the area around Prince Albert produced a petition calling for: relief to the Aboriginal peoples, land disbursements to the Métis, easier access to additional lands for homesteaders, free elections, and the establishment of new provinces with rights at least as great as those of Manitoba. Riel and his allies would dress this up in the language of “loyal British subjects” so as to douse the idea that this was a document produced by people who rejected Ottawa’s rule.Jennifer Reid, Louis Riel and the Creation of Modern Canada: Mythic Discourse and the Postcolonial State (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), 18.

In March 1885, after three months and with no reply from Ottawa, the coalition took its next step. As was the case 15 years earlier at Red River, they established a Provisional Government. Within a week Dumont’s troops engaged a body of 53 NWMP, along with more than 40 volunteers in the Prince Albert militia, on a snowy road between Fort Walsh and Duck Lake. The skirmish lasted barely 30 minutes and the NWMP/Volunteer casualties were severe: a dozen dead and another eleven injured. The Métis lost five, including Dumont’s brother, Isadore, and the Cree leader Assiwiyin. The small battle set off a panic among the NWMP, who withdrew from the Saskatchewan River Valley in haste. Even if their strategy was badly underdeveloped, at this stage the Métis had established a considerable advantage over Canada. Duck Lake was enough to instigate a Canadian military response but it was soon eclipsed by events at Battleford and Frog Lake.

Aboriginal unrest finally spilled over. A farming instructor was murdered on the Mosquito Reserve and the northern Cree leader, Pitikwahanapiwiyin (aka: Poundmaker, 1842-1885), marched his followers and some Nakoda (aka: Stoney) Sioux into Battleford on 30 March. The town was abandoned by alarmed settlers and the Indian Agent was unwilling or unable to offer the Cree-Nakoda protest group any food or resources. Looting of empty homes followed. At Frog Lake on 2 April, Mistahimaskwa’s Cree broke with their moderate leader and attacked and killed nine settlers, including the Indian Agent. Two weeks later Fort Pitt was captured, although this time without bloodshed.

The Halifax Provisional Battalion fords a stream near Swift Current, part of the "Canadian" expedition into the North West in 1885. (Library and Archives Canada)

Figure 2.12 The Halifax Provisional Battalion fords a stream near Swift Current, part of the “Canadian” expedition into the Northwest in 1885.

The tide was about to turn violently against the Métis and Aboriginal forces. Only one day after the battle of Duck Lake, news of the incident reached Ottawa via the new telegraph technology that paralleled the Canadian Pacific Railway line. This was one feature of a technological revolution that had taken place on the Plains since the Red River resistance. Macdonald had barely to request volunteers for militia duty: local newspapers across Canada, from Fort William to Sydney, were calling for and sponsoring local regiments. The troops who showed up to head west were proof of how a “Canadian” sentiment was growing across the former separate (and sometimes rival) colonies; they were also proof of a badly underdeveloped Canadian military. Each regiment wore colours associated in some way with their home communities rather than with a national regiment, let alone an army. Two weeks after call-up, about 8,000 soldiers (almost all of them inexperienced) were boarding trains and speeding west. The ability to do so had not been there in 1870; Riel’s failure to cut the rail line or telegraph line suggests that he did not appreciate the extent to which the world had changed since Red River.

Major-General Frederick Middleton and Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter led a two-pronged attack on the Cree-Nakoda forces and the Métis Provisional Government headquarters at Batoche. Over three days, from the 9th through the 12th of May, Middleton’s Winnipeg Militia pounded away at the Métis position. Vastly outgunned, the Métis nevertheless held out until their ammunition was exhausted. In a battle that was reminiscent of the Métis-Sioux clash at Grand Couteau in 1851 and foreshadows the Belgian theatre of war in 1916-17, the Métis sharpshooters picked off their enemies from a series of trenches dug in preparation for the assault. As the Métis resistance failed, many of their troops and leaders fled. Three days after the battle, Riel surrendered to Middleton. He would be tried, convicted, and hanged in Regina.

The Cree vs. Canada

The resistance to Canadian ambitions in the West was not over. Otter’s troops performed less well against the Cree: at Cut Knife Hill and Eagle Hills, and at Frenchman’s Butte and Loon Lake, the Cree scored significant victories. However, the Canadians were wearing them down. The leadership status of Pitikwahanapiwiyin and Mistahimaskwa was compromised when they surrendered on 26 May and 2 July respectively.

In the 1885 trials that followed in Battleford, the outcomes for the Aboriginal leadership were particularly bad. Eight men among them Kapapamahchakwew (aka: Wandering Spirit), and the two Nakoda leaders, Itka and Man Without Blood – were tried in October and condemned to hang. Some traditional Plains cultures believe that the soul is located in the neck and so the idea of hanging was especially horrific. One of the condemned men unsuccessfully requested death by firing squad instead. A gallows large enough to hang eight men at once was built and the mass execution took place on 27 November. The fate of Pitikwahanapiwiyin and Mistahimaskwa (considered in Section 2.8) was only slightly better.

In the aftermath of the executions, many Cree and Nakoda fled to the United States. While the story of Sitting Bull and the Dakota Sioux’s flight into Canada is relatively well known, the fact that a couple of hundred Aboriginal people from the Canadian Plains thought themselves safer south of the Medicine Line is not.Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser, Loyal till Death: Indians and the North-West Rebellion (Calgary: Fifth House Publishers, 1997), 222-5.

Key Points

  • Canadian disregard for the Métis, country-born, and Aboriginal peoples in the West led to diplomatic and then armed conflict in 1885.
  • Louis Riel was recruited by a delegation from Saskatchewan to lead a second protest against Ottawa.
  • In March 1885 violence erupted involving several different and not unified groups.
  • The Canadians now had the ability to transmit information via telegraphs and to expeditiously move troops to the West, and were thus able to suppress the rebellions.
  • The leadership of the Cree and Nakoda Sioux were punished severely for their role in these events, effectively crushing the likelihood of further Aboriginal resistance in the region.


Figure 2.9
The press room in The Manitoban printing office after the riot during the election (Online MIKAN no.3192361) by James Penrose / Library and Archives Canada / PA-165779 is in the public domain.

Figure 2.10
Louis Riel, by Chester Brown by Random McRandomhead is used under a CC-BY-2.0 license.

Figure 2.11
The science of cheek by John Wilson is in the public domain.

Figure 2.12
Men of the Halifax Provisional Battalion crossing a stream (Online MIKAN no.3194522) by Library and Archives Canada / C-005826 is in the public domain.


2.8 Making Sense of 1885

According to one view, there were fewer than 400 insurgents directly involved in the Rebellion.Jennifer Reid, Louis Riel and the Creation of Modern Canada: Mythic Discourse and the Postcolonial State (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), 1. By any account, that makes it a very small civil war indeed. The impact of the events of 1885, however, was widespread and long lasting.

The rising gave Canada an excuse to imprison, punish, and more forcefully dominate members of the Aboriginal community on the Plains. Mistahimaskwa, who had lost credibility as a Cree leader, repeatedly attempted during the protest to rein in the frustrated and angry members of his community (including his own son), counselling peace and negotiation with the Canadians. He mostly failed in those efforts, although at Fort Pitt he was responsible for the safe passage of the Canadian population and the NWMP detachment. What’s more, as a leader, he stepped forward at the end of the unrest and surrendered himself to the Canadian authorities. He was charged with treason and felony, found guilty, but spared the noose. He received a three-year jail sentence which, for a 60 year old, was severe in its own right. Broken by the whole experience, he died shortly after his release two and a half years later.Rudy Wiebe, “Mistahimaskwa,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11 (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003), accessed 19 May 2015, A similar fate befell Pitikwahanapiwiyin (aka: Poundmaker), who served one of three years at Manitoba’s Stony Mountain Penitentiary before being released due to failing health. He died four months later. These events effectively decapitated Aboriginal leadership and resistance for a generation.

Pitikwahanapiwiyin (ca.1842-1886) in the year before his death. (O.B. Buell/Library and Archives Canada/C-001875)

Figure 2.13 Pitikwahanapiwiyin (ca.1842-1886) in the year before his death.

Assessing Riel

Notwithstanding his tactical and political errors in 1885, Riel served as a lightning rod for the Métis and their settler neighbours as well. As was the case at Red River, he proved effective at building collaborative and respectful partnerships among the aggrieved. At his trial, however, much hinged on the issue of Riel’s sanity.

Two experts (such as they were) declared that Riel was suffering from a personality disorder that took at least two different forms. The court was not convinced. For the Orange Lodge, still baying for blood after the execution of Thomas Scott in 1870, a successful insanity plea would cheat them of their revenge. For the Métis, it would look as though they had allowed themselves to be misdirected by a lunatic. As far as the government was concerned, a successful insanity plea would spare them the inevitable schism between Ontario and Quebec. Riel’s lawyers, too, had only one endgame in mind: keep their client off the gallows. It was to this end that Riel responded when he said, “while the Crown, with the great talents they have at its service, are trying to show that I am guilty of course it is their duty my counselors are trying my good friends and lawyers who have been sent here by friends I respect, are trying to show that I am insane.”Quoted in Douglas Linder, "The Trial of Louis Riel," (University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), School of Law, 2004), accessed 15 May 2015, Riel would have none of it. If he was declared insane, Riel argued, the reasonable demands of the Métis would be dismissed as well. The insanity plea collapsed.

The court found Riel guilty of treason (though many believed he was being tried for the murder of Scott) and, despite a recommendation of mercy from the all Anglo-Protestant jury, the judge assigned the death penalty. Protest in Quebec rose up immediately after sentencing, putting Macdonald in the position of having to consider a second amnesty. In what soon became a famous affront to French Canadians, Macdonald declared himself resigned to the court’s decision and to Riel’s doom, “though every dog in Quebec bark in his favor.”Alan D. McMillan, Native Peoples and Cultures of Canada (Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1988), 285. Riel was hanged in Regina on 16 November 1885.

Surrounded by what looks like a regiment of Prussian pikemen, Riel faces his end on the gallows ("le gibet"). (Source: Project Gutenberg)

Figure 2.14 Surrounded by NWMP (drawn to look like a regiment of Prussian troops), Riel faces his end on the gallows (le gibet).

It is safe to say that no figure in Canadian history has so divided Canadians and Canadian historians as Louis Riel. The Métis leader has been portrayed variously as a martyr, a murderer, a madman, and a messiah. The circumstances of his trial and execution divided French from English Canada, as the former embraced him as a representative of francophone and Catholic traditions. Insofar as the hardline Protestants of English Canada were concerned, yes, Riel’s Catholicism was a significant issue. Those Ontarians leading the charge into the West certainly had no appetite for a dualist society collaboratively built by French and English hands together. The Anglo-Protestants were inclined to unravel agreements that promised to respect cultural diversity. One result of the inhospitable climate created  by Anglo-Manitobans and by the execution of Riel was a lack of migration from Quebec into the West.

Catholic Quebec’s relationship with Riel was not, however, nearly as straightforward. The Riel who re-emerged from exile in Montana was a changed man. He has been described by one of his many biographers as part of a larger global trend of nativist millenarians who represented Indigenous peoples under imperialism. The 1885 rising coincides, roughly, with the Ghost Dance movement in the the West and the Mahdi of the Sudan, both of which envisioned a world swept clean of the outsiders and newcomers.Thomas Flanagan, Louis ‘David’ Riel: ‘Prophet of the New World’, revised edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 197-8. In the case of Riel, his vision of cultural resurrection and a promised land for the Métis combined ultramontanist Catholicism with elements of numerology, as well as Mormon-style polygamy and a Saturday Sabbath. Some of these features of Riel’s belief system raised eyebrows among the Catholic clergy, and the most critical of them were prepared to have Riel excommunicated. For this constituency, he was not a hero although his eleventh-hour reconciliation with the Church helped matters significantly.

Riel as a prisoner in the camp of Major-General Middleton. (Photo by James Peters / Library and Archives Canada / e011156619_s3 ; C-003450)

Figure 2.15 Riel as a prisoner in the camp of Major-General Middleton.

For the Métis, of course, Riel’s failure of leadership and his apparent retreat into spiritualism raised mixed feelings. His record stands in sharp contrast with representations of Gabriel Dumont as a more hard-nosed and effective general. Riel was meant to be a galvanizing figure but, even among the Métis, he was frequently polarizing. Nevertheless, his execution brought home to the Métis their relative powerlessness in the face of Canadian imperialism in the West.

Anglo-Celtic Protestant Westerners celebrated the failure of the uprising and Riel’s execution for a generation or two. There was, however, a persistent undercurrent of concern that conditions that led to the rising were caused or manipulated by Ottawa. By the mid-20th century, anti-Ottawa feeling in Western Canada resulted in an ideological and symbolic resurrection of Riel. He was increasingly celebrated as a kind of founding father of Manitoba, among other things. Monuments appeared across the three Prairie provinces beginning in the late 1960s, and provincial premiers (even Conservatives) invoked the memory of Riel as a powerful symbol for Western alienation as when they engaged Ottawa in debates over resource revenues and constitutional issues. The radical left also embraced Riel in the 1960s and 1970s. His criticisms of Canadian capitalists and his resistance against the armed might of the state resonated in an era of anti-Vietnam War protests. Among the many streets and centres named for Riel in these years was a dormitory at politically stormy Simon Fraser University: Louis Riel House. Decoding the meaning of Riel requires that we engage with intent and see beyond the outcome. Perhaps the last word on this subject belongs to J.R. Miller, a distinguished historian at the University of Saskatchewan. He observed “It is a painful but real fact of life that the only thing that justifies rebellion is success. The successful revolutionary is a statesman, the unsuccessful a criminal.”J.R. Miller, Skyscrapers Hide the Heaven: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, rev. ed. 1991), 186.

Aboriginal people, for their part, have spent more than a century distancing themselves from Riel, claiming that they had their own very specific agendas (which they did), that they were not followers caught in the slipstream of the Métis nor of their charismatic leader (which they were not), and that no one else paid more dearly for the consequences of Riel’s “guilt.”

Key Points

  • Riel’s trial and execution divided opinion in Canada and acted as a wedge between English and French in Ontario and Quebec.
  • Riel’s legacy is a complex one in that he was vilified in the English-speaking provinces, lionized in French-Catholic Quebec, regarded with some suspicion by the Catholic establishment, treated with ambivalence by the Métis and First Nations, and subsequently held out as a symbol of Western and popular resistance in the late 20th century.


Figure 2.13
Poundmaker, also known as The Drummer, (ca. 1842-1886), a Cree chief, later adopted by Crowfoot of the Blackfoot Nation (Online MIKAN no.3241485) by O.B. Buell / Library and Archives Canada / C-001875 is in the public domain.

Figure 2.14
Hanging of Louis Riel from Historylcchs is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Figure 2.15
Louis Riel, prisonnier, au camp du major-général F.D. Middleton (Online MIKAN no.3623590) by James Peters / Library and Archives Canada / e011156619_s3 ; C-003450 is in the public domain.


2.9 The Railway

Completing the Intercolonial Railway between the original four provinces was a condition of Confederation. That task could be accomplished without too much difficulty. After all, the colonies had laid some 3,200 km of track by 1865. Finding a company with the wherewithal to build a railway from Montreal to the Pacific was a whole different order of magnitude. The Grand Trunk Railway was the obvious candidate but its directors balked at the prospect of an all-Canadian route. The newly-established Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was a contender in 1873, but that plan ran off the proverbial rails when it was discovered that Macdonald’s Conservative Party had received significant funds from the CPR. The Pacific Scandal cost Macdonald his administration, brought the Mackenzie Liberals into office, and a substitute railway company could not be found. The Mackenzie administration was not without accomplishments in this regard: in one term of office it oversaw the construction of several north-south lines that would assist Canadian exports. Returned in 1878, and faced with an almost apoplectic British Columbian body politic that was calling for “The terms [of union], the whole terms, and nothing but the terms,” Macdonald resumed the search for a contractor. Again, the CPR stepped forward and the project, started in 1880, was completed in a remarkable six years. Built with heavy government subsidies and other incentives provided to the CPR Company, it represented a genuine engineering achievement. It was also a massive corporate accomplishment.

The CPR as Land Baron

The legal mechanism that made possible the distribution of western lands was the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, aspects of which were highly problematic. For one, it disregarded Aboriginal title in violation of treaty agreements. Aboriginal peoples continue to protest this situation. The Act had implications, too, for the provinces of the West. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec (and, a little later, PEI) all had exclusive control over their natural resources (with a few exceptions like fisheries), but land and other natural resources across the whole of the Prairie West and the Peace District in northeastern British Columbia were Ottawa’s to control, tax, and dispense. Establishing settlers increased traffic on the railway. This increased the movement of supplies and farm equipment from east to west, it stimulated steel production in the original provinces, and as capital and sweat were invested in farms, it created a market for land and further revenues for the state. Ottawa became wealthy on western lands while western territories and provinces did not. Finally, the parceling out of western lands in sections determined a human geography on the plains that was brutally rigid. Roads were driven at one- or two-mile intervals that corresponded with the grid of sections. The effect was to separate neighbours by miles of landscape and to leave settlers’ access to fresh water and woodlots up to chance. Community and sustainability, however, were not concerns of the CPR or the Lands Act.

One way of speeding along the process of commodification of land involved the CPR very directly. A mammoth swath of territory on either side of the railway right-of-way 25 million acres (roughly 10 million hectares) was granted to the CPR as an incentive. Inevitably, this was considered some of the most desirable land on the Prairies because proximity to a railway station was critically important to the financial viability of a wheat farm in the days before gasoline-powered trucks. The CPR quickly became an integrated corporation, consisting of passenger/freight transportation, communications, and land sales (at $2.50 an acre) combined with a recruitment and marketing arm that aimed to lure Canadians and immigrants into the West. The CPR even purchased a fleet of vessels to ship settlers across the Atlantic, and built another to extend its reach across the Pacific to Asia.

The gallows in Regina were barely cleared off following the events of 1885 when the CPR moved into an entirely unforeseen enterprise: the hotel and tourism business. After he became president of the railway in 1888, William Cornelius Van Horne (1843-1915) sought to capitalize on the growing market for travel by promoting the exploration of the Victorian version of the wilderness in comfort, in a specially designed sleeping car. “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists,” he is reported to have announced.E.J. Hart, “See this World Before the Next: Tourism and the CPR,” The CPR West: The Iron Road and the Making of a Nation, ed. Hugh A. Dempsey (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1984): 151. The company erected imposing structures like Glacier House near Rogers Pass, Mount Stephen House at Field (both opening in 1886), Fraser Canyon House at North Bend (1887), and the Banff Springs Hotel (1888), even before turning its attention to the monumental hot springs hotel at Banff. Some of these were modeled on hunting lodges, some on European chateaus, and all of them were an expression of the CPR’s role as an extension of North Atlantic civilization’s values, economy, and systems.

As a land vendor, the CPR needed buyers and it looked overseas to find them. Notice how the branding developed by the CPR reduces 'Canada' to something inconsequential: the Railway and Manitoba are the message.

Figure 2.16 As a land vendor, the CPR needed buyers and it looked overseas to find them. Notice how the branding developed by the CPR reduces Canada to something inconsequential: the Railway and Manitoba are the message.

Routes to the Pacific

The CPR’s route across the West, from Ontario to the Pacific Coast, is one of the sharpest points in the history of the early Dominion. As the initial infrastructural, administrative, and economic extension of Canada, it had (and continues to have) a powerful influence on many aspects of life.

The most critical decision in routing was made at the very outset. Chicago had already emerged in the 1870s as the leading transportation hub in the interior of North America. It was possible to ship goods without interruption from western Ontario via Lakes Huron, Superior, and Michigan, directly to the Illinois port. What’s more, Chicago had established its primacy in railway transportation as well. One option open to the Canadians was, therefore, to build a route across southern Michigan to Chicago and then north to Manitoba. The cost would be a fraction of any all-Canadian route, but it exposed an important national link to unpredictable relations with the United States. Canada, after all, had been founded with the threat of American invasion in mind; if defending the West against American expansionism was one reason for (a) annexing Rupert’s Land in the first place, and (b) building infrastructure that would enable the quick movement of troops, then it made no sense to stake all of that on a railway that passed through American territory.

That meant shifting the route north across the Canadian Shield. The Shield contained some of the most difficult terrain that surveyors and engineers encountered, and that includes the Rocky Mountain passes. The Shield slowed down construction and ramped up costs exponentially. It also frightened off investors, particularly those in the United States.

Ottawa responded with lucrative incentives to the Canadian Pacific Railway Company of Montreal. The CPR, under the leadership of Sir Hugh Allen (1810-1882), replied with gifts of money to the Conservative Party in 1872. These donations totaling approximately $350,000 were exposed in April 1873 in what became known as the Pacific Scandal. John A. Macdonald’s government began to topple. By the autumn coinciding with the Panic of ’73 (a financial crisis that gripped the United States and was related directly to overbuilding of railways) Macdonald’s position was irretrievable. An election in January 1874 saw the Liberals, under Alexander Mackenzie, form a government for the first time. The economic situation was poor, however, as was Mackenzie’s timing.

The Liberals put their trust in the Department of Public Works and Sandford Fleming (1827-1915), a civil engineer (and the inventor of worldwide standard time) who surveyed and approved a route through the Yellowhead Pass in 1872. The northern route would head off from Winnipeg to the Saskatchewan River Valley, and thence to Fort Edmonton and the north-central Rockies. Beyond there, the most promising option seemed to be through the Cariboo to Bute Inlet, across Seymour Narrows (at what is now Campbell River), and south to Esquimalt.

The northern route presented several advantages, the first of which was the agricultural potential of the territory through which it passed. The Saskatchewan River Valley and the parklands of the central Prairies contain good water and soil resources, and they are well-treed an asset from a log-house building perspective and with regard to fuel. This was a sharp contrast with the more arid lands of Assiniboia, which included Palliser’s Triangle, an area of poorer, brown soils that stretches, roughly speaking, along the 49th parallel from what is now mid-Saskatchewan to Lethbridge in the west and Drumheller in the north. Crossing the Rockies was going to present a challenge whichever direction was chosen, but from a farm economy perspective the northwestern route seemed the logical choice. Certainly the earliest settlers thought so. Métis who were displaced in Manitoba headed into the region, while country born and Canadian migrants formed nodes of their own, drawn by early promises of railway connection with the CPR. These small but well-established settlements were, however, an obstacle when it came to finding sufficiently lucrative land for the CPR’s grant.

The company opted in 1881 for the southern route instead, heading more or less straight across the Prairies from Winnipeg to Banff and the Kicking Horse Pass. As historian of Saskatchewan, Bill Waiser, notes:

This decision, one of the most controversial in western Canadian history, completely changed the axis of development in the region by focusing attention on the southern prairies the North-West effectively became the west. In the process, the future province of Saskatchewan became associated in Canadian minds with the flat, treeless prairie.”Bill Waiser, Saskatchewan: A New History (Calgary: Fifth House, 2005), 27.

As well, the southern route meant that the most intensively farmed lands were located in an arid belt that would generate environmental and economic tragedy in the 20th century (see Section 8.5).

The southern route had repercussions in British Columbia as well. The Bute Inlet to Victoria route was swept away by Macdonald when the Conservatives returned to power. Instead, the CPR terminus would be located in Port Moody, a milltown at the head of Burrard Inlet. As a kind of consolation, and in recognition of the commitment made in 1871 regarding a railway to Victoria, the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway (the E&N) was built by coal magnate Robert Dunsmuir to connect his mining operations at mid-island with the capital. Each of these changes improved the CPR’s position as a real estate company. Each of these changes embittered local farmers, investors, speculators, Indigenous peoples, and the Métis, who saw the CPR seize the most profitable land and determine where the biggest cities were going to go all while abandoning whole communities.

Fire trap. hot weather, woodframe buildings, and an obvious abundance of tinder spelled disaster for Gastown/Granville/Vancouver in 1886. (City of Vancouver Archives, Str P8)

Figure 2.17 Fire trap. Hot weather, woodframe buildings, and an obvious abundance of tinder spelled disaster for Gastown/Granville/Vancouver in 1886.

Gastown to Granville

Nowhere was the city-building ambitions of the CPR clearer than along Burrard Inlet. On both the north and south shore of the fjord there had been logging operations in play since the 1850s. The largest and oldest of these, Moodyville (named for Sewell Moody, an American entrepreneur), was located on the north shore and was a poor candidate for a rail terminus from the east. At the head of the inlet was Port Moody (named for Colonel Richard Clement Moody, a Royal Engineer and Lieutenant-Governor of BC), which enjoyed good access to the mostly level Fraser Valley. This made Port Moody a prime choice for the CPR. The challenge facing the company was that speculators had reached Burrard Inlet first, buying up much of Port Moody in the hope of being bought out by the CPR at a handsome profit. Actual railway construction heading east began here and the town was, officially, the terminus until the line was finally completed. Shortly thereafter, in 1886, a devastating fire destroyed a third of Hastings Mill and its commercial area (known officially as Granville and unofficially as Gastown). The largely flat landscape was almost completely denuded of trees and stumps (as well as almost all of its building stock). The CPR announced a change of plans and extended the line from Port Moody another 24 km west, to a vast new land grant in the newly incorporated city of Vancouver. The recently-logged West Side of Vancouver was entirely within the company’s grant, while the shattered and recovering parts of Granville now constituted the East End. The move bifurcated the community, an event that is manifest to this day in wealth on the West Side, poverty on the East, and street misalignments in the middle.

Describing the many ways in which the CPR and its later competitors changed the landscape, demographics, resource exploitation, economy, and townsites still merely scrapes the surface. Behind the CPR was not only a political network but also a dense web of interlocked commercial and financial boards. Directors of the CPR also sat on the boards of the Royal Bank, Dominion Bridge, Dominion Iron and Steel, and international oil companies (see Section 8.3). Donald Smith (later styled “Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal”) was not only president of the Bank of Montreal but an influential Conservative Member of Parliament for Montreal. The intersection of Hastings and Granville Streets in Vancouver provide a physical manifestation of the extent of this influence. On one corner, there was the Bank of Montreal, opposite it the Bank of Commerce, across Granville there were the offices of the federal government, and just down the hill facing the water was (and is) the CPR station itself.

Key Points

  • The Canadian Pacific Railway was both a unifying and divisive instrument of Canadian expansion.
  • The decision to change to a southern route created hardships in the north-central plains.
  • The CPR operated as a railway and construction company, as well as a land dealer and hotel operator. It was, as well, closely linked to the Bank of Montreal and so was integrated with many other corporations.
  • The choice of routes had significant impacts on the West Coast, where Vancouver was eventually selected as the site for the terminus, leaving both Port Moody and Victoria disappointed.


Figure 2.16
Land ticket by Will Jahns is in the public domain.

Figure 2.17
Str P8 – [Water Street looking east] (Reference Code: AM54-S4-: Str P8) by City of Vancouver Archives is in the public domain.


2.10 The North

At the heart of imperial expansion is the need to redraw maps, to impose new patterns of communication, and to reconfigure economic orders to fit the new paradigm. Canada through more than two centuries of French and then British colonial effort was not a truly northern entity. It was an inland colony that extended down the throat of the St. Lawrence River and into the gut of the continent along the Great Lakes. It related to the rest of North America through river systems that flowed into the Great Lakes and the Laurentian system. It extended no further north, in political terms, than the Canadian Shield and the height of land. Leaping over that barrier into the Rupert’s Land watershed was a significant task, part of which it accomplished through the North West Company’s trade network in the West before 1821. However, from 1821 (and including the merger of the NWC with the London-based HBC), Canadian influence in the West was modest. The annexing of Rupert’s Land in 1869-70 flagged a movement beyond the old colonial boundaries, but these efforts primarily concentrated on Manitoba and what would become the Prairie provinces. The expansion into the North held out less drama but it was no less portentous.

The North in the Late 19th Century

At the time of Confederation, the North probably contained significantly fewer human beings than it had two (or even just one) hundred years earlier. The boreal forest regions held large populations of larger mammals deer, moose, and woodland caribou, for example on which a human population could survive, but the fur trade with Europeans and Canadians reduced mammal numbers to very low levels in the parkland or prairie regions. Fishing remained a reliable economic activity for subsistence communities, but the wherewithal for trade with Euro-Canadian companies was not as great as it once was.

Much of the northern human population west of Hudson Bay fell into two linguistic/cultural groups. Across the middle of the region and into the north and far west (the Yukon), Athapaskan-speakers dominated. The Dunne-za (aka: Beaver), Chipewyan, and Dene (aka: Slavey) held much of the southern part of this zone, while the Tłı̨chǫ (aka: Tlicho, Dogrib) dominated in the north and west of the Mackenzie River. To the east and hugging the North Saskatchewan River were the Cree, along with the relative newcomers, the Métis. European numbers were small, made up of traders, missionaries, and a handful of others.Donald Wetherell and Irene R.A. Kmet, Alberta’s North: A History, 1890-1950 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2000), 4-5.

To the south and east of Hudson Bay (still very much to the north of Old Canada) were Cree and Innu (aka: Montagnais) communities which had experienced extensive contact with the French and later the British through the fur trades emanating from Montreal and Quebec on the one hand, and HBC forts like Moose Factory on the other.

Still further north, along the Arctic and around both lips of the mouth of Hudson Bay were large Inuit populations. Limited contact with Europeans, down to the late 19th century, had insulated the Inuit from some of the worst effects of exotic diseases. And while metal imports had found their way into the Inuit toolbox, life as a whole had not (as yet) been overhauled.

Infrastructural Change

The story of the Prairie people’s armed resistance in 1885 invariably points to the significance of the CPR in delivering the telling blow of Canadian military power. What is often overlooked is the role played by steamboats on the Saskatchewan River. Although northern rivers iced up annually, they were the principal highways of the region in the spring and summer months and beyond. The potential of steamboat and paddlewheeler technology on these corridors was never fully tested. The rapid expansion of rail systems saw to that. River shipping nevertheless marks an important transition from the old York Express corridor of river and lake transportation, which oriented northern trade across the middle of what is now Western Canada to Hudson Bay and then to Europe, to one that was more southern-looking.

Sandbars and freeze-ups were obstacles to river traffic across the northern plains, but steamer traffic persisted. The Pas in 1929. (Canada. Dept. of Mines and Technical Surveys / Library and Archives Canada / PA-014005)

Figure 2.18 Sandbars and freeze-ups were obstacles to river traffic across the northern plains, but steamers persisted for years. The Pas in 1929.

Perhaps this transition is most evident in Manitoba. In the years before Confederation, the Red River settlement was the metropolis of a trading network that extended from what is now North Dakota to York Factory on Hudson Bay. The chains of rivers and lakes oriented trade from the warmer semi-agricultural highlands of the Selkirk settlement to the entrepôt and gateway to Europe in the north. After 1912 and north of the 49th parallel, all of this was contained within the provincial boundaries of Manitoba. The arrival of Canada in 1870 meant that Winnipeg would shift its view from the north to the southeast. Instead of prairie wheat finding an outlet in the Arctic, it was pulled to Canada. Instead of Churchill emerging as a major centre of transshipment, Thunder Bay (aka: Port Arthur and Fort William) did so instead.In the 1870s and ‘80s there was a ferocious political and physical battle between Manitobans and Ontarians regarding the boundary between the two provinces. The epicentre of the dispute was the town of Rat Portage (aka: Kenora), where both provinces established a jail and a courthouse and sent in their own officials (who then fell to fighting one another). What was at stake was the gold and other mineral reserves of the region. Needless to say, Manitoba lost this battle and thus any hope of direct access to the Great Lakes.

A similar pattern had emerged, before 1900, in what was then the District of Athabaska (called Northern Alberta since 1905). In the 1880s, steam-powered shipping was introduced to Athabasca River and Lake with the effect of shifting trade and population into that corridor. Stretching as far north as Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River, this network ensured the emergence of Edmonton as the key economic node in the northwestern prairies. This region, too, was being incorporated into an economic system based in the Laurentian heartland of Canada.

Cultural Changes

The events of 1885 resulted in a substantial re-migration of Métis into the northern-Northwest. Progressively displaced in many instances systematically so by the incoming Canadian populations, the Métis found their economic niche was beginning to disappear. The bison hunt was at an end, provisioning forts was no longer a sustainable business for more than a few, and the freighting industry that had made such good use of the Red River cart and the Métis’ ox teams was evaporating. The new steam-age transportation technology first cut them out of the southern plains and then, with extensions to the northern plains by branch lines even before 1900, the Métis were driven north of Edmonton and Saskatoon into the boreal forests. This movement, of course, had consequences for the Athapaskan-speakers of the central-north, whose resource base was now doubly strained. At Fort Chipewyan, for example, the Métis and the Chipewyan generally did not mix (nor did the French-speaking and Catholic Métis have much to do with the English-speaking and Anglican merchant class which was, to make matters more complex, a socio-economic barrier as well).Ibid., 6-7. Elsewhere in the Northwest there were many instances where the Métis married and/or assimilated into Aboriginal societies and re-configured their self-identity as Dene or Dunne-za.

The presence of missionaries from the mid-19th century across much of the sub-Arctic suggests cultural change was underway. Certainly cultural or at least spiritual assimilation was the missionaries’ goal in these years, not service to communities or some kind of administrative interface. If they were educators, they were educators within a Euro-Canadian Christian tradition. In this respect, at least, the role of missionaries had not changed much since the days of the Jesuits in Wendake (aka: Huronia) in the 17th century. Scholars like Kerry Abel have questioned the extent to which the missionary message in the North was persuasive. Certainly there were different levels of exposure to the Christian doctrine, and Aboriginal bands that gathered in trading post communities were more at risk of proselytization than the more remote and nomadic peoples. And there was, to be sure, initial curiosity and even enthusiasm for the missionary message. By 1900, however, that early interest had diminished and Christianity was either peripheral or hybridized into a syncretic belief system among Aboriginal converts.

As the representatives of Euro-Canadian society in these communities, the missionaries had a special role to play. They monitored social and economic change and reported to Central Canada as conditions shifted. It has been suggested that there is a fairly consistent trend in Canadian history that sees the arrival of traders followed by missionaries, and then military or police power of some kind: commerce, Christ, and cops. This pattern is certainly evident across the North as the missionaries increasingly called upon the state to provide NWMP/RCMP backup from the 1890s-1930s.

Chipewyan people at Churchill, along with the ruins of the old fort battery, August 1926. (Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada / Library and Archives Canada, Accession 1974-366)

Figure 2.19 Chipewyan people at Churchill, along with the ruins of the old fort battery, August 1926.

Economic and Demographic Change

The fur trade, however, sustained and built an economic bond between the Inuit and Euro-Canadians. As was the case in other fur trade frontiers in North America, pressure to hunt commercial species meant that Inuit attention was drawn away from subsistence hunting. Dependency grew as a result. When demand for luxury products like furs collapsed in the 1930s, many of the Inuit fur-hunting communities were pitched into poverty and hardship.

The 1920s had witnessed a boom in the fur-trade tied to the brief flicker of an international luxury market aimed at the growing middle class in Europe and the Americas. This was good news for Native trappers and traders who were being paid much higher prices for more kinds of animals than was the case even 20 years before. In part this was driven by the arrival in 1901 of the Parisian Revillon Frères fur trading company. Prices went up as Revillon went toe-to-toe with the local HBC traders. This situation, of course, invited growing competition from non-Native trappers and hunters, some of them long-residents in the region by now. The Innu of Labrador, for example, found themselves pushed further and further inland in the 1920s, trying to eke out an existence now based almost entirely on the trade in furs. The possibility of fishing and hunting for food was, by this point, so reduced that they had no option but to adopt a European diet and factory-produced Euro-Canadian clothing made available through the trade in furs.Lynne D. Fitzhugh, The Labradorians: Voices from the Land of Cain (St. John’s: Breakwater, 1999), 375.

A supply runner, Komatik, arrives at a Revillon Fréres post on Wakeham Bay, QC, 1928.

Figure 2.20 A supply runner, Komatik, arrives at a Revillon Fréres post on Wakeham Bay, QC, 1928.

European, Canadian, and American intrusions into the North increased as the 19th century was drawing to a close. American whaling fleets began working the Beaufort Sea in the western Arctic and British whalers intensified their efforts in the eastern Arctic. Inuit people found economic opportunities with the fleets but they also found alcohol, sexually transmitted diseases, smallpox, and other exotic illnesses. The Beaufort ports were, according to one source, the scene of “unprecedented debauchery” and the Sadlermuit of Southampton Island were wiped out by smallpox.Donald Purich, The Inuit and Their Land: The Story of Nunavut (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1992), 30. The difficulty of disease transmission across great distances between relatively small numbers of hosts no doubt limited the impact of any one epidemic like smallpox or measles; the increase in foreign shipping along the coastline mitigated the advantages of isolation. The original Inuvialuit people of the Yukon shore of the Beaufort Sea were effectively extinct by 1920. Even the arrival of the RCMP in 1895 could do little to stabilize, let alone reverse this trend. Changes in women’s fashions (which effectively put an end to the whale-bone corset) and the shift from whale oil to mineral oil did, however, cool the heat of change in some parts of the Arctic.Olive Dickason, Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 3rd edition (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2002), 361-2.

The front on which the colonization of the indigenous economy was being fought in the Yukon shifted south in 1896. At that time gold was discovered at Bonanza Creek. Canadian responses included an increased RCMP presence, but tactics devised to prevent lawlessness were ill-suited to the protection of Aboriginal interests. As was the case in the Cariboo 40 years earlier, Aboriginal fishing sites were seized and river ecosystems compromised by foreign miners. The RCMP did address Aboriginal concerns regarding the newcomers’ use of poison on traplines, but they also elected to enforce the regulation of hunting among First Nations.

Being part of Canada meant many things in this context. It meant a shift from localized subsistence economies, which depended on a mobile population able to strike out in a timely way to pursue migratory herds, spawning fish, briefly available plants, and opportunities to trade with neighbours. In its place a new infrastructure of commerce and human intercourse arrived via steam-powered vessels. Its personnel included representatives of alien belief-systems (some of which were locked in competition), law enforcement officers whose laws were themselves exotic and seemingly arbitrary, and a commercial/administrative environment which increasingly encouraged permanent settlement in fixed communities. Ottawa formally took on responsibility for northern populations in 1924 when the Indian Act was amended to include the Inuit. The Inuit, however, were not viewed as “Indians” and so fell between the administrative cracks.Ibid., 36-7.

The Race to the Pole

The first three decades after Confederation were marked by an international fascination with the polar region. Scientific missions were the order of the day, although Canada did not engage in this particular stampede. The race to the North Pole was one aspect of this enterprise, one that set international teams against one another in highly publicized and popularized adventures. Charting the Northwest Passage was another feature of this phenomenon. All of this activity increased traffic in the region and increased the likelihood of Inuit exposure to disease vectors. In also facilitated the movement of Inuit people themselves, with Greenland Inuit reputedly appearing on both Ellesmere and Baffin Islands.Ibid., 32.

To substantiate Canadian claims to sovereignty in the region and to counter foreign incursions, Ottawa established several missions whose task it was to make an official claim on the northern islands and seas. American and European opposition to these claims obliged still further investment in expeditions and regular patrols. Every one of these efforts brought Canada more regularly into contact with the Indigenous peoples of the region. At the same time, Canada viewed the Inuit with a curious ambivalence. The Inuit were international they were to be found in American and Danish territories as well as Canadian and there were few opportunities to integrate them into the growing southern economy before the mid-20th century.

Key Points

  • At the time of Confederation the North was of limited interest to Canada.
  • The region’s population was diverse but vulnerable. Disease and economic dislocation were the main and ongoing threats.
  • The arrival of steam-powered shipping throughout the region increased integration into the continental and global economy, while exposing populations to new disease vectors.
  • Population movements accelerated, as did missionary efforts to effect cultural change.
  • The most dramatic short-term impact on the region arrived with the Yukon gold rush and the Beaufort Sea whaling industry. Increased activity in the fur trade in the 1920s also had significant consequences.
  • Canadian territorial and sovereignty issues increased in the early 20th century, resulting in a greater state presence.


Figure 2.18
Steamer Trip on Saskatchewan River, The Pas, Man. [Str. “David N. Winton]. July 1929 (Online MIKAN no.3393978) by Canada. Dept. of Mines and Technical Surveys / Library and Archives Canada / PA-014005 is in the public domain.

Figure 2.19
Chipewyan indian, and old Chipewyan woman, Churchill; Views of old battery, Churchill Harbour (Online MIKAN no.4848722) by Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada / Library and Archives Canada, Accession 1974-366 is in the public domain.

Figure 2.20
(Hudson Strait Expedition). Komatik with supplies at Revillon Fréres post (Online MIKAN no.3223225)
 by Library and Archives Canada / PA-055573 is in the public domain.


2.11 The Provincial Rights Movement

The last place one might expect to find dissent within the new federation is Ontario. After all, Ontarian politicians had done the lion’s share of crafting the federal constitution: they had successfully annexed the West, the capital was located in Ontario (which is to say, not in Montreal the largest city in the country and thus three provinces away from Nova Scotia), and the first two Prime Ministers (Macdonald and Mackenzie) were Ontarians. Of the first three Premiers of Ontario after 1867, two were Macdonald stalwarts and one Oliver Mowat (1820-1903) was himself a father of Confederation. Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, Ontario emerged as the leading force in favour of limiting federal strength and empowering the provinces.

The Genesis of Confederation

In order to understand how Canadian federalism adjusted in these years, it is necessary to understand what was at its heart. Five British North American colonies considered uniting in a federal form, two walked away from the table leaving Canada (one colony that would soon become two), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. All three signed on and then the largest underwent the constitutional equivalent of cellular fission, creating Ontario and Quebec. Keep in mind that neither Canada West (Ontario) nor Canada East (Quebec) had their own legislatures, let alone their own governments. What they did have was separate votes. Half of the Canadian assembly (the Anglo-Protestant half) then voted overwhelmingly for federation; the other half (the largely Franco-Catholic half) voted for it but with less enthusiasm. What they were implicitly voting for was the creation of the two central Canadian provinces. Ontarians were delighted to be freed of what they called the “millstone” of Canada East; popular opinion regarded the old Province of Canada as a parasitical relationship in which the down-river Canadians “fleeced” the majority who lived up-river.Robert C. Vipond, “Constitutional Policy an the Legacy of the Provincial Rights Movement in Canada,” Canadian Journal of Political Science, vol. 18, issue 2 (1985): 270. For Quebec, federation meant relief from the threat of interference with culture, language, and religion from the Orangemen of Ontario.

This is clearly complicated: two distinct colonies were united with two others that voted themselves into existence. Soon after, they were joined by another two volunteers (PEI and BC) and one that bargained its way into existence through a federal act of legislation (Manitoba). In other words, the provinces were not created equally. The question that arises here, then, is this: were the provinces signatories to a pact, or were they the product of a legislative act (that is, the BNA Act)?

What John A. Macdonald wanted at the outset was a legislative union and unitary state. The federal model was based in no small measure on the American system, in which the states were semi-autonomous bodies with an over-arching central government in Washington, DC. The unitary model to which Macdonald was drawn was, of course, that of the United Kingdom. His logic was, moreover, very sound. In the face of American aggression what was needed was a strong central state to defend the Dominion; in an uncertain economic world a single government would be more efficient and less expensive than a crop of provinces. Any hope of expanding across the Northwest would be better realized by one administration with a unified vision than a consortium seeking something like consensus.Ibid.: 271. One of Macdonald’s biographers maintains that the Conservative leader aimed for a genuine federal system, warts and all, which is what he got.Ged Martin, John A. Macdonald: Canada’s First Prime Minister (Toronto: Dundurn, 2013), 90-100. Nevertheless, there were times when one could argue that Macdonald’s behaviour as prime minister suggests that he was carrying on as though he were at the head of a unitary state.

The compromise in 1867 was a federal union with a strong central government. Each province was to have exclusive control over local affairs and Ottawa would deal with issues of national consequence. The remaining question, of course, was this: where to draw the line between the two?


The BNA Act includes a clause regarding “residual” or “residuary powers.” That is, it covers everything either not itemized or as yet not imagined in the constitutional division of authority. Sections 91 to 95 deal with the division of powers and they begin with this passage in Section 91:

It shall be lawful for the Queen, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate and House of Commons, to make Laws for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada, in relation to all Matters not coming within the Classes of Subjects by this Act assigned exclusively to the Legislatures of the Provinces….Section 91 of the British North America Act, 1867.

Everything not allocated to the provinces would be the jurisdiction of Ottawa. And “Peace, Order, and good Government” (referred to by scholars, politicians and commentators as POGG) could cover anything and everything. The division of powers, moreover, was not absolutely clear: there were overlaps and things were a bit messy with regard to immigration. In short, there remained questions as to which level of government had a superior claim in grey areas, and the extent of federal residual powers in general. None of this addressed the relative sovereignty of the provinces the consenting participants in the constitutional relationship. Who would decide and how would they do so?


To the leading figures in the Confederation debates and in the provincial legislatures after 1867, the answer was clear: Confederation was a product of the provinces. Some of their peers, such as Macdonald, could reply: if Ottawa is a level of government generated by the provinces, then surely it should have oversight? The BNA Act gave substance to this argument in the form of disallowance. This was an effective veto held by Ottawa that could be used to overturn provincial legislation. It was, however, not something to be used recklessly. Macdonald was very deliberate in his efforts to define the boundaries of disallowance.Vipond, “Constitutional Policy,” 275-6. Clearly anything that was outside of the constitutionally-defined powers of the provinces was fair game, but there was far more that remained unanticipated or ambiguous. From 1867-73, Macdonald’s approach was to ameliorate differences of opinion by liaising directly with provincial Premiers. Alexander Mackenzie’s position was similar. After 1878, upon Macdonald’s return, Ottawa was more willing to push back with the veto. Historians attribute this change in direction to a number of factors, including the establishment of several genuinely national institutions. The NWMP (1873) and the National Policy (1878) were two; there was also the Post Office Department (1867), the Supreme Court (1875), the national penitentiary system (effectively in place by 1875), and the emergence of a more stable and permanent national political party system that coalesced around the Conservatives and the Liberals.Jonathan Swainger, The Canadian Department of Justice and the Completion of Confederation, 1867-78 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000), 4-6. Commitment to building a national railway was, in this context, another string to Canada’s bow another facet of a growing national infrastructure. The Bank of Canada would not appear until 1935 and, until then, the Treasury commissioned the commercial Bank of Montreal to print currency an arrangement that gave the Treasury a presence of sorts on every Main Street. As Ottawa’s reach extended across provincial boundaries via these institutions and agencies, so too did its interests. The lines between provinces and Ottawa were increasingly blurred.

The mechanism for vetoing provincial legislation arose from an almost identical relationship between Ottawa and Westminster. If legislation proposed in the Canadian House of Commons passed third reading and was approved by the Senate, it was still within the authority of the governor general to refuse to sign it into law and to send it on to England for further discussion by the British Cabinet. In this way, Britain still the imperial centre could disallow or veto Canadian federal laws. It made some sense to mirror this relationship with the provinces: just as the governor general was an imperial appointment, the lieutenant-governor was Ottawa’s. If provincial legislation offended federal sensibilities, the province’s lieutenant-governor would refuse to sign it, and would send it on to Ottawa for consideration. The Cabinet would then decide how to proceed. One option was to simply neglect the proposed legislation for a year and allow it to die from administrative inertia.

From 1867-1873, Macdonald’s government exercised their ability to withhold assent on 16 of 24 occasions. Mackenzie’s Liberals also vetoed provincial legislation. Provinces had the option of reintroducing and passing the legislation repeatedly it became the convention that passing a bill three times at the provincial level would force Ottawa to approve it but that depended often on the durability of a provincial administration or on the existence of all-party support for the initiative at the provincial level. The provinces, however, maintained that the courts were the proper place to settle jurisdictional disputes, not the federal Cabinet (which, clearly, had a stake in the outcome). It was this avenue that the premiers collectively and individually opted to pursue.Peter Russell, Constitutional Odyssey: Can Canadians Become a Sovereign People?, 3rd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 37-9.

The premiers could reach consensus on this subject in part because, at the time, most of them were Liberals. The first 30 years of Confederation rewarded the Conservatives with office in Ottawa for all but five years – the Mackenzie administration of 1873-78. Liberal weakness at the federal level was countered with strength in the provinces (although not in British Columbia, where until 1903 politicians took pains to avoid Conservative or Liberal banners so as to be more free to criticize whatever regime was in power nationally). And, of course, they had all experienced the inconvenience (not to say insult) of having their legislation disallowed.

Appealing to the Supreme Court of Canada was something of a non-starter. The provinces therefore appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England. This was an effective way of entrenching in law though not in the constitution the notion of provincial rights. By the 1890s, the principle of co-equal levels of government had been established. Under Wilfrid Laurier (an advocate of provincial rights), after 1896, the issue ceased to carry the kind of divisive power it once had.

Key Points

  • The ways in which the colonies joined the federation varied, creating uncertainty as to the relative status of Ottawa and the provinces. The question repeatedly arose as to whether there was a senior level of government in Confederation.
  • The POGG clause indicates that residual powers belong to Ottawa but, because these could not be clearly defined, it provoked decades of disagreement.
  • Ottawa’s power of disallowance was challenged by the Provincial Rights movement, championed by Ontario’s Conservative government under Oliver Mowat.
  • Appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England gradually resolved the issue in favour of provincial rights.


2.12 The Judicial System of Post-Confederation Canada

Jonathan Swainger, Department of History, University of Northern British Columbia

Canada’s judicial system that is its system of federal, provincial, and territorial courts is a product of the nation’s colonial history, the ideas of those individuals responsible for the British North America Act, 1867, and subsequent alterations, additions, and refinements designed to meet the nation’s evolving needs. Owing to the division of powers established in 1867, both the federal and provincial governments occupy a direct role in shaping the nation’s court system. Section 92 (14) of the BNA Act established provincial responsibility for the “constitution, maintenance, and organization of provincial courts, both of civil and criminal jurisdiction, and including procedure in civil matters in those courts.”Canada, Constitution Act, 1867, s.92(14). Because of the desire to maintain control over the quality of judges and patronage opportunities for prestigious judicial positions on the nation’s most senior courts, Section 96 of the constitution provided the federal government with the authority to appoint judges to the provincial superior courts – that is the superior and appeal courts in each province or territory – that are descendants of colonial era courts and the English common law courts.On the culture of judicial patronage, see Jonathan Swainger, "Judicial Scandal and the Culture of Patronage in Early Confederation, 1867-78," in Jim Phillips, R. Roy McMurtry, and John T. Saywell, Essays in the History of Canadian Law – A Tribute to Peter N. Oliver (Toronto: Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, 2008): 222-56. As a consequence, in each province or territory, there exists a provincially-created court system in which the lower courts where the vast majority of the nation’s legal business occurs are administered by provincially appointed judges. In that same province the superior courts, which hear trials involving serious criminal offences, divorce petitions, civil suits involving amounts above a specified limit, and appeals from the province’s lower courts, are supervised by federally appointed judges.

For most of the nation’s first century, complaints about sitting judges were handled either through the provincial attorney generals’ offices or through the Department of Justice in Ottawa, depending on which governmental level had been responsible for the initial appointment.See Jonathan Swainger, "A Bench in Disarray: The Quebec Judiciary and the Federal Department of Justice, 1867-1878," Les Cahier de Droit, vol.34, no.1 (March 1993): 59-91. At the federal level, concerns about the effectiveness of such methods eventually led to the creation of the Canadian Judicial Council in 1971.On the Canadian Judicial Council, see Chaired by the chief justice of the Canadian Supreme Court, the Council is composed of the chief justices and associate chief justices of Canada’s superior courts, the senior judges of the territorial courts, and the chief justice of the Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada. In these assessments the Council relies upon its Ethical Principles for Judges as one measure of whether a judge has acted inappropriately. Historically, judges have been rarely removed from the bench. Nonetheless, the Council may forward a recommendation to the federal minister of justice who, in turn, requires approval from the House of Commons and Senate before a judge can be removed.See William Kaplan, Bad Judgment: The Case of Mr. Justice Leo A. Landreville  (Toronto: The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, 1996). At the provincial level, complaints are managed in various ways according to provincial statute but typically a provincial judicial council investigates allegations before forwarding a recommendation to the government of the day. While all federally appointed judges are eligible to hold their positions until the age of 75, some provincially or territorially appointed judges remain on the bench until age 70.

Considerably smaller than the provincial court system, the nation’s federal court system includes the Federal Court, the Federal Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court of Canada and a number of specialized courts dealing with tax issues and appeals from the nation’s military court system.See James G. Snell and Frederick Vaughn, The Supreme Court of Canada: History of the Institution (Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1985); Ian Bushnell, The Captive Court: A Study of the Supreme Court of Canada (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992); and Ian Bushnell, The Federal Court of Canada: A History, 1875-1992 (Toronto: The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, 1997). While the superior courts in the provinces have jurisdiction over most issues, only those concerns that are specified in legislation as being a federal matter can be heard in federal courts. Specifically, this includes disputes between the provinces and territories, disputes between the provinces or territories and the federal government, cases involving intellectual property, questions concerning citizenship, and cases in which a crown corporation or a federal department of state is involved.

At the time of Confederation and as a legacy of Canada’s colonial relationship with Great Britain, it was still possible to pursue a case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) in England.John T. Saywell, The Lawmakers: Judicial Power and the Shaping of Canadian Federalism (Toronto: The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, 2002) and Frederick Vaughn, Viscount Haldane: The Wicked Step-father of the Canadian Constitution (Toronto: The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, 2010). Although Canadian legislators attempted to end these appeals when the Supreme Court of Canada was created in 1875, it was not until the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931 and a series of judicial rulings in Canada and England, that the path was cleared for Canada’s Parliament to abolish these appeals in 1949. The final Canadian case to the JCPC was not resolved until 1960.

Key Points

  • The Canadian judicial system is an essential part of the structure of government, comprised of many parts.
  • Its main features are derived from the pre-Confederation colonial systems and reflect subsequent modifications arising from the original British North America Act, along with changes negotiated between the provinces and Ottawa.
  • Although provinces are not junior to Ottawa in the BNA Act, nor in the Canada Act, the provincial courts are junior to the federal courts.
  • The complex web of relations between the lower and higher provincial courts, the federal courts, and the federal government is a mechanism for resolving legal disputes and appeals, as well as differences between the various levels of government.


2.13 The Other Dominion

Newfoundland shifted from British sterling to the North American dollars and cents, which linked it more closely to West Indian currencies. Its economy, however, continued to rely heavily on cod.

Figure 2.21 Newfoundland shifted from British sterling. which  linked it more closely to West Indian currencies, to the North American dollars and cents. Its economy continued to rely heavily on the cod fishery.

The decision of Newfoundland to stay out of Confederation in the 1869 election was different in tone from PEI’s brief demur. The Islanders were preoccupied with land issues bound up in what was called the Escheat Movement and Canada offered little in the way of solutions. Four years later, PEI was heavily in debt from a calamitous railway-building exercise and only slightly closer to settling the tenant-landlord issue; Canada now came forward with a solution to both problems, and PEI’s disinterest was quickly reversed.

By contrast, Newfoundlanders rebuffed the Canadian project entirely. Canada’s political issues – the stalemate in Parliament, the need to expand westward for more farmland, language and religion, and fear of an American or Fenian invasion were not just uninteresting to Newfoundlanders, these issues appalled them. Canada was not a place you should run to, it was a place you should run from. The depth of Newfoundland feeling on this score was tested repeatedly: the colony had to face down the sort of debt that turned Islanders’ heads, international diplomacy and threats to security, and divisive internal debates over imperial-versus-colonial loyalties. Newfoundlanders, however, resisted the temptation to join the colonial alliance on the mainland.

A Divided Colony

By the late 1860s, Newfoundland was made up of several parts. The apparent unity of the economy based heavily on fisheries (in which every outport, St. John’s included, participated) and timber was not enough to ensure social or political harmony. There were essentially three regions to Newfoundland: Labrador on the mainland, the French (or West) Shore, and the rest. In addition, the English-speaking part of the colony was divided between Protestants (mostly Anglicans and Methodists, but also including Congregationalists and Presbyterians) and Catholics (overwhelmingly Irish). Labrador was sparsely settled by Europeans and was principally home to Inuit and Innu (aka: Naskapi and Montagnais), many of whom were being missionized by the Moravian Brethren who had no presence on Newfoundland proper. These various social divisions preoccupied local politicians and clergymen while the fisheries and seagoing trade continued to provide an irregular and unreliable income for much of the population.

Self-sufficiency in the outports was challenged by a volatile marketplace for Newfoundland’s exports. Continued colonial status was meant to ensure a position within British Atlantic rim commerce. It did not always do so. Nor would the cod fishery or the whale pods always cooperate. Unemployment stalked the villages of the colony from the mid-19th century to 1914 and promoted emigration. The colony’s communities were caught in an economic trap: large numbers of personnel were needed for three to four months every year to work the fisheries effectively. During the remaining eight to nine months, most were surplus to requirements. Seasonally, and notwithstanding pack ice and absent fish, there was work for all. Beyond that, however, there was hardship. Scaling back the population overall would mean depleting the fisheries of its essential labour force. Providing relief of some kind which the state and the churches did for years only encouraged too many people to stay and face cyclical underemployment.

It was for these reasons unreliable cod behaviour, a narrow window for economic activity, and potentially appalling North Atlantic weather that Newfoundlanders pursued a variety of economic alternatives, and did so aggressively. Mining the sea for codfish was a way of doing more of the same and with greater intensity. This strategy predictably produced gluts on the market and falling prices. Another response was to attack the seal nurseries and build an export economy there as well. Other fish types and lobsters were added as a way to break out of the monoculture staple economy of cod. Improvements in fish product processing were pursued in the 1880s and 1890s, as were a succession of trade treaties with the United States that would allow Newfoundland products freer entry into the American marketplace.

The engagement of the churches with economic and political issues manifested itself in a variety of ways. Unemployment was a parish and congregation matter as well as a state matter. Political parties in the 1860s, with a few exceptions, identified with Protestant or Catholic interests in a manner that was inevitably divisive. Although this feature of Newfoundland politics lost its sharp edge in the 1870s, it did not go away. The Harbour Grace Affray of 1883 saw Orange Lodge Protestants and Catholic neighbours come to blows. Guns were fired, and five men (four Protestants and one Catholic) were killed, and more than a dozen wounded. The trials and debates that followed served to deepen sectarian division across the floor of the Legislature and the colony. Fears grew that Harbour Grace would be followed by larger and widespread acts of sectarian violence.

In this context, the accomplishments of Newfoundland’s leadership in the field of education is almost astonishing. Uniquely, Newfoundland committed to a denominational education system beginning in 1876. Isolated ports might have one, two, or even three denominations, each of which demanded recognition and funding for a school. Administering them from St. John’s would be highly problematic and expensive, so authority devolved to denominational school boards at the local level. This, too, was unique. Funding was provided on a per capita basis, which set up some local competition between the religious communities. By the 1890s, a secondary school system was emerging that was coordinated from the colonial capital and included a shared curriculum. Common exams ensured that outcomes were comparable (if not always equal) across denominations.

In part, this accommodation of religious interests in education was possible because of Harbour Grace. As one historian observed, “the shock that followed the Harbour Grace encounter was not simply a religion-oriented reaction. It was a recognition that Englishmen had not killed Irishmen; nor was it Catholics and Protestants killing one another. Newfoundlanders were killing fellow Newfoundlanders for no good reason.”Frederick W. Rowe,  A History of Newfoundland and Labrador (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1980), 300. Newfoundlanders turned away from that precipice, which is why 1886 “must be regarded as a turning point in Newfoundland history.”Ibid.

A circa 1883 depiction of the Newfoundland seal hunt. (Source: Joseph Haton & M. Harvey, Newfoundland, the Oldest British Colony (1883).)

Figure 2.22 A circa 1883 depiction of the Newfoundland seal hunt. Source: J.Haton & M. Harvey, Newfoundland, the Oldest British Colony (1883).

Colonial Crises, 1880-1914

Perhaps more than most colonies, Newfoundland was regularly rocked by catastrophes. Many of these arose from a combination of weather and the local economy’s dependence on resources drawn from the sea. Storms battered outports, ice packs teeming with seals promised some wealth and invited disaster, and whole fleets could be lost at sea. St. John’s one of the busiest of the Atlantic ports was always vulnerable to epidemic diseases. 1892 and 1893 witnessed a mix of bad news that included diphtheria, the razing of St. John’s by fire which left 12,000 homeless, and the loss of two dozen Trinity Bay sealers on the ice. In 1894, the two commercial banks in Newfoundland collapsed. These bankruptcies left a vacuum that was subsequently filled by Canadian chartered banks, a change that subordinated Newfoundland to Canadian monetary policies. While the fisheries regularly claimed lives it was the seal hunt that would continue to serve up death on a large scale: 48 more sealers would perish of exposure in 1898, and in 1914, 78 more died of exposure and drowning.

The shell of St. John's Anglican Cathedral after the 1892 fire.

Figure 2.23 The shell of St. John’s Anglican Cathedral after the 1892 fire.

Economic and foreign relations crises, too, seemed to roll across the colony on a regular basis. These were addressed in very different ways.

The Newfoundland Railway

Canada mythologizes the construction of a railway as an act of nation-building; Newfoundlanders saw it as an economic policy, plain and simple. By the mid-19th century it was clear that the colony contained large stands of commercially-viable timber, and there was tremendous optimism as regards the mining industry as well. Clearing out forests could be followed up with agricultural settlements inland: Newfoundlanders were looking at their very own farming frontier. It was even suggested in the enthusiasm of the moment that Newfoundland might soon become “an exporter of livestock to England.”Patrick O’Flaherty, Lost Country: The Rise and Fall of Newfoundland, 1843-1933 (St. John’s: Long Beach Press, 2005), 139. All of this also implied the establishment of sufficient industrial capacity to produce at least some elements of the infrastructure, even if that was only wooden ties and gravel. Iron ore mining was initiated on Bell Island in Conception Bay in 1895 but steel production took place elsewhere. A survey of the route would provide the means to extend the colonial government’s influence over land sales from St. John’s to the edge of the French Shore. All of this was cast in a frame much like the Canadian National Policy, called in the case of Newfoundland the “Policy of Progress.”Margaret R. Conrad and James K. Hiller, Atlantic Canada: A Concise History (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2006), 133.

As with the CPR, massive land grants were given to the contractor to subsidize the expense of construction. Even so, thanks to the railway, by 1896 St. John’s was $9 million in debt. The colonial regime teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and was only pulled back by a further and rather desperate deal with the railway contractor and operator, Robert Gillespie Reid (1842-1908). Even the British government felt that Newfoundland was selling off the proverbial silverware to achieve some stability. The end result, however, was a line that curled from the Avalon Peninsula around the north of the colony and down the southwest coast to a terminus that connected to shipping lines to Canada. Trade between the two colonies increased but, rather than draw them closer together, it served to give Newfoundlanders sufficient confidence that they did not need to seek, at this time, economic security in Confederation. In some respects, they already had it. The Canadianization of Newfoundland’s monetary system was a significant step towards a loss of sovereignty to another colony.

Newfoundland minted unique $2 gold coins until about 1888. The bank crash of 1894 resulted in hoarding of the increasingly rare coin.

Figure 2.24 Newfoundland minted unique $2 gold coins until about 1888. The bank crash of 1894 resulted in hoarding of the increasingly rare coin.

Foreign Relations

Newfoundland’s government pursued several and successive trade agreements with the United States. As a colony of Britain, it had to do so with the Crown’s approval which it had. In those negotiations, however, the Dominion of Canada often played the role of the spoiler. In the late 19th century there was just enough dissatisfaction with Confederation among the Maritime provinces that Canada could scarcely afford to see independent Newfoundland set a bad example by succeeding too much.Frederick W. Rowe, A History of Newfoundland and Labrador (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1980), 303. Furthermore, Ottawa had few resource responsibilities but fisheries was one of them. A coordinated fishing policy and administration, one that covered the whole of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, only needed Newfoundland’s cooperation to be complete. The smaller colony, however, saw little advantage in that. Canadian reprisals were probably inevitable.

More complex and longstanding were relations with France. Prior to 1713 and the Treaty of Utrecht, France had established robust little settlements on Newfoundland. After Utrecht, Newfoundland belonged entirely to Britain but the French were allowed exclusive use of the West Shore. Despite being prohibited from settling the French Shore, individual English, Scots, and Irish found their way into the region over the 150 years that followed Utrecht. The Treaty of Paris (1763) that ended the Seven Years’ War saw Britain make a further concession to the defeated France: exclusive title to two small islands just south of Newfoundland St. Pierre and Miquelon. The goal of Britain throughout the 18th and the 19th century was to minimize friction with France by making a generous allowance for continuation of a historic fishing industry. That this was not in the best interest of Newfoundlanders was made increasingly clear. After achieving responsible government in 1855, colonial voices became increasingly shrill in their criticism of the French presence and the constraints it put on Newfoundlanders who worked and settled in the region. An agreement was subsequently struck between Britain and France, with grudging support from St. John’s, which allowed French activity to continue on the West Shore. Growing competition over the lobster fishery and canneries tested the modus vivendi, but Newfoundlanders gritted their teeth until 1904 when they pressed Britain to find another solution. In that year a diplomatic outcome was arrived at in the Entente Cordiale, an agreement struck between the two empires, and Newfoundland was made whole for the first time. Only St. Pierre and Miquelon remained French, as they continue to be today.

In one other area Newfoundland seemed disinterested in formalizing diplomatic relations. Aboriginal populations in the colony on both sides of the Strait of Belle Isle were small but increasingly vulnerable from the 1890s on. Typhoid, measles, and influenza made inroads into the formerly isolated Inuit communities of northern Labrador as the size of the transient Newfoundland fishing fleets grew and encounters with Euro-colonists increased. Commercial and sport hunting grew in the interior of Newfoundland and in Labrador, impacting the 200 or so Mi’kmaq and the Innu respectively. There were, however, no treaties in place and nothing like Canada’s Indian Act to guide policy and behaviour.Conrad and Hiller, Atlantic Canada: A Concise History, 136-7. The anguish expressed earlier in the 19th century at the tragic disappearance of the Beothuk peoples was not, it seems, followed up by any measure to protect other Aboriginal communities.

Preparing cod within sight of the St. John's skyline, ca. 1900.

Figure 2.25 Preparing cod within sight of the St. John’s skyline, ca. 1900.

Newfoundland on the Eve of War

In 1907, Newfoundland sent Prime Minister Robert Bond to the Imperial Conference hosted by British Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Representing a poor and struggling colony, Bond did his best to argue for colonial autonomy within an imperial association while avoiding commitments to expensive British military projects. (Newfoundlanders had volunteered for the British campaigns against the Boers in South Africa but the colony had not mustered a regiment, unlike Canada.) Bond carried the day and Newfoundland was recognized as a Dominion, a status that made it diplomatically equivalent to Canada, Australia, the Cape Colony (later called South Africa) and New Zealand (sometimes collectively described as the White Dominions).

By this time, the population of Newfoundland was much larger than it had been 50 years earlier. It nearly doubled from 1860 to 1901, rising from 130,000 to 242,000 (of which just 3,949 were found in Labrador).Newfoundland, Colonial Secretary’s Office, "Table 1. Population, sex, condition, denomination, profession, etc.," Census of Newfoundland and Labrador, 1911 (Statistics Canada Collection), accessed 2 June 2015, Natural population increase combined with continued immigration from Ireland, Scotland, and England to push up the numbers. These numbers were kept somewhat in check by outmigration to Canada and the United States.

Although Canada’s influence in Newfoundland was growing in the period before the Great War, the colony remained oriented in the opposite direction. Even Labrador seemed lost in St. John’s rear-view mirror. Were it not for the chain of little hospitals established by the English physician and missionary, Wilfred Grenfell (1865-1940), from 1893, very few services would have reached the impoverished fishing populations (transient and resident) on the mainland. In 1901 the 37-year old Italian physicist, Gugliemo Marconi, sent the first cross-Atlantic wireless message from Signal Hill in St. John’s to Cornwall, England. It is perhaps significant that he did not attempt communication with Montreal.

Key Points

  • Newfoundland displayed little interest in joining the rest of British North America in a federation or any other kind of union.
  • The colony consisted of three main parts: Labrador, the French Shore, and the rest of Newfoundland. Its population was deeply divided by region, ethnicity, language, and religion.
  • The economy was based mostly on fisheries that were seasonal, as were sealing ventures, contributing to underemployment in the off-seasons.
  • Social divisions peaked in 1883 with the Harbour Grace Affray.
  • The colony developed a distinctive approach to education based on denominationalism.
  • Infrastructural change and the expansion of a farming frontier were attempts to diversify the economy which met with limited success.
  • Canadian control over the monetary affairs of the colony and Canadian interference in Newfoundland’s diplomatic channels drew the colony closer into the other Dominion’s sphere of influence.


Figure 2.21
Codfish Stamp by Jcmurphy is in the public domain.

Figure 2.22
Seal hunting in Newfoundland by MatthewVanitas is in the public domain.

Figure 2.23
The Anglican Cathedral by Jcmurphy is in the public domain.

Figure 2.24
Canada Newfoundland Victoria gold by Heritage Auctions is in the public domain.

Figure 2.25
Drying codfish by Musée McCord Museum is in the public domain. This image is available from McCord Museum under the access number MP-0000.4.14.


2.14 Summary

"Figure 2.26 MOTHER BRITANNIA.- ""See! Why the dear child can stand alone!"" UNCLE SAM.- ""Of course he can! Let go of him Granny; if he falls I'll catch him!"" In 1870 Canada annexed the West (almost at bayonet point), but was it strong enough to stand on its own or would it collapse in its infancy?"

Figure 2.26 MOTHER BRITANNIA. — “See! Why the dear child can stand alone!”
UNCLE SAM. — “Of course he can! Let go of him Granny; if he falls I’ll catch him!” In 1870 Canada annexed the West (almost at bayonet point), but was it strong enough to stand on its own or would it collapse in its infancy?

The first decades after Confederation were not easy. While it is true that the federation expanded quickly to cover almost the whole of the northern half of the continent, it did so in a way that provoked conflict and division. The record of additions is straightforward. In 1870 Manitoba signed on and British Columbia followed in 1871. Prince Edward Island returned to the table and settled its issues with Ottawa in 1873. Elements of the North were added on quietly as Britain shuffled further and further away from being an imperial presence in the Western hemisphere. Against these achievements, one has to recall that from 1867-1869 Nova Scotia wriggled on the hook of Confederation; from 1869 through most of 1870 the fate of the Northwest was uncertain. The Canadian presence at Red River was led by men unafraid of violence and they were met by force as well. Blood was shed and an antipathy grew between Ontarians and Manitobans (especially the Métis). The 1873 Pacific Scandal created serious doubt on the likelihood of an all-Canadian route for a railway to the West let alone to British Columbia. BC’s demands for the Terms might have seemed to Ottawa like petulance, but it threw further into doubt the prospect of the Confederation lasting even one generation. The 1880s witnessed the return of Louis Riel and armed conflict across the Prairies. The government would exploit its ability to deliver troops into the thick of the second Northwest uprising to vindicate the railway project, but the mishandling of Métis complaints and the treaties looked bad. The hanging of Riel did nothing, of course, to reassure Quebec that Canada was anything more than an Anglo-Ontarian and Orange project in which punitive raids were conducted against francophone Catholics. The 1880s also saw the return of the Nova Scotia Repeal Movement. The Bluenose anti-Confederates were tamed but their campaigns brought to the fore compelling evidence that the Maritimes were not at all better off for having become a province of Canada. It is difficult to know whether events further west informed their discontent, but it is equally challenging to imagine that they would have been reassured by separatist talk in BC and expensive wars on the Prairies.

Even Ontario arguably the most committed to, and the chief beneficiary of, Confederation bridled under Ottawa’s maneuvers. The Provincial Rights movement established the principle that the provinces were partners in Confederation, that they had entered into the agreement under their own free will and could, therefore, leave if need be. The “pact” or “compact” model of Confederation supplanted the “act” interpretation and, in doing so, set a path for federal-provincial relations for the next century.

The rise of Quebec nationalism in the years immediately after Confederation was to have important ramifications in the early 20th century. The abandonment of dualism as a way to build a country based on the credibility and integrity of two European cultures was a significant blow to unity. The treatment of the Métis and the vociferous tone of Orange politicians sent a powerful message to Quebec. The Orange Order’s loyalist and royalist creed sought more British-ness, not less. Quebec sought more Canadian-ness instead. This division would vex Macdonald and his successors in the decades before the Great War in 1914.

Key Terms

Beothuk: Aboriginal people of Newfoundland; believed to have disappeared — due to exotic diseases, loss of territory, and armed conflict with European colonists — by the second quarter of the 19th century.

Cariboo Wagon Road: A pair of routes to the gold-bearing regions on the Interior Plateau of British Columbia, initiated in 1860. One begins in Fort Douglas, the other at Yale.

Confederation League: Founded by Amor de Cosmos and John Robson in 1868, promoting the idea of union with Canada through newspapers and direct lobbying of administrations in Victoria, Ottawa, and London. Their goals included responsible government in the colony, reciprocity with the United States, and austerity measures to address colonial debt.

disallowance: An effective veto held by Ottawa that could be used to overturn provincial legislation.

Dominion Lands Act: 1872; the legal mechanism that made possible the distribution of western lands.

Escheat Movement: An organized movement in 19th century Prince Edward Island with the objective of ending absent landlordism and the distribution of lands to tenant farmers.

Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway: 1871; the E&N was built to connect the coalfields of the central island with the British Columbia capital, Victoria.

graving dock: Also called a dry dock; repair facility for shipping.

Harbour Grace Affray: 1883 Newfoundland dispute in which Orange Lodge Protestants and Catholic neighbours came to blows; led to five deaths and a dozen casualties.

Indian Agent: An agent of the federal government’s Department of Indian Affairs (or, later, DIAND) with responsibility for managing and/or supervising one or more Aboriginal communities.

Kanakans: Hawaiians or Pacific Island workers; this term may have been used disparagingly or in a derogatory fashion, however, the word means “human being” in the Hawaiian language.

Medicine Line: The 49th parallel north, so named by the First Nations of the Plains because it worked as an invisible barrier to stop attacks northward by United States soldiers.

Moravian Brethren: An early Protestant sect from central Europe; established missions in Labrador, with the first permanent site established at Nain in 1771.

Nativist millenarians: Movements among mostly Indigenous peoples under imperialism that attempt to throw off their occupiers and return to an idealized past way of living; sometimes imbued with a mystical element that could involve divine intervention.

Pacific Scandal: 1873; Macdonald’s Conservative Party was given significant funds from the Canadian Pacific Railway, which caused the CPR to lose the opportunity to complete the Intercolonial Railway, cost Macdonald his administration, and brought the Mackenzie Liberals into office.

Peace, order, and good government (POGG): From Section 91 of the BNA Act as regards “residual” or “residuary powers” (granted to the Queen, the Senate, and House of Commons to make laws), and which could cover anything and everything that was either not itemized or as yet not imagined in the constitutional division of authority.

Pig War: Colloquial name for a dispute between the United States and the British Empire over the San Juan Islands, from 1859-1873.

populist: In politics, an appeal to the interests and concerns of the community by political leaders (populists) usually against established elites or minority — or scapegoat — groups. The rhetoric of populists is often characterized as vitriolic, bombastic, and fear-mongering.

scrip: A system introduced by Canada for extinguishing Métis land title, beginning in 1870. Scrip documents indicated individual entitlement to land, although not necessarily to land on which one was already settled. While the numbered treaties dealt with whole First Nations communities collectively, scrip was negotiated on an individual and household basis.

section and quarter section (block system): The system used by land surveyors to divide land and property. One section is meant to be 1 mi (1.6 km) square.

seigneurial system: Used in New France; based on a feudal system in which land was granted under a royalty system, and the tenant was responsible for farming the land to meet their physical needs (food, heat, and shelter). This system was abolished in 1854.

Treaty of Paris: Ended the Seven Years’ War. France ceded all of its territory east of the Mississippi to Britain (including all of Canada, Acadia, and Île Royale) and granted Louisiana and lands west of the Mississippi to its ally Spain. Britain returned to France the sugar islands of Guadeloupe. France retained St. Pierre and Miquelon along with fishing rights on the Grand Banks.

ultramontanist: Elements in Catholicism that emphasize papal authority over secular authority and, after 1870, papal infallibility. Seeks a large, extensive role for the church in daily life and objects to the main features of modernity, especially the growth of the secular state. Although ultramontanism faded in Europe after 1870, it remained a powerful force in Canada to the 1960s.

White Dominions: Former British colonies dominated by a European population or elite; includes Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Newfoundland to ca. 1934-1949.

Yale Convention: Meeting between British Columbian delegates to determine the colony’s demands as regards joining Confederation.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. Why did some politicians in Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and New Brunswick toy with the idea of pulling out of Confederation in the first two decades after 1867?
  2. In what ways was British Columbia distinct from the rest of Canada?
  3. What forces brought PEI to the table in 1873?
  4. Was the establishment of the Red River Provisional Government an act of rebellion?
  5. What flaws in Confederation were highlighted by the Provincial Rights movement?
  6. What strategies did Canada adopt in annexing the West?
  7. Why were First Nations prepared to sign treaties with Canada?
  8. What conditions led to the events of 1885 in the Northwest?
  9. Why was the question of Riel’s sanity so problematic?
  10. How did the CPR figure into Canadian expansionism?
  11. In what ways were the lives of Northerners changing in the period between 1867-1930?
  12. What were the distinguishing features of life, economy, and politics in Newfoundland before the Great War?

Suggested Readings

Keough, Willeen. “Contested Terrains: Ethnic and Gendered Spaces in the Harbour Grace Affray,” Canadian Historical Review, 90, no. 1 (March 2009): 29-70.

McCoy, Ted. “Legal Ideology in the Aftermath of Rebellion: The Convicted First Nations Participants, 1885,” Histoire Sociale/Social History, 42, no. 83 (Mai-May 2009): 175-201.

Miller, J.R. “Owen Glendower, Hotspur, and Canadian Indian Policy,” Ethnohistory, 37:4 (Fall 1990): 386-415.

Milloy, John. “’Our Country’: The Significance of the Buffalo Resource for a Plains Cree Sense of Territory,” in Kerry Abel and Jean Friesen, eds., Aboriginal Resource Use in Canada: Historical and Legal Aspects (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1991): 51-70.

Read, Geoff, and Todd Webb. ‘The Catholic Mahdi of the North West’: Louis Riel and the Metis Resistance in Transatlantic and Imperial Context,” Canadian Historical Review, 93, no. 2 (June 2012): 171-95.

Waite, P.B. “Canada in 1874: An Overview,” in Arduous Destiny: Canada 1874-1896 (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 1971): 1-12.


Figure 2.26
1870 political cartoon by Skeezix1000 is in the public domain.


Chapter 3. Urban, Industrial, and Divided: Socio-Economic Change, 1867-1920


3.1 Introduction

Coal sorters at work at the Atlas mine in Alberta, n.d.

Figure 3.1 Coal sorters at work at the Atlas Mine in Alberta, n.d.

The Industrial Revolution was well underway in Britain and the northeastern United States by 1867. The systematized production of manufactured goods woolen or cotton garments or iron tools was made possible by a reorganization of labour, from independent and cottage-based production to one where the work was produced collectively, and increasingly with the use of machinery. The creation of  low-valued manufactured products required the development of new systems of transportation. The early (or “first”) Industrial Revolution generated a parallel revolution in infrastructure that included canals, railways, and shipping.

Canada’s Industrial Revolution piggybacked on that of its neighbour and Britain. However, the most rapid transition of the Canadian economy came after 1850, and accelerated through the last half of the 19th century. Confederation and the resulting creation of a common financial system that included a shared currency and mint was, in fact, an enabling step in industrializing British North America. It created an open colonial marketplace without tariff barriers, facilitated the movement of investment capital, and superimposed a modern freight-handling capacity that realigned trade from north-south to east-west. Victorian Canada was, in every sense, industrializing Canada.

Industrialism didn’t put an end to ‘homespun,’ particularly in poorer, rural communities. But it severely reduced the economic viabilty of the handloom weaver and other artisans.

Figure 3.2 Industrialism didn’t put an end to homespun, particularly in poorer, rural communities. But it severely reduced the economic viabilty of the handloom weaver and other artisans.

Industrial British North America

Start by listening to historian Craig Heron (York University) describe the industrial revolution.

In the 1860s, industry was breaking out all over. New Brunswick dominated by forest industries and shipbuilding was, on a per capita basis up until 1871, only a little less industrialized than Ontario and Quebec. Nova Scotia’s industry was distinctively divided between the metal and coal industries of Cape Breton, and the textile mills and sugar refineries in the western part of the province.Margaret R. Conrad and James K. Hiller, Atlantic Canada: A Concise History (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2006), 131-2. Vancouver Island, with its coal mines at and around Nanaimo and the vertically-integrated heavy industries that included Royal Navy shipyards in Esquimalt and chain-making in Victoria, was another outpost of industrialization.

These parallel developments were not happenstance. By keeping local land prices high, the colonial and then provincial governments of British Columbia demonstrated a desire for wage-earning workers rather than farm settlers a striking signal that industry, not agriculture, was central to their vision. The engagement of the state in the building of an industrial order is itself part of the suite of ideas associated with  modernity a concept pursued throughout this text. Industrialism, the term used to describe the new economic order emerging in the late 19th century, was thus more than a pattern of like practices and institutions; it was something to which governments,  investors, and workers were all striving.

Iron ore from Bell Island is loaded onto a metal-hulled ship, ca. 1903.

Figure 3.3 Iron ore from Bell Island is loaded onto a metal-hulled ship, ca. 1903.

The economics of industrialization are staggering insofar as they require the movement of capital, raw materials, personnel, and products across huge distances. Industry requires, too, the mobilization, training, housing, and discipline of a workforce with little to no prior exposure to industrial systems. The pre-Conquest iron forges at Saint-Maurice, near Trois-Rivières, depended on fuel and ore and labour that could be obtained locally. By 1890, industries in Central and Maritime Canada were using iron ore from Labrador and Newfoundland’s Bell Island; coking coal from Cape Breton was finding its way to Ontario; and workers in Canadian industry were migrating from one province to another, from coast to coast. Workers were being recruited from industrializing Lancashire and Yorkshire, Wales, Lowland Scotland, and Germany. Industrial workers were also coming to Canada from rural and non-industrialized corners of Italy, Ireland, Hungary, and China. The intensification of mechanized, and then automated, work ensured that peasant populations whose home countries were still mostly feudal would be thrust directly onto the cutting edge of industrialization. It also meant that untrained Canadian labour specifically children would find themselves very literally at the coalface.

In addition to personnel, industry requires energy. In 1867, the dominant sources of energy grew in forests or walked on four legs. Waterpower had made some inroads, particularly in rural areas where waterwheels could take advantage of local rapids. At Lachine, Quebec, the canals provided power as well, driving the Montreal area’s earliest industries. Bringing energy sources into city centres, however, where other resources could be assembled, posed a challenge; a challenge that was overcome by following Britain’s lead and adapting the new steam-power technologies.Within a very short time period, there was a shift in industrial and urban Canada from organic and water-based power sources to fossil fuels.

Horsepower moved goods and people, was fuelled by oats and hay, and was adapted to work in Canadian conditions. Montreal, ca.1877.,_about_1877.jpg

Figure 3.4 Horse power moved goods and people, was fuelled by oats and hay, and was adapted to work in Canadian conditions. Montreal, ca.1877.

Before steam power augmented machines, horses were regularly employed.

Figure 3.5 Before steam power augmented machines, horses were regularly employed.

This change in the energy economy had the important advantage in Canada of diminishing the impact of seasonality. Waterwheels were powerful innovations and their application to the increased use of machinery in production, was literally revolutionary. Nevertheless, watercourses freeze up in Canada, which meant an interruption in power supply and in the transportation of necessary supplies along rivers. The transition from organic to inorganic energy sources changed all that. Factories could work year-round and steam-powered engines could be used to move larger and larger quantities of raw materials from source to market in shorter time. Applied to land-based transportation along rails, steam and coal could free much of Canadian manufacturing from the dictatorship of winter.

Heavy industry comes to Nova Scotia and, with it, plenty of steam and smoke. An artist's rendering of the Cape Breton coking ovens applauds the order and smokey industry at the start of the 20th century.

Figure 3.6 Heavy industry comes to Nova Scotia and, with it, plenty of steam and smoke. An artist’s rendering of the Cape Breton coking ovens applauds the regimentation of smoky industry at the start of the 20th century.

Once factories began operating throughout the four seasons, the possibility arose for workers to take on wage-labour full time. The increasing use of cash in the Canadian economy was one attraction to doing so. Many agricultural workers went into industrial labour as a temporary measure, a step toward saving enough money to purchase a farm of their own. This was also true of immigrant industrial workers who imagined their future in Canada as independent landowners.British coal miners who moved to Vancouver Island in the late 19th century repeatedly indicated that they saw West Coast mine work as a stepping stone to independence on their own land. See John Douglas Belshaw, Colonization and Community: The Vancouver Island Coalfield and the Making of the British Columbian Working Class (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), 161-3. That transitional stage never fully ended, as rural populations in the 21st century continue to augment farm income with wage-labour. In the 19th century, however, limits on transportation made such moves increasingly permanent. By the 1870s wage-labour in many regions matched agriculture as a practical strategy for survival. The population of ready workers increased and expanded across Canada. From 1861-71 the labour force grew by about 15%  and then, from 1871-81 by 26%. Its growth slowed thereafter to a still-respectable 21% and then 11% in each of the two decades that followed. Statistics Canada, Historical Statistics of Canada, 2nd ed., F. H. Leacy, ed. (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1983): D498-511. Labour inputs, however, are only part of the equation.

The introduction of machinery, and especially steam-powered machinery, was transformative. Output could be increased dramatically, quality could aim for (and sometimes achieve) reliable standards, and the skill sets needed to do a particular job changed from that of a master craftsman to those of someone able to keep up with the metal and wood machinery. The cumulative effect was to bring down wages while raising productivity and de-skilling the workforce. New skills emerged particularly those associated with maintaining machinery but shoe production, for example, went from being a handicraft associated with years of apprenticeship and journeyman study, to something that was done by children. A good example is Lawson’s, a tailoring business in Hamilton, that introduced 10 sewing machines in the 1860s. This led to the departure of 71 of their 100 skilled male tailors, and their replacement with 69 women (who were regarded, rightly or wrongly, as unskilled).Bryan D. Palmer, Working-Class Experience: Rethinking the History of Canadian Labour, 1800-1991, 2nd ed. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1992), 87-8. Mechanization and, in the 20th century, automation would change the way work is done, but its spread was entirely dependent on the ability of capital to invest in emerging technologies. This process of intensified capital inputs on the shop floor would accelerate 30 years after Confederation.

The Second Industrial Revolution

Despite significant changes in the orientation and character of the economy until the mid-1890s, growth was not outstanding. An important measure of the health of Canada’s economy is its population and, rather remarkably, from 1861-1901 Canada was a net exporter of people. The American economy was expanding more rapidly and as land and employment opportunities arose, it served as a magnet for thousands of Canadians. Additionally, many of the immigrants to Canada during this period proved to be just passing through. On balance, then, more people left than arrived. From a historian’s perspective, this is a sure sign that industrialization in the new Dominion provided fewer opportunities, or less competitive opportunities, than agriculture in the western plains of North America. This was not yet a consumer-led economy so the net loss of population until 1901 did not mean the simultaneous loss of household markets, at least not in the same way it might in the mid-20th century. It did manifest a shortage of labour resources, however, in some corners of the country. As the Maritime’s economy began to seize up in the 1870s and 1880s, for example, out-migration was another factor in driving investment to more populous centres in Ontario and southwest Quebec.

In the 1890s, there were several important advances in technology and technique that gave industrialization a new shape. The foremost of these was the development of the Bessemer system for manufacturing steel. Vastly stronger and cheaper than earlier forged metals, this innovation propelled the steel industry and everything that utilized steel. As well, it contributed to the further growth of coking coal production and iron mining and the building of infrastructure to transport these raw materials to processing points. The establishment of the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company at New Glasgow in 1882 was followed by the Dominion Coal Company at Glace Bay 11 years later. The Dominion Iron And Steel Company opened in Sydney in 1900, and the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company opened at Sydney Mines the same year. All of these developments reflect the accelerating transformation of the industrial order in Canada as a whole and the rise of international markets for output. It also points to a change in industrial capitalism: whereas earlier industrialization depended mostly upon bringing more labour to the task of producing goods, capital inputs were now rewarded. In Ontario alone, the amount of capital invested in the economy leapt from $37 million in 1871 to $175 million in 1891, rising to $595 million in 1911.Gregory S. Kealey, Workers and Canadian History (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995), 245. Machinery, reconceptualized workspaces and architecture, and metal-hulled ships that could move heavy goods at a fraction of the cost of wooden vessels all contributed to the changes associated with what is called the Second Industrial Revolution.

The change could be seen in the Canadian labour force. In 1901, the number of operatives and labourers combined (nearly 789,422) surpassed the total number of farmers and farmworkers (715,122).Canada, Historical Statistics of Canada, 2nd ed., F. H. Leacy, ed. (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1983): D86-106. The proportion of Canadians living on the land was still greater than that of urbanites, but, as of 1901, the number of Canadians earning an income from wages pulled ahead of those earning farm incomes. And those wage-earning workers were doing so increasingly in industries and factories that did not much resemble what existed in the 1860s.

As late as 1910 the boundary between rural life and industrial employment was not a great one. The countryside forms a backdrop to a shoe factory in Aurora, Ontario, ca. 1910. Postcards like this one were a way of framing modernization and material progress. (Toronto Public Library)

Figure 3.7 As late as 1910, the boundary between rural life and industrial employment was not a great one. The countryside forms a backdrop to a shoe factory in Aurora, Ontario, ca. 1910. Postcards like this one were a way of framing modernization and material progress.

Industrialization marked a significant departure from the pre-Confederation economy, and it brought in its wake social and economic changes that could hardly have been predicted. It was, however, part of a conscious strategy for nation-building and making economic policy. The most obvious expression of that strategic (and, yes, hopeful) thinking was the National Policy.

Learning Objectives

  • Develop an understanding of the causes and contours of the Second Industrial Revolution.
  • Explain the rise of a working class and describe its main features.
  • Assess the main features and goals of the National Policy and its individual components.
  • Discuss the ways in which age and gender shaped the historic experience of industrialization.
  • Connect the phenomena of industrialization with urbanization in the pre-1914 period.
  • Describe the strategies explored by working people to improve their conditions.
  • Account for the rise of the first-wave of feminism.


Figure 3.1
Coal Mining, Alberta – picking coal before same leaves on conveyor – Atlas Mine (Online MIKAN no.3351151) by Library and Archives Canada is in the public domain.

Figure 3.2
Habitant series – weaving loom (Online MIKAN no.3349488) by Library and Archives Canada is in the public domain.

Figure 3.3
The loading pier at Bell Island by Verne Equinox is in the public domain.

Figure 3.4
A horse-drawn winter tram by Tim Pierce is in the public domain.

Figure 3.5
Drawing of a horse-powered thresher by Bogdan is in the public domain.

Figure 3.6
Artist rendering of the Sydney Nova Scotia by Verne Equinox is in the public domain.

Figure 3.7
Shoe factory, Aurora, Ontario, Canada by Special Collections Toronto Public Library is used under a CC BY SA 2.0 license. This image is available from Toronto Public Library under the identifier PC-ON 65.


3.2 Industrialization, Labour, and Historians

Robert Sweeny, Dept. of History, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Postcards like this one were a means to promote the industrial culture emerging in towns like Oshawa in 1910. (Canadian Copyright Collection, Picturing Canada Project, British Library)

Figure 3.8 Postcards like this one were a means to promote the industrial culture emerging in towns like Oshawa in 1910.

Canada was the first colony to industrialize, and it did so in the third quarter of the 19th century. Although well after Great Britain and Belgium, this was only a decade or so behind the United States, more or less contemporaneous with France, and well ahead of Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, and Russia. Prior to the 1970s, however, Canadian historians did not realize this. Instead, historians debated whether industrialization resulted from Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy of 1879 or under the Laurier government at the turn of the century. Both sides attributed this late industrialization to an over-reliance on the export of staples: cod, furs, timber, and wheat. As the presumed centrality of political leaders in these narratives suggests, most historians considered industrialization to have been the result of federal government policy, rather than an organic maturation of settler colonialism.The classic statement, which went through five editions by 1977, is Arthur R. M. Lower's Colony to Nation: A History of Canada (Toronto: Longmans, Green, 1946). Starting in the mid-1970s, two complimentary but distinct new schools of thought changed this historical debate.

In French Canada, influenced by the work of Stanley Ryerson,Stanley B. Ryerson, Unequal Union: Roots of Crisis in the Canadas, 1815-1873 (Toronto: Progress Books, 1968). researchers at the Université du Québec à Montréal pushed back the start date for industrialization in Montreal to the late 1840s when, harnessing the hydraulic power of the locks of the Lachine Canal, the first large-scale factories were built.This idea formed the cornerstone for the highly influential interpretation of Quebec as a typical part of North America, a position first developed in Paul-André Linteau, René Durocher, and Jean-Claude Robert, Histoire du Québec Contemporain, Tome 1 De la Conféderation à la Crise (1867-1929) (Montreal: Boréal Express, 1979). From the outset, this new research stressed the importance of social history, itself a reflection of the turbulent debates (at that time) over the national question in Quebec. Strikes by journeymen shoemakers over the introduction of machine tools and by carters opposed to the Grand Trunk railway monopoly were depicted as challenging the new industrial order,Joanne Burgess, "L'industrie de la Chaussure à Montréal 1840-1870 le Passage de l'Artisanat à la Fabrique," Revue d'Histoire de l'Amérique Française, vol. 31, no. 2 (1977): 187-210; Margaret Heap, "La Grève des Charretiers à Montréal, 1864," Revue d'Histoire de l'Amérique Française, vol. 31, no. 4 (1977): 371-96. while the dire living conditions for the emerging working class became a major focus of historical work.Jean De Bonville, Jean-Baptiste Gagnepetit: Les Travailleurs Montréalais à la Fin du XIXe Siècle (Montreal: L'Aurore, 1975); Bettina Bradbury, Working Families: Age, Gender, and Daily Survival in Industrializing Montreal (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1993). Soon debates on method, particularly over how we should interpret census data, led to a considerably more nuanced view that challenged this early misèrabiliste literature;Gilles Lauzon, "Cohabitation et Déménagements en Milieu Ouvrier Montréalais,"Revue d'Histoire de l'Amérique Française, vol. 46, no. 1 (1992): 115-42. at the same time, careful analysis of work processes demonstrated the significance of gender to understanding working class resistance.Jacques Ferland, "Syndicalisme Parcellaire et Syndicalisme Collectif: Une Interpretation Socio-Techniques des Conflits Ouvriers dans Deux Industries Québécoises (1880-1914)," Labour/Le Travail, 19 (1987): 48-88. More recent work has shown both substantial inter-generational social mobility, most strikingly among Irish Catholics, and a serious deterioration in the status of women.Sherry Olson and Patricia Thornton, Peopling the North American City: Montreal 1840-1900 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2011); Bettina Bradbury, Wife to Widow: Lives, Laws, and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Montreal (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011). The focus has remained on Montreal, the financial and industrial capital of Canada until the 1930s, but detailed studies of moulders and iron workers in the Saint-Maurice Valley and ship’s labourers in Quebec City have shown how integrated 19th century labour markets were in North America.

Meanwhile, in English Canada, a group of graduate students interested in labour history built on the pioneering work of Manitoban H. Claire Pentland (1914-78) to chronicle the industrialization of Toronto and Hamilton in the 1860s and 1870s.H. Clare Pentland's 1961 doctoral thesis at the University of Toronto was published 20 years later as Labour and Capital in Canada, 1650-1860 (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1981). The two most influential works by this group of scholars were Gregory S. Kealey, Toronto Workers Respond to Industrial Capitalism, 1867-1892 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980) and Bryan D. Palmer, A Culture in Conflict: Skilled Workers and Industrial Capitalism in Hamilton, Ontario, 1860-1914 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1979). In 1975, these young scholars created their own journal, Labour/Le Travail. Rejecting traditional, largely institutional, labour history and highly critical of quantitative historical sociology, these scholars focused on working class culture. They argued that skilled male craftsmen drew on a “producer ideology”, which was highly critical of lawyers, merchants, middlemen and bankers, to develop their own alternate view of the world. This critical stance was presented by historians as a powerful and potentially revolutionary defence of the working man, one that spoke out strongly against prevailing business values. Workers made their mark in various institutions and movements including the Knights of Labor (which may have organized as many as one in five waged workers in Ontario during the 1880s), the struggle for a shorter working day, and print media – edited by “brain workers.”Gregory S. Kealey and Bryan D. Palmer, Dreaming of What Might Be: The Knights of Labor in Ontario, 1880-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). The significance of class conflict in Ontario has since been questioned by the suggestion that, there, industrialization was more a case of craft capitalism.Robert B. Kristofferson, Craft Capitalism: Craftworkers and Early Industrialization in Hamilton, Ontario, 1840-1872 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007). More generally, the idea of a coherent working class culture has been challenged by the work of Ian McKay of Queen’s University. Initially he applied to the Maritimes the idea, developed by British historian Raphael Samuel (1934-96), that industrialization was not a simple process of factories with machines replacing older ways of making things. Rather, it was a complex process involving both hand and machine tools in an uneven development characterized by a limited number of factories servicing numerous highly competitive workshops and manufacturers. This complexity meant no single working class experience was ever possible. Indeed, this very diversity of experience contributed to the remarkable social stability of late-Victorian Canada, by impeding the growth of a shared sense of class. A new coherent critique of industrial society did emerge, but only slowly and it never represented all or even most of the working class. Furthermore, it shared rather than challenged the positivist, masculinist and — most importantly as Canada once more became a destination for immigrants — racist ideas then dominant in bourgeois society.Samuel's path-breaking analysis appeared as "Workshop of the World," History Workshop Journal, 3 (1973): 3-61. McKay's analysis of work in the Maritimes began in his graduate studies and then appeared in several articles, the most important of which is "Capital and Labour in the Halifax Baking and Confectionery Industry During the Last Half of the 19th Century," Labour/Le Travail, 3 (1978): 63-108. His Macdonald Prize-winning analysis of working class politics is Reasoning Otherwise: Leftists and The People's Enlightenment in Canada, 1890-1920 (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2008).

Moving industrialization back a full generation or more changes how we conceive late 19th century Canada. Rather than a “peaceful kingdom” taking a constitutional road to democracy that slowly industrialized under the guidance of wise political leaders, post-Confederation Canada is now seen as a country struggling with the serious social and economic problems of early industrial society. Confederation, the purchase of Rupert’s Land, the numbered treaties, the Indian Act, the Métis rebellions, and the resettlement of both the Prairies and British Columbia are now seen in quite a different light. These events were all parts of a complex process of remaking the northern half of North America into an industrial capitalist society.

Key Points

  • Industrialization began earlier in Canada than in many other jurisdictions, and earlier than was long thought to be the case.
  • Workers’ experiences of industrialization were diverse, which had consequences for the development of a working class consciousness.
  • Industrialization brought in its wake significant social transformations and challenges.


Figure 3.8
Oshawa’s Factories (HS85-10-22386) by LibraryBot  (from the British Library) is in the public domain.


3.3 The National Policy

John A. Macdonald’s National Policy remains a touchstone of Canadian economic history. It combined three core elements – infrastructure, tariffs, and population growth as a strategy to reshape and expand the post-Confederation economy. It was not, however, a single policy; it was a combination of several strategies which had complementary qualities that, once recognized, were shrewdly re-presented to Canadians as a comprehensive package.

Many of the elements of the National Policy were in place very early in the conversation about Confederation or at least they were implied. Barriers to trade between the BNA colonies were eliminated as they became provinces. Funding for the railway construction that linked all four original provinces was promised at the outset. Expansion into the West to provide a vent for surplus Canadian farm population (magically transforming them into prairie settlers) was a first-level objective. What was added onto this framework by Macdonald’s several administrations was something rather more ambitious.

The Railway

The trans-continental railway is the most obvious and arguably the most lasting element of what became known as the National Policy. It both served to deliver manufactured goods to captive markets in the West and acted as a critical element in populating the Prairies with colonists. Moreover, by the end of the century, the railway had demonstrated an ability to crush local industries in the far west by flooding the market with mass-produced central Canadian products.

In 1893 the Stoney Creek steel bridge replaced a wooden trestle. It is a testament to the rising influence of engineering and improved materials, as well as a graceful structure.

Figure 3.9 In 1893 the Stoney Creek steel bridge replaced a wooden trestle. It is a testament to the rising influence of engineering and improved materials in the late Victorian era. It is, as well, a graceful structure.

The railway fulfilled several functions at once. It is, obviously, a means of moving goods and people: it is transportation infrastructure. For Canada in the 1880s and 1890s, it also served as an instrument of control, the means by which troops and the NWMP could be sped to trouble spots. This was clearly demonstrated in the Canadian militia’s quelling of the 1885 uprising in Saskatchewan. The CPR both its rail and telegraph service provided a quick and critical communications system that enabled Canadian state power to extend far beyond southern Ontario or the St. Lawrence Valley. One of the challenges faced by crown colony governors on the West Coast had been the interminable slowness of communications between Victoria or New Westminster and London. After 1886, Canada’s imperial representatives in the West or on the Pacific Coast, by contrast, could receive instructions and reinforcements in a matter of days, if not hours.

The CPR, however, was also a major land owner and very much in the settlement business. It was clearly in the best interests of the Railway to get farmers onto the land so that they could buy freight and ship grain. Railways were, as well, a critically important component in Canada’s economic transformation. Historians Paul Craven and Tom Traves made this observation over 30 years ago:

Railways were not just simple transportation companies. […] In some respects they operated almost like states unto themselves; their company rules had the force of law, they employed their own police, and their executives, as the Grand Trunk’s goods manager put it, were ‘as important as generals in an army or Ministers of State.’Paul Craven and Tom Traves, “Canadian Railways as Manufacturers, 1850-1880,” Historical Papers/Communications Historiques (1983): 254, reprinted in Perspectives on Canadian Economic History, ed. Douglas McCalla (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1987): 118.

The need for rails, rolling stock, engine parts, and the metal for seats and carriage doors meant everything had to be fabricated according to the individual railway’s specification. Universal standards had not come into play yet, even within single companies. (The Great War would play an important role in moving that process forward.) Everything including machine parts and simple fasteners like nuts and bolts needed to be made (and repaired) in-house. As early as 1871, the Great Western Railway (GRW) employed 984 people at its Hamilton shops, paying out the then-astronomical sum of $500,000 annually in wages. The GWR was the largest but the Grand Trunk (in Pointe Saint-Charles near Montreal) employed 790 and the four next largest companies (two of them in Toronto, one in Brantford, and the fourth in Montreal) employed more than a 1,000 between them.Kenneth Norrie and Douglas Owram, A History of the Canadian Economy (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Canada, 1991), 237-9. And this all predates the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway, not to mention the many streetcar systems that appeared in towns and cities across the country from the 1890s to the 1920s.

A sod turning in Thunder Bay in 1912 for a new Canadian Car and Foundry shop. Labour is not represented among the dignitaries.

Figure 3.10 A sod turning in Thunder Bay in 1912 for a new Canadian Car and Foundry shop. Labour is not represented among the dignitaries.

The railway technology shrank Canada; it made long-distance travel manageable and should be appreciated as a revolutionary achievement. In the 1850s, the Prairie West was still perceived by the Canadians and Maritimers as an extension of the Great American Desert; an arid plain with little agricultural potential and fearsome locals with whom to contend. A generation later, that perspective was replaced with a more optimistic view that changed Canadian attitudes toward the interior of North America. This was reflected most clearly in the railway’s impact on land use.

Immigration and Land

The second piece of the National Policy was immigration and settlement of the West. By creating a productive agricultural frontier of independent producers, the reasoning went, Canada would also be generating an internal marketplace for clothing, farm machinery, and household goods produced in the original four provinces. And, of course, the railway would be the means of delivering that population and those goods to the West.

Broadly speaking, the CPR was an instrument of change. It delivered settlers to the West, whose goal it was to extend the reach of European-style agriculture. The whole concept of a settler  someone who establishes a permanent and fixed residence where, it is assumed (almost always incorrectly), no one lived before is bound up in farming and ranching. To see the significance of this, observe how the coal miners of Drumheller or the Crowsnest Pass are seldom described as settlers, despite their long tenure on (and below) the landscape. The CPR thus did not just deliver settlers, it made them.

A Mennonite block settlement at Rat River, Manitoba, drawn by Lord Dufferin in 1881.;_RAT_RIVER_MENNONITE_RESERVATION.jpg

Figure 3.11 A Mennonite block settlement at Rat River, Manitoba, drawn by Lord Dufferin in 1881.

The CPR, as a land agency, was directly involved in recruitment and land sales, but so too was Ottawa’s land policy. At the heart of this system was the township survey, made up of 36 sections of 640 acres of land. Of the 36 sections, two were reserved for schools, one (sometimes more) for the HBC as part of the sale price of Rupert’s Land, and about half of the remaining sections for the Canadian Pacific Railway. What was left was available as free homestead land and it was all geometrically rigid. Sections of 160 acres (64.7 hectares) were mapped out with a blind disregard for topographical barriers, bodies of water, or variations in environmental conditions like wind, rainfall, or soil quality. This unit of measure was almost sacred: the 1 square-mile section and the quarter-section were the currency of homesteading in the United States where, similarly, the whole of the West had been overlain with a graph-paper pattern. Bernard DeVoto, a historian of the American West, argued in 1953 that the quarter section acquired a huge symbolic value as “the buttress of our liberties, and the cornerstone of our economy.” What he had to say on this score is as apposite for Canada as for the US:

It was certainly true … that if you owned 160 acres of flat Iowa farmland or rolling Wisconsin prairie, you had, on the average, a farm which would support your family and would require all its exertions to work. So the quarter-section, thought of as the proper homestead unit, became the mystical one. But in the arid regions 160 acres were not a homestead. They were just a mathematical expression whose meanings in relation to agricultural settlement were disastrous.Bernard DeVoto, “Introduction” to Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1954 and 1992): xix.

As in the United States, Canadian homesteaders were promised a whole section of free land under the Dominion Lands Act (1871). All the pioneer settler had to do was put a quarter-section (40 acres or 16.9 hectares) under the plough and build a house on it within three years. Successful homesteaders were, furthermore, entitled to obtain the title to a neighbouring section once they had “proved up” their first quarter-section. This practice led to a rapid expansion of staked and claimed farmland across the Plains.

It was with regard to settling the West that the National Policy struggled most. It was wrongly assumed at the outset that Ontarians and Canadians from further east would flood the Prairies. Instead, they continued heading south. Immigrant recruitment was slow to make gains and many newcomers turned into Canadian emigrants, joining the exodus of Dominion citizens leaving for the United States. Through to 1901, Canada continued to be a net loser of population. The Canadian West was growing in population numbers, but nothing like as fast as the American West. Ironically, it was under the Liberal administration of Wilfrid Laurier (Prime Minister from 1896-1911) that things suddenly accelerated. Thereafter, from 1896 to the Great War, the rate of Canadian population growth outstripped that of the United States, and the Dominion experienced net population growth for the first time since Confederation.

The Tariff

Only a fraction of the landscape encountered by pre-War settlers had ever encountered the plough before their arrival. The fact that the CPR an infrastructure built on steel rails and wheels and carriages with the ability to move very heavy freight easily coincides with the spread of the chilled steel plough in North America, is not a coincidence. Wooden ploughs (sometimes called mouldboards) were far less effective in breaking the soil for the first time, particularly the densely packed stuff of which the Prairies is made. The agricultural machinery industry in Ontario was already well advanced by this stage. The links between steel production, agricultural equipment, and railway development are central to the CPR story. The CPR had a stake in the growth of manufacturing capacity in the East and in the shipment of manufactured goods  and, thus, in the success of the tariff.

Shoe factories replaced the work of individual cobblers from mid-century, leading to large-scale production in a protected Canadian marketplace. Ottawa Boot & Shoe Company, 1875. William James Topley, Library and Archives Canada/C-002207.

Figure 3.12 Shoe factories replaced the work of individual cobblers from mid-century, leading to large-scale production in a protected Canadian marketplace. Ottawa Boot & Shoe Company, 1875. (William James Topley)

The tariff placed cheap imports from the United States at a disadvantage to protect embryonic Canadian industries. This approach was tried and tested in many countries. (The mid-century American termination of reciprocity with British North America was itself based in part on a fear that British goods would be introduced via BNA and then sold cheaply (or “dumped”) in the United States, thereby killing New England’s manufacturing sector.) Until the mid-1870s, there was sufficient demand in the North American economy that Canadian tariffs could be kept at a moderate level. By the late 1870s, however, competition from American producers was on the upswing. Canadian manufacturers were calling for protection for their products, and there were more of these manufacturers than ever before. The tariff policy was unpopular in the Maritimes and with those Canadians many of them Liberals who looked forward to a return to reciprocity. Beginning in 1878, the Macdonald administration assembled a suite of tariffs that ranged from 17.5% to 20%. These were predominantly assessed on the products of heavy industry and mining.Kenneth Norrie and Douglas Owram, A History of the Canadian Economy (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Canada, 1991), 312-4.

Tethered to a Conservative Majority moored to the likeness of Macdonald, "Miss Canada" resists the attractions of American business interests. Joseph Keppler in Puck Magazine, ca.1880. Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1959-71-37

Figure 3.13 Tethered to a Conservative majority in the likeness of Macdonald, “Miss Canada” resists the attractions of American business interests. Joseph Keppler in Puck Magazine, ca. 1880.

The tariff may have been necessary, but it was unpopular, even with Conservatives. Every Canadian government from the 1860s-1911 held out the prospect of a return to reciprocity with the United States. Having a good trading relationship with the large economy next door only made sense, but it proved to be unappealing to American and Canadian manufacturers alike. The Liberal Party with much of its base in rural Canada was more aggressive in calling for free trade with the United States. Ironically, it was under Laurier that tariffs surged upward to over 30% on certain manufactured goods. After 15 years in office, Laurier went back to the electorate with a free trade agreement in hand, already approved by the US government. The voters turfed him out in 1911 and handed the reins to a staunchly protectionist Conservative leader, Robert Borden, whose campaign slogan was the memorable, “No truck nor trade with the Yankees.”Ibid., 314-5.

By the end of the pre-War era, however, the National Policy had done its work. There were competing railways, Canada had a healthy manufacturing sector, the economy had diversified in ways that would sustain further industrial growth, prairie settlement was well advanced, and the wheat boom was (with a few interruptions) underway. The National Policy had done one other thing that had a sustained consequence for Canada: it created a wall over which products might not pass, but through which capital investment moved as though a barrier were not there. American investment in Canadian productive capacity accelerated with the National Policy. Peter DeLottinville’s study of a town straddling the Maine-New Brunswick border shows how capital from Canada’s financial centre, Montreal, was joined by American money that hoped to make a profit from selling protected Canadian cotton products inside the protected Canadian market. Peter DeLottinville, “Trouble in the Hives of Industry: The Cotton Industry comes to Milltown, New Brunswick, 1879-1892,” in Labour and Working-Class History in Canada: A Reader, eds. David Frank and Gregory S. Kealey (St. John’s: Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1995): 134-6. British money similarly arrived in Canada, although it tended to come in portfolio investments rather than directly from industry. The irony of the tariff, then, is that it protected industry against competition while opening up the Canadian economy to international influences through investment.

The Victrola Talking Machine Co. was a New Jersey-based company (later subsumed into RCA-Victor), famous for its trademark dog, Nipper, listening for "His Master's Voice." Victrola also exemplifies the early generation of American branchplants. Montréal, ca.1910. (Berlin Museum)

Figure 3.14 The Victrola Talking Machine Co. was a New Jersey-based company (later subsumed into RCA-Victor), famous for its trademark dog, Nipper, listening for “His Master’s Voice.” Victrola also exemplifies the early generation of American branch plants. Montreal, ca. 1910.

Tariff walls could not, therefore, isolate the Canadian economy. The Canadian-American border was utterly porous with regard to people and money, regardless of how much of a barrier it was to manufactured goods. The Canadian-American border was also wide open with regard to ideas. The southern alignment of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the building of connecting lines to the south ensured that Calgary would be influenced by centres in Montana and Idaho, Winnipeg by Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago, and in BC, the Kootenays by Spokane, and Vancouver by Seattle and San Francisco. These influences can still be seen in commercial and residential architectural styles from the Victorian and Edwardian eras but, at the time, they were most clearly evident in working-class affairs.

Cause and Effect

No area of historical research attracts debate quite like economic history. In the case of late 19th century Canada, economic historians are divided on several issues. Providing land for free was universally regarded as necessary to the settlement of the West, but was it? In giving away land, was Ottawa forgoing significant revenues? (Certainly the CPR and other land agents did very well by land sales.) Was the subsidy to the CPR necessary? Was it excessive? Were tariffs especially those of as much as 30% essential? At what point did they cease being about protection of embryonic industries and a guarantee of profits for inefficient industries? Or, were they principally a tax on commerce, a means of raising government revenues?

These questions are raised because of the opportunity costs entailed where might Canada have spent railway subsidies otherwise? The objection raised by Western farmers at the time was that they were paying for Canadian industrialization and were held back from being more productive because they could not purchase goods in a freer market.

In short, historians have not resolved whether the National Policy did the job or not, whether its success rests on one strategic pillar or on all three. What is certain is that the National Policy succeeded as an organizing principle and a way of encapsulating Canada’s economic unification and transformation. Macdonald and his peers wanted to see a modernizing Canada. What they got was one which had to make room for new social categories and challenges.

Key Points

  • Three policy areas railway construction, immigration, and protective tariffs on manufactured goods came to be considered as a package known as the National Policy.
  • The Canadian Pacific Railway connected the southern half of the Dominion. It was also an important land dealer, manufacturer, and employer.
  • Immigration into the West began very slowly, showing few returns to the National Policy before the late 1890s.
  • The resettlement of the West involved imposing a new, systematic, artificial, and highly standardized system of land ownership.
  • Tariffs aimed to protect central Canadian industries that were exposed to more cheaply priced American and British manufacturers’ products.
  • Western farmers complained that they paid too much for tariff-protected Canadian goods.
  • The tariff wall encouraged new patterns of investment in Canadian industry.


Figure 3.9
The Stoney Creek Bridge by David R. Spencer is used under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.

Figure 3.10
Turning of the Sod at Canadian Car & Foundry by City of Thunder Bay Archives is in the public domain. This image is available from Thunder Bay Archives under the reference number 1991-6 #129.

Figure 3.11
Dent(1881) 1.378 Manitoba by John Charles Dent is in the public domain. This image is available from British Library under the accession number HMNTS 9555.f.7..

Figure 3.12
Ottawa Boot & Shoe Factory, New Market Street (Online MIKAN no.3246578) by William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / C-002207 is in the public domain.

Figure 3.13
“It’s Only a Matter of Time.” Old Fogyism may hold her back for a while, but she is bound to come to us (Online MIKAN no.2837922) by Puck Magazine / Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1959-71-37 is in the public domain.

Figure 3.14
RCA Victor factory by Jeangagnon is in the public domain.


3.4 Rise of a Working Class

A Canadian working-class arose in the major urban centres and it was also fashioned in relatively remote resource towns like Port Essington on the northwest coast where Aboriginal, Euro-Canadian, and immigrant labour from Asia and Europe met for the first time.,_British_Columbia#/media/File:Port_Essington.gif

Figure 3.15 A Canadian working class arose in the major urban centres; it was also fashioned in relatively remote resource towns like Port Essington on the northwest coast where Aboriginal, Euro-Canadian, and immigrant labour from Asia and Europe met for the first time.

The Canadian working class was emerging well before 1867. By Confederation one could say for the first time that the growth of the working class was now unstoppable. The creation of the Dominion of Canada took place precisely at that moment when widespread industrialization was visibly underway. In 1851, fewer than a quarter of Hamilton, Ontario’s workers laboured in workshops of ten or more employees; by 1871 the share was more than 80%.Bryan D. Palmer, Working-Class Experience: Rethinking the History of Canadian Labour, 1800-1991, 2nd ed. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1992), 83. In less than two decades, Hamilton had been transformed from a market town dominated by commerce into a powerful symbol of heavy industry. Significant and startling though this change was at the time, it was dwarfed by developments in the 1890s. In that decade, Canadian economic growth simultaneously intensified in the older cities and found new fields in which to flourish in the West. The population of Canada in 1901 was 5,371,315; ten years later it was 7,206,643 – an increase of 34%. At the same time, however, the labour force grew from 1,899,000 in 1901 to 2,809,000 in 1911, a phenomenal 50% increase.Statistics Canada, Historical Statistics of Canada, 2nd ed., ed. F. H. Leacy (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1983): D498-511. To put this into some perspective, there were only 3,463,000 people in the Dominion in 1867 by 1911 there were close to that many working, wage-earning Canadians. The working class were motivated and shaped by different factors in the various regions of the country, although common themes were quick to arise.

Workplace Conditions

A middle-aged factory worker in 1870 would likely remember very clearly working in settings where having a half-dozen other employees felt crowded. In the 1860s, working spaces were designed for small teams of mostly manual labourers and artisans. That was about to change.

Industrializing employers were finding their way in a new kind of business. Some came into it from their own smaller operations: small producers (some of them artisans) began employing more staff, mechanizing some processes, moving to larger spaces, and becoming manufacturers. This evolutionary model co-existed with instances where factory owners arrived ready-made from other parts of Canada, but more often, from the United States or the United Kingdom. Increased linkages across industries and systems also meant that capitalists and factory owners in one line of business regularly sought to close gaps in supply lines by means of vertical integration.

These varied circumstances created distinctive conditions of work. For example, the two principal coal mining operations on Vancouver Island in the late 19th century were owned by the London-based and investor-driven Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company (VCMLC) and the Dunsmuir family. The former sent out managers, sometimes recruiting support staff locally, and generally encouraged their workers to buy their own homes and to build community institutions. The latter was led by Scottish immigrants, Robert and Joan Dunsmuir, their son James, and a son-in-law. Robert had been a miner in Ayrshire, Scotland and James spent some of his youth learning the trade first-hand beneath Vancouver Island. Their involvement in the miners’ lives was much more pervasive and included the use of company housing and stores (both as services and as weapons during disputes). The VCMLC operation had to generate dividends for shareholders, while the Dunsmuir mines were run with an eye to making money for the owners and their kin, and as such were far less arms-length operations.

Their coalminers lived in shacks but the Dunsmuirs lived in style. James Dunsmuirs's Hatley Castle near Victoria has, since his death, served as a military college and Royal Roads University, as well as the home of the X-Men in a series of movies. (Photo by Smably at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by using CommonsHelper., Public Domain,

Figure 3.16 Their coalminers lived in shacks but the Dunsmuirs lived in style. James Dunsmuirs’s Hatley Castle near Victoria has, since his death, served as a military college and Royal Roads University, as well as the home of the X-Men in a series of movies.

Coal mines and other resource-extraction industries in these years were a critical part of the pre-Great War economy. Providing fuel for steam power made coal important but it was also key to heating food and urban homes; cities and forest clearing had outstripped the ability of town people to find their own fuel. Likewise the food production industries of the late 19th century existed only because urbanites the fastest growing demographic on the planet could not address their own food supply. The grain economy boom of the turn of the century was part of this and so, too, was the growth of canneries. These appeared in fruit- and vegetable-growing regions but they were most impressive in the fisheries. What these resource-extraction industries had in common, then, was a growing market that was certain to continue growing and, in the years between 1867 and 1914, a need for large numbers of labourers.

Craig Heron (York University) discusses the creation of workers’ communities and a working class.

Race and Class

West Coast coal mines and canneries were sites of diversity, where Euro-Canadians worked alongside Chinese, Aboriginal, African-American, and Japanese labourers. These environments did not emerge by accident. Industrialization in Europe witnessed mass migrations off the land and into cities and the simultaneous conversion of peasant populations into urban industrial workers. This pattern could be seen in Scotland as farmers flooded into the factories and shipyards of Glasgow, and in Liverpool, which was awash with Irish immigrants performing all manner of labour. In Canada, there wasn’t much in the way of a peasantry to convert into industry; it had to be imported from elsewhere. In places like British Columbia, the choices came down to the proletarianization of Aboriginal people or the import of unskilled and mostly agricultural workers from Asia. If British Columbia had a more pastoral landscape and not a lot of mineral, timber, or fishery resources, then it is likely that the population would have been very differently composed.

It would be difficult not to be simultaneously impressed by innovative machinery like this one and concerned about the displacement of labour that it entailed. The "Iron Chink" revolutionized the salmon canning industry on the Pacific Northwest coast. [What constitutes "appropriate credit" here?] "

Figure 3.17 It would be difficult not to be simultaneously impressed by innovative machinery like this one and concerned about the displacement of labour that it entailed. The “Iron Chink” revolutionized the salmon canning industry on the Pacific Northwest coast.

Wages and conditions of work in factories, mines, and mills varied sharply according to race. Age was another factor. If the question was: Where do we find largely unskilled labour that will work under supervision in industrial conditions at rates that will profit employers? one answer was to find labour from a displaced or stressed peasant population. Another answer: from among the child population.

Children contributed to the household income in a variety of ways, including coalgathering, which was provided fuel and could be sold as well. A young girl in Toronto, ca.1900.

Figure 3.18 Children contributed to the household income in a variety of ways, including coal gathering, which provided fuel to households and could be sold as well. A young girl in Toronto, ca. 1900.

Childhood and Labour

Boys and girls had very different experiences in wage labour. Even in urban environments girls’ labour was conceived of within certain gendered boundaries: Domestic work, child-minding, and “fine-work” textiles and stitchery were likely destinations. Girls work was, too, comparatively undervalued so the likelihood was always stronger that boys, rather than girls, would be sent out first to find wages for the household.Bettina Bradbury began considering these relationships between household members, gender, and the economy in a series of studies she undertook from the late 1970s to the early 21st century. Her earliest work “The Family Economy and Work in an Industrializing City: Montréal in the 1870s,” Canadian Historical Association, Historical Papers/Communications Historiques (1979): 71-96 remains a landmark. Female income levels were generally capped, too, by expectations that they would become either dependents (in a male breadwinner model) or their income was little more than a supplement to the husband’s or father’s wage. Boys, on the other hand, were part of a gendered culture of apprenticeships and the expectation that, with age and experience, their income levels would rise. Boys were welcomed into the workplace from the age of eight years until the late 1870s when social pressures and legislation began to push the acceptable starting age upward to approximately 12 years. Child labour practices, in this respect, varied from province to province for two reasons: labour legislation was a provincial responsibility and different industrial activities predominated across the country with practices being tailored to meet those local conditions. There was no consensus about a vision for childhood: whether children should be sent into often dangerous workplaces or into schools was one of several points of debate. Child labour legislation might protect working children from some hazards but it also barred them from contributing to the household wage. As one study of children in mining observes,

Efforts to define children’s dependence clashed sharply with the working-class family wage economy, whereby boys and girls began to labour for wages at a young age as a key survival strategy. For this reason, working-class parents were among the principal opponents of legislation aimed to restrict children’s employment.Robert McIntosh, Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mines (Montréal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000), 40.

Some employers echoed these working-class qualms, principally because they saw child labour laws as a way of reducing profits by forcing the employers to hire more expensive adults. On the West Coast, restrictions on child labour chased the regulation of Asian labour and vice versa. The goal of a sufficient household wage among Euro-Canadian and Aboriginal workers could be undercut by adult Chinese and Japanese labourers, who were willing to work for about the same amount as boys. The racist context of debate on the issue of child labour was something of a distraction in that the English-speaking world was moving away from the use of children in industry. On the opposite coast, for example, and in the absence of a competing immigrant population, Nova Scotian collieries boys represented a falling share of an expanding workforce from 1866-1911, during which time their presence shrank from as much as 27% of the workforce underground (at Sydney Mines in 1886 and 1891) to as little as 5.5% in 1911 (at Springhill).Ibid., 71. The tide was turning against child labour.

This change in attitude is found throughout the 1889 Report of the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital. Established in 1887, this was the eighth investigative enquiry into social, economic, and administrative issues. One study describes it this way: “The Royal Commission … is a testament to not only the turbulent economic relations in late-Victorian Canada, but the emergence of the Canadian state’s active role in social relations.”Stephen J. Cole, “Commissioning Consent: An Investigation of the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital, 1886-1889,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, (Kingston, ON, Queen’s University, 2007): ii. The Royal Commission’s recommendations – apart from the idea of an annual Labour Day  were mostly ignored by the federal government (which claimed that changes in labour conditions were rightly in the provincial jurisdiction) but its disclosures about child labour were widely covered in newspapers and aroused public concern. In the commissioners’ own words:

In some parts of the Dominion the employment of children of very tender years is still permitted. This injures the health, stunts the growth and prevents the proper education of such children, so that they cannot become healthy men and women or intelligent citizens. It is believed that the regular employment in mills, factories and mines of children less than 14 years of age should be strictly forbidden. Further, [we] think that young persons should not be required to work during the night at any time, nor before seven o’clock in the morning during the months of December, January, February and March.Canada. Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital, 1889, republished and edited with an introduction by Greg Kealey in Canada Investigates Industrialism: The Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital, 1889 (Abridged) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973), 13.

Under the ominous heading of “Child-Beating,” the commissioners made this recommendation:

The darkest pages in the testimony … are those recording the beating and imprisonment of children employed in factories. Your Commissioners earnestly hope that these barbarous practices may be removed, and such treatment made a penal offence, so that Canadians may no longer rest under the reproach that the lash and the dungeon are accompaniments of manufacturing industry in the Dominion.Ibid., 14.

Provincial restrictions on child labour and on other aspects of workplace safety and laws were only as good as the inspectors whose business it was to keep employers in line. In the British Columbia Ministry of Mines’ Annual Reports, for example, one finds one or two inspectors in the pre-1914 era attempting to cover an industry that extended from Vancouver Island to the Kootenays and into the Cariboo. Their arrival was always anticipated, so there was little chance of a surprise inspection. The reports issued by the inspectors, moreover, indicate a willingness on the part of mine owners and supervisors to comply with the law but whenever a disaster occurred and mine explosions in Nanaimo claimed over 200 lives in 1887-1888 the roll-call of the dead invariably revealed children well under the legal age.

An Inspector Reports

James R. Brown, a Toronto factory inspector testified to the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital that his team had been set the task of inspecting Ontario’s factories and that the work was largely completed.

Q. Did you find in many places where women were employed that they were working longer than the [1884 Ontario Factories Act] contemplates?

A. Not in a great number of places. I found that principally in woolen [sic] mills.

Q. What were the longest hours for which you found women employed?

A. Sixty-six hours a week.

Q. Did you find any opposition to shortening the hours?

A. No; in each case where I found them working that time the employers stated that they were not aware the Act had been in force, and they were waiting for some formal intimation about the matter. Of course, they stated they would comply with the Act and reduce the hours of labour, so as not to exceed 60 hours.

Q. Did you notice […] any large percentage of children?

A. Yes; in some of them in the cotton mills and some woolen mills, in cigar factories and knitting works, and some others.

Q. Were there many of those children below the age designated by the Act?

A. Well, I found about 40 girls under 14. Girls are not allowed under 14 nor boys under 12. I found six boys altogether nine years of age, and some ten or eleven.

Canada. Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital, 1889, republished and edited with an introduction by Greg Kealey in Canada Investigates Industrialism: The Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital, 1889 (Abridged) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973), 95-7.

Long hours were only one source of complaint among factory workers. Punishments abounded and were often arbitrary. Testimony from a 14 year old journeyman cigar maker in Montreal in 1887-1889 revealed a regime of arbitrary beatings (“a crack across the head with the fist”) when a job was done poorly and the possibility of being imprisoned in the factory in a “black hole,” a windowless room in the factory cellar for upwards of 7 hours at time.Canada. Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital, 1889, republished and edited with an introduction by Greg Kealey in Canada Investigates Industrialism: The Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital, 1889 (Abridged) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973), 214-16. Adults might escape beatings but not fines; dismissals were not uncommon. Moreover, involvement in a labour organization or a strike particularly in a leadership capacity could result in a worker’s name being added to a blacklist. Canada was large enough a country that a blacklisted worker might outrun this sanction, but sometimes the sanction followed them even into the United States. Civil suits were sometimes launched against labour activists and many labour leaders spent some time behind bars. In the 20th century, as the size and distribution of industries and corporations increased, managers came to rely heavily on intelligence gathered by industrial spies. Employers, at times, sympathized with some of the social goals of workers’ organizations, or unions, and began experimenting with what has come to be known as corporate welfarism. This is an array of services and benefits provided by the employer (but generally outside of a collective agreement). Employers did not, however, sympathize with the unions themselves and were often ruthless in disposing of the organizations and their supporters.

Class and Gender

Women were on the frontlines of industrialization and the creation of a working class. In 1901, 53% of all Canadian females were participating in the labour force, compared to 78.3% of all males.Statistics Canada, Historical Statistics of Canada, 2nd ed., ed. F. H. Leacy (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1983): D107-123.  The labour of women was less visible than that of men in these years because of the persistence of cottage labour or, in urban environments, “outwork.” Materials would be taken home by women workers and stitched together or in some other way refined so as to add value. This kind of labour (sometimes referred to as sweated labour) could easily be as gruelling as any factory work. Women were employed for both types of work in Toronto in 1868, when the Globe newspaper reported that some 4,000 women were either factory workers or they were engaged in outwork.Bryan D. Palmer, Working-Class Experience: Rethinking the History of Canadian Labour, 1800-1991, 2nd ed. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1992), 83. Overall, the mechanization and systematization of work created more and more opportunities for women to engage in wage labour. The growing obsession of the 19th century state (federal and provincial) with surveying populations and businesses means that we have suggestive (if not comprehensive) information on the range of women’s experiences in the workforce.

Women’s wages were typically a fraction of men’s, regardless of sector. The 1889 Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital reported that women’s wages in Ontario were about one-third those earned by men. The assumption that a patriarchal breadwinner brought home the bulk of the household wage was widespread and difficult to dislodge (and, indeed, persists in some quarters today). Women’s wages were thus trivialized as top-ups or “pin money.” As men’s wages lowered due to mechanization and increased competition for work that required fewer skills, the proportional contribution of women to the household economy became greater and greater. Children, too, were increasingly in demand in the industrial workforce, even sometimes taking jobs that had otherwise been the preserve of adult males.


Figure 3.19 Poorhouses were disappearing but, in 1871, they were still a refuge for desperate Canadians and a source of some dread.

In cities like Montreal, living conditions were particularly bleak in the last 40 years of the century. Housing was of a poor quality and cramped; infant mortality rates were high, as were maternal mortality rates. Historian of the working-class, Brian Palmer, describes these domestic situations as potentially dangerous ones for women:

The underside of the adaptive families of Victorian Canada is a history of husbands deserting wives, of brutality in which women and children suffered the presence and power of abusive men, and of males (and, occasionally, females) appropriating the paid and unpaid labour of their spouses and offspring as well as availing themselves of sexual access to those who, emotionally and physically, had few resources to resist.Bryan D. Palmer, Working-Class Experience: Rethinking the History of Canadian Labour, 1800-1991, 2nd ed. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1992), 101.

By the end of the century, something like one-in-every-eight wage earners was a woman. The “needle trades” were dominated by women, and textile towns saw industrialism effectively feminized. The systematization of cigar production allowed the penetration of what was once an adult male enclave by large numbers of boys, girls, and women. Women’s involvement in the labour force increased dramatically from 1891-1921. In an era when the population overall and the size of the labour force doubled, the number of gainfully employed women expanded even more rapidly. In the professions (which include teaching and nursing), the numbers leapt from fewer than 20,000 to nearly 93,000; clerical and sales workers exploded from 8,530 to just shy of 128,000. The category “operatives,” which mostly covers industrial workers, saw women’s involvement rise from 150,649 to 240,572. However, the number of women on farms was flat and, as a share of the population, that number was falling. The number of women listed as labourers fell  from 1,049 to 441, but rebounded to 11,716 in 1931 which suggests that the category’s definition was an issue.Statistics Canada, Historical Statistics of Canada, 2nd ed., ed. F. H. Leacy (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1983): 86-106, D123

Mechanization and systematic organization of the workplace were defining features of deskilling in industrial settings. Women in war production at Canadian General Electric, Peterboro, ca.1914-18. Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-024490

Figure 3.20 Mechanization and systematic organization of the workplace were defining features of deskilling in industrial settings. Women in war production at Canadian General Electric, Peterboro, ca. 1914-18.

One distinctive aspect of women’s work lives was the influence of reproduction on labour. That is, the raising of families. While boys would rise through a process of apprenticeship through journeyman to adult worker and would continue on that rarely-broken path until they retired or died, girls and women entered and withdrew from the workforce more intermittently. Girls’ labour in the late 19th century was more heavily regulated (most provincial legislation kept them out of the workforce for two years longer than boys) and so they were more likely to get some formal education or take hidden work in domestic settings or outwork. If the household’s income improved, girls might be withdrawn from paid work in order to contribute more to the rearing of younger siblings a strategy that would perhaps free up adult women in the household for wage-earning opportunities. Bettina Bradbury’s studies of women in industrializing Montreal show wives’ participation in the workforce proceeding through life cycle stages. The highest levels of participation are likely to come before the arrival of children, dipping with the arrival of infants and then dropping severely when the household contains children between one and 10 years of age. Participation rates recover and peak once again when at least one of the children passes the age of 11 years.Bettina Bradbury, “The Family Economy and Work in an Industrializing City: Montreal in the 1870s,” in Cities and Urbanization: Canadian Historical Perspectives, ed. Gilbert A. Stelter (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1990): 141.

Historians have struggled to recover what class awareness and experience meant to women at this time. Statements of solidarity and a commitment to political and social reform were often tempered by the social conventions of the Victorian era. While women might have challenged some of those limitations, they perpetuated others. In some women’s union locals in Ontario in the 1880s and 1890s, the membership was so reluctant to take on “unfeminine” leadership roles that they requested the appointment of male organizers.Bryan D. Palmer, Working-Class Experience: Rethinking the History of Canadian Labour, 1800-1991, 2nd ed. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1992), 136. Associations like the Knights of Labor gave a high priority to what were considered at the time to be gender issues. It is safe to assume that these positions reflect the feelings of their female membership, as well as at least a considerable proportion of the male Knights. Historian of labour, Brian Palmer, has commented on this phenomenon:

[The Knights] deplored the capitalist degradation of honest womanhood that resulted from exploiting women at the workplace; many took great offence at the coarse language, shared water closets (toilets) and intimate physical proximities that came with virtually all factory labour in Victorian Canada. Nor did the Order turn a blind eye to domestic violence and the ways in which men could take advantage of women sexually. Local assembly courts could try and convict members of the Knights of Labor for wife-beating, and the Ontario Order was a strong backer of the eventually successful campaign to enact seduction legislation.Bryan D. Palmer, Working-Class Experience: Rethinking the History of Canadian Labour, 1800-1991, 2nd ed. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1992), 146.

What all of these studies reveal is that industrialism brought women and children along with men into the urban cauldron of change in the same era. Moreover, this constituted a perceived change in the long-standing rural and commercial way of doing things. Life courses changed, conditions of work were invented out of nothing, new anxieties replaced old, and there was in this mesh of experiences a realization that a new social class was emerging.

Class Consciousness and Resistance

Studies of the birth of working classes identify two aspects in particular: the shared experiences of belonging to a population dependent on wage-labour in an industrializing economy, and awareness of the same. Loyalties cut across societies and cultures in many directions, muting the possibility of working people seeing themselves as members of a common socioeconomic category or class. One measure of that emerging and evolving class consciousness is the incidence of labour disruption in the 19th century.

The pre-Confederation era saw a rapid rise in labour disputes, accelerating in the 1860s. These principally involved small local associations of skilled craftsmen employed in factories. People of this generation could recall being independent craftsmen and transitioning into wage labour; now they were facing the mechanization of processes and a consequent devaluation of their hard-earned skills. These workers were generally literate and aware of political and international events. They recognized that their struggles echoed those occurring in Britain and the United States. Every strike, in this context, was like a flare sent up from a ship in distress. Inevitably, others would respond.

By 1880, it is estimated that there were approximately 165 labour organizations in Canada, some of them local, many of them international. Virtually all of these were craft-based. As such, they perpetuated many of the associational rituals and practices from pre-industrial times. Marches, banners, oaths of loyalty, and the building of assembly halls were the most visible of these. Less obvious was the role that early unions played as social safety nets.Bryan D. Palmer, Working-Class Experience: Rethinking the History of Canadian Labour, 1800-1991, 2nd ed. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1992), 94-6. Almost all had a “benevolent society” component to their work that involved life insurance for members’ families. The importance of this role could be seen when industrial accidents most spectacularly in coal mining disasters snuffed out lives a hundred at a time. Providing for widows and orphans was thus core to their mandate and an important part of building identification between labour and its community.

Table 3.1 Work force by occupational category and sex, 1891-1921
All occupations
Total M F
1921 3,173,169 2,683,019 490,150
1911 2,725,148 2,358,519 366,629
1901 1,782,621 1,544,050 238,571
1891 1,607,945 1,411,936 196,009
Owners, managers
Total M F
1921 264,245 253,825 10,420
1911 219,008 207,923 11,085
1901 84,040 81,004 3,036
1891 78,639 74,668 3,971
Total M F
1921 173,222 80,249 92,973
1911 84,153 49,817 34,336
1901 85,590 42,389 40,201
1891 58,893 33,184 19,709
Clerical and sales
Total M F
1921 389,886 262,023 127,863
1911 226,448 175,434 51,014
1901 111,041 91,402 19,639
1891 84,474 75,944 8,530
Total M F
1921 996,020 755,448 240,572
1911 933,577 689,890 243,687
1901 663,755 498,102 165,653
1891 543,560 392,911 150,649
Farm & Farm Labourers
Total M F
1921 1,040,787 1,022,906 17,881
1911 929,847 913,067 16,780
1901 715,528 706,627 8,901
1891 734,122 722,021 12,101
Total M F
1921 309,009 308,568 441
1911 332,115 322,388 9,727
1901 125,667 124,526 1,141
1891 114,257 113,208 1,049
Data source: Statistics Canada, Historical Statistics of Canada, 2nd ed., ed. F. H. Leacy (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1983): D86-106.

Rise of Management

Another development that confirmed the change in workers’ status since the mid-19th century was the rise of new management styles. Management generally became more widespread and dignified as a career in its own right. This was apparent in many environments, even underground, where new techniques for extracting (or winning) coal enabled greater supervision.

The workforce as a whole was growing in the three decades before 1920 and in no category more so than in “owners and managers” (as can be seen in the table above). Starting at 78,639 in 1891, the total number grew to 84,040 in 1901, and 219,008 in 1911. The number of women in this category leapt from 3,036 in 1901 to 11,085 in 1911.Statistics Canada, Historical Statistics of Canada, 2nd ed., ed. F. H. Leacy (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1983): D86-106. Early in the 20th century attempts were made to rationalize systems of production that had lurched forward for 50 years without much thought given to systems. The most well-known body of thought on this subject is the scientific management model pioneered by the American Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1919). Sometimes referred to as Taylorism, these new approaches considered everything from the coordination of shift work, the positioning of machinery, and the inculcation of new industrial virtues like punctuality.

Taylorism was part of a growing middle class agenda of social reform that included child labour legislation, universal education, and temperance or prohibition. While Canadians beyond the working-class acknowledged that excesses of exploitation needed to be curbed and that the most vulnerable needed to be protected, an interventionist state was still some decades away. And, of course, Canadian federalism meant that social legislation would arise at the provincial level, so it would be unevenly developed and potentially idiosyncratic. Middle-class engagement in these issues, however, could only go so far and reformism quickly ran up against emerging class-based antipathies. These tensions would explode in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Key Points

  • Industrialization produced a class of wage earners whose numbers grew rapidly in the 19th century.
  • Working conditions in factories and mines were diverse but generally dangerous and unpleasant.
  • Racial and gender categories divided and complicated the working-class experience.
  • Children contributed to working-class household incomes, but were regularly abused in the workplace and were increasingly subjected to regulation by the state.
  • Early labour organizations campaigned for improved working conditions for women and children as well as men.
  • More complex systems and larger scales of production helped to produce a growing class of managers and supervisors.


Figure 3.15
Port Essington by Unknown is in the public domain.

Figure 3.16
Hatley Castle by Smably is in the public domain.

Figure 3.17
The Iron Chink by upyernoz is used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Figure 3.18
Young girl probably with bag of coal gathered from beside box cars (Online MIKAN no.3194020) by Library and Archives Canada / PA-118224 is in the public domain.

Figure 3.19
Rules and Regulations of the County Poor House (Online MIKAN no.2988345) by Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1984-4-901 / Committee of Management of the Poor House has nil restrictions on use.

Figure 3.20
Women working on primers, [Canadian General Electric Co. Ltd., Peterboro, Ont. (Online MIKAN no.3371002) by Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-024490 is in the public domain.


3.5 Urbanization and Industry

The largest city in English-Canada, Toronto covered a relatively small area. Public celebrations – like this one for the Boer War in 1901 – brought thousands into the streets. Notice how pedestrians, cyclists, streetcars, and horse-drawn wagons compete for space. (City of Toronto Archives)

Figure 3.21 The largest city in English Canada, Toronto covered a relatively small area. Public celebrations – like this one for the Boer War in 1901 – brought thousands into the streets. Notice how pedestrians, cyclists, streetcars, and horse-drawn wagons compete for space.

Industrialization took place in existing cities and it called into existence new industrial cities. There was, therefore, a changing urban landscape in some cases, but also a kind of urban template was developed for emergent cities, onto which industrial relations were imposed. Cities were sites of class struggle and the negotiation of new social relations, regardless of whether they were Canadian metropolises or small mining towns like Greenwood, BC or Frank, AB. The common denominator was the role that capital played in creating landscapes and cityscapes that gave priority to productive processes, sometimes with a brief horizon in mind.

The Dominion of Cities

Between 1871-1911, the population of Canada nearly doubled, from 3,689,000 to 7,207,000.Statistics Canada, Historical Statistics of Canada, 2nd ed., ed. F. H. Leacy (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1983): A78-93. Most of that growth was in urban areas as the share of the workforce engaged in non-agricultural pursuits rose from 51.9% to over 60% in the same period. ibid., D1-7 Even in Nova Scotia, where the benefits of industrialization were not long lasting nor very deep, the impact on the scale of urban settlements was very dramatic: in the decade after Confederation, Halifax grew by 22%, New Glasgow by 55%, Sydney Mines by 57%, and Truro by 64%. From 1891-1901, a decade of immigration strongly associated with the growth of population and farm settlement in the West, Sydney tripled in size, emerging as the second largest city in the province.Statistics Canada, Census of Canada, 1931, vol.1, Table 13 (Ottawa: 1932).

These figures, respectable though they were, are totally eclipsed by the growth of Western towns and cities. Calgary held fewer than 4,000 people in 1891, and added only 500 over the next 10 years. Then its population leapt to 43,704 in 1911 and 63,305 in 1921 with an economy built mainly around distribution, food processing (e.g., meat packing), and housing materials.Max Foran with Edward Cavell, Calgary: An Illustrated History (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1978), 70. In 1891, Winnipeg became the first western city to join the ranks of the 10 largest centres in Canada, arriving in ninth spot with a population of 25,642. The very next census saw it pull ahead of all the Maritime cities (including Halifax), and in 1911, it was the third largest city in the country, with 136,035 people. Likewise, Vancouver joined the top-10 in 1901, with only 26,133 people, and moved into fourth place in 1911 with 120,847. By 1921, four of the 10 largest cities in Canada were in the West, but the older eastern members of this club of leading cities were not going to be easily overtaken. Ottawa, after all, doubled every 20 years from 21,545 in 1871 to 44,156 in 1891, and 87,082 in 1911; the Dominion capital passed the 100,000 mark by 1921, but by that time its population had dropped from its best ranking of fourth (in 1901) to sixth.

None of these cities was without an important industrial component. Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, and Winnipeg each had important rail yards and repair shops associated with the CPR (as did, to a lesser degree, Kamloops, Medicine Hat, and Brandon). Industrializing the production of food was another shared feature, whether in the form of canning salmon or packing meat or shipping enormous quantities of grain. Housing materials was also important to the regional booming population. Door and sash factories and lumber mills appeared in all of the biggest cities, in addition to other expressions of industrialism such as printers, cigar makers, and newspapers. Each of the western cities, too, had a role to play in goods distribution. This involved the handling of foodstuffs and construction materials needed by an increasing population, but also the manufactured goods produced in central Canada. An example of this is the distribution system developed in the 1890s by Toronto department store owner Timothy Eaton (1834-1907). Warehouses for Eaton’s goods were built in the major centres but actual stores only appeared in the West in 1905. In the meantime, one could order from catalogues and have delivered a huge variety of manufactured products  including houses as buildable kits.


Figure 3.22 The Neils Hogenson House in Stirling, Alberta was ordered from the Eaton’s Catalogue in 1917 as an assemble-it-yourself kit.

What is conspicuous by its absence from the western cities at the turn of the century is heavy industry. Textiles did well for a while in Winnipeg, but steel manufacturing and the production of machinery both remained an effective monopoly of central Canada. When the automobile industry arrived in Canada, it was in Walkerville and Montreal, not Edmonton or New Westminster (let alone Halifax or Charlottetown). Processing primary products with very little value added was the norm in the West. It is partly for this reason that workers in the emergent service industries streetcar drivers, milk deliverymen, fire fighters were important players in the trade union landscape of the West.

The clean lines of brick factories, the bold smokestacks and water towers, and the promotional branding visible on this textile mill were all indicators of industrial progress and capitalist confidence in central Canadian communities like Renfrew, Ontario. Credit: Hinchley, Harry / Library and Archives Canada / PA-100649

Figure 3.23 The clean lines of brick factories, the bold smokestacks and water towers, and the promotional branding visible on this textile mill were all indicators of industrial progress and capitalist confidence in central Canadian communities like Renfrew, Ontario.

While urbanism was spreading alongside industrialism and capitalism, the power of Montreal and Toronto was growing greater with each passing generation. In 1871, there were slightly more than 100,000 people in Montreal; Toronto at 56,092 was slightly smaller than Quebec City. By 1891, Montreal had a population of nearly 220,000 and Toronto was three-times the size of Quebec City at 181,000. These two economic and industrial centres were rapidly emerging as a first-rung category of cities, the country’s two metropolises. In 1911, the census found nearly half a million people in Montreal and 380,000 in Toronto. By the end of the Great War, both had passed the half million mark and the next nearest city, Winnipeg, was less than half as large with fewer than 200,000. Toronto’s rate of growth and transformation was more sudden and spectacular than Montreal’s but both were, even in 1900, nothing like what they had been in 1867. Both cities hosted large manufacturing operations, as did second- and third-tier cities in Ontario and in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. In the immediate catchment of each of the two major cities, a metropolitan influence was obvious as the local economies became more closely knit. The foremost example of this is the so-called “golden horseshoe” at the western end of Lake Ontario: Toronto was the unchallenged heart of this conurbation that grew (and became an almost continuous urban sprawl) through the 20th century.

The links between the second industrial revolution and urbanization are described by historian Craig Heron (York University).

Urban Conditions to 1920

A survey of working-class housing in Montreal in 1903 found high density and badly deteriorated conditions. Photo by Wm. Notman & Son, 1903, Notman photographic Archives - McCord Museum II-146359.

Figure 3.27 A survey of working-class housing in Montreal in 1903 found high density and badly deteriorated conditions.

City growth is a companion process of industrialization and, as we have seen, industrialization was enabled by Confederation. Maritime historian, Larry McCann, captured this when he wrote, “The transformation of Nova Scotia’s economic structure and the growth of its towns and cities in the post-Confederation period occurred simultaneously with the province’s integration into the continental economy.”L.D. McCann, “The Mercantile-Industrial Transition in the Metals Towns of Pictou Country, 1857-1931,” in Cities and Urbanization: Canadian Historical Perspectives, ed. Gilbert A. Stelter (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1990): 88-9. Larger factories replaced smaller shops and these factories, of course, were located in towns. Opportunities to earn cash wages attracted young people off the land, especially those who were unlikely to inherit the family farm. Newcomers from abroad, naturally, came ashore in large port cities and those port cities were the outlets for manufactured goods. The ability to consolidate dumps of fuel, whether wood or fossil fuels, was greater in cities that had port and rail, or even canal facilities. The cities, too, were centres of finance, and industrialism was nothing without capital.

Sean Kheraj (York University), a historian of environmental questions considers the function and meaning of parks – specifically Vancouver’s Stanley Park – in the context of modern cities.

The effect was a self-reinforcing pattern. Factories moved to towns that had financial credibility (that is, either wealth or the ability to borrow wealth), infrastructure (docks, railyards, etc.) and an established workforce. This was the case in 1879 when Hart Massey closed the last of his agricultural implements business in Newcastle, ON (where it had moved in 1849 from the tiny inland village of Bond Head) and relocated everything to Toronto where it merged with its chief competitor. By 1891, Massey-Harris employed nearly 600 people.Peter G. Goheen, “Currents of Change in Toronto, 1850-1900,” in The Canadian City: Essays in Urban History, eds. Gilbert A. Stelter and Alan F.J. Artibise (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1979): 63.

Caption. (McCord Museum)

Figure 3.25 Slaughterhouses, breweries, and markets were an important part of any urban landscape, and were usually found in the very centre of cities.  City Market, Saint John, NB in 1910.

While the competition was visibly fierce for investment, giving rise to a generation of civic self-promoters called boosters, it was no less pitched when it came to attracting and retaining a population of wage-earners. It was the ability of Canadians and immigrants to move from town to town in search of work that made industrialization possible. Free labour (untied to the land or to a feudal relationship) was fundamental to the transition to industrialism. This worked well enough when the economy was surging and opportunities beckoned. But when the economy troughed, workers found themselves effectively trapped in the cities where they last hoped to find work. The 1870s, for example, were marked by dramatic protests and hardship in Ottawa, Montreal, and other centres as families complained that they were starving for want of work. In Toronto, the local House of Industry received 2,000 applications for refuge between 1879-1882.Bryan D. Palmer, Working-Class Experience: Rethinking the History of Canadian Labour, 1800-1991, 2nd ed. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1992), 115. Cities might create circumstances in which building rental housing for an emergent working class was both necessary and remunerative. In becoming a tenant, however, workers exposed themselves to impermanence and the possibility of eviction. If they lived in tied housing and carried debt at the truck shop or company store, their vulnerabilities could be greater still.

Company towns like Britannia Beach, BC, provided rows of identical housing to employees and created small urban-industrial nodes in otherwise rural areas. (Canada. Dept. of Mines and Technical Surveys / Library and Archives Canada / PA-013798)

Figure 3.26 Company towns like Britannia Beach, BC provided rows of identical housing to employees and created small urban-industrial nodes in otherwise rural areas.

Overcrowding was widespread. Health conditions were often poor. Sewage systems were deplorable and only began to improve in the 1890s in most Canadian cities and towns. Water supplies were regularly tainted. Immigrant, Aboriginal, and African-Canadian neighbourhoods generally endured worse conditions than those occupied by Anglo- and Franco-Canadians. Housing in some industrial areas was more like dormitories than apartments because of the extensive occupancy of single men and single women. These conditions prevailed at the very time when wealthy and leafy suburbs were being created for the owners of industry. Generally located upwind from the smoke and noise of factories and mills, these wealthy “Nob Hills” paid obeisance to the capitalist hub of Canada Montreal and the power of the CPR’s elite in their names. A Mount Royal neighbourhood occurs in cities all along the main CPR line. Vancouver’s upper-class Shaughnessy neighbourhood was named in 1907 for the then-president of the CPR, and there are Van Horne streets in cities across the country. The hundreds who worked in the switching and freight yards thus lived downwind and often downhill from their economic superiors and employers. Cities had always had elements of spatial segregation based on class and role, but this was being imposed on Canadian cities in a very purposeful way. Awareness of these differences in quality of life and experiences was not unusual.

A view of the Montreal docks in 1896 reveals working class housing tucked in among the factories and and works yards. Note the laundry on the line in the lower foreground. (McCord Museum)

Figure 3.27 A view of the Montreal docks in 1896 reveals working class housing tucked in among the factories and works yards. Note the laundry on the line in the lower foreground.

Single Industry Towns

Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, and Sydney, NS are good examples of industrial-era towns with effectively no prior market-town existence.This is not to say that they had no prior history as human settlements. Both were sites of permanent and semi-permanent Aboriginal communities before, during, and after industrialization. Instant cities of this kind quickly boasted of having the urban amenities found in other 19th century cities: libraries, schools, concert halls, breweries, hotels, restaurants, and newspapers.

The small and new industrial towns generated urban problems as well. The shocking infant mortality rates of industrial Montreal in the last quarter of the 19th century running to 285 deaths out of every 1,000 births barely surpassed Nanaimo in 1881 with 250 per 1,000 births. Kamloops, a booming railway and lumber mill town built atop a cattle and fur trade settlement (not to mention ancient Aboriginal villages), had an infant mortality rate of 380 of 1,000 births in 1891.John Douglas Belshaw, Becoming British Columbia: A Population History (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2009), 180.

What Nanaimo and most the Cape Breton mining towns had in common was the fact that they were essentially single industry communities. The same was true of Drumheller (from 1911), the Crowsnest Pass colliery towns, the Kootenay hardrock mining towns, and a great number of lumber mill towns across the Maritimes and much of the rest of the country. In British Columbia, there was a cohort of 25 towns with population of between 500 to about 2,000 people that sprang into existence around 1891. These were primarily mining towns and the largest share of them were in the Kootenays. Only a handful existed a decade earlier and some would become ghost towns by 1911.

In some instances, these communities were not just limited by a lack of variety of employment opportunities: they were in essence (or formally) company towns in which the chief employer was also the landlord, and possibly responsible for civic authority as well. Communities like these were many and they proved to be highly vulnerable to changes in the economic weather. As one historian of a New Brunswick cotton textile town observes, “by 1890 there were over one hundred villages comparable to Milltown. These small towns contained over 4,500 industrial establishments representing over $2.5 million of invested capital and almost 25,000 jobs.”Peter DeLottinville, “Trouble in the Hives of Industry: The Cotton Industry comes to Milltown, New Brunswick, 1879-1892,” in Labour and Working-Class History in Canada: A Reader, eds. David Frank and Gregory S. Kealey (St. John’s: Institute of Social and Economic Research, 1995): 131. The same historian adds that these small industrial nodes constituted “only one-fourteenth of the industrial capacity of the 46 major Canadian cities,” and yet the pattern was cast widely and echoed many of the developments witnessed in larger centres. There were representatives of this tier of industrial centres in every province and they were an important part of the Dominion’s web of industrial activity.

Calgary, Alberta, ca. 1885. Even small service centres like Calgary were home to warehouses and processing operations in the industrial age. (Library and Archives Canada)

Figure 3.28 Calgary, ca. 1885. Even small service centres were home to warehouses and processing operations in the industrial age.

Exercise: History Around You

Street by Street

The imposition of a tramway intersection on an older streetway, like this one in Montreal in 1893, would dramatically change the way the street was used. (McCord Museum)

Figure 3.29 The imposition of a tramway intersection on an older streetway, like this one in Montreal in 1893, would dramatically change the way the street was used.

The transportation systems of the past leave indelible fingerprints on the dimensions of our cities. Take a look at the oldest part(s) of your city or town. How wide are the streets? If you live in Lillooet, BC, for example, they’re extremely wide. That’s also the case on the main streets of downtown Winnipeg. In Vancouver’s Gastown, Water Street is perhaps a quarter as wide. In the Old Town of Quebec or around Montreal’s Ville-Marie they are narrower still, as they are in the heart of St. John’s.

The appositely named Breakneck Steps in Québec City were clearly not designed for animal traffic nor for trams. (McCord Museum),_Quebec_City,_1870.jpg

Figure 3.30 The appositely named Breakneck Steps in Quebec City were clearly not designed for animal traffic nor for trams.

Can one conclude from this that people in the past were much thinner than they are now or that Winnipeggers need wider roads to negotiate a turn?

The answer can be found in the dominant transportation technology of the day. St. John’s, Montreal, and Quebec were built with military concerns in mind and some of the topography was (and is) challenging, but what distinguishes them most from later cities is that horses were rare. Most of the carting that was done was powered by human legs. And the turning radius of a handcart is very narrow. Merchants shipping goods into the Cariboo gold towns via Lillooet had something in common with Métis freighters in Winnipeg: they made use of ox teams. The turning radius of a team of oxen pulling a wagon is necessarily very large. In between are the cities where horse traffic dominated. The warehouses of Gastown, in Vancouver, depended on fleets of carters whose moderate-sized horses had to be able to make a U-turn with a small wagon in tow. Multiple horse teams pulling larger wagons  required more space though not as much as a team of oxen and that transition can be seen in slightly later street layouts.

A boy and a horse on Hastings Street near Carrall in downtown Vancouver, ca. 1897. Some of the oldest buildings had stables in their basements. (City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Str P175)

Figure 3.31 A boy and a horse on Hastings Street near Carrall in downtown Vancouver, ca. 1897. Some of the oldest buildings had stables in their basements.

Late 19th and early 20th century cities were typically horse towns. The introduction of streetcars added a new wrinkle, as can be seen across Vancouver where the streetcar system rapidly outstripped the building of neighbourhoods. Streetcar tracks plunged into the forests and through the stumps of South Vancouver and Point Grey, anticipating the arrival of new housing. Before the arrival of the automobile, these various forms of transportation foot, hoof, electricity-powered streetcar, and bicycles, too shared the streets in a way that blends the orderly and the chaotic, as can be seen in this 1907 film taken from the front of a streetcar in Vancouver, filmed by United States filmmaker (and victim of the Titanic sinking) William Harbeck.

Where you live and where you work is shaped by the dominant infrastructure of the day. Consider how your town’s transportation history can be seen in the size and shape of its streets and how the physical space in which you move is, itself, a historic document.

Key Points

  • Urbanization in the period before the 1920s was a diverse and uneven process.
  • Two major cities  Montreal and Toronto  emerged that would dwarf all others; the growth and economic health of both was based on industrial economies.
  • New cities in the West were challenging the lead held by Central and Eastern Canadian cities.
  • Cities increasingly developed sections exclusively occupied by higher or lower social classes, in which conditions were very different.


Figure 3.21
Pretoria Day 1901 by James Salmon is in the public domain.

Figure 3.22
Hogenson House by Cocopie is in the public domain.

Figure 3.23
[Renfrew Textiles Limited factory, Renfrew, Ont.] (Online MIKAN no.3326637) by Hinchley, Harry / Library and Archives Canada / PA-100649 is in the public domain

Figure 3.24
The Ward as viewed from Eaton factory by William James is in the public domain.

Figure 3.25
Postcard of the Saint John City Market by unknown is in the public domain. This image is available from McCord Museum under the access number X13436.

Figure 3.26 Britannia Mg & Smelting Co.’s mine, Britannia Beach, B.C. (Online MIKAN no.3373553)
by Canada. Dept. of Mines and Technical Surveys / Library and Archives Canada / PA-013798 is in the public domain.

Figure 3.27
Houses for Mr. Meredith, Montreal, QC, 1903  by McCord Museum has no known copyright restrictions.

Figure 3.28
Calgary Alberta circa 1885 by William Notman is in the public domain. This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reference number C-017804.

Figure 3.29
Tramway crossing under construction, Ste. Catherine and St. Lawrence St., Montreal, QC, 1893 by McCord Museum has no known copyright restrictions.

Figure 3.30
The Breakneck Steps, Québec by Louis-Prudent Vallée is in the public domain. This image is available from McCord Museum under the access number MP-0000.321.2.

Figure 3.31
A boy and horse on Hastings Street near Carrall Street by Major James Skitt Matthews is in the public domain. This image is available from City of Vancouver Archives under the access number AM54-S4-: Str P175.


3.6 Craft and Industrial Unions

Labour Day celebrations in Toronto, ca.1900. (City of Toronto Archives)

Figure 3.32 Labour Day celebrations in Toronto, ca. 1900.

In the 19th century, there was little in the way of what we call collective bargaining. Workers regularly entered into contracts directly with employers where the terms may or may not have been standardized. Typically, employers would post a scale of pay as a means of attracting employees but variations could occur. The implications of this situation could be severe. Going on strike constituted a breach of contract between the employer and the individual employee, making the worker liable to dismissal, legal liability (including fines), and even jail time.

The British Masters and Servants Act still prevailed in the Dominion in the 1870s. Elements of it would survive for decades due to the divided constitutional responsibility for labour: federal and provincial laws both came into play. As one study demonstrates:

Fines and imprisonment for simple breaches of employment contracts remained available in several provinces, and in the Dominion employment jurisdiction, well into the 20th century. […] Despite the brave promises of its preamble, the true policy of the [Dominion’s labour law] was not to place employers and workers on a footing of legal equality, but to leave the provinces to their own devices while seeming to be doing something to keep the trains on time.Paul Craven, “'The Modern Spirit of the Law': Blake, Mowat, and the Breaches of Contract Act, 1877,” Essays in the History of Canadian Law: In Honour of R.C.B. Risk, eds. G. Blaine Baker and Jim Phillips (Toronto: Osgood Society for Canadian Legal History/University of Toronto Press, 1999): 159, 162.

In short, the Trade Unions Act of 1872 offered little to organized labour other than to recognize its growing importance on the Canadian political and economic landscape.

Tory and Liberal politicians both recognized a constituency in the making when they looked at the working class, but their first instincts were to support employers and the economic viability of Canada. That should hardly come as a surprise. Canadian democracy before the 1870s extended only to adult male property owners: the fathers of Confederation were white-collar professionals, merchants, and landowners, not artisans (let alone factory workers). As regards labour relations, the goals of Confederation (at both the federal and provincial level) were to achieve stability and reduce the possibility of workplace and strike violence, and to do that through increased regulation of labour associations. In the face of an obvious alliance between the provincial and federal state and employers, working people took a page from the book of labour elsewhere and began to organize so as to mitigate their weaknesses and amplify their voice.

The Nine Hour Movement

Local unions have their own histories and, therefore, the history of labour in Canada is the tale of a great many organizational processes and struggles. As a whole, however, Canadian labour in the 19th century could turn to a handful of events that were landmarks in the development of a working class.

The first of these was the Nine Hour Movement. Spurred by similar movements in Britain and the United States, agitation for a standardized workday began early in 1872, spreading outward from a hub in Hamilton. The Movement failed at this time, damaged by the decision of George Brown’s employees in the Typographical Union to pursue their own agenda separately. The ongoing political rivalry between Brown and John A. Macdonald also played a role. Macdonald saw the strike at Brown’s shop as an opportunity to undermine his opponent: he supplied funds to the printers, shoring up their Ontario Workman newspaper through the strike. While this intervention cost organized labour their Nine Hours, it presented a separate opportunity of sorts. In the aftermath of the strike, Macdonald cleared away the most repressive of federal anti-union laws and introduced the Trade Unions Act, 1872.

Historians have weighed Macdonald’s motivations in promoting this legislation. Was he hoping to co-opt the labour movement and to ensure it could be regulated? Was he making a concession to unions which he saw as a necessary evil and an imminent reality? Was he hoping to win the support of the emergent working class by championing their ability to organize? Alternatively, was he merely playing catch-up with Britain? There, the Trade Union Act of 1871 legalized unions for the first time. It has been suggested, in this regard, that Macdonald was anxious to ensure that Canada remained appealing to potential British emigrants and worried that an archaic attitude toward labour organizations would deter engineers and other skilled workers from coming to Canada. Whatever Macdonald’s motivations, the Act opened up enough room that year for the establishment of the first attempt at a national labour centre: the Canadian Labour Union (CLU).

The CLU had the misfortune of arriving just as a severe economic downturn took hold. It collapsed within three years. In the next decade, however, local Trades and Labour Councils would be established in the major cities, and from these would arise the successor institution, the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLCC) in 1883. This organization had far greater staying power and survives to this day (though considerably altered) in the form of the Canadian Labour Congress (the CLC).

Craft Unions

The older crafts – accessed through long apprenticeships were the first to organize and did so before Confederation. Craft unionists had employed several tactics to secure favourable conditions in the workplace. One of their concerns regarding skilled workers raised repeatedly was that mechanization, new production systems, and intensification of supervision would cost them their independence and devalue their experience. As deskilling progressed, some of these unions advised their members against training new craftsmen so as to control the supply (and thus the price) of their labour. They also opposed competition from prison labour, unapprenticed workers, child labour, and the exploitation of immigrant workers who might accept lower wages.Craig Heron, The Canadian Labour Movement: A Short History, (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1989), 16. The craft workers are sometimes described as the aristocracy of labour, the best paid and most highly skilled community of workers. Respectability was highly valued among craft workers and their ideal in terms of industrial relations was a respectful relationship with employers in which they would be treated as equals in an emergent liberal democratic order. This meant that, at times, the craft workers’ inclination was to draw a line between themselves and unskilled labour.

The Knights of Labor

Several omnibus labour organizations flourished and then fizzled-out in the period between Confederation and 1920 three in particular. Of these, the first provides a transition between the old crafts-based organizations and the new trade unions. It recognized the connected agendas and priorities of labour in the broadest sense. This was the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor.Because the Knights began in the United States, the American spelling of “labor” is always applied.

A Knights of Labor procession in Hamilton, ca.1885. (Photographer: W. Farmer. Source: Library and Archives of Canada)

Figure 3.33 A Knights of Labor procession in Hamilton, ca. 1885.

Drawing on the traditions of secret societies, benevolent associations, and religious symbolism, the Knights had at least as much in common with fraternal orders  like the Masonic Lodge  as they did with the trade unions that followed. Founded in Philadelphia in 1869, the Knights crossed the border into Canada in the 1870s.

The Knights were enormously popular for several reasons. They drew all trades and crafts under their umbrella, included men and women, promoted temperance with regard to alcohol, and in the early years, their organization was shrouded in the mystery of secret rituals. The movement and it was a movement in that it touched many aspects of life and spoke to a whole way of being, and not just industrial relations was deeply imbued with the idea of a respectable working class. The older, skilled crafts that shared a common tradition of artisanal training and discrete organization in an era when unions were illegal put their stamp on the attitude and approach of the Knights. Its membership, however, was much broader.

In Canada, the Knights were noteworthy for their organizational skills and also for pulling into one body workers from English- and French-Canada. The Knights were also popular in the less industrialized communities of the West and extremely popular among workers in British Columbia. Their vision of a revitalized and reformed society, economy, and democracy had an enormous and general appeal in an era of rapid change and wild fluctuations in employment opportunities:

Somehow their moral outrage and vision of a more communitarian alternative caught the mood of thousands of anxious workers, who were prepared to take a stand against the dominant social and economic developments of the late 19th century. The sense of a great moral crusade was in the air.Craig Heron, The Canadian Labour Movement: A Short History (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1989), 26.

The Knights, of course, had enemies; in Canada the Catholic Church of Quebec was in the forefront. Archbishop Taschereau (1820-98) went so far as to issue an excommunication decree which forbade good Catholics from membership in the Knights.Nive Voisine, “TASCHEREAU, ELZÉAR-ALEXANDRE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed 29 June 2015, Did the Archbishop’s fulminations matter? The Vatican told him to retreat, and in the year that followed nearly two-dozen new local assemblies of the Knights were established in Montreal.Palmer, Working-Class Experience, 131. (The Knights did, however, drop the “Noble and Holy Order” title in the 1880s because Catholic members and clergymen were troubled by the apparent connection with Freemasonry.) The Knights had less success in Nova Scotia, where workers were reluctant to join this international organization. There, an indigenous working-class body the Provincial Workmen’s Association filled the space that was elsewhere occupied by the Knights.

Although the Knights were largely inclusive, the door was not open to everyone. Bankers, lawyers, stockbrokers (and speculators in shares), and liquor vendors were not welcome nor was Asian labour. The Knights were partially colour-blind in that they included African-Americans and African-Canadians. However, Asian immigrants constituted the one visible minority for which the Knights had no tolerance. The Knights backed Asian exclusion laws in the United States and in Canada, and portrayed Chinese labour as an army of potential strike breakers. Race riots in the Pacific Northwest targeting Chinese-Americans resulted in deaths and confirmed the Knights’ adamant hostility to Asian workers. This was part of the appeal (and part of the limitation) of the Knights in British Columbia, where anti-Asian workers’ groups abounded from the 1860s through the early 20th century.

The rhetoric, it must be said, was complex. What non-Asian workers had to say went well beyond a racist objection to working alongside Chinese labourers or losing their place in the workplace to immigrants. On Vancouver Island in the mid-1880s, the Knights argued that Chinese labour had a deleterious effect on the confidence and ability of young people. “Our boys,” complained the Knights at Nanaimo, “grow up to near manhood without an opportunity to earn any part of their living such as they might have were there no Chinese, and such as boys have in other parts of the world.” The mine manager went so far as to invoke fear of adolescent delinquency:

where Chinese labour is easily procured white youths from 15 years of age and upwards do not find such ready employment as elsewhere, and consequently are not so well trained in habits of industry. [There] is growing up amongst us a class of idlers who will not conduce to the well-being of the state.Canada, Sessional Papers, Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration, no.54a (Ottawa: 1885): xvii, 88, 158.

The impact of Asian workers on non-Asian youth, however, was at the end of the day another arrow in a quiver that overflowed with objections real and imaginary.

The Knights began to fade in the 1880s, although they survived as active participants in labour negotiations here and there until the eve of the Great War in 1914. Their slide was a manifestation of the very economic uncertainty that the Knights wanted to address. As competition for jobs intensified, the opportunities to wring concessions from employers evaporated. Internal divisions over the Knights’ rather tepid position on industrial militance cost them support. Workers increasingly wanted results and, if needs be, confrontations with recalcitrant employers. Dual membership in craft unions and the Knights allowed some workers to enjoy the philosophical and sociological ambitions of the Knights while fighting more concerted battles for better wages and working conditions through their unions. In 1886, the dangers of dual unionism came to the fore when the Knights endorsed cigar makers who were not part of the Cigar Makers’ International Union (CMIU). This created competing associations in the same trade. Tobacco processing had a presence in every town of any size in Canada and the CMIU membership was outraged. Thereafter, the cigar makers began an exodus into a different kind of association.

Historic view of the Inland Cigar Factory in Kamloops, 1895. Note the presence of child workers. (Source: Canada's Historic Places website)

Figure 3.34 Historic view of the Inland Cigar Factory in Kamloops, 1895. Note the presence of child workers.

The International Craft Unions

The Knights’ loss of support fed the growth of a new labour centre. In the United States, this took the form in 1886 of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), headed by the cigar makers’ leader, Samuel Gompers. The same year, the Canadian equivalent the Trades and Labour Congress was established as a federation of local Labour Councils in the major cities. Canadian unions were the rule, not the exception at this time. Gompers’ goal, however, was to unite Canadian and American workers along international craft lines.

While Canadian politicians were engaged in nation-building, skilled workers were simultaneously looking to international organizations for their future. Immigrants to Canada brought with them the labour traditions of their homelands and awareness that there were organizations onto which Canadians might graft their own. Some of the first international unions in Canada were based in Britain, but it was American craft unionism that led the way. Coopers, iron moulders, and shoe makers established cross-border alliances and shared strategies back and forth. Withdrawal of labour (in a strike) was invariably countered by employers with the introduction of new workers who were referred to as strikebreakers or, in the colloquial, scabs. Strikers had to adopt tactics to keep out strikebreakers, whether at the factory door or at the international border. Violent conflict between strikers and strikebreakers was a common occurrence and US-based organizations helped Canadian craft unions by discouraging American workers from playing the strikebreaker role, and by providing financial resources to sustain their Canadian partners.

International unionism of this kind took place in an industrial environment dominated by Great Lakes cities like Toronto, Buffalo, Hamilton, Cleveland, Windsor, and Detroit. Workers moved back and forth over the borders and across the lakes, raising the prospect of American strikebreakers showing up during Canadian disputes, and vice versa. There was also the possibility that, during strikes, factories on one side of the frontier would flood markets on the other side with goods in such a way that the striking union’s position would be undermined. Speaking with one voice had distinct advantages and clearly many Canadian craft workers agreed. The AFL-TLC alliance would prove to be a very long-lasting one.

AFL influence over Canadian locals increased through the 1890s, and in 1902 AFL elements took control of the TLC at its annual conference. The AFL’s Canadian organizer, John Flett, was elected president; Knights and Canadian unions alike were expelled.

Industrial Unions and the IWW

The 1902 break with non-craft and purely Canadian organizations, however, left a gulf in the state of labour organization.

The process of deskilling was one factor in the rise of industrial labour. Another was the creation of wholly new industries unrelated to the sorts of things done by craft workers 50 years earlier. A good, and often militant, example was the street railway sector in the major cities, most of which were run by private businesses and none of which could be said to displace an older mode of production.

Both new industries and deskilling led to growing numbers of workers with limited skills to defend themselves, and a greater likelihood that they would face instability over their working career. Once work had achieved a degree of mechanization and automation, or where it had been reduced to the simplest of physical labours, it was possible to create a class of workers for whom apprenticeships held no attraction and few advantages. This class of less skilled worker, however, was an interchangeable part, easily dismissed and easily replaced. In addition, the industrial worker lacked the cultural capital of the craft and even the trade worker. There was no associational tradition, no history of organization or mutual support on which to erect a new movement. Industrial workers were often new immigrants with limited abilities in French or English which put them at a further disadvantage. If they were recruited by labour agents they might be obliged to work to repay their immigration costs, so they were financially vulnerable, too, and sometimes fearful of deportation. Nevertheless, no class of workers posed as significant a threat to the ascent of capitalism as the industrial workers, particularly in the form of the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW).

Organizing men and women, British subjects and immigrants alike, the IWW took the novel approach of printing materials in several languages and using songs to transmit their message. The chief songwriter of the IWW, Joe Hill, has an important connection with Canada.

Figure 3.35 Organizing men and women, Canadians and immigrants alike, the IWW took the novel approach of printing materials in several languages and using songs to transmit their message. The chief songwriter of the IWW, Joe Hill, has an important connection with Canada.

The qualities that made industrial labour desirable from the perspective of capitalism, also made it dangerous. The very mobility of the unskilled meant that they were difficult to discipline. They were most often found in resource extraction industries like the silver mines and smelters of the Kootenays in BC, where single (or at least wife-less) men dominated. The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) organized many of these workers and preached a radical doctrine that disturbed the AFL-TLC. Their low skill levels meant that they moved from one industry to the next, from road building to dock work to mills and lumber camps. This interchangeability made it possible for the IWW to talk about one big union, an organization that took in everybody, including Asian-Canadians. As one West Coast Socialist Party leader said in 1912, “workers must get wise to the fact that what is needed is bigger unions and less unions.”R.P. Pettipiece, quoted in Mark Leier, "Solidarity on Occasion: The Vancouver Free Speech Fights of 1909 and 1912," Labour/Le Travail, 23 (Spring 1989): 56.

Employers certainly didn’t pull their punches in response. A pronounced lack of solidarity from the crafts unions did not help matters, but employer intrigue, use of private security companies, subversion of the unions, and deployment of local militias both punished and galvanized the industrial unions. A good example of this is the 1903 waterfront strike in Vancouver, led by the United Brotherhood of Railway Employees (UBRE) against the CPR. The local labour leader, Frank Rogers, was elevated to the ranks of “labour martyr” when he was shot to death on the docks. The UBRE’s position became increasingly untenable but strike activity spread to the coal mines at Extension on Vancouver Island. There, the WFM was engaged in its own struggle, one that was painted by the CPR (one of the main clients for coal from the Extension mine near Ladysmith) as an illegal sympathy strike. John Hinde, describing the reaction of authorities in Victoria, Ottawa, and the boardrooms of the CPR, captures the intersection of class-warfare and nationalist sensibilities of the time:

Fearful of sympathy strikes, an unambiguous statement of union and working-class power, the authorities subsequently led a frontal assault on the strikers and their unions. […] they viewed the Extension strike as part of a wider conspiracy by illegitimate revolutionary socialist organizations affiliated with American labour interests to disrupt the Canadian economy and to corrupt Canadian workers, and were therefore determined to crush the union.John R. Hinde, When Coal Was King: Ladysmith and the Coal-Mining Industry on Vancouver Island, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2003), 133.

This confrontation hurt the WFM, which began a downward spiral from which it never recovered. Some of its American leadership the most noteworthy being William “Big Bill” Haywood (1869-1928) shifted their energies to a new industrial union, the Industrial Workers of the World.

The IWW (nicknamed the Wobblies on account of the way some immigrant members pronounced the W’s), was the antithesis of the parallel layers of craft unions organized along skill lines and working in a particular industry. The Wobblies called for a singular labour organization to which every individual worker could belong. It was mobilized by one idea: the defeat of capitalism.

Not only did the IWW propose to dismantle the business unions of the AFL and dilute the skill pool within the craft and trade unions, it proposed to overturn the system entirely and favoured a socialist alternative. The instrument with which the IWW proposed to accomplish this was an all-encompassing labour action, a general strike. Building toward this goal involved several sectoral strikes along the way.

The Pre-War Labour Revolt

Labour unrest was increasing from 1896 on, but it spiked in the years leading to the Great War. In 1901, there were 99 strikes and lockouts. This number peaked in 1907 at 188, and then again in 1912 at 181. The number of employees involved leapt from 285 in 1901 to more than a thousand in each of 1903, 1910, 1912, and 1913. What was most dramatic, however, was the aggregate number of working days lost. In 1901, it was 737,808 but by 1911 it had reached 1,821,084.Statistics Canada, Historical Statistics of Canada, 2nd ed., ed. F. H. Leacy (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1983): E190-208. Labour relations were badly unsettled and strikes got both longer and more numerous between 1910 and 1913.Statistics Canada, Historical Statistics of Canada, 2nd ed., ed. F.H. Leacy (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1983): E190-197. This pattern includes the dramatic Canadian Northern Railway (CNR) strike of 1912, which involved some 7,000 railway construction workers drawn from more than a dozen different language groups.Craig Heron, The Canadian Labour Movement: A Short History, (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1989), 43.

Whenever workers in pre-WWI Canada went on strike, they knew that they were stepping into a legal minefield. The right to strike was not enshrined and striking was the equivalent of breaking a contract, which subjected workers to the possibility of federal state intervention. Immigrant workers faced deportation. In some industries, particularly during wartime, labour stoppages were tantamount to treason. Even in peacetime, the militia was not infrequently dispatched to protect strikebreakers and evict strikers from company housing. In these circumstances, the interest of the state and capital were unambiguously aligned.

Of the international trade unions in this period, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) stands out. It had a powerful influence in the coal- and metal-mining communities in Nova Scotia, Alberta, British Columbia, and elsewhere. The UMWA followed craft union strategies, focusing on working conditions and wages, but it would be an error to understate its militance. In the hardrock mines of the Kootenays and the collieries of the Crowsnest Pass, the UMWA emerged as the dominant international trade union. The union was in Lethbridge, too, and in 1906 there erupted a strike that lasted for nine months. What was significant about this confrontation one of many in a period marked by intensifying labour-capital conflict is the role played by the state. A 32 year old bureaucrat in Ottawa, William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950), the Deputy Minister of Labour since 1900, was sent to Alberta to diffuse the situation. (Winter was coming and there were fears of a “coal famine” on the Prairies.) This third-party bargaining was a novel approach and it had the effect of reducing the strikers’ strength even though the employer might have buckled. King followed this up with the Industrial Disputes Investigations Act (IDIA) of 1907, legislation that inserted the federal government as a third-party in specific kinds of labour disputes. Whenever the IDIA was invoked, strikers were required to return to work in a cooling-off period while bargaining proceeded. The effect was to build up stockpiles of goods so that the employer was no longer desperate for a settlement.H. Blair Neatby, “KING, WILLIAM LYON MACKENZIE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 17, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed 29 June 2015, The unions, naturally, hated this.

It was this context of growing confrontation and frustration at the intransigence of employers, government, and business unions, which radicalized parts of the Canadian workforce and labour movement. The Wobblies’ appeal reflects the limitations of craft unionism, particularly in sectors that would not be organized by the crafts. Faced with some of the worst and most dangerous working conditions, the posture of the IWW and the One Big Union (OBU) movement became more radical. It took on employers but it also took on the law. The Free Speech protests of 1909 and 1912 in Vancouver, are a good example of confrontations in which the Wobblies played a key role, and which were not specifically about working conditions or wages.Mark Leier, "Solidarity on Occasion: The Vancouver Free Speech Fights of 1909 and 1912," Labour/Le Travail, 23 (Spring 1989): 39-66.

Mounted police arrive at Oppenheimer Park to put down a Free Speech demonstration in Vancouver, 1912.

Figure 3.36 Mounted police arrive at Oppenheimer Park to put down a Free Speech demonstration in Vancouver, 1912.

The militance of the pre-Great War years crested in 1912 but threatened to resume in 1914. As far as the anti-labour elements were concerned, in this regard the war arrived just in time. Wartime conditions and the radicalization of the working class globally, however, would present very different conditions in the period from 1914-1920.

Southeastern British Columbia was, in the 1890s, a constellation of small-to-middling mining towns. These hardrock miners from the Tariff Mine near Ainsworth were heavily influenced by labour organizations out of the nearest metropolis: Spokane, Washington. (BC Archives)

Figure 3.37 Southeastern British Columbia was, in the 1890s, a constellation of small-to-middling mining towns. These hardrock miners from the Tariff Mine near Ainsworth were heavily influenced by labour organizations out of the nearest metropolis: Spokane, Washington.

Key Points

  • The creation of an industrial working class created new tensions in Canadian society.
  • The ability to organize into defensive associations or unions arrived in the 1870s.
  • Craft unions represented the most skilled and best paid workers, and presented the respectable face of labour.
  • The Knights of Labor originated in the United States and organized workers from across many crafts and industries into one body.
  • Individual craft unions pursued a more confrontational approach and built international bodies to advance their interests, with the AFL emerging as the dominant labour organizer.
  • Deskilling and new kinds of work produced a population of less skilled industrial workers who, in the absence of support from the international craft unions, established industrial unions.


Figure 3.32
Labour Day parade by Papa November is in the public domain.

Figure 3.33
Knights of Labour Procession on King Street by W. Farmer is in the public domain. This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reference number 3386883.

Figure 3.34 
Historic view of the Inland Cigar Factory by City of Kamloops Museum and Archives / Canadian Register of Historic Places taken in 1895 is copyright by Canadian Register of Historic Places and is available solely for personal, educational and non-commercial public use.

Figure 3.35
Cover of The Rebel Girl by Joe Hill is in the public domain.

Figure 3.36
Mounted police at a “Free Speech” demonstration on the Powell Street Grounds, 371-971 by Major James Skitt Matthews / City of Vancouver Archives is in the public domain.

Figure 3.37
Tariff Mine near Ainsworth by Unknown is in the public domain.


3.7 Limits of Democracy

The 1850s and 1860s witnessed the rise of a new class of political leaders and a new style of politics in British North America. The aristocratic airs of the Family Compact in Upper Canada and the HBC squirearchy on Vancouver Island were trademarks of a leadership caste on whom the sun was setting. In their place were men and they were all men of business, the law, and journalism. They were very much unlike their predecessors: wheelers, dealers, and professionals practiced at speaking and arguing a point. They weren’t without airs but they were willing to wade into a crowd and take on the mantle of populism. They were also men on the make; corruption, graft, and bribery were mainstays of Canadian politics. The Pacific Scandal was only the most consequential of what would be generations of pay-offs associated with the “railway hucksters” whose avarice and ambition, according to one historian, “plunged Canada into an orgy of railway overproduction.”Bryan D. Palmer, Working-Class Experience: Rethinking the History of Canadian Labour, 1800-1991, 2nd ed. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1992), 82-3. These conditions were not exclusive to Ottawa and federal politics: the railway binge in British Columbia that began in the 1890s and accelerated under Premier Richard McBride’s Conservatives was no less dubious in its ethics.

The culture of democracy in Victorian and Edwardian Canada was, effectively, an exclusive club. The federal government represented landowning farmers, merchants, and professionals people who, by dint of their investment in the economy, were seen as stakeholders in the running of the country. And their qualifications were gilded, generally, by a better education. This is what privilege looked like in the late 19th century, and it helps to explain why the thought of overthrowing rather than voting out the government appealed to so many radicals in the labour movement and political activists on the left. It simply wasn’t their government.

The Franchise

The ballot box and Canadian-style parliamentary democracy held out the promise of an empowered public. The principle of responsible government was a premise of membership in the Dominion: it was seized upon by British Columbia when the colony became a province in 1871 and would be part of the package that created Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905. What remained at issue was how to define that public. Who was the electorate and how (and when) should they be allowed to express their preferences and cast their votes?

For working people these questions were extremely important. An electorate made up of the wealthy would result in governments that were bound to be unsympathetic to workers’ concerns. As workers’ populations increased in urban areas, the disconnect between governments (civic, provincial, and federal) that represented economic elites rather than the majority of city-dwellers became more apparent. As well, urban working people sometimes found themselves at odds with rural Canadians.

In large measure these conditions arose because of property qualifications and other limits on the electorate. During the period from 1867-1920 the provinces decided their own electoral rules and, for many of these years, they determined the federal qualifications as well. These were based first and foremost on race and gender. With few exceptions, Aboriginal people simply did not have the vote. Nor did Asians. Nor, until the Great War, did women of any ethnicity or social class. What most constrained the size of the (male) electorate, however, were qualifications based on property and income.

In 1885 the Macdonald government brought control of the federal franchise back to Ottawa. Adulthood was defined as 21 years and an income qualification was added at this time: $150 annually for rural Canadians; $300 for urban Canadians. At this time $2 a day in factory wages was fairly good for men working a six-day week.Information on wages in the 19th century is difficult to come by and few studies extant offer comprehensive data. The Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital of 1889 interviewed workers and supervisors who generally placed men’s wages between $7 and $15 per week. Women’s wages were typically half that of men, and children’s wages sometimes half again. Keep in mind that stoppages occurred for many reasons, including weather conditions. To take one example, the relatively well-paid coal miners of Vancouver Island appear to have only worked a 222-day work-year on average, which severely cut into their apparent high wages of $3 a day. In short, while some working men might have made the income target, many others did not. Property-ownership requirements were a further, and longer-standing restriction on working people, the majority of whom rented their homes. Technically the 1885 Electoral Franchise Act made allowances for tenants but this, too, was deceptive. Federally and provincially, what appears to be universal male suffrage was in fact only extended to males who satisfied residence requirements. While this might be an easy bar to reach in rural areas and small towns, it was much more elusive in areas of high labour mobility. Where seasonal labour prevailed, conditions might be worse still. In an environment where winter conditions prohibited work year-round in the forests, on the seas, along canals, and in the fields, the requirement of 12 months residence in the constituency was for many working people the last and highest hurdle.

Whole classes of men were excluded from the franchise for reasons beyond their control. Legal barriers were erected to prevent Aboriginal men from voting in several provinces, and in British Columbia it was illegal for Chinese men to vote, regardless of their wealth. Macdonald’s Electoral Franchise Act, 1885 took on these limitations and extended them to Aboriginal peoples who had earlier been able to vote. What’s more, Macdonald exploited provisions for a federally-managed voters’ list that would be assembled by party loyalists. This had predictable results. Voter fraud and impersonation, arbitrary and purposeful sabotage of voters’ names on the electoral rolls (which could leave them unqualified to vote), and the buying and selling of votes continued to be part and parcel of Canadian elections well into the 1890s.

The Liberal government under Wilfrid Laurier was more favourably disposed to decentralized management of elections and passed the voters’ rolls back to the provinces. This time, however, the ability to discriminate on the basis of local biases was curtailed. Aboriginal voting rights remained entangled in a complex of rules but the direct obstacles to Asians voting were lifted and then re-imposed via literacy requirements. Manitoba similarly restricted Slavic voters by requiring literacy in English, German, French, or a Scandinavian language. Putting the provinces in charge meant inevitable national disparities. Property qualifications remained in place in Quebec and the three Maritime provinces. The overall effect was to create and to entrench rules that ostensibly gave the vote to every male, aged 21 or more, who was a British subject (Canadian citizenship having not yet been invented), but to perpetuate local quirks that could strip a Canadian of his federal vote the moment he crossed a provincial boundary line.

The Conservatives campaign for the workingmen's vote, 1891. (Library and Archives Canada, 1983-33-1095)

Figure 3.38 The Conservatives campaign for the working men’s vote, 1891.

Labour’s Parties

Internationalism was a tenet of the socialist movement in the 19th century. But forging connections with labour organizations in Britain, let alone France or Germany, was an improbable task for Canadian workers. By default international became continental, as Canadian associations partnered up with larger American organizations. As a threat to the Canadian political elite, this was a kind of double-jeopardy: not only did the unions pose an apparent threat to the profit margin of Canadian businesses, they were aligned with organizations based in what many Canadians regarded as a (commercially and politically) hostile neighbour.

Despite the impediments, popular interest in electoral politics grew and by the 1880s the working class was making forays into electoral politics. One way they did so was through an American organization: Knights of Labor candidates began to run in Canadian elections. At the same time, middle-class Liberal and Conservative candidates were cutting their own cloth so as to appeal to workers, adopting policies and taking positions that echoed working-class concerns. The Tories and the Grits even endorsed working men in single-industry towns to run for office under their respective banners. The mainstream parties certainly made efforts to attract worker votes, and they embraced a more inclusive political rhetoric to that end.

For a while something similar happened in Britain and the other White Dominions. The Liberal government of Prime Minister William Gladstone won the loyalty of more than a generation of working-class British voters by significantly broadening the franchise to working men. In response, in the 1880s, British trade unionists and social reform-oriented intellectuals made their way into Gladstone’s Liberal Party and ran for election (with some success) as Liberal-Labour (Lib-Lab) candidates. More definitively, working-class parties also emerged: the Scottish Labour Party was founded in 1888 and the Independent Labour Party in 1893. In 1900, the Trades Union Congress (the British equivalent of the TLC) established the foundation of what later became the Labour Party in 1906. Parallel events occurred in Australia (from 1891) and New Zealand (between 1901 and 1916) but not in Canada. Why did turn-of-the-century Canadian labour move in a different direction?

The TLC’s close ties with the AFL offers an explanation. In the United States, the AFL favoured a strategy of pitting the Democrats against the Republicans on workers’ issues. The AFL’s leader, Samuel Gompers, took the view that labour should “reward its friends and punish its enemies” at the ballot box, and did not offer up an independent partisan alternative. As the AFL’s influence over the TLC grew, the door closed on a labour-left political alliance in Canada. Gompers regarded the socialists with contempt, describing them as “political healers,” akin to faith healers and mystics whose commitment to workers’ conditions was secondary to winning power. He was in favour, instead, of getting trade unionists elected to office who would then change the attitudes of the major North American political parties from the inside. The TLC followed this course and in 1902 voted the Knights out of the Congress’ membership and kept the SPC at bay. Direct involvement in politics by the TLC would have to wait until the 1960s.

The TLC’s strategy in the early 1900s was to run sympathetic candidates in the Liberal Party (generally regarded as more favourably disposed toward unions, at least until about 1906) and this met with some success. Canadian Lib-Lab candidates promoted an agenda of labourism, which consisted mostly of democratic reforms, the eight-hour day, a minimum wage, and educational opportunities for all.Palmer, Working-Class Experience, 177. The TLC in 1906 considered establishing a Labour Party but the British Columbian delegates saw this as too moderate an approach and established the Socialist Party of BC (SPBC). Other provincial labour centres then began generating parties of their own. In Manitoba, Ontario, and Nova Scotia, Independent Labour Parties appeared. Credible candidates ran successfully in urban and mining districts. A Labour Party competed in elections in Quebec, principally in Montreal.

Ideological differences separated these various tactics and parties. As each organization grew stronger and as factionalism continued to grow, the opportunities for forging a national alliance receded. The first two decades of the 20th century would see the emergence of a distinct strain of revolutionary socialism on the West Coast that was profoundly out of sync with the rest of Canada’s labour movement, particularly those elements most influenced by what was going on in Britain.Donald Avery, Reluctant Host: Canada's Response to Immigrant Workers, 1896-1994 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995), 64-5. This left wing of labour’s political arm rejected reformism and was stridently uncompromising when it came to capitalism and even more so when it came to labourist gradualism  and it was popular. Between 1907-1909 the SPBC’s support grew from 10% to 22% of the provincial vote and it elected two members of the legislative assembly. Its career thereafter is considered further in Chapter 8.

One Man, One Vote

If ever there was a golden age of Canadian democracy, it won’t be found in the years before the Great War. Middle-class arguments for inclusion in a democratic order revolved around the idea of being invested in a community: having a home, a residence, a business, and being part of that wealth-generating class that at first drove the market towns and was now building the industrial cities. Giving the vote to working men who lacked wealth, education, and property, not to mention a permanent residence in the community in which they proposed to vote, required a significant readjustment of principles. There were, too, those who expected working men to vote as their employer told them to. This was, in fact, how things worked in the days before the secret ballot, which only arrived in most parts of Canada in 1874.

In short, democratic avenues to social and political change were not especially welcoming to working people. Efforts were made to make it otherwise, but it would take the transformative power of a World War to effect real changes. Organizations like the Knights stand out as an early attempt to lay claim to the politics of identity: they articulated a kind of class consciousness  one based on the dignity of labour  but they were not socialists. Where the impact of the Knights was more lasting was in its role as a movement of reform. It offered a critique of the values of late Victorian capitalism that survived in various forms for generations.

Key Points

  • Democracy in early post-Confederation Canada was limited by income, property, residence, race, and gender.
  • Provincial restrictions on the franchise influenced federal rules as well.
  • Political organizations representing labour and/or working people did not develop in Canada the same way they did in other parts of the British Empire.
  • Labour’s political strategies often involved supporting the Liberal or Conservative parties, although the hard left ran socialist candidates.


Figure 3.38
A Vote for the National Policy (Online MIKAN no.3939876) by Library and Archives Canada, 1983-33-1095 is in the public domain.


3.8 Early Women’s Movement(s) in Canada

Nancy M. Forestell, Department of History, St. Francis Xavier University

Mrs. Willoughby Cummings (née Emily McCausland, 1851-1930) was a key figure in the National Council of Women. and pioneer female journalist and editor at the Globe newspaper.

Figure 3.39 Mrs. Willoughby Cummings (née Emily McCausland, 1851-1930) was a key figure in the National Council of Women. As a pioneer female journalist and editor at the Globe newspaper, she exemplifies the activist and professional sides of first wave feminism.

Alongside and sometimes overlapping with the various social reform causes which emerged in the latter part of the part of the 19th century was the first wave of the Canadian feminist movement. While historians once identified the creation of the Toronto Women’s Literary Society in 1876 as marking the official origin of a women’s movement, more recent scholarship indicates that a variety of women and organizations were engaged in pursuits related to fair treatment and equal rights at least several decades earlier. The specific context of British North America as a settler society shaped by histories of colonialism and slavery had a significant influence on women’s activism from the outset. Belated acknowledgement is now being given to the Indigenous roots of the first wave in North America with documented cases of Aboriginal women demonstrating a critical gender consciousness, acting “in what they perceived to be their own best interests as women as human beings,” and most often to combat the deleterious consequences of colonialism.Jean Barman, “Indigenous Women and Feminism on the Cusp of Contact,” in Indigenous Women, and Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culturei, eds. Cheryl Zuzack et al. (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010): 93. One prominent example involved the Anishinaabe woman, Nahebahwequa (also known as Catherine Sutton), who protested in 1860 against her dispossession from land she considered a birthright, an event that arose because she had married a non-Aboriginal man. Another key element in the genesis of feminist activism was the ongoing legacy of slavery and female engagement in international abolitionist networks. By the mid-19th century, concerns about the injustices of slavery became increasingly connected with another kind of bondage seen to be experienced by women. It remains unclear the extent to which Black and White female abolitionists were able to easily or consistently overcome the racial divide, but there is a record of mixed race attendance at lectures on anti-slavery and women’s rights as well as mutual support for integrated education in the 1850s and 1860s. These initiatives were accompanied by efforts to secure women’s property rights, the quest for higher education, and the formation of female-exclusive church organizations. Altogether, they laid the basis for women to pursue the attainment of additional rights and play a more significant role in public campaigns for social reform. As in other national contexts, there was not a singular women’s movement in Canada as such; rather, a diverse range of activists who dedicated themselves to a wide array of political, social, economic, and cultural issues.

In the latter part of the 19th century and continuing into the 20th century, two main arguments were put forward by feminists to secure greater civil and political rights, and to achieve greater influence for Canadian women in civil society. One was premised on an equal rights ethos that women and men shared a common humanity, and hence, women should be able to attend university, gain access to selection occupations, vote, and etc. as a matter of natural justice. The other emphasized women’s differences from men, and in particular that their near universal role as mothers specially equipped them to participate in a wide range of reform and political campaigns. Referred to as maternal feminism, this form of argument emphasized that women could apply the knowledge and attributes they acquired as mothers to address various inequities and social ills. While some female activists solely employed one position over the other, many strategically used both. Nonetheless, those who came to predominate among the mainstream women’s organizations, namely middle-class Anglo-Celtic Protestant women, most closely identified with maternal feminism. They were especially prevalent in the first national umbrella women’s organization, the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC), formed in 1893. They were not the only ones of course, as francophone Catholic women who became part of the provincial group, the Fédération National Saint-Jean-Baptiste (FNSB), founded in 1907 also saw themselves as maternal feminists.Karine Hébert, “A Maternalist Organization in Quebec: The Fédération Nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste and the Struggle for Women’s Suffrage,” in Quebec Since 1800: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Behiels (Toronto: Irwin, 2002): 461-491.

The NCWC gathers in 18989 at Rideau Hall in the company of one of its champions, Lady Aberdeen (centre) and her husband, the Governor-General.

Figure 3.40 The 1898 NCWC gathered at Rideau Hall in the company of one of its champions, Lady Aberdeen (centre) and her husband, the governor general.

One of the central issues of the first wave was the struggle for female suffrage which involved a protracted campaign with feminist activists laying claim to full political citizenship. While single-issue suffrage groups in Canada remained relatively small and mainly confined to urban centres until the turn of the 20th century, the large female prohibition group the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was a vocal proponent from the 1870s onward. As with a number of other women’s reform groups at the time, the WCTU did not view the attainment of female suffrage as the primary goal in and of itself, but rather as a means to achieve greater political influence for social improvement. Although the suffrage campaign was dominated for the most part by Anglo-Celtic bourgeois reformers, other groups of women participated. For example, female immigrants from Iceland were supporters from early on, as were women originally from Finland, especially after their home country granted women in the vote in 1906. In the specific case of Quebec, the staunch opposition of the Catholic church to women’s enfranchisement combined with the higher priority female reformers gave to advances in their legal rather than political status, meant that support for women’s suffrage was more muted there and the campaign longer.

At the federal level, decades of struggle resulted in the achievement of a partial franchise with the passage of the Wartime Elections Act in 1917. Against the backdrop of World War I, this legislation granted the vote to the female relatives of Canadian soldiers, a large majority of whom were of British ancestry, and withheld the vote to any immigrant citizen from enemy countries who had been naturalized after 1902. These provisions in the legislation not only meant that significant a proportion of non-British immigrants were left out entirely, but also that French Canadians were greatly under-represented among the women who were enfranchised. Although universal adult suffrage was introduced the next year, select populations of women and men were explicitly left disenfranchised: Aboriginal people, as well as Chinese, Japanese, and Indian immigrants.

The final push for women's suffrage in 1917 saw men taking a more enthusiastic role as allies.

Figure 3.41 The final push for women’s suffrage in 1917 saw men taking a more enthusiastic role as allies.

Other key issues garnered the time and attention of feminists beyond the vote. Working-class women, on occasion in concert with middle-class allies, attempted to oppose the inequities of industrial capitalism and inequities within the labour movement. They also specifically agitated as wives and mothers protesting high consumer prices. Farm women lobbied for legislative changes which would allow them greater financial independence and power especially as related to homestead rights and dower laws. There were still other efforts to raise the moral tone of Canadian society primarily by Euro-Canadian middle-class women. These feminists were not alone in this battle, but far more than others, they raised concerns particular to the situation of women and with a view to altering existing gender relations through the attainment of a single moral standard. Social hierarchies of class, race, religion, and colonial status were at times questioned and contested during the first wave but far more they were unquestioned and re-affirmed.Nancy Forestell with Maureen Moynagh, eds., Documenting First Wave Feminisms: Canada National and Transnational Contexts, Volume 2 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013).

Key Points

  • Aboriginal women were early campaigners for women’s rights as regards property.
  • Legal and property rights were a continuing focus for several generations of post-Confederation women, especially in Quebec.
  • The movement to abolish slavery provided opportunities for women to develop activist and political skills and for alliances that crossed racial lines.
  • First wave feminism engaged ideas like equal rights and maternal feminism: the first emphasizing the similarities between men and women; the latter highlighting differences based on motherhood.


Figure 3.39
Mrs. Willoughby Cummings (Emily McCausland Cummings) Toronto corresponding secretary of the National Council of Women of Canada by Library and Archives Canada is in the public domain. This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reference number 3214496.

Figure 3.40
National Council of Women group at Rideau Hall, Ottawa, Ont. by Library and Archives Canada is in the public domain. This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reference number 3366133.

Figure 3.41
Woman Suffrage: You will wish to hear the Canadian woman suffrage leader Flora McDonald Dennison and Mr. Frank Dunham, Thursday, October 25, 8:00 p.m. by Library and Archives Canada is in the public domain. This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the access number 1984-4-917.


3.9 The Great War and the General Strike

A crowd scene on the streets of Winnipeg in the spring of 1919. (Library and Archives Canada),3192170,3574292,3574291,116448,139808,3536279,3559290,3559275,3559259

Figure 3.42 A crowd on the streets of Winnipeg in the spring of 1919.

The history of labour is simultaneously the history of industry and capitalism. No event so announces the triumph of industrial capitalism as does the first industrialized war in 1914-1918. The Boer War of 1899-1902 was a testing ground for new technologies like the Maxim machine gun and some refinements in artillery. It was nevertheless, a conflict marked by an old-style dependency on horses for moving troops and cavalry charges. What erupted in 1914 was very different. The most industrialized nations in Europe were now capable of producing arms, motorized land and air vehicles, armed and mobile artillery (tanks), and chemical weapons, and putting them all into the field of battle. A century of Industrial Revolutions across the northern hemisphere brought the world to this: the possibility of killing human beings on an industrial scale. And it had also produced large numbers of humans to kill.

Earlier European conflicts faced limits based on potential army size. There was always a balance to be struck between professional or mercenary regiments and the national armies. The latter became more the norm in the 19th century as the nation-state emerged. Nowhere was this more obvious than during the American Civil War. The standing army was a development that coincided with the rise of the Dominion of Canada (and fear of the American standing army was a factor in Canada’s expansion). There was also a trade-off, even during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), between recruiting an army and depopulating the countryside. An army, as the saying goes, marches on its stomach. Early industrial nations had no recourse but to recruit from the farming population, but there was always a tipping point where too many soldiers would mean too little food.

Industrialization didn’t resolve that conundrum but it certainly changed the shape of the problem. Between 1750-1900 the population of Europe and Russia grew from about 146 million to 422 million; the population of the United States in 1775 was 2.5 million and in 1914 was nearly 100 million.Massimo Livi-Bacci, A Concise History of World Population, 2nd ed., trans. Carl Ipsen (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 31. Canada’s population growth was hardly less incredible: from 90,000 in 1775 it grew to nearly 8 million in 1914. Some of this growth particularly in North America and Russia took place on agricultural frontiers, but everywhere across the combatant countries there were now millions upon millions of industrial workers who could be pressed into service without compromising food production. At the same time, essential industries required essential workers. Shipyards, coal mines, smelters, munitions factories, agricultural toolmakers, and the transport sector all had to be kept humming along. Still, strip away the so-called non-essential industries and there was a huge population of workers that might be transformed into soldiers. Canada alone would find 620,000 of them, only the slenderest fraction of whom were trained to be warriors before the war.

In 1914, no one knew with certainty how long the Great War would last (see Sections 6.2, 6.3, 6.4, and 6.5). It was meant to be “Great” in its importance, not its length or body count. It would prove to be transformative in many ways globally and in Canada and this is evident in the history of Canadian working people.

War industries increased demand for labour even as large numbers of workers were heading overseas. A scene from a Canadian Linderman Co. plant. (Canada, Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada),3371011,102341,3627981,3627979,3627978,3627974,3627972,3627956,3627919

Figure 3.43 War industries increased demand for labour even as large numbers of workers were heading overseas. A scene from a Canadian Linderman Co. plant.

Labour at War

The military and political response of working Canadians and Canadians in general to the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, is considered elsewhere in this text. How labour (meaning working people and organized labour) met the experience of living in a country engaged for the first time in total war is what matters here. The foremost measure of working Canadians’ encounters with these new conditions is strike action.

The war began two years after a high-water mark in labour unrest. The year 1912 saw a spike in the number of disputes and, although this barely changed in the following year, the number of workers involved plummeted from 43,104 to 4,004. In 1914, there were half as many strikes and half as many days lost. The incidence and length of strikes would continue to fall in 1915 although the number of workers involved now began to rise and would continue to do so, doubling annually from 1914-1917. In 1917 the year of Vimy Ridge and Ypres there were 222 strikes with 50,327 strikers involved and over a million workdays lost. This marked a return to the levels of 1912.Gregory S. Kealey, Workers and Canadian History (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), 295.

What lay behind the plunge in labour disputes and then the meteoric rise in job actions as the war progressed? Canada contributed more than half a million soldiers, sailors, and other participants to the cauldron of war, and most of those individuals came out of industry. This created job shortages and, as a consequence, unemployment levels fell sharply. As the war progressed, there were gaps on the shop floors in critical industries like armaments. These gaps were filled by recruiting women into the workforce. As a result of these developments, working class families experienced a rise in wages and living standards. Less than a year into the war and these changes were being observed (unevenly) across the country. Very soon, labour shortages gave unions an opportunity to negotiate better conditions and wages.

Working people faced several issues at once. While improvements were being noted in wages, prices were also rising. Income gains were quickly being eroded. New industries like munitions were being heavily supervised and routinized. Machinists, in particular, found their work more structured and managed something to which they objected. Skilled workmen also bridled at the idea of women taking on factory positions that had previously been the preserve of craft union members. Women were, to be sure, a highly visible sign of deskilling and, thus, a lightning rod attracting the criticism of organized labour. Untrained men were also contributing to the deskilling process and were no less a source of unease for the trade unions.

Popular perceptions of the war also changed. Within two years of the declaration of war in August 1914, it was no longer a brief and glorious confrontation between the British Empire and its rivals; the Great War had descended into a relentless and inglorious meat grinder of a conflict. Aggressive army and navy recruitment drives and talk of compulsory service were met with calls for the conscription of capital and not just soldiers. It was becoming clear that throwing more men into the trenches was not a winning strategy, and working class critics began pointing to industrialists profiteers who were growing fat off government wartime contracts.

Finally, the role of the state was changing. The War Measures Act, 1914 gave the federal government extensive powers of censorship, arrest, and deportation, and control over the transportation sector (on land and in the harbours). It also allowed Ottawa to engage more directly in the manufacturing sector as a participant with a vested interest. As labour historian Craig Heron points out, the censoring of newspaper accounts of industrial disputes was viewed by socialists and labour leaders as an abuse of the Act; what’s more, the introduction of prohibition in 1917 was deeply resented.Craig Heron, The Canadian Labour Movement: A Short History, 2nd ed. (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1996), 47. As working-class unrest simultaneously spread across Europe and manifested itself in revolutionary socialist movements, the left wing in Canada came under surveillance by the RCMP and under fire from the Dominion government. Radical political organizations were infiltrated by police spies and suppressed; arrests and deportations of socialist leaders followed, which only aggravated labour’s unease. Labour organizations and left-wing political movements began to turn the official wartime propaganda line back on the government: these attacks on rights were, they said, nothing less than Prussianism or Kaiserism at home.Craig Heron and Myer Siemiatycki, “The Great War, the State, and Working-Class Canada,” in The Workers’ Revolt in Canada, 1917-1925, ed. Craig Heron (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), reprinted in Readings in Canadian History: Post Confederation, 7th ed., eds. R. Douglas Francis and Donald B. Smith (Toronto: Thomson Nelson, 2006): 372.

The labour movement rebounded and union membership shot up. By the end of the War, there were no fewer than 378,000 members in craft and industrial unions, as well as in the emerging civic unions that now included police, civil servants, and white-collar workers. Craig Heron points to the exceptional levels of collaboration and cooperation between craft unions and even between craft and industrial unions; these alliances facilitated community-wide bargaining in smaller industrial towns and sectoral bargaining in larger cities. He also notes a greater spirit of inclusivity that extended to women and ethnic minorities in unions.Heron, The Canadian Labour Movement, 48-9.

Two factors contributing to labour’s growth remain to be mentioned. The first is success at the bargaining table. Wartime conditions, labour shortages, and a more muscular movement won concessions during strikes, and nothing succeeds like success when it comes to organizing labour movements. The second echoes the first: the success of revolutionaries in Russia inspired workers’ movements around the world. The possibility of wringing significant systemic reforms from the state and employers was in sight; the prospect of overturning capitalism entirely and establishing a socialist political, economic, and social order was also closer than ever before. These developments provide the material and intellectual context of events in 1919.

Canada's commitment to undermining socialist regimes extended to participation in an attempt to suppress the Russian Revolution. Members of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force (1919) were few in numbers and saw little combat. (Library and Archives of Canada)

Figure 3.44 The Canadian government’s antipathy toward socialism extended to participation in an attempt to suppress the Russian Revolution. Members of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force (CSEF) in 1919 were few in numbers and saw little combat.

The General Strike

No single labour dispute in Canadian history is as well known and as regularly invoked as the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Lasting six weeks, from May through June, it constituted an important moment in the workers’ revolt of the period that began in the 1890s and concludes (or at least takes a break) in the mid-1920s. The events in Winnipeg are important in many respects, but it is important to note as well that general strikes sprang up elsewhere: in Amherst, Nova Scotia, Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, and in many other centres from one end of the country to the other. Some of these strikes were motivated by local conditions and others in sympathy with Winnipeg.See, for example, David Bright, The Limits of Labour: Class Formation and the Labour Movement in Calgary, 1883-1929 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1998), 145-61, and Benjamin Isitt, “Searching for Workers’ Solidarity: The One Big Union and the Victoria General Strike of 1919,” Labour/Le Travail, 60 (Fall 2007): 9-42. Indeed, the rolling tide of disputes related to the Winnipeg General Strike would continue to 1925.

The idea of a work stoppage across industries had been touted for decades by the IWW and others on the more radical and industrial side of the labour movement. In the aftermath of the Great War, there were enough common issues and irritations to arouse the Canadian working class. As historian of labour, Greg Kealey, points out, “World War I, while providing specific sparks to light the flame of working-class struggle in 1919, should not be viewed as its cause.” Gregory S. Kealey, Workers and Canadian History, (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), 294. If not, then what causes lay behind a wave of unrest that brought out more than 149,000 workers in more than 400 strikes and claimed more than 3.4 million workdays lost in 1919?

Rising unemployment was a factor. The end of war meant the closing of munitions plants. Now, too, there were hundreds of thousands of returning soldiers to inflate demand for work. In addition, ex-servicemen expected to return to their old jobs, which meant displacing women and men who had been brought into those positions during the war. All of this created an atmosphere of uncertainty in the workforce while mobilizing, at least part of, a large female workforce in protest. Politically, too, the returned troops were something of a wildcard. Some were outraged at the anti-war and anti-conscription postures struck by many on the labour-left, to say nothing of their hostility toward the Russian Revolution and its supporters. There were also instances where returned British-Canadian soldiers turned their ire against Central and Eastern European, people they described as enemy aliens, who had taken their jobs. Other veterans felt that the radical critiques of profiteering, incompetent generalship in Europe, and international capitalism were entirely on the mark. Ottawa’s disinterest in the fate of returning soldiers pushed many veterans still closer to the labour-left camp.

Some returned soldiers and the Citizens' Committee regarded the strike as a treasonous conspiracy got up by eastern European immigrants in Winnipeg. (Library and Archives of Canada),3192170,3574292,3574291,116448,139808,3536279,3559290,3559275,3559259

Figure 3.45 Some returned soldiers and the Citizens’ Committee regarded the strike as a treasonous conspiracy stirred up by Eastern European immigrants in Winnipeg.

Divisions between craft unions and industrial unions also played a role in the growing labour militance after the war. The old tensions resurfaced in 1918-1919, following an attack by the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada on radical (and mostly western) elements within the unions. Regional leadership subsequently met in Calgary in March 1919, to form a syndicalist organization with roots in the old IWW: the One Big Union (OBU). International locals in the west were quickly brought into the OBU fold. Workers who were impatient for a confrontation with employers responded favourably to the OBU’s radical language and rejected the AFL-TLC business union line. Precise numbers are impossible to obtain, but historians agree that anywhere from a quarter to a third of union membership in Western Canada and specifically in Winnipeg was in the OBU.

A crowd gathers outside Winnipeg City Hall in 1919 during the general strike. (Library and Archives Canada)

Figure 3.46 A crowd gathers outside Winnipeg City Hall in 1919 during the General Strike.

Of course, local conditions played a role. Events in Winnipeg arose initially from a bargaining dispute in the building and metal trades. The right to collectively bargain was one of the chips on the table and when employers would not budge, the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council (WTLC) called for a general strike. The response was unprecedented. A few days later, approximately 30,000 Winnipeggers were on strike. Public transit, the factories, the police department, fire stations, retail shops, post offices, and several utilities closed down. The Central Strike Committee established by the WTLC bargained with the city and employers while authorizing essential services like milk delivery.

Members and supporters of the Citizens' Committee – identifiable by their armbands and clothing – prepare to confront the strikers on Bloody Saturday. (Royal Canadian Mounted Police/Library and Archives Canada),3615116,3615117,1422942,878871,3559276,3559274,3559288,1888050,3759354

Figure 3.47 Members and supporters of the Citizens’ Committee – identifiable by their armbands and clothing – prepare to confront the strikers on Bloody Saturday.

The Winnipeg establishment came out united in its opposition to the strike. A Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand was their coordinating body and they had deep pockets, a tight network of connections to the Borden government in Ottawa, and the full support of local and national newspapers. Describing the strike as a Bolshevik uprising (echoing fears of a Russian-style revolution) led by foreigners and traitors, the Citizens’ Committee turned attention away from the issue of collective bargaining and raised the spectre of a revolutionary crisis.

Matters came to a head in mid-June 1919. On the 17th of June, ten OBU leaders were arrested, among them the leading Social Gospel Methodist minister in Winnipeg, James S. Woodsworth (see Chapter 7). The mass arrest launched a demonstration of solidarity and a final buildup of state resources that collided on Bloody Saturday, the 21st of June 1919. The deployment of troops, Mounties, and Specials volunteer police drawn from the Citizens’ Committee in the words of one historian, turned Winnipeg into “virtually an occupied city.”David Jay Bercuson, Confrontation at Winnipeg: Labour, Industrial Relations, and the General Strike, revised ed. (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990), 187. The Royal North-West Mounted Police (as the RCMP were called at the time) appeared and charged on horseback into the crowd three times before opening fire: 30 were injured and two killed. The federal government’s clear commitment to defeating the strike was manifest in cavalry charges against protesters, whose numbers included large numbers of Great War veterans. It was also evident in amendments to the Immigration Act and the Criminal Code that allowed Ottawa to deport British citizens and to charge strikers with sedition.

The RNWMP ride into the crowd on Bloody Saturday. (Royal Canadian Mounted Police/Library and Archives Canada),3615116,3615117,1422942,878871,3559276,3559274,3559288,1888050,3759354

Figure 3.48 The RNWMP ride into the crowd on Bloody Saturday.

The Legacy of Winnipeg

The Panama Canal was an invisible participant in the General Strike. Opened in 1914, it cut deeply into the cost of shipping grain and lumber from Vancouver to the east coast of North America. The movement of Western products along the CPR through Winnipeg suffered badly. The effect was delayed by the War, but by 1919, it was being felt in falling wage rates and a rising cost of living in Manitoba. Winnipeg’s economy never fully recovered. A decade after the strike, the city slipped out of 3rd place among Canada’s largest centres and continued to become less and less consequential in the 20th century. One study has argued that the local labour unions were so demoralized by the events of 1919 and under such heavy state scrutiny, that they were thereafter incapable of fighting for competitive wages and working conditions.Kenneth McNaught and David J. Bercuson, The Winnipeg Strike: 1919 (Don Mills: Longman Canada, 1974), 118-20.

The strike produced other consequences, at least one of them very long-term. Six of the strike leaders were sentenced to a spell behind bars, some getting terms of two years. Woodsworth was released and almost immediately elected as an MP from the Independent Labour Party (ILP). He would go on to found the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the precursor of the New Democratic Party (see Section 7.9). Other figures, drawn from the leadership ranks of the strikers, picked up the thread of revolutionism and established a communist political party.

Among historians, Winnipeg occupies a place of contention. Was it an expression of a peculiar kind of Western radicalism or part of a larger Canadian workers’ revolt? Does it constitute as the Citizens Committee of One Thousand feared a nascent Bolshevik revolution, or was it a local labour dispute with very limited goals: better wages and collective bargaining rights? These issues have divided labour historians for more than a generation. Recently it has been argued, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it was both a matter of local bargaining and a combination of radical rhetoric coupled to a comprehensive reaction by the authorities and the establishment.See Reinhold Kramer and Tom Mitchell, When the State Trembled: How A. J. Andrews and the Citizens’ Committee Broke the Winnipeg General Strike (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).

It has also been argued that the chief beneficiary of the Winnipeg Strike was the RNWMP. On the brink of being disbanded because its frontier mandate was no longer relevant, the Mounties found renewed purpose as an agency of state surveillance and subversion of leftist organizations.See Lorne Browne, “Depression and Repression: Canada Between the Wars,” Canadian Dimension, vol. 49, issue 2 (March/April 2015): 27-37. What can be said with some certainty is that the events of 1919 hardened the federal and provincial state’s attitudes toward labour; collective bargaining rights, welfare, veterans’ support, and many other labour and social initiatives may have been postponed as a reaction to 1919. More pointedly, as one study reveals:

After crushing the Winnipeg strike, the federal government collaborated in the anti-radical Red Scare that businessmen and conservative journalists were promoting across the country. The workers’ revolt had thus pushed the state to create more powerful, centralized mechanisms for combating radicalism than had existed in pre-war Canada.Heron and Siemiatycki, “The Great War”: 386.

At the very least, the events of 1919 determined the size of a labour union. The state was to restrict them in such a way that one big union would become an impossibility in the future.

Key Points

  • The Great War created conditions that facilitated the growth of militant labour.
  • The end of the war saw a sudden reversal for working people, the emergence of divisions between returned soldiers and workers, and a state crackdown on leftist labour organizations.
  • The Winnipeg General Strike was the foremost of several similar disputes across Canada that pitted a broad-based alliance of working people against an economic elite combined with imperialist factions and the armed representatives of the government.


Figure 3.42
Street scene during the Winnipeg Strike of 1919 by Library and Archives Canada is in the public domain. This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reference number 3574292.

Figure 3.43
War production by Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada is in the public domain. This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reference number 3371011.

Figure 3.44
Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force in Vladivostok 1919 by Raymond Gibson is in the public domain. This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reference number 3194493.

Figure 3.45
Street scene during the Winnipeg strike of 1919 by Library and Archives Canada is in the public domain. This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reference number 3574291.

Figure 3.46
Winnipeg General Strike by The Montreal Star Publishing Company is in the public domain. This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reference number 3192170.

Figure 3.47
Winnipeg riot by Royal Canadian Mounted Police / Library and Archives Canada is in the public domain. This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reference number 3615116.

Figure 3.48
Winnipeg Riot by Royal Canadian Mounted Police / Library and Archives Canada is in the public domain. This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reference number 3615118.


3.10 Summary


Figure 3.49 Civic pride and the expectation of continued city growth is embodied in the great city halls of the late 19th century, including Winnipeg’s, ca. 1887.

Imagine a skilled craftsman around the time of Confederation. Born in the mid-1840s, his talents were honed through a process of apprenticeship and work in a small shop alongside a master and perhaps two or three other workers. The community was small a large city might contain fewer than 30,000 people and even the largest covered a small, walkable space. The work setting was probably familial: the master his employer was also the head of the household in which the apprentice lived from childhood. Other family members  old and young  worked alongside him as he grew.

By 1870, competition is increasing as others working in the same trade combine their efforts under one roof, selling their skills for wages. Soon there are a couple of dozen workers per factory. Then a hundred. By the time our craftsman has reached his 30s he will have seen his area of expertise and skill increasingly challenged by machinery and the employment of less skilled workers, including women, children, and perhaps immigrants.

In the late 1880s, at the age of about 45, he looks about himself and sees an urban environment that is utterly different from the commercial market-towns of his childhood. He is working in a shop that is becoming more and more mechanized, the work broken down into component parts. Respect for his skills is diminishing and he’s coming under increasing pressure to be efficient.

He is married and his wife easily recalls the rhythms of rural Canada. There were long working days and not much about it that was very charming or romantic, apart from (possibly) better housing conditions and a degree of independence that is being eroded in factory work. Her own skills as a tailor are being undermined by machinery and her wages are barely half those of the men in the factory. Their children work the same long hours and are at the mercy of supervisors who will discourage talking or playing or daydreaming with physical punishment of their small and tired bodies and minds.

The industrial, urban world presents new social opportunities. Joining lodges and churches are an option. So are new organizations like the Knights of Labor and the Provincial Workmen’s Association. For Ontarian and Québecois working people, the prospect of crossing the border for work is nothing new; the idea of joining an American labour organization that promises to protect the dignity of labour is an easy choice to make.

This is the new normal for a generation of Canadians who can remember that pre-industrial past and, in the 1870s and 1880s, are looking at a future that offers little certainty. Their children 10 to 20 years old in 1887 will take those years of lightless childhood with them into the trade unions sponsored by the AFL and the TLC, or into the IWW. It is also very likely they will take those experiences (remember that this generation has far less claim on a pre-industrial standard) into the militant years from 1907-1925. They will take all this with them into the far west, as well, where they will find company towns and new systems of discipline in labour disputes that include the police, local militias, national troops, specials, and private security companies.

The grandchildren of our original craftsman born in the early 1880s-1890s will grow up watching a world of conflict in their factory, mine, mill towns, and their distinctly working-class neighbourhoods. Most will experience orphanhood the death of at least one parent before they turn 15 and they will likely spend some time moving around their province or across the country as part of a transient workforce. This railway generation is the first for which a trans-continental conception of Canada is easily arrived at. They also have a greater likelihood of receiving a substantial educational experience and they will be the subject of far greater middle-class reform-mindedness than their predecessors. They will object to militarism, but they will die in their thousands in Belgium and France.

Reading the Working Class

If we approach the history of working-class Canada institutionally, from the history of trade unions or the growth of factories, we can easily miss the way it might have appeared to participants on the ground. No one involved in the 1919 General Strike would be much younger than 16 nor much older than 50. If that is all we know about the people involved, then we know they had probably come some distance perhaps generations from the farming, fishing, and market town peoples of the first four provinces. We know that many of them would necessarily be immigrants whose experience of work was influenced by local prejudices. We also know that industrial capitalism was a widespread way of life and not something new. It had been around long enough, and the exploitative qualities were sufficiently and frustratingly familiar that a working-class response was timely.

If it seems as though changes in the experiences of working people and their organizations came quickly and repeatedly, it is partly due to the fact that change in the economy and in the way workers lived, was also occurring at a breakneck speed  sometimes erratically. New technologies and resource industries produced significant and very new problems in short order. Some of the organizational shifts were, however, particularly decisive.

Take the differences between the Knights of Labor with their largely autonomous Local Assemblies and the AFL-TLC led craft unions. Distinct constitutions and memberships, and a centralized and bureaucratic leadership marked the latter. A craft union in the late 1880s might discourage one of its locals from mounting what the leadership regarded as an imprudent strike simply by withholding strike funds. The Knights allowed more local freedom while depending simultaneously on the strength of deference to the senior ranks. The craft unions had a local and sectional view of the world while the Knights and the Wobblies had a sector-wide perspective.

The growth of these institutions was important to Canadian history in that they reframed the language of citizenship and rights. They posed a challenge, in some instances, to the emergence of capitalism. They had something to say about culture and respectability, and they certainly had something to say about class. Greg Kealey compared working-class testimony from two Royal Commissions the 1886-89 investigation into Relations between Capital and Labour and the 1919 study of Industrial Relations and concluded that respectability had been supplanted by radicalism. In the space of 30 years, the working class had changed at a foundational level and at a cultural level as well  it was a much bigger phenomenon and it included far more than the original craft union elements. Along the way, its instincts had changed from a desire to fit into a bourgeois vision of Canadian society to one that had grown increasingly cynical of the state and employers.Gregory S. Kealey, Workers and Canadian History (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), 289-328.

Historians continue to debate whether Canada was on the brink of a revolutionary uprising of working people in the first two decades of the 20th century. Without a doubt, it is the direction some outspoken and influential leaders wished to head. Others sought to test the limits of democratic reform. Together, the excitement of events in Russia and the rise of the British Labour Party created a sense that change could be achieved with or without the ballot box. It is also clear that Canadian workers exhibited less unity than they might have precisely because of their federal system and because of cultural differences. This period saw the rise of labour organizations, but we must keep in mind, their immediate reach was never great. On the eve of the Great War, barely one-in-ten of Canadian workers belonged to a union. Their concentration in certain key industries, however, gave these early organizations far greater potential than their numbers indicate.

Just as industrialism built a new economy, it was midwife to a new kind of modern Canadian who was very typically a town or city dweller, a wage-earner (or someone dependent on a wage-earner), probably a renter, and someone who worked and lived alongside many other people most of whom were unrelated. This is a far cry from the Canada of 1867 and it was one in which new bonds were being forged.

Key Terms

abolitionists: Individuals and groups associated with the movement to end slavery in the United States. In Canada, abolitionists assisted African-Americans fleeing the United States, whether they were slaves or otherwise. The abolitionist movement built the foundation for subsequent social movements in Canada.

American Federation of Labor (AFL): Established in 1886 as an umbrella organization of craft unions in the United States.

automation: A manufacturing process in which assembly or some other part of the production system is performed by machines that are subject to control systems.

blacklist: Sanctions taken by employers against workers whom they associate with labour organization, strikes, certain ideological movements, or other actions contrary to the employers’ interests. Technically, a list of individuals who were denied work on the basis of their involvement in pro-labour activities.

Bloody Saturday: 21 June 1919; during a mass demonstration of solidarity (after ten OBU leaders were arrested, including J. S. Woodsworth) in which a buildup of state resources (troops, Mounties and Specials) were brought in. 30 protesters were injured and two killed.

Bolshevik: A workers’ party that led the Russian Revolution in October 1917 under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin.

boosters: Civic promoters.

business unions: Trade or craft unions that approach activism from a non-revolutionary position; associated with the unions of the AFL, the TLC, and — later — the CLC.

Canadian Labour Congress (CLC): Founded in 1956 in a merger of the Trades and Labour Congress (TLC) and the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL). Subsequently joined with the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) to create the New Democratic Party (NDP).

capitalism, capitalists: An economic system (and its practitioners) that is based on the ability of private individuals to accumulate and invest money (capital) in profit-making enterprises. Also, a system that is dominated by the private ownership of the means of production.

chilled steel plough: A significant late 19th century advance in plough manufacturing. Stronger steel enabled the cutting of faster and deeper furrows and the breaking of densely packed prairie soil.

Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand: During the Winnipeg General Strike, 1919, an organization established by the city’s business and political elites to break the strike and challenge the authority of the Strike Committee.

collective bargaining: Negotiation of working conditions, pay, and other issues or benefits by an association — a “union” — of employees. Replaced the many individual arrangements made in one-on-one agreements.

company store: An outlet owned by an employer, one that sells goods to employees of the same firm. Commonplace in company towns. See also company towns.

company towns: A community with one major employer and few other employers; one in which most or all services — in some instances including housing and the supply of food — are controlled by the employer. Associated with remote resource extraction communities.

corporate welfarism: Equates subsidies to corporations with social welfare paid to individuals. In 1972, NDP leader David Lewis coined the phrase “corporate welfare bums” as a way of identifying what he perceived as the hypocrisy of attacks on the poor by anti-welfare business leaders.

craft capitalism: Refers to a transition to capitalism led by craftworkers.

deskilling: Mechanization and automation of work, as well as assembly lines permits the systematization of work and a commensurate reduction in the skills and training needed to perform key functions. The work is said to be deskilled and, thus, the workforce too is deskilled.

dower laws: Formal recognition of a widow’s lifetime interest in matrimonial property on the death of her husband. See also homestead rights.

equal rights: In the context of feminism, the belief that rights accorded to men and women ought to be the same. Diverges somewhat from maternal feminism which claims rights based on gendered differences.

essential industries: Sectors identified in a crisis (such as wartime) as fundamental to the survival of the economy or society or war effort. Workers in those sectors are typically protected against conscription and may also be restricted in their ability to move to other jobs. In some instances, the state takes direct control of the industries for the duration of the crisis or longer.

Family Compact: The elite network in pre-Confederation Canada that dominated colonial politics; in Quebec (aka: Canada East, Lower Canada) it was referred to as the Chateau Clique.

Fédération National Saint-Jean-Baptiste (FNSB): Founded in 1907, francophone Catholic women activists who also saw themselves as maternal feminists.

female suffrage: One of the central issues of the first wave feminists, involving a protracted campaign with feminist activists laying claim to full political citizenship.

feminism: An ideological position that advances the ideal of equality of women and men.

first wave: More fully: first wave feminists. Advocates for women’s rights in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; also sometimes called maternal feminists.

fossil fuels: Includes coal, oil, natural gas, and petroleum; any fuel based on the compression of carbon matter over geological time.

free labour: Workers who are not tied to a feudal relationship, slavery, or indentured servitude and are able to move from one employer (or location) to another based on the size of pay and the character of the work.

general strike: A labour stoppage involving most or all unions or workplaces. General strikes have been held that call on all workers in a particular city or a particular sector or across an entire country.

ghost towns: Abandoned communities; associated principally with resource extraction — often mining — towns that have a very short lifespan and which close up once the resource is removed or the market disappears.

gradualism: The idea that great change can occur incrementally in slow, small, and subtle steps, rather than by large uprisings or revolutions. Among left-wing activists, a belief that reforms to capitalism can produce a social and economic order of fairness for working people; sometimes called Fabianism; derided by revolutionaries as delusional. In the context of Quebec’s independence movements the equivalent term is étapisme. See also reformist and impossibilist.

homestead rights: The Dominion Lands Act protected women’s interest in homesteads by forbidding the sale of the homestead by a husband without the wife’s written consent.

household wage: A way of measuring income that extends beyond the breadwinner model and incorporates incomes earned by every member of the household/family.

House of Industry: A facility typically funded out of philanthropic/charitable donations that provides housing and food for impoverished citizens with the expectation that they will do work in return. In the 19th century, associated with workhouses for the poor.

industrial relations: The diplomatic business of negotiating contracts and conditions between employers and employees; typically between employers and labour organizations (unions).

Knights of Labor: Fully, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. Established in the United States in 1869-70; expanded into Canada in the next decade; organized workers regardless of race (apart from Asians), sex, or skill levels. Competition with the new craft unions resulted in the Knights’ expulsion from the Trades and Labour Congress in 1902, and its gradual disintegration thereafter.

labourism: Canadian Liberal-Labour (Lib-Lab) candidates promoted an agenda that consisted mostly of democratic reforms, the 8-hour work day, a minimum wage, and educational opportunities for all.

Labour Party: In Britain, the political face of the Trades Union Congress; established in 1906. While Labour Parties also appeared in Australia and New Zealand, one never fully materialized in Canada.

Liberal-Labour (also Lib-Lab): Typically a pro-labour candidate, sometime running under a Labour or Independent Labour banner, who joined the Liberal caucus on being elected.

maternal feminism: Also called first wave feminism; a movement to achieve greater civic rights for women; based its appeal on the biological differences between women and men, arguing that women have a natural nurturing instinct and ability which ought to be welcomed in a democratic system; women could apply the knowledge and attributes acquired from their universal role as mothers to address various inequities and social ills.

mechanization: The process of replacing manual labour with machinery; distinct from automation, which is a later phase in the deskilling process.

modernity: Also modern and modernism; term given to a constellation of behaviours and beliefs associated with the industrial, urban era. It is associated with challenges to traditional values and ways of looking at the world, and is often used in connection with 20th century artworks, literature, and architecture.

National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC): A feminist activist group formed in 1893; predominantly Anglo-Celtic Protestant women who mostly identified themselves as maternal feminists.

National Policy: John A. Macdonald’s linkage of three policies into one: a tariff wall to exclude American manufactures; an transcontinental railway (the CPR) to link the Maritimes with British Columbia; and the settlement of the West. Although most of the components were in place by 1876, it was only touted as a single National Policy in 1879.

one big union, One Big Union (OBU): In the first instance, the idea (pioneered by the Knights of Labor) that working people should belong to a single organization that can fight for their rights collectively; secondly, an actual organization — the OBU — formed after 1919, as a revolutionary industrial union (which included workers in support of the Bolshevik and other left-wing revolutions).

partial franchise: With the passage of the Wartime Elections Act in 1917, female relatives of Canadian soldiers were granted the vote.

populism: In politics, an appeal to the interests and concerns of the community by political leaders (populists) usually against established elites or minority — or scapegoat — groups. The rhetoric of populists is often characterized as vitriolic, bombastic, and fear-mongering.

profiteers: Industrialists and others who were able to profit from government contracts in wartime.

prohibition: A total ban on the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol products.

proletarianization: The transformation of non-industrial workers or skilled workers and small employers into wage labourers.

proportional representation: Distinct from the first-past-the-post system; can take several forms but common aspect is that political parties will be elect a number of seats that reflect in some measure the percentage of votes the parties receive. For example, in a first-past-the-post system a party might win 49% of the votes in every constituency but not elect a single candidate if the only other party running wins 51% of the votes; proportional representation (sometimes called PR) would ensure that the second-place party received something closer to 49% of the seats.

Red Scare: A complex of political, social, economic, and cultural responses to the rise of pro-communist feeling in Canada and internationally; fear of communist revolution at home or abroad and particularly of pro-communist spies and supporters working clandestinely to advance a communist agenda; manifest in security campaigns against perceived enemies of the state, the creation of blacklists, and other acts of intimidation.

respectability: A term used and an ideal pursued by mid-19th century organized labour — particularly skilled craft workers — and some of their successors; embraced the ideals of fair treatment, law-abiding behaviour, equality, and a commitment to the nation’s stability and growth. Manifest in many ways including working class campaigns for literacy, temperance, and rational recreation.

Second Industrial Revolution: Usually placed between ca. 1870 and 1914, renewed technological innovation which saw a significant expansion in iron and steel production, railway construction, and communications technologies like the telegraph and telephone.

Social Gospel: A social reform movement stimulated by Christian beliefs that linked personal engagement with social salvation.

Specials: Volunteer police drawn from a local population; in the case of the Winnipeg General Strike, the Specials were recruited from the Citizen’s Committee.

squirearchy: Colloquial term used to describe the elite in colonial British Columbia.

standing army: A full-time, permanent, usually salaried army, as opposed to a volunteer militia.

strikebreakers: Colloquial term for a worker who continues working, or who takes a job, while a strike is ongoing. Also called a scab.

sweated labour: Work that takes place over long hours; exhausting and generally poorly paid; very often involves “outwork”, the taking home of materials that are assembled there, usually by female employees, who are paid on the basis of output.

sympathy strike: A labour stoppage by supportive workers who are not directly involved in a dispute.

syndicalist: Advocate of syndicalism, the belief that industry would be best run by syndicates made up of industrial workers who would own and operate the factories themselves.

tariff: Charges (a tax) added to imported goods so as to make their sale price higher than domestic goods and, thus, make domestic goods more competitive.

temperance: One strand of the anti-liquor campaign in the 19th and 20th centuries, focussed on the personal impact of alcohol and personal resolve in limiting or giving up drink. Contrast with prohibition, which called for an all-out ban on the production, sale, and consumption of liquor.

tied housing: In company towns, housing that is owned by the employer and provided to employees. In some cases, residence in tied housing is a condition of employment, which enables the employer to evict strikers during labour disputes.

total war: Describes the engagement of the whole nation in conflict, and not just the military. In the 20th century, applies only to the two World Wars.

Trades and Labour Congress of Canada: A national association of craft unions modelled on the American Federation of Labor; established in 1883 and merged with the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL) in 1956 to create the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).

truck shop: An outlet owned by an employer, one that sells goods to employees of the same firm. Commonplace in company towns. See also company store.

universal adult suffrage: Introduced a year after the partial franchise, to grant adults the right to vote; however, select populations of women and men were explicitly left disenfranchised: Aboriginal people, as well as Chinese, Japanese, and Indian immigrants.

universal male suffrage: Extension of the franchise — the right to vote — to all adult males. In practice in Canada, it excluded non-Euro-Canadians (i.e. Aboriginal and Asian) adult males until the mid-20th century. Also constrained by residency requirements until the mid-20th century.

vertical integration: In economics and business, a system in which the whole or most of the supply chain is owned by the same individual(s) or firm. Early examples come from the steel industry which in some cases controlled the production of coking coal, the supply of iron ore, foundries, and railways that consumed the final product.

wheat boom: An expanding demand for wheat leading to a rapid expansion of farmland dedicated to wheat production; in Canada from ca. 1880-1914.

Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU): One of the largest and most effective anti-drink lobbies in Canada. Established in 1874, months after its first branch was announced in the United States, the WCTU emerged as a vehicle for contiguous reforms in public behaviour, the political environment, and social conditions.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. Define the Industrial Revolution. What were its main features in the late 19th century?
  2. How did infrastructure and the energy economy change in the post-Confederation era?
  3. What were some of the main features of working-class life?
  4. Was the Industrial Revolution a social revolution as well as an economic transformation?
  5. What were the main features of the National Policy?
  6. What sort of roles did children play in urban and industrial society? To what extent were the experiences of boys and girls distinct?
  7. How did urban life change the experiences of women?
  8. In what ways was urbanization connected to industrialization? In what ways were Canadian cities distinct from one another?
  9. How did craft unions differ from industrial unions?
  10. What were the goals of the early labour centres, such as the Knights of Labor?
  11. What were the key features of Canadian democracy in the late 19th century?
  12. Explain the rise of first wave feminism, and what is meant by maternal feminism?
  13. How did the Great War change Canadian labour and its political ambitions?

 Suggested Readings

Bullen, John. “Hidden Workers: Child Labour and the Family Economy in Late Nineteenth-Century Urban Ontario,” Labour/Le Travail, 18 (Fall 1986): 163-87.

Dunae, Patrick A., Donald J. Lafreniere, Jason A. Gilliland, and John S. Lutz, “Dwelling Places and Social Spaces: Revealing the Environments of Urban Workers in Victoria Using Historical GIS,” Labour/Le Travail, 72 (Fall 2013): 37-73.

Kealey, Gregory S. “State Repression of Labour and the Left in Canada, 1914-1920: The Impact of the First World War,” Canadian Historical Review, 73, 3 (1992): 281-314.

McCann, Larry. “Seasons of Labor: Family, Work, and Land in a Nineteenth-Century Nova Scotia Shipbuilding Community,” The History of the Family, 4, Issue 4 (1999): 485-527.

Radforth, Ian. “Playful Crowds and the 1886 Toronto Street Railway Strikes,” Labour/Le Travail, 76 (Fall 2015): 133-64.

Strong-Boag, Veronica. “’The Citizenship Debates’: The 1885 Franchise Act,” Contesting Canadian Citizenship: Historical Readings, eds. Robert Adamoski, Dorothy E. Chunn, and Robert Menzies (Toronto: Broadview Press, 2002): 69-94.


Figure 3.49
City Hall and Volunteer Monument, Winnipeg, MB, 1887 by William McFarlane Notman / McCord Museum has no known copyright restrictions.


Chapter 4. Politics and Conflict in Victorian and Edwardian Canada


4.1 Introduction

The role of the Canadian state included the punishment of crimes and deviance. The ability to assign the death penalty was reserved to the federal government until it was abolished in 1976. In this 1901 photograph from inside the jail at Hull, Stanislaus Lacroix (hooded) prepares to be hanged while observers watch from neighbouring rooftops. (Canadian Copyright Collection, Picturing Canada Project, British Library)

Figure 4.1 The role of the Canadian state included the punishment of crimes and deviance. The ability to assign the death penalty was reserved to the federal government until it was abolished in 1976. In this 1901 photograph from inside the jail at Hull, Stanislaus Lacroix (hooded) prepares to be hanged while observers watch from neighbouring rooftops.

Governing Canada presents rather distinctive, if not unique, challenges. Even when the Dominion consisted of just four provinces, there were substantial issues of distance and scale. The core of English-Canada’s population and its economic engine was in southwestern Ontario, a long way from Halifax. Railways and telegraphs closed that gap somewhat, but annexing the West and pulling BC into the Dominion just worsened matters exponentially. Distance might be compromised again with more rails and more roads but cultural issues are far less amenable to a technological fix. The idea of a federation as opposed to a unitary state stemmed principally from French-Canada’s long-standing, and entirely justified, fear of assimilationist anglophones and anti-Catholic Protestants. One very large part of the new nation, then, had signed on to a political unit that it inherently mistrusted. Could that mistrust be tempered by adopting a national policy of dualism? Would that just prove offensive to the English-Protestant majority? These issues could not be ignored: While the provinces might enjoy primacy in the area of culture and education, the federal government must somehow hold together the whole. These were issues that the countries against which Canadians were likely to measure themselves the United States, Britain, Australia, and France never had to deal. Twenty years after Confederation, its architect, John A. Macdonald, was not convinced that it was possible to sustain the federal union: “[I] have watched the cradle of Confederation & shouldn’t like to follow the hearse.”Quoted in Ged Martin, John A. Macdonald: Canada's First Prime Minster (Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2013), p.176.

Which raises the question: What is the role of the federal regime? Constitutionally, its powers are limited but it does, from time to time, play a considerable and active role in many facets of Canadian life. Political history is about much more than constitutional history, but the constitution and the division of powers found therein are the ground rules for the Dominion’s governmental processes. As well, the British North America Act functioned in the first three decades of Confederation as a kind of strategic plan. It is highly unusual for a constitution to include provision for a railway; in the BNA Act it stands out like a contractual obligation, and this was a facet that was reinforced in BC’s Terms of Union in 1871. Likewise the BNA Act, and the debates that brought it together, made it clear that Canada was to be a mutual defence pact between a small group of colonies that were highly anxious about American appetites.

Measuring the performance of 19th century governments in particular thus means that we have to look at the tasks they were given and how they interpreted their responsibilities.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe dualism and account for its fluctuating support.
  • Explain the political successes of the Conservative Party from 1867 to the 1890s.
  • Interpret the role played by the Catholic Church, and religion generally, in Canadian politics.
  • Account for the rise to power of Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberal Party.
  • Describe the crises faced by Laurier and how they illuminate Canadian political culture and society.
  • Outline the principles of Canadian imperialism and nationalism, ca. 1900.


Figure 4.1
L’execution de Lacroix (HS85-10-13176) by the British Library is under the public domain.


4.2 John A. Macdonald’s Canada

The issue that faced John A. Macdonald and his contemporaries at the federal level was the extent to which Ottawa could build a nation on the basis of two founding cultures. (This, of course, was an exercise that completely ignored the presence of Aboriginal cultures except insofar as it endeavoured to subjugate and/or alter them.) For the most part Macdonald’s generation opted to focus on economic bonds rather than cultural bridges. Macdonald’s National Policy may be understood in this context as an articulation of a vision of Canada. The tariff protected Canadian manufacturers and therefore shielded Canada against American economic aggression. The Intercolonial Railway was quickly overshadowed by a railway to the Pacific, which had the same goals. The deployment of a national constabulary and temporary military units in the West affirmed Canadian determination to execute its territorial strategy against American possibilities. In these ways, and in others, the National Policy has been interpreted as an instrument of nationalism as well as economic development. The mixture of technology, science, engineering, and notions of progress on which the railways depended was something that informed public life and became a premise of the new Dominion. As one historian has argued, this was a “philosophy of railways,” a commitment to an instrument of Canadian ambitions that was simultaneously economic, political, nationalistic, and cultural.A. A. den Otter, The Philosophy of Railways: The Transcontinental Railway Idea in British North America (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997). And it was on this project that Macdonald pinned his career and the success of his party.

As a politician, Macdonald was regarded as “crafty,” a term that was not always offered as praise. Macdonald was unafraid of hard work (he is reckoned to have almost single-handedly drafted the Quebec Resolutions that led to the BNA Act) and his earlier position as an outsider within the Tory Party may have driven him to labour twice as hard to be half as good. He drank heavily and was beset by some of the ill-health that comes with too much alcohol. His wit was sharp and he was often self-effacing. Macdonald’s ability to delay and postpone, and wear out his opponents, earned him the nickname Old Tomorrow. His biographers paint a picture of a man who simultaneously led from the front while demonstrating a preference for serving his caucus rather than having his caucus serve him.

This last point is important because of the extent to which Canadian politics have become characterized by what is sometimes called “presidential prime ministers.” The Canadian system does not provide for the election of a prime minister, only two or more caucuses, one of which (ideally) is large enough to form government. It is implicit in responsible government that the executive (or cabinet) serves at the sufferance of the largest caucus (from which it is drawn), and that the caucus may, if needs be, direct the government to change direction. Macdonald’s career was profoundly shaped by debates about responsible government; building a majority in the House was his specialty and he had been doing so since the 1850s. Dividing Canadian history along the benchmark of 1867 means we sometimes lose sight of the fact that Macdonald spent decades fighting and winning in politics.

Macdonald was effective as a leader in large part because he had strong co-leaders in Quebec whom he treated as partners and confidantes. The first of these, of course, was George-Étienne Cartier (1814-73), without whom it is unlikely that Quebec would have agreed to Confederation. Cartier, too, played the pivotal role in negotiations with Britain regarding the annexation of Rupert’s Land, and he pressed vigorously for the addition of British Columbia. It was Cartier who put the idea of a Pacific railway on the table. Cartier’s death in 1873 produced a great public outpouring of grief, much of it stage-managed but not all: 50,000 to 100,000 spectators lined the route of his funeral procession. Macdonald was stricken and, when he announced Cartier’s passing to the House of Commons he was silenced by his own sobbing.J.-C. Bonenfant, “CARTIER, Sir GEORGE-ÉTIENNE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed 5 August 2015,

An enormous and extravagant state funeral was held for George-Étienne Cartier in Montréal, 1873.

Figure 4.2: An enormous and extravagant state funeral was held for George-Étienne Cartier in Montreal, 1873.

Hector-Louis Langevin (1826-1906) subsequently took up the task of leading Quebec within the Conservative government, but he had a difficult time of it. The execution of Riel poisoned relations between French-Catholics and the Tory Party. Langevin won re-election in 1887 (despite being called a “hangman”) but few of his Conservative colleagues were so lucky. Macdonald appreciated Langevin’s efforts and skills and made him Minister of Public Works a fateful decision. Public works played an important role in the building and maintenance of, among other things, bridges and docks, which made it an effective instrument of patronage to loyal supporters of the government. It also placed the minister in the path of temptation. Allegations of corruption with respect to railways in Quebec and British Columbia circled around Langevin. Another potential scandal in Ontario had the potential to end the career of the prime minister as well as Langevin: a dry-dock construction project in Macdonald’s own constituency of Kingston involved public contracts assigned to a man who did not exist. Despite this, Macdonald held on to the bitter end to the ideal of a French-Canadian successor, and it was Langevin he had in mind. This was an indication of the depth of Macdonald’s conviction that the two “founding nations” ought to rule the country together.

Macdonald’s commitment to this perspective was older than the Dominion itself. His close alliance and friendship with Cartier – a rebel of 1837, a Bleu leader 30 years later, and the government’s man in Quebec was pivotal to the successful inclusion of Quebec in Confederation. Macdonald knew through his work with Cartier that culture mattered. At the same time, Macdonald and his supporters were committed to the view that the northwest would be Canadianized, which for all intents and purposes meant cleared of First Nations and Métis, and remade in the shape of Ontarian, Anglo-Protestant society. The diffusion of Anglo-Canadian values took place in a variety of settings, including the courts and the legal system, the legislatures, and the schools.

An unusual – and unequivocally hostile – depiction of Macdonald (along with New Brunswick Conservative MP, Robert Moffatt) on an early “baseball card," ca.1885.

Figure 4.3 An unusual – and unequivocally hostile – depiction of Macdonald (along with New Brunswick Conservative MP Robert Moffatt) on an early “baseball card,” ca. 1885.

No event in his long political career so defined Macdonald’s legacy as the hanging of Riel (see Sections 2.7 and 2.8). As one French-Canadian Tory MP from Montreal said, “Sir John saw the dawn of his political career lit by the glow from the burning parliament buildings in Montreal; its sunset will fade behind the gallows in Regina.”Andrée Désilets, “LANGEVIN, Sir HECTOR-LOUIS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed 25 February 2016, While Ontario’s Orange Lodges were baying for blood they wanted Riel to hang for the murder of Thomas Scott in 1870 and not necessarily for treason in 1885 Quebec was incensed by Ottawa’s treatment of the Catholic-French Métis community since the Red River uprising. The failure to create a French/English society in the West, the subsequent marginalization of the Métis population, the heavy-handed performance of centralist federal politicians, and Ottawa’s apparent disregard for the Quebec economy was all read as a long trail of broken promises. The hard-line ultramontanist movement became increasingly active in criticizing francophone Conservatives as serving Ottawa and Macdonald rather than Quebec and the French-Catholic culture. This was paralleled by the growth of nationalist sentiment among the Canadiens.

There was, too, a growing sense in Quebec that industrialization and modernization threatened the rural stability of francophone society. There was a great deal of truth in the fact that industrialism was being imposed on French-Canadians and on the countryside because all but a handful of the industrial elite was anglophone and urban. While the CPR might function in English Canada in the 1880s as a symbol of technological and economic progress, in Quebec it represented for many a diversion of wealth to a francophone-hostile Western periphery and the resultant high unemployment. A consequence of this economic impact was the emigration of Québecois youth to the United States. All of these ingredients were simmering when the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 occurred. Sympathy for the Métis was easy to evoke, but Riel was more complicated: The Catholic clergy recognized their flock in the West but had to be firm in their opposition to Riel’s heretical pronouncements. Once Riel recanted his more idiosyncratic beliefs, the whole of Québecois society seemed on his side. His hanging provoked a mass demonstration in Montreal’s Champ-de-Mars at which Macdonald was burned in effigy.

Thereafter, the fortunes of the Conservative Party in Quebec crashed. With the exception of some seats in Montreal and a few scattered over the countryside, there was by 1887 little left of Cartier’s Bleu-Conservative machine. Indeed, the Conservative Party in Quebec would never fully recover, although it might have were it not for the compounding effects of Borden’s conscription legislation in the Great War.

Toeing the party line, according to the Canadian political cartoonist John Wilson Bengough, was common practice under Macdonald. This cartoon appeared in Grip in 1877 and refers to damage-limitation efforts on the part of the Conservative Party as it prepared for an election.

Figure 4.4 Toeing the party line, according to the Canadian political cartoonist John Wilson Bengough, was common practice under Macdonald. This cartoon appeared in Grip in 1877 and refers to damage-limitation efforts on the part of the Conservative Party as it prepared for an election.

Macdonald led the government through two parliaments in 1867-73, was pushed out of office on a tide of corruption allegations known as the Pacific Scandal, and returned for four more parliaments from 1878 to his death in 1891. The Macdonald administrations are mostly remembered for the National Policy (see Section 3.3), and it has been argued that the Conservatives and Alexander Mackenzie’s Liberals from 1873-1878 could not build a nation based on a culture and so opted for economic unity, but this was a unity that was far from equal. It did, however, create a separate economic order north of the United States. Historians have both praised the tariff policy as the source of Canada’s industrial take-off, and criticized it for suffocating industry in the West and the Maritimes while encouraging Americans to set up their own factories in Canada. These early branch plants were a harbinger of 20th century developments that would see a closer integration of the two nations’ economies, regardless of the tariff. The weight of votes was in the manufacturing hubs of central Canada, something even the Liberals could not ignore forever. By 1896 the Grits abandoned their pro-reciprocity position (at least temporarily) and joined the tariff camp.


Figure 4.5 The Conservative Party message in the 1891 election: American goods will flood Canada without the tariff.

Macdonald maintained to the bitter end that the tariff was essential to protecting more than Canadian industry. It protected Canada as a whole. In part this was rhetoric, displayed most clearly in his 1891 campaign which was explicitly nationalistic and pro-tariff, but it was also sincerely believed. There were enough continentalists in the Liberal Party including its 1880s leader Edward Blake (1833-1912) and his outspoken colleague Goldwin Smith (1823-1910) to demonstrate that a return to reciprocity or, worse, a common tariff policy with the United States was likely to be the first step toward the end of Canada.

Key Points

  • John A. Macdonald enjoyed success in federal politics by dint of forging important alliances with francophone political leaders in Quebec.
  • The strengths of Conservative political partnerships in Quebec were tested to destruction by the execution of Riel.


Figure 4.2
Funeral procession of George-Étienne Cartier by Jeangagnon is in the public domain. This image is available from the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec under the reference number 3234.

Figure 4.3
A Double Play (Online MIKAN no.3805663) by Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R1300-535 is used in the public domain.

Figure 4.4
Sir John revises history by Wehwalt is in the public domain.

Figure 4.5
What the Result of the Grit Policy Would Be (Online MIKAN no.2989918) by Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-33-1126 is has nil restrictions on use.


4.3 Succession Planning

Charles Tupper and Hugh John Macdonald were both contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party in the early 1890s.

Figure 4.6 Charles Tupper and Hugh John Macdonald were both contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party in the early 1890s.

Finding a successor was Macdonald’s last great challenge, and it was to prove his greatest failure. The 1891 election saw a 76-year old Macdonald out-campaign the 50-year old Wilfrid Laurier, but the Conservative victory was narrow and the Tories were thoroughly beaten in Quebec. Macdonald’s health, already taxed, began to fade and yet at that moment his political heirs proved to have feet of clay.

Langevin’s reputation for corruption sabotaged his own chances; Ontario’s D’Alton McCarthy (1836-1898) was, at one time, a likely successor but he was emerging as the nation’s most passionate and vitriolic opponent of everything French and Catholic; Charles Tupper (1821-1915) a Nova Scotian father of Confederation  might have done the job five years earlier but he, too, was in his 70s and also felt strongly that the mantle should go to a francophone; another capable Nova Scotian, John Thompson (1845-1894), was hated in much of English Canada because he had converted to Catholicism. John Abbott (1821-1893), the Conservative leader in the Senate, eventually took the job, even though Macdonald thought him unqualified. Worse, he was old. Abbott was 70 when he became prime minister, was forced from office by brain cancer less than two years into his term, and died months later. Bad luck continued to dog the Conservatives when Thompson reluctantly took the job, and then followed his predecessors to the grave when he died in office, suddenly, at 49 years. Another septuagenarian, Senator Mackenzie Bowell (1823-1917), became prime minister from 1894-1896; however, his cabinet turned against him and brought in Charles Tupper. Before Tupper could be sworn into office, his government was thrust into an election that he was destined to lose. Tupper would serve for 69 days – still the briefest tenure of any Canadian prime minister.

From 1867-1893 there had been only two prime ministers: Macdonald and Mackenzie. From 1893-1896 there were five, including Laurier. Failure to plan for life after “Old Tomorrow” badly damaged the Conservatives. They would rebound under the leadership of Robert Borden (1854-1937) in 1911, but the structural damage they had sustained would endure for another century.

The Molson Brewing Company was probably banking on Macdonald’s reputation as a dignified Victorian politician and not as a heavy drinker when they conceived this 1924 advertising campaign.

Figure 4.7 The Molson Brewing Company was probably banking on Macdonald’s reputation as a dignified Victorian politician, and not as a heavy drinker, when they conceived this 1924 advertising campaign.

Macdonald’s Legacy

Macdonald is something of an enigma in Canadian history. His impact is undeniable and, as the founding father, he is sometimes treated as something like a national hero. But he was ruthless in his politics and unsparing when it came to winning. His decision to starve western Aboriginals after they had signed treaties, so as to bring them into what he saw as a position consistent with the letter of the treaties, was simply brutal. While one may find quotes from this long-serving politician that display admiration for First Nations, his actions speak louder still. It is difficult to judge the extent of his corruptness in politics because the standards of the time were so slippery. Patronage was expected and even the buying of votes was winked at. However, the Pacific Scandal was not, and nor would the public have appreciated the Kingston dry-dock deal, had Macdonald lived long enough to see it exposed fully. And yet he was skilled at achieving a kind of political stability that was, arguably, necessary for a young country.

His relationship with Britain was not straightforward either. Macdonald saw Britain and the imperial connection as a necessary counterweight to what he regarded as a genuine American threat. Keeping in mind that Macdonald was the Province of Canada’s Minister of the Militia during the Fenian War, and that he carried a gun against the Upper Canadian rebels of 1837 (who he regarded as American-inspired republicans), when he said that “The Yankees are very bad neighbours,” he meant it. At the same time, Macdonald wanted greater independence for Canada and was mistrustful of British motives when it came to North American diplomacy and treaties.

Macdonald did much that our generation regards as bad, some of which we can contextualize and mitigate by saying that most of his peers at the time likely felt much the same way or would have acted the same way. He was a racist (privately and publicly) and that was quite common at the time. But in other instances he was found lacking in some ethical or personal spirit by his contemporaries, and that is something to which we must pay some heed. The situation in the Northwest in 1885 was one such situation where Macdonald’s approach to the First Nations’ complaints and the fate of the Métis was sharply criticized. Macdonald clearly had a compromised moral compass. One of his biographies states, “if Macdonald thought of the ends, he was insufficiently concerned with the means.”J. K. Johnson and P. B. Waite, “MACDONALD, Sir JOHN ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed 25 August 2015,

And, famously, he had a fraught relationship with alcohol and sometimes he was a reckless (though seldom, if ever, an ugly) drunk.

In 1886 John, his wife Agnes, and their daughter Mary decided to tour the West. Macdonald had served as the Member of Parliament for Victoria in the early 1870s a safe seat that he needed when he lost his own Kingston riding, one that he could pick up because of the two-week-long elections of the era. But he had never been west of Ontario, and he wanted to catch a glimpse of the country he had annexed. Macdonald did what generations of 70-somethings would do from the 1880s to the present: he booked a railway tour. The family stayed in railway hotels, measured up towns like Calgary (promising), New Westminster (wouldn’t give it a second night), and Vancouver (burnt to the ground six weeks before their arrival), and they admired Mount Baker at sunset. As their train passed through the Rockies, Agnes came up with the idea that they ride on the very front of the engine, on the cow catcher. They did so and the story goes that they covered 200 km in that position.Ged Martin, John A. Macdonald: Canada’s First Prime Minister (Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2013), 173-4. It is a trivial thing and of no real matter to the political history of Canada, but it has to be said: It is difficult to imagine very many of Macdonald’s successors doing the same.

Lady Susan Agnes Macdonald (née Bernard) in 1886, only months before she demonstrated that Victorian ladies were not above riding a cowcatcher.

Figure 4.8 Lady Susan Agnes Macdonald (née Bernard) in 1886, only months before she demonstrated that Victorian ladies were not above riding a cowcatcher.

Exercises: Documents

Fire Insurance Maps

Long before there was Google Earth, there was the fire insurance map. It’s one of the most useful documents for anyone interested in the shape of neighbourhoods of the past. Every structure, no matter how small, is identified, along with details like height, use, building materials, and  in the case of industrial buildings the number of employees. Out-buildings like stables and even outhouses toilets are included, too. Fire insurance maps also tell us, right off the top, that fire insurance was now a thing, and that selling fire insurance had emerged as a job. The City of Vancouver Open Data Catalogue will provide guidance on how to read them.

Consider the three examples here. What kinds of historical questions can be answered by closely analyzing this type of primary document?

Figure 4.E1 Calgary, 1911.

Figure 4.E1 Calgary, 1911.

Figure 4.E2 Vancouver's Chinatown along Princess (now Pender) Street, Insurance plan of the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, July 1897, revised June 1901.

Figure 4.E2 Vancouver’s Chinatown along Princess (now Pender) Street, June 1901.

Figure 4.E3 Downtown Montreal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Volume 1, Apr. 1909, revised June 1914. Library and Archives Canada / 3825720

Figure 4.E3 Downtown Montreal, Quebec, Volume 1, June 1914.

Key Points

  • Macdonald’s legacy as a politician and a long-serving prime minister includes his failure to plan effectively for the long-term success of the Conservative Party.
  • His politics were highly flexible, morally slippery, and mostly effective.


Figure 4.6
The Old Flag! The Old Guard and the Old Principle! by Skeezix1000 is in the public domain. This image is available from the McCord Museum under the reference number M967.128.1.

Figure 4.7
Advertisement for Molson’s Ale by Skeezix1000 is in the public domain. This image is available from the Library and Archives of Canada under the reference number 1996-278-2.34.

Figure 4.8
Lady Susan Agnes MacDonald (Née Bernard) (Wife of Sir John A. MacDonald) by Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada is in the public domain. This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reference number PA-025530.

Figure 4.E1
Insurance plan of Calgary, Alberta, October 1911, v.1. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3805540 is in the public domain.

Figure 4.E2
Vancouver’s Chinatown, 1897 (revised June 1901) Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3807867 is in the public domain.

Figure 4.E3
Downtown Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Volume 1, Apr. 1909, revised June 1914. Library and Archives Canada / 3825720 is in the public domain.


4.4 The Sunny Ways of Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Laurier throws the reader a sidelong glance on the cover of Man-to-Man magazine (later rebranded as Westward Ho! and then British Columbia Magazine) published in Vancouver, ca.1910.

Figure 4.9 Laurier throws the reader a sidelong glance on the cover of Man-to-Man magazine (later rebranded as Westward Ho! and then British Columbia Magazine) published in Vancouver, ca. 1910.

The years between Confederation and the Great War were dominated by two national politicians: Macdonald and Laurier. Between the two of them, they headed governments for 34 out of 47 years. Macdonald was prime minister for a longer amount of time, but Laurier won more consecutive elections. Both were devoted in very different ways to nation-building. Laurier’s contribution to Canadian political history is every bit as profound as Macdonald’s, as is his reinterpretation of the national culture.

Laurier in Quebec

As described previously, the Liberal Party distinguished itself from the Conservatives on the issue of the tariff. The 1850s Reciprocity Treaty was regarded by many as the key to prosperity. It gave Canadian farmers access to growing American urban markets and made the less expensive American manufactured products available in Canada; although the Liberal Party was strong in the cities, its anti-tariff position ensured that it would be more popular in the country’s farming districts. This explains some of the Party’s strength in Quebec, where rural cultural values were especially strong and important.

Laurier’s own background was not in farming. His father was a teacher and mayor in a small town north of Montreal. The young Laurier spent much of his childhood and youth studying in New Glasgow, where he was immersed in the culture and language of recent British immigrants to Quebec. He then trained in law at McGill, an uncommon accomplishment for a francophone at the time. His professional years were marked by struggle and intermittent poor health. Politically, he was a Rouge, and in 1866-67 he was entirely opposed to the concept of Confederation which, he wrote, constituted “the second stage on the road to ‘anglification’ mapped out by Lord Durham.”Réal Bélanger, “LAURIER, Sir WILFRID,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed 25 August 2015, He entered provincial politics first in 1871 at the age of 30, and quickly switched to federal affairs (and, at about the same time, had an extra-marital affair as well). A young French-Canadian lawyer with excellent ability in English, Laurier was too good to pass up when it came time for Mackenzie to form a cabinet in 1874: Laurier was appointed the Minister of Inland Revenue (which is roughly comparable to the current Canadian Revenue Agency).

Seen here in his early 30s in 1874, wearing the upright collar that would be his trademark, Laurier in that year would become a cabinet minister.

Figure 4.10 Seen here in his early 30s in 1874, and wearing the upright collar that would be his trademark, Laurier became a cabinet minister that same year.

Laurier’s relationship with the Catholic Church exemplifies some of the challenges of politics in late Victorian Quebec. Laurier was anticlerical, an advocate for the separation of church and state. This did not make him popular with the clergy, even though he saw himself as a champion for Catholics in Canada. He was, however, a powerful orator and, in 1877, was able to convince Bishop George Conroy (1832-1878) and an audience of 2,000 that the Liberal Party posed no threat to the rights of the Church providing the Church did not use intimidation to chase votes toward the Conservative Party.

Despite a promising start, Laurier almost lost his way in the mid-1880s. He was influential in Quebec Liberal circles, but was not viewed so much as a leader anymore. Then Riel happened. Genuinely offended by the death sentence handed down to the Métis leader, Laurier also recognized an opportunity to forge links between Canadien nationalists of all stripes in Quebec. Riel was the wedge that could be driven between the Conservative Party on the one hand, and the Québecois electorate and the Catholic clergy on the other. Rising in the House of Commons, Laurier pointed a finger at Macdonald, accusing him of stirring up events in the West and persecuting a branch of the francophone and Catholic family. In one of his famous statements, while speaking before 50,000 people at the Champ-de-Mars rally days after Riel’s execution, Laurier suggested that had he been in Saskatchewan at the time, he would have taken up arms against the Ottawa government.

The Great Conciliator

An opponent of Confederation as a young man, Laurier appears to have returned to that position in his mid-40s. However, his kind of nationalism was one that accepted the federal system as an environment in which Quebec could, with the right guardians, thrive. This was a precisely dualist vision of the country: A vision in which both French and English coexist respectfully, and compromise is sought at all costs. When the Liberal Party failed once more at the polls in 1887, its leader Edward Blake (1833-1912) handpicked Laurier as his successor. (There were no leadership conventions at this time, just the discretion of the party leader.) It was a potentially disastrous choice, but possibly the shrewdest move in Blake’s otherwise unimpressive run.

Laurier failed to win government for the Liberals in 1891. Macdonald used the Liberals’ promise of “Universal Reciprocity” to whip up fear of an American takeover of Canada. In Quebec the Tories were able to mobilize an ultramontane fear of Laurier’s Rouge background to drive voters away from the Liberals. (The old saying in Quebec, alleged to have been coined by priests offering advice at election time, was “la ciel est bleu, l’enfer est rouge.” You can’t get much clearer direction than that!) It was a bitter reward for Laurier’s support of Macdonald during a dispute over a piece of Quebec legislation, The Jesuit Estates Act, 1888. In that instance both leaders called for tolerance of Papal intervention in a Quebec dispute over property claimed by several religious orders, a move that outraged Orange anti-Catholic feeling in Ontario. On the cultural and economic front, then, Laurier was measured and found wanting.

Five years later, the situation would be much changed. Macdonald was gone, the Conservative Party was careening from one endangered leader to the next, and most importantly the Liberals had come to terms with the tariff. The economy in the mid-1890s was desperately poor and the American response involved erecting a tariff wall of their own. Protectionism was the order of the day. What Laurier could promise, in good conscience, was no free trade for now but later, when the time became right. In embracing Macdonald’s National Policy, however gingerly, Laurier became electable. Once he abandoned the tariff (and he would do so in 1911), he would again become exposed.

One irony of Laurier’s rise to power is the role played by the Provincial Rights Movement (see Section 2.11). Oliver Mowat (1820-1903), the Premier of Ontario and the most effective and unrelenting advocate of decentralized confederation, was joined by Nova Scotian Premier William Fielding in an endorsement of Laurier. The ongoing acrimony between the provinces and Ottawa over federal powers had the effect of boosting the cause of the Liberals provincially: Both Mowat and Fielding were Liberals and thus motivated to see a change in Ottawa. What this meant, of course, is that Laurier wanted federal power but not so much of it that he would alienate his own base of support. He promised to build consensus rather than punish his foes: This was the crux of his commitment to “sunny ways.” History tends to view Laurier as a master of compromise, the Great Conciliator, and this (honouring provincial rights and holding federal power) was possibly his neatest trick. In 1896 he became prime minister.

Culture Wars

The first Laurier government faced several issues immediately. The foremost of these was the Manitoba Schools Act, 1870. Separate, publicly-funded schools for Catholics was an issue in all provinces. Prior to Confederation there was a consensus across British North America that religion and education could not only co-exist in the schools, but they were both essential parts of the moral and intellectual development of children. Where a church and community established a school, public funding generally followed. Confederation gave to the provinces exclusive authority over education so that a majority of MPs in Ottawa could not impose their denominational biases on the nation’s schools. Read simply, it was intended to stop Orangemen (from English Canada) attacking Catholic schools in Quebec. Although, the expectation was that Catholic and French language education elsewhere would be preserved and nurtured as well. The BNA Act, 1867, also guaranteed the continued funding of existing denominational schools in each of the provinces.

It was this second protection that was first to erode. As early as 1871 New Brunswick legislators were keen to move from denominational to secular education with a single, uniform curriculum, and with provincial government (rather than church) oversight. Welcomed by the Protestant denominations, this move was resisted strenuously by the Catholic (mostly Acadian) communities. The official Catholic position was that education was a matter for the clergy, and the state could not and should not interfere. Fredericton’s response was consistent with the anticlericalism that marked Victorian liberalism and modernism: The separation of church and state in civic life was necessary for the well-being of a successful democratic society. The Common Schools Act, 1871 became a flashpoint as Protestant legislators argued that there had been no pre-1867 formal arrangement with the denominational schools so the Catholics had no rights to lose. The Catholic church, including Quebec’s Bishop Ignace Bourget (who would later be a nemesis of Laurier), encouraged their adherents to withhold school taxes and persuaded at least two Catholic members of the New Brunswick government to resign. Clergymen were arrested and property was seized in lieu of taxes. This increasingly rancorous disagreement culminated in tragedy in the Acadian community of Caraquet in 1875; a confrontation between a volunteer Protestant constabulary and Catholic opponents of the Common Schools Act came to blows, gunfire was exchanged, and both sides claimed one dead.

The New Brunswick case began under Macdonald’s watch and ended under Mackenzie’s. Neither federal administration was inclined to interfere, and each successive administration feared a replay in a different province. New Brunswickers found a route to compromise, but they’d paid a terrible price to get there. This was not a pattern anyone wished to reproduce, although the conflicting pressures a modernist need for secular and consistent education versus a conservative clerical desire to control curriculum on faith and language were not dissipating.

In the early 1890s this issue was coming to a head in Manitoba, and it became the most prominent matter during the 1896 federal election. One of the promises made in negotiations with the Red River Métis (in 1870) covered the provision of publicly-funded separate schools in which the Catholic faith and French language could be part of the curriculum. Declining numbers of Métis in Manitoba (and an increase of anti-Métis feeling after the 1885 Northwest Rebellion) constructed an argument for dispensing with separate schools. Premier Thomas Greenway (1838-1908), a notable advocate of provincial rights as early as 1883 and a Liberal by necessity as much as by inclination, saw in educational reform a chance to forge a common, pragmatic front among Liberals and Conservatives in Manitoba. His government put an end to the bilingual production of legislation and government records (a move that was overturned by the courts nearly a century later), effectively ended French as an official language in the province, and removed public funding from confessional schools. Parents who wished to send their children to a Catholic school could still do so, but they would have to pay the full costs directly and, in addition to that, they were expected to pay school taxes to support the secular, provincially-run system. There was widespread hope among federal politicians that this thorny issue might be resolved by the courts, but the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council responded that it was up to Ottawa. The Conservatives in Ottawa threatened to disallow the legislation but failed to do so before losing the 1896 election in part, rather bizarrely, because Laurier blocked the passage of their disallowance bill. The Manitoba Schools Question now fell to Laurier to resolve.

The new Prime Minister’s response was one that would characterize his strategy of seeking compromise, one that he would follow for a generation. Laurier through his delegate, Oliver Mowat convinced Greenway to provide some very small degree of funding and support for French-language instruction and Catholic schools, although the official language issue stayed off the table. The compromise was based on numbers: 10 francophone pupils in rural areas or 25 in urban areas could trigger after-class instruction. The deal had the enormous political benefit of getting the issue off the federal agenda, which was a great relief to Laurier. Historians have pointed to the outcome as the inevitable result of a changing demographic and, in that context, Laurier is seen to have secured some reasonable if small concessions. Others have argued that this was a critical moment in Canadian history when Laurier sacrificed the principle of minority rights and the federal government’s constitutional obligation to protect them in order to entrench Anglo-Protestantism as the norm across the West. The consensus is that this example of compromise brought peace and that it was staged expertly, but that the concessions made by Manitoba were pitifully small and ungenerous.

The issue of education thereafter moved entirely to the provincial level. When Laurier’s ally, Premier Félix Marchand (1832-1900), attempted in 1890 to reform the education system in Quebec with an eye to taking it away from the clergy and into the hands of the state, he was defeated by an alliance of Anglican and Catholic elements in the province’s Legislative Council.Nova Scotia and Quebec retained their Legislative Councils into the 20th century. The Council in Halifax was dissolved in 1928, but the Quebec Council endured until 1968. The Legislative Councils acted as appointed provincial-level senates. Ontario never wrote one into its provincial constitution, BC never implemented plans to have one, and Manitoba, PEI, and New Brunswick were quick to dispose of theirs. The term used to describe a legislature with two tiers – in the Canadian case, typically called an Assembly and a Council is “bicameral.” Laurier did not intervene.

Key Points

  • Wilfrid Laurier was intermittently an opponent of Confederation.
  • The execution of Riel was a turning point in Quebec politics and in Laurier’s career.
  • The Liberal Party’s victory in 1896 was helped by Laurier’s willingness to mute the party’s commitment to free trade.
  • Laurier was first tested as prime minister on the issue of separate schools. His compromising approach hints at what would become his modus operandi in successive crises.


Figure 4.9
Laurier 1910 Vol 06 no 07 Man-to-Man Magazine cover by Skeezix1000 is in the public domain. This image is available from Vancouver Public Library, courtesy of Jason Vanderhill.

Figure 4.10
Wilfrid Laurier, M.P. (Drummond-Arthabaska, Quebec) (Online MIKAN no.3194714) by William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / PA-026430 is in the public domain.


4.5 Imperialism vs. Nationalism

So long as the majority of Canadians have two countries, one here and one in Europe, national unity will remain a myth and a constant source of internecine quarrels.

– Henri Bourassa, ca. 1907Quoted in Jean-Charles Bonenfant and Jean-Charles Falardeau, "Culture and Political Implications of French-Canadian Nationalism," Canadian Historical Association Report (1946): 56-73.

I … am an Imperialist because I will not be a Colonial.

– Stephen B. Leacock, 1907.Stephen B. Leacock, "An Address before the Empire Club and Toronto Educationists," The Empire Club Addresses (Toronto), 19 March 1907: 276-305.

It was on Laurier’s watch that there arose a vocal debate among Canadians about empire and nation. Briefly, there were those who believed Canada’s destiny was in the arms of the British Empire, where it would mature and inevitably wield greater and greater authority, perhaps someday challenging Britain’s leadership of the whole. There were others who contended that Canada was a North American nation, one that need not be drawn into imperial adventures, a nation that had conquered half a continent and which would be better off autonomous and self-confident. Inevitably, elements of the two sides bled into one another: The imperialists were nationalists and the nationalists’ rhetoric was littered with imperialist language. One was outward looking; the other inward. The imperialist view called on strong pro-British sentiments that echoed the ordeals of the Loyalists of 1783, and the defence of British North America against the United States in 1812 and 1866; the nationalists invoked the accomplishments of the voyageurs and the Hudson’s Bay Company, the native political traditions embodied in the rebellions of 1837-38, and the peculiar, dual cultural qualities of Canada.

There were many who embodied these contradictions. One was Madge Robertson Watt (1868-1948), a youthful activist in women’s organizations. As her biographer writes, Watt

…represented a number of emerging trends in the early 20th century: While she embraced the ideal of the New Woman, she firmly maintained a great emphasis on respectability and conventionality. She was a proud Canadian with unabashed loyalty to the Empire. She is known for exporting a Canadian idea to the mother country – Women’s Institutes, an organization for rural women, which she succeeded in transplanting to England and Wales.Linda M. Ambrose, A Great Rural Sisterhood: Madge Robertson Watt & the ACWW (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), 4.

An appetite for change and a tireless devotion to improving the condition of women internationally, as the case of Watt demonstrates, could be very closely aligned to a socially conservative way of being; nationalism and imperialism could be found in the same heart.

Laurier’s nationalism was, rather typically, one that sought to find a compromise; which is not to say it was disingenuous. He had a long career of lauding British institutions and especially British liberalism. Was he that fervently loyal? It’s possible, but it is also certain that, as a French-Canadian and a Catholic he felt rightly that Anglo-Protestants needed regular reassurance on this score. And while he was espousing a deep personal loyalty to the Crown, he believed that Canada was a North American country with a powerful North American neighbour whose economy was increasingly important to the success of Canada.

Two of the most prominent voices in the debate over Canada’s future were a pair of contemporaries, both born in the first two years of Confederation: the Quebec Nationaliste, Henri Bourassa (1868-1952), and the English-Canadian Imperialist, Stephen Leacock (1869-1944). Their disagreement played itself out in the two decades before the Great War, although it had begun before them in the mid-19th century. It would continue in different forms throughout the 20th century. In a society in which the individual was more important than the whole society, scholars and politicians and journalists at the turn of the century struggled to describe the society or nation to which the individual should belong. What’s more, these ideas about Canadian-ness were deadly serious insofar as they were freighted with disagreement over what constituted Canada and when, and under what conditions, Canada should send its people to war. A Canada-wide ambivalence on this topic marked the administration of Wilfrid Laurier in particular, but it has never fully gone away.

The Canada Firsters

The Canada First movement was established in 1868. It drew in some of the most articulate English-Canadian politicians and writers of the day, including Edward Blake, Charles Mair, Robert Grant Haliburton, and John Schultz. This was a very mixed bag, held somewhat more firmly together by the influence of British historian Goldwin Smith (who arrived in Toronto in 1871 from Oxford via Cornell University). What united the group was a suspicion of American ambitions and a belief that Canada represented the best hope for a northern, Protestant, and Aryan race. In this regard they were starkly anti-Irish, anti-French, and anti-Catholic, as Schultz and Mair both demonstrated at Red River in 1869-70. Their shared Aryanism was typical of the racist and imperialist views of the day. Efforts to produce a competitive Canada Party in federal politics failed, but much of the spirit of this movement was to survive in a variety of forms and its ideas would help to formulate, eventually, a restructuring of the British Empire.

Imperialism in Canada points in two directions. Firstly, it is oriented outward and inward from the St. Lawrence, looking toward Britain while taking in as Canada’s own empire the West and the North. While the Maritimes also came under its sway, that region’s population also and independently felt the tug of the North Atlantic economy and had done so for centuries. Secondly, Canadian imperialism is enmeshed in the larger British imperial enterprise: Canadians like John A. Macdonald applauded British territorial and commercial gains and were pleased to bask in the reflected glory of Britain’s military and economic might. The question for Canadian imperialists of this kind, however, was whether Canada was as junior a colony as the many African and Asian territories claimed by Britain, or was it a senior and largely autonomous member of the British imperial family? Conveniently, an influential group in the very heart of London provided an answer.

The Imperial Federation

The Imperial Federation movement began in England in the 1880s and quickly gained momentum in Canada. Among its leaders on this side of the Atlantic were the enormously popular writer and satirist Stephen Leacock, the cleric George Monro Grant, and the educator and writer George Robert Parkin. The Canadian Imperialists, as historians describe them, ranged in age from the youthful Leacock through the very middle-aged Grant, but they were solidly Upper Canadian Ontarians. From 1868 to the Great War and beyond they presented a vision of a Canada that was not only embedded in the Empire but a likely heir to its leadership. Canada was draped in the Union Jack but with rippling muscles and vitality bursting from every pore, unlike the tired old British lion, care-worn by years of managing an empire and physically degraded by decades of industrial labour, crowded cities, and bad food. The Canadian Imperialists drew on Canada’s northern-ness as a source of collective and mythic cultural strength. As imperialists they expected that Canada would join in British wars abroad because those were, effectively, Canadian wars. And (as Leacock indicated at the outset) they rejected being subservient and pathetic colonials looking to Britain to protect their interests and sovereignty. They would be imperialists active, contributing, committed because being colonials was narrow and emasculating. They were, in this regard, outward-looking and internationally-minded, even if they perpetuated the Anglo-philic and Franco-phobic tendencies of the Canada Firsters.

Stephen Leacock in 1913, on the brink of the war between the empires.

Figure 4.11 Stephen Leacock in 1913, on the brink of the war between the empires.

Imperialist anger simmered when Prime Minister Laurier tried to moderate imperialist and nationalist antipathies at the outset of the Boer War (see Sections 4.6 and 4.7). While many Québecois remained hostile to the war, imperialists were enthusiastic and celebrated what were viewed as landmarks in an emerging Canadian military tradition. Huge parades welcomed troops home, the dead were mourned with honours and ceremony, and regiments added South African names to their banners and crests. It was, however, at this very peak that imperialist sentiment cracked a little. In 1903 a specially-struck international commission ruled on the Alaska-Canada border dispute in favour of the United States. Anti-Americanism was ramped up a few steps, but so too was anti-British feeling, even among some imperialists. The commission’s decision was transparently an effort on the part of Britain to improve relations with the United States, regardless of Canadian interests. This would feed the current within Canadian imperialism that sought greater autonomy and authority within the Empire, as opposed to the cohort that was more likely to be uncritically loyal to Britain.

Les Nationalistes

This understanding of Canada was very much at odds with the nationalism articulated by Henri Bourassa. The grandson of Louis-Joseph Papineau the leader of the Lower Canadian Rebellion and a long-time politician, both before and after 1837 Bourassa was a youthful powerhouse. He was first elected to office at 22 years of age as the mayor of Montebello (the town created by his grandfather on the ancestral seigneury). He was subsequently elected as a Liberal MP in the 1896 campaign that saw Laurier become prime minister. The still very young Bourassa was to be a gadfly to Laurier, constantly denouncing concessions made to the imperialist element while developing a cogent nationalist position.

Henri Bourassa in 1917, around the time of the conscription crisis.

Figure 4.12 Henri Bourassa in 1917, around the time of the conscription crisis.

In 1899 Bourassa resigned his seat in protest (though he quickly won it back) over Canada’s participation in the Second Boer War. He likened the Boers Dutch-speaking settlers in South Africa to the French-Canadians: a linguistic minority whose demands for independence were being suppressed. Like many of his contemporaries, Bourassa envisioned a Canada that could be dualistic in language and beliefs. He maintained that this cultural complexity sufficiently defined the country and that embracing it would be enough to protect the Dominion from American influences. He said on one occasion that the Québecois should be as “French as the Americans are English,” which is to say, only in language. Like many nationalist visions, Bourassa’s was ultimately inward looking and suspicious of the outside world.

Two events in the early 20th century impacted the fortunes of both groups. The Alaska Boundary Dispute produced a result that outraged many Canadians and disappointed imperialists in particular. Subsequent British requests for Canadian financial contributions to the Royal Navy were divisive, not only between French-Canadian nationalists and English-Canadian imperialists but among English-Canadians, who were now articulating something like an English-language version of Canadian nationalism themselves. The Great War reinvigorated imperialism in some measure, but what was hoped in some quarters would be a military romp lasting a few months turned into something much more tragic. British commanders’ competence was drawn into question, and the effect of the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge (followed by the disaster at Passchendaele) in 1917 was to feed nationalist sentiment and leech away imperialist support. Gradually elements of the two perspectives were moving closer together, even if animosity between French- and English-Canadians persisted.

Bourassa’s long career in public affairs, the volume of writing he produced, and his prominent role in many of the key debates in national affairs made Bourassa an enormous influence on thinking about Canada and not just in Quebec. The cross-cultural nationalism that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s owed a lot to Bourassa. Likewise, Leacock a brilliant humourist was one of the most widely read writers in the English language in the first quarter of the century, and his call for a self-assured, morally-centred, and globally invested Canada echoes in the country’s mid-century role as a middle power and peacekeeper.

Canadian involvement in the Boer War divided Nationalistes from Imperialists and set the tone for disagreement on Canada's international role.

Figure 4.13 Canadian involvement in the Boer War divided nationalistes from imperialists, and set the tone for disagreement on Canada’s international role.

Key Points

  • English-Canadians with strong loyalties to the British Empire and aspirations for a larger Canadian role in world affairs became known as imperialists.
  • French-Canadians whose suspicion of Britain’s international agenda combined with a North America-centric view of Canada articulated a nationaliste perspective.
  • The leading figures in these two movements were men of letters, respectively: the humourist Stephen Leacock and the journalist Henri Bourassa.
  • Satisfying the polarized interests of these two groups became one of the great challenges of Laurier’s administrations.
  • Both movements contributed ideas that would gird greater claims for autonomy within the Empire.


Figure 4.11
Stephen Leacock by YUL89YYZ is in the public domain.

Figure 4.12
Henri Bourassa by Jeangagnon is in the public domain.

Figure 4.13
Canadian troops in armoured train South Africa Jan 1902 LAC 3407086 by Rcbutcher is in the public domain.


4.6 Canada and Africa

The debate between imperialists and nationalists (surveyed in Section 4.5) came to a head in the late 1890s as Britain lurched into a colonial war in South Africa. This was not Britain’s first conflict in Africa, nor was it Canada’s. The failed Nile Expedition of 1884-85 often overlooked set the stage for Canada’s involvement in the turn of the century war, and was one of several crises in Laurier’s tenure.

Sudan 1884-85

A botched attempt to evacuate British troops and civilians from the Sudanese city of Khartoum in the winter of 1884 resulted in a year-long siege. Lieutenant-General Garnet Wolseley (1833-1913), an Irish-British career soldier and colonial administrator, was given charge of an expedition to relieve the Britons trapped in Sudan. Wolseley’s connection to Canada was this: He had charge of the Canadian expedition sent to Red River in 1870. In subsequent engagements in West Africa, Wolseley recruited Canadians and other veterans of the Red River invasion to support his efforts. In 1884 coincidentally, on the eve of the Northwest Rebellion Wolseley put in another call for Canadian troops, obtaining 390 voyageurs in actuality, a mix of former fur trade workers, Mohawk from Kahnawà:ke, and loggers from the Ottawa Valley to assist the movement of more than 5,000 British troops up the Nile. The whole episode was a failure, and Khartoum fell two days before Wolseley’s troops were anywhere near. Moreover, about 200 of the Canadians abandoned their African adventure and hurried home when their six-month contracts expired.O. A. Cooke, “WOLSELEY, GARNET JOSEPH, 1st Viscount WOLSELEY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed 21 August  2015, Sixteen of their number died on the Nile.

A few hundred French, English, and Mohawk Canadians volunteered to lend their river-navigating skills to a fated British mission in 1884.

Figure 4.14 A few hundred French, English, and Mohawk Canadians volunteered to lend their river-navigating skills to an ill-fated British mission in 1884.

Although this was not a conflict in which Canada declared a direct interest, the Nile Expedition established a post-Confederation precedent: the Dominion’s human resources were available to Britain in wartime. Canada would not be called on again to contribute men to war for another 15 years, but the principle of defending the Empire was in place.

Boer War, 1899-1902

The Second Boer War began in 1899 as the South African Republic and the Orange Free State (colonized by Dutch settlers) resisted British attempts to annex their territories into a larger Cape Colony. Mineral wealth and the goal of a Cape-to-Cairo chain of colonies was what motivated Britain and its agents in South Africa. The origins of the Second Boer War can be traced, also, to the overlap between imperial and capitalist agendas in South Africa. Britain had what it regarded as strategic objectives, and these were funded and driven forward by private plans to exploit mineral, human, and other resources, but specifically diamonds and gold. Two colonies the South African Republic (aka: Transvaal) and the Orange Free State stood in the way. These were colonies left over from the days of the Dutch East India Company’s activities at the southern tip of the continent, and they had long been in conflict with British forces. They were, moreover, hardened by their experience of persecution by neighbours and their conflict with the region’s Indigenous peoples in the so-called Zulu Wars. These trials, along with their migration into the interior of South Africa, contributed to a strong sense of Boer Trekker (or Voortrekker) community identity and a sharpened and highly conservative religious culture.The terminology used to describe the Dutch settlers of South Africa is complicated and often misleading. Some of them were French Huguenots and not Dutch at all. The settlers most closely connected with the Dutch Company’s forts and harbours are historically more likely to be described as Afrikaners, and the rural populations as Boers (Dutch for farmers). The whole of this population is linked by the use of Afrikaans, a dialect comprised largely of Dutch but also Indonesian and African elements. The Boer resistance to the British stemmed in part from their decades-long effort to avoid British rule by migrating north and inland. The Voortrekkers’ self-imposed exile hardened their attitude towards both the British and the coastal Afrikaners, some of whom joined in the War on the side of the British. One can easily find in this story elements of the Métis situation 15 years earlier, insofar as the former Red River Colony was largely abandoned to the Canadians and the Métis forced off into the interior where they were significantly less well off and running out of places to hide from imperial forces. The Boers were not wealthy, nor were they particularly close physically or diplomatically to the coastal Afrikaners (other descendants of the Dutch colonial experiment). To private British interests in the region they seemed ripe for the picking and efforts were made to stir up a Boer rebellion that would necessitate an official and armed British relief effort and then a conquest. This failed, so the British opted for less subtle means and war was declared in October 1899.

Canadian involvement began with 1,000 volunteers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Otter, who had (poorly) led the Canadian Permanent Force against the Métis and the Cree in 1885. Enthusiasm among English-Canadians, however, was so great that a further 6,000 recruits were easily obtained. This was (with the exception of a regiment of Constabulary) a one-year commitment for recruits time enough to sail across the Atlantic and spend a Canadian winter in sunnier climates while fighting for the honour of the Empire. Recruits were paid, public donations poured in to insure their lives and protect their wives and children from penniless widowhood and orphanhood, and a whole contingent the Strathcona Horse was assembled and paid for by Donald Smith (now Lord Strathcona), the former CEO of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Conservative MP, and driving force behind the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The course of the war was nothing glorious, despite initial excitement among imperialists. Britain’s military strategies were transparently ineffective, the Boers were better armed, better prepared, and better motivated than expected and much more so than they had been in the First Boer War. 1899 ended on a low note as the tempo changed to a grinding guerrilla defence running up against a steady, if plodding, march on the capitals, Pretoria and Bloemfontein. It was in this phase that the British began to deploy concentration camps and engaged in a scorched-earth policy that targeted Boer farms. At Paardeberg Drift in February 1900, two Canadian units from the Maritimes wore down a much larger Boer force and secured a badly needed victory for the Empire. The Canadians distinguished themselves individually, but Paardeberg was otherwise their high-water mark in the war. And while medals were handed out (including four Victoria Crosses) and the troops were feted on their return, there was also a crack opening in the Canadian imperialist armour.The most comprehensive source on this topic is Carman Miller, Painting the Map Red: Canada and the South African War, 1899-1902 (Montreal & Kingston: Canadian War Museum & McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993).

Figure 4.15 Becoming more legendary by the minute, NWMP Superintendent Sam Steele (sitting, left) at midnight in the Yukon with friends. At the right is Henry Burstall, later a Major General and knighted as well. Library and Archives Canada / e008128889.

Figure 4.15 Becoming more legendary by the minute, NWMP Superintendent Sam Steele (sitting, left) at midnight in the Yukon with friends. At the right is Henry Burstall, later a Major General, who was knighted as well.

This was the Dominion’s first international (as opposed to cross-border) conflict and it was transformative. Imperialist sentiment was such that Canadian troops and officers initially deferred to British commanders, whose performance subsequently proved to be worthy of reproach. Returning soldiers complained about British class snobbery and incompetence in the field. Now, complaining is something that soldiers are wont to do, but in the particular context of Edwardian Canada, this did less to subtract from loyalty to Britain than it did to add to an embryonic English-Canadian national sensibility. It reinforced a growing sense that, as a part of the Empire, Canada ought to be treated less as a subordinate and more as an equal. (In this there are echoes of the contemporaneous Provincial Rights Movement that sought to erase the belief that Ottawa was superior to the provinces.)

The Boer War left several other legacies. It cemented the already near-mythical reputation of Sam Steele (1848-1919). A militiaman who fought Fenians in 1866, a member of Canada’s first regular army unit, one of the earliest members of the NWMP, a veteran of 1885 (he fought the Cree at Frenchman’s Butte and Loon Lake), a Mountie in the East Kootenays and also in the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush, Steele was placed in charge of the Strathcona’s Horse Regiment at the ripe age of 50. Steele served as a model of masculinity for a generation of Canadians, and as a symbol of Canada’s maturing strength as a nation.

A regiment of Canadian soldiers returns from South Africa and is met by a huge public reception on King Street in Toronto.

Figure 4.16 A regiment of Canadian soldiers returns from South Africa and is met by a huge public reception on King Street in Toronto on May 31, 1900.

The South African conflict also led Canadians to think that international wars might be relatively short with tolerable casualties. In two and a half years of combat there were only about 250 Canadian casualties from 7,000 troops, and it is reckoned that more than half of these died from disease, not battle wounds. (At worst this mortality rate was a third of what would be recorded in the Great War.) When August 1914 rolled around, then, it was South Africa that Canadians remembered, and not the much more comparable (and vastly more damaging) Napoleonic Wars a century earlier.

Canada’s Century

In the midst of the Boer War, Laurier realized that he needed to be able to galvanize nationalists and imperialists alike and not just keep them from one another’s throats. In 1905 he told the House that “as the 19th century had been the century of the United States, so the 20th century would be the century of Canada.”Canada. House of Commons, Debates, 21 February 1905. This was a sentiment both sides could embrace, but only, of course, if Laurier could stop the country from imploding.

South Africa drove deeper the wedge that existed between English-Canadians and French-Canadians. It also served to alienate from the Anglo-Canadian vision of Canada many of the immigrant communities that identified more with the Boers than with the British forces.

Nationalistes were opposed for two main reasons: they argued that Canada ought not to be sucked into Britain’s imperial vortex and that the situation of the Boers was not entirely unlike that of the French-Canadians. Indeed, there were echoes of the Northwest Rebellion: Not only was an agrarian, non-anglophone population caught squarely in the gun sights, but the very same personnel were holding the rifles. The Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry sent to South Africa was under the command once again of William Otter and the mounted regiment was led by the ubiquitous Colonel Steele. By contrast, imperialists viewed Canadian involvement in the Boer War as a matter of duty and also as an opportunity to demonstrate the growing maturity and capacity of the Dominion.

Laurier’s instincts were always to find a compromise, and they were never better illustrated than in 1899. Refusing to support a deployment of regulars, which would have sent French-Canadians into battle against the Boers, he opted to muster a corps of volunteers. At first this was only a force of 1,000, but it grew eventually to 7,000. Anglophone imperialists were offended by the smallness of Canada’s engagement, especially at the start; francophones opposed to the war rioted for three days. Laurier faced several poor options, and his compromise was less divisive than any of the other choices open to him. If elections are the final litmus test, the opportunity for voters to turn on him came in 1904 and he survived.

Criss-crossing the country at election time (in this case, 1904) was made possible by the extensive railway network. Politicians like Laurier could hit one community after the next, meeting briefly with locals and then moving on to the next whistlestop.

Figure 4.17 Criss-crossing the country at election time (in this case, 1904) was made possible by the extensive railway network. Politicians like Laurier could hit one community after the next, meeting briefly with locals and then moving on to the next whistlestop.

Key Points

  • By 1900 Canada had been involved in two military expeditions at home and two abroad.
  • The two campaigns in Africa  Sudan in 1884-85 and the Second Boer War  were in support of British imperial goals.
  • Both conflicts were small adventures with few casualties, which may have led to Canadians underestimating the seriousness of the Great War when it began in 1914.
  • The Boer War was profoundly divisive in domestic politics.


Figure 4.14
The Nile Expedition for the Relief of General Gordon, from The Graphic, 29 November 1894 by Moonraker is in the public domain.

Figure 4.15
Midnight in the Yukon, June 1899 Online MIKAN no. 3710400 by Library and Archives Canada / e008128889 is in the public domain.

Figure 4.16
Celebration of the end of the Boer War, Yonge Street by Skeezis1000 is in the public domain. This image is available from the Government of Ontario Archives, under the reference number F 1143, S 1244.

Figure 4.17
Sir Wilfrid Laurier speaking from the platform of a railway observation car during the federal election campaign (Online MIKAN no.3364640) by Library and Archives Canada / C-002616 is in the public domain.


4.7 Edwardian Crises

A failed attempt to escape the 19th century. (Canadian Copyright Collection, Picturing Canada Project, British Library)

Figure 4.18 A failed attempt to escape the 19th century.

Transforming Canada

The Boer War crisis was acute and relatively brief. Other issues offered more ongoing and chronic discomfort, and the need for quite a lot of adjustment. The most dramatic of these is the accelerated rate of immigration under the Laurier regime and, specifically, under the guidance of his Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton (see Section 5.4). Between 1896-1911 the demographics of Canada changed spectacularly. There is irony in the fact that Laurier’s first days in office were spent addressing the demographic marginalization of Franco-Catholics in Manitoba: by 1911 the hundreds of thousands of Mennonites, Germans, Doukhobors, Americans, and others who poured into the Prairies would transform the region to such a point that some aspects of the Manitoba schools crisis would seem already remote.

The issue of how best to manage international commerce was another of Laurier’s ongoing concerns. It was largely resolved by introducing a preferential tariff that was meant to encourage other nations to bring down their own barriers. Insofar as it didn’t remove tariffs altogether the policy pleased manufacturers. Because it showed preference to Britain as a trade partner, it pleased imperialists. Without substantially addressing any of the agricultural community’s complaints, it left homesteaders and farmers feeling neglected and wondering if either of the two national parties would ever come around to their way of seeing things.

Timing, however, is everything. The world economy was, in 1896, entering into a recovery phase. As settlers poured into the West, demand for wheat and mineral products grew. Historians disagree as to whether the preferential tariff had a direct effect on the Canadian economy because it was introduced on a rising tide. As grain production and exports climbed rapidly, so too did manufacturing sales. There now emerged for the first time significant bottlenecks in the movement of goods. Perhaps carried away by the booming economy, Laurier in 1903 launched a campaign to build a new transcontinental railway that would serve neglected parts of the Maritimes, northern Ontario, the northern Prairies, and a Pacific outlet in the new port-city of Prince Rupert. This was taking a page from Macdonald’s playbook. The Canadian Northern (later called the Canadian National) Railway and the Grand Trunk Railway increased capacity and penetrated the northern West while a dense network of smaller lines and branch lines cross-hatched the face of the Prairies before 1914. There were at least 15,000 km of track running east and west and north and south in Canada. One government after the next subscribed to the view that railways were good politics: They created jobs and markets, stimulated industrial growth, and tied the whole together tighter and tighter.

The Toronto-born surveyor and photographer Frank Swannell in 1912, surveying for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway at (and in) Takla Lake.

Figure 4.19 The Toronto-born surveyor and photographer Frank Swannell in 1912, surveying for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway at (and in) Takla Lake.

Improved conditions after 1896 led to increased Canadian self-confidence. Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was marked in London by an unprecedented meeting between colonial leaders and the British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914), whose goal it was to build an Imperial Federation. As was his tendency in the past, Laurier publicly espoused an intense loyalty to and affection for Britain, but at the meeting table he was unwilling to relinquish any Canadian sovereignty to a proposed British-led global federal system. Laurier knew, as no other leader around that table could have, the challenges of co-existence within a federal structure and, whatever his disagreements with Henri Bourassa, he was looking toward a day when Canada would be more and not less independent. After winning a second mandate in 1900, Laurier would similarly turn down British offers of an Imperial Council, an Imperial Navy, and an Imperial Commercial Union. As he explained to the House of Commons, the first loyalty of the Canadian government was to the Canadian peoples (however that might be defined), not to London.

The economy that had once been Laurier’s ally began to outrun him at the turn of the century. Urban growth created cities that the small-town lawyer did not understand, and an industrial working class that was still more alien to Laurier’s experiences. He kept one eye on an ultramontane clergy and the other shut tight against the new issues inherent in 20th century modernization. The creation of a new position – Deputy Minister of Labour – was a nod toward industrial issues, but the legislation that arose from it mostly kept the state on the margins of disputes and out of the way of expanding and monopolistic enterprises. These conditions, coupled to immigration and growth in the West, all conspired to change the electorate and to move the goalposts of Canadian politics. A compromise made in 1896 on behalf of 5 million Canadians might not have the same resonance in 1911 when there were 2 million more.

By 1909 Laurier’s health – never good – was increasingly a problem. The Liberals had now been in office for 13 years and had won four consecutive elections. Canada was vastly changed from what it had been when Laurier first came to office and the energy that Laurier and his original cabinet brought to the job was largely spent. One final major issue would finish off the government.

The Naval Crisis

The second great challenge of Laurier’s administrations echoed the first and picked up on a theme that dogged him from the start of his time as prime minister. After 40 years of relative autonomy from Britain, Canada’s military capacity was still seriously underdeveloped. Dependence on Britain to provide the necessary muscle now had to be reassessed. The British would have preferred a cheque from Canada to cover the cost of building additional Royal Navy vessels, but nationalist voices in the Dominion (including Laurier’s own) were more comfortable with the prospect of a Canadian Navy.

There was a need for some urgency on this issue: Germany was building up its navy (as was France and the United States) and Britain was anxious not to lose its advantage at sea. The Conservatives, under Robert Borden’s leadership, called for Ottawa to purchase a pair of Dreadnought-class battleships for the Royal Navy and to defer the issue of a Canadian Navy until the next election. How that scenario might have turned out would be difficult to guess because the naval issue had the potential to split the imperialists down the middle: some were Canadian nationalists in imperialist clothing while others were British imperialists first, last, and always. Laurier decided to press on and introduced the Naval Service Bill early in 1909, proposing to assemble a Canadian Navy that could be available on loan to Britain at the discretion of the Dominion Parliament. Consisting of six destroyers and five cruisers, it was instantly ridiculed as a “tinpot navy.” Caught once again between Anglo-Protestant imperialists on one side, who moaned it was not enough, and Franco-Catholics on the other side, who cried that it was too much, Laurier found there was little appetite in Canadian politics for his variety of compromise.

The last nail in Laurier’s political coffin was that old chestnut, reciprocity. A delegation to Washington, DC had finally managed to get American agreement on a deal that would provide free access to American markets for natural resources and agricultural products along with limited trade in manufactured goods. This should have satisfied farmers in the West and industrialists in the central and eastern provinces. It did not. Manufacturers and investors who had hitherto supported the Liberal Party turned on it, as did Clifford Sifton. Wounded on two fronts, Laurier was exhausted and called an election, which he lost.

Laurier’s Legacy

It is difficult to assess Laurier’s long record of compromise objectively. He kept the worst Canadian divisions under control, it is true, but many of his compromises either irritated underlying fault lines or they proved to be very poor deals indeed. The creation of the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1905 offers a case in point. The territorial administration under Premier Frederick Haultain had limited, sub-provincial powers, despite an elected assembly at Regina. Local politicians favoured the creation of a single new province that would stretch from (still undersized) Manitoba to the Rockies. Laurier preferred two provinces and sought to restore minority rights in the West in the form of publicly-funded separate schools. He would win on the provinces and their boundaries, but he lost badly on the schools issue. It cost him the support of Sifton, who was an unflinching supporter of the anglicization of the West, and Henri Bourassa, who resigned from the government years beforehand but had hitherto maintained a lukewarm relationship with Laurier. Now the prime minister found two of his nation’s most effective leaders attacking him at the same time for being simultaneously an ally and an enemy of French-Catholicism.

Many of Laurier’s tests ended the same way. Of course it is the business of opposition politicians to puncture the support of the government, so one can hardly blame figures like Charles Tupper and Robert Borden for finding fault with Laurier’s deals. Henri Bourassa’s role and Clifford Sifton’s: those are more complex. When Bourassa left Laurier’s cabinet over the matter of the Boer War, Laurier said to him, “I regret your going. We need a man like you at Ottawa, although I should not want two.”Quoted in J. Schull, Laurier: The First Canadian (Toronto: MacMillan, 1965) 459. Bourassa was uncompromising and tapped into Québecois fears of liberalism, modernity, and imperialism as he sniped at Laurier. At the same time, his articulation of a nationalist position was as erudite and gifted as anything coming out of the imperialist camp. Sifton’s role is harder to measure. There was none more entrepreneurial in the Laurier cabinet, nor was there anyone whose job (as Minister responsible for immigration) required that he think long and hard about the mixing of cultures. Sifton simply concluded early on that a Canada built on dualist principles was unsustainable and that the future belonged to English-Canadian virtues and habits.

Laurier on the campaign trail in 1910 in New Westminster.

Figure 4.20 Laurier on the campaign trail in 1910 in New Westminster.

It was “an unholy alliance” of imperialists and nationalists that laid Laurier low in 1911. His career was marked by conflict with the conservative, ultramontane Catholic clergy in Quebec, and he spoke so often about his fear of religious strife in Canada that one cannot but conclude that he genuinely believed it was possible. More than that, he believed that being in office meant doing good. “When I am premier,” he said in 1890, “you won’t have to look up figures [statistics] to find out whether you are prosperous: you will know by feeling in your pockets.”Quoted in O.D. Skelton, The Day of Sir Wilfrid Laurier: A Chronicle of Our Own Time (Toronto: Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1916): 327. He attacked Macdonald in 1886 for his actions with regard to the Northwest, saying “What is hateful…is not rebellion but the despotism which induces the rebellion; what is hateful are not rebels but the men, who, having the enjoyment of power, do not discharge the duties of power; they are the men who, having the power to redress wrongs, refuse to listen to the petitioners that are sent to them; they are the men who, when asked for a loaf, give a stone.”Canada, Official Report of the Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, 1886, vol. XXI (Ottawa: Queen's Printer 1886): 179. This was a leader who listened to all sides, perhaps too much.

Key Points

  • The 20th century opened with a suite of political and social crises in Canada.
  • Continuing immigration from east and central Europe was transforming the population.
  • Massive new railway construction projects stimulated the economy and tightened Canada’s grip over the West and BC.
  • The Naval Service Bill divided Canadians between those who sought to serve Britain and the Empire first, and those who saw a Dominion fleet as an important step toward independence.


Figure 4.18
A century run or bust two photographs (HS85-10-11914) by the British Library / Fred L. Hacking is in the public domain.

Figure 4.19
Frank Swannell at Takla Lake by Frank Swannell is in the public domain.

Figure 4.20
Sir Wilfrid Laurier at New Westminster, B.C. (Online MIKAN no.3259139) by William T. Cooksley / Library and Archives Canada / C-008816 is in the public domain.


4.8 Summary


Figure 4.21 Canada’s ambivalent relationship with an expanding United States and a seemingly disinterested Britain was a theme that lasted well beyond the Victorian years. (Artist: Tom Merry, ca. 1885-90).

Macdonald and Laurier were 19th century, Victorian-era men. They witnessed industrialization, imperialism, and urbanization first-hand. Most of Laurier’s time in office occurred during the Edwardian years; a period that was marked by a rising middle class, and renewed optimism in social progress and equality, the arts, and technological transformation. Macdonald died too soon to see motion pictures and automobiles; he missed, too, the bicycle craze and the Suffragettes. He also missed the most compelling signs of Britain’s economic slide against its competitors, including the United States and, significantly, Germany. Laurier wasn’t too late into politics to see the old western frontier, but by the time he was prime minister the days of the Red River cart and the bison were fading or gone. The importance of the Edwardian era is that, after 64 years of one monarch and the Pax Britannica  the era of relative peace associated with British global power  its start in 1901 signalled the beginning of a new century and renewed possibilities. In the midst of the prosperity and self-confidence that Canada enjoyed in the years up to 1912, one can see the consolidation of many of the ideas and practices that defined the country for the century to come. The aspiration to be something more than a colonial appendage was one theme that would come out of these years and would strongly influence politicians and writers in the generations ahead.

Edward VII died in 1910 and Laurier was toppled the very next year. The economic boom times would come to a grinding halt beginning in 1912. What lay ahead was much worse.

Key Terms

anticlerical, anticlericalism: Someone who believes that the separation of church and state in civic life is essential for the well-being of a successful democratic society.

branch plants: Typically American-owned companies that avoided tariff barriers by establishing plants on the Canadian side of the border.

Canada First: Established in 1868, an English-Canadian nationalist movement.

confessional schools: Religious schools run by Catholic or Protestant denominations.

dualism: The idea that Canada could or should construct its culture and institutions around two cultures, French and English. In contrast with unification (which favours one culture) and pluralism or multiculturalism in which French in particular is at risk of becoming a minority culture.

Manitoba schools question: In 1890 the provincial government turned its back on commitments in the Manitoba Act (1870) to provide a dual — French and English — system of education, a move that was stimulated by declining French and Catholic populations. The Privy Council determined (twice) that the federal government had the power to reverse this decision. In opposition, Wilfrid Laurier blocked Ottawa’s attempt at disallowance; in government he negotiated a compromise with Manitoba.

Orange: Refers to the Orange Order, its members, and its values; a Protestant fraternal association with roots in Ireland; marked by a strong antipathy for Catholics and Catholicism, as well as a fierce loyalty to the Crown. Supported Protestant immigrants and made use of violence and political networks to achieve its ends.

pragmatic: In politics, the focus on existing conditions rather than ideological considerations or objectives. Also called realpolitik.

preferential tariff: Charges (a tax) added to imported goods so as to make their sale price higher than domestic goods and, thus, make domestic goods more competitive; some trade partners are less discriminated (they are “preferred”) over others.

Rouge: Also Parti rouge. Political party and tradition in Quebec; established in the 1840s, it became increasing more pro-secular, anticlerical, and opposed to hereditary privilege; opposed to Confederation, embraced provincial rights; after 1867, merged with the Clear Grits to form the Liberal Party.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. What was dualism? Where were its weaknesses most exposed?
  2. Account for the success of Macdonald’s Conservatives to 1896.
  3. What role was played by the Catholic Church in the politics of Quebec and Canada?
  4. What was the relationship between the Liberal Party and the tariff issue?
  5. What were the most divisive issues faced by Laurier’s administration?
  6. What were the respective positions of imperialists and nationalists in pre-WWI Canada?
  7. In what ways did these two visions of Canada make the country almost ungovernable?
  8. In what ways had Canada changed politically between 1867 and 1914?

Suggested Readings

Backhouse, Constance. “’Don’t You Bully Me … Justice I Want If There is Justice to Be Had’: The Rape of Mary Ann Burton, London, Ontario, 1907,” People and Place: Historical Influences on Legal Culture, eds. Jon Swainger and Constance Backhouse (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2003): 60-94.

Beaulieu, Eugene and J. C. Herbert Emery, “Pork Packers, Reciprocity, and Laurier’s Defeat in the 1911 Canadian General Election,” The Journal of Economic History, 61, no. 4 (Dec 2001): 1083-1101.

Lord, Kathleen. “Representing Crime in Words, Images, and Song: Exploring Primary Sources in the Murder of Mélina Massé, Montreal, 1895,” Histoire Sociale/Social History, 43, no. 86 (Novembre-November 2010): 249-55.

Martin, Ged. “John A. Macdonald and the Bottle,” Journal of Canadian Studies, 40, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 162-85.

Miller, Carman. “Framing Canada’s Great War: a case for including the Boer War,” Journal of Transatlantic Studies, 6, no. 1 (April 2008): 3-21.


Figure 4.21
Trying Her Constancy, or, a dangerous flirtation (Online MIKAN no.2838080) by Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-3552 / Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana is in the public domain.


Chapter 5. Immigration and the Immigrant Experience


5.1 Introduction

Prairie immigrants typically lived in sod huts or other simple shelters until they had the resources and time to build a house. Stefan Waskiewicz's family, LaCorey, AB, ca. 1930. (Library and Archives Canada/PA-178587)

Figure 5.1 Prairie immigrants typically lived in sod huts or other simple shelters until they had the resources and time to build a house. Stefan Waskiewicz’s family, LaCorey, AB, ca. 1930.

The history of immigration is, simultaneously, the history of emigration. It is very much about the motivations of people who choose to leave behind what they and generations of their forebears knew and built. The rather inelegant dichotomy of “pushes” and “pulls” fails to take into consideration other countervailing forces but it does serve to remind us that people here were once people there. A recent and beautifully succinct answer to the question “What made them leave?” tells us about the motivations for Swedes who left their homeland between the 1880s and the 1940s, but it might easily be applied to a great many other nationalities as well:

At the beginning of emigration, the main reason was the lack of hope for breaking the cycle of poverty that affected many families. Later came labour unrest, when participants were blacklisted and unable to find work. Other push factors included … compulsory military duty for young men, degrading class distinctions, restrictions on the right to vote, the lack of a democratic spirit, the dominant position of the church, and personal reasons, such as escaping from a debt or an unhappy marriage.Elinor Barr, Swedes in Canada: Invisible Immigrants (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), 14.

To use the language of 21st century marketeers, what Canada had to offer was a brand – democratic (socially and politically), free (in terms of movement and land availability), secular (insofar as it lacked a state church), tolerant of pacifist views (for a while), underpopulated, and capable of experiencing sustained economic growth  that was preferable to the comfortable familiarities of home. As any study of Canadian history will show, however, there were times when Canada had little to offer other than grief and maybe some money.

The first step to understanding the history of immigration to Canada is demographic. The magnitude of the flow of humans into the Dominion after 1867 has to be appreciated, as does their distribution across the cities and farms and resource-extraction towns. Who the immigrants were in terms of ethnicity and places of origin matters. The second facet is the political and economic context of immigration: that is, the policies and opportunities that framed the immigrant waves.

The social context of immigration is of immense importance as well. Canada’s relationship with immigrants has been uneven, to say the least. At times it was nothing short of exploitive; at other times it was xenophobic and hostile; and at others still, generous and welcoming. Recent events in Canada, including mixed messages from governments about the kind of reception Syrian refugees might expect, serves to remind us that these attitudes have a long pedigree in Canada. A historical study of immigration and immigration policy thus informs us of the ways in which past generations understood questions about recruitment, assimilation, inclusion, citizenship, and rights.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the main historic features of post-Confederation immigration.
  • Account for the timing of immigrant waves.
  • Explain the preferential or inhospitable treatment shown to select groups at different times.
  • Identify the goals of immigration policy and the forces that led to changes.
  • Assess the strategies employed by immigrant groups and communities to achieve success in Canada.
  • Describe the role played by racism and nativism in the history of immigration.


Figure 5.1
Shelter Stefan Waskiewicz’s family lived until they built their house (Online MIKAN no.3263577) by Library and Archives Canada / PA-178587 is in the public domain.


5.2 Immigration and the National Policy

What came to be known as Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s National Policy was, as shown in Section 3.3, a three-cornered set of initiatives. All of these, in the words of historian Reg Whitaker, were designed:

…to attach the interests of the wealthy and influential elements of Canadian society to continent-wide development. The encouragement of immigration thus became identified with the private interest of the large companies making profits out of national development.Reg Whitaker, Canadian Immigration Policy Since Confederation (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association , Booklet no. 15, 1991), 5.

First, there was the railway. Linking the Atlantic to the Pacific meant more than running steam engines across the country. It also meant providing a powerful stimulus for heavy industry. The steel mills of Ontario and Quebec would be the principle beneficiaries and another was the engineering sector. Building and adapting railways, steelworks, and engineering operations might begin with native-born labour, but that would soon run out.

The answer to that problem was, of course, managing the movement of people. In the first instance, that meant retaining Canadians who were migrating to the United States. Insofar as that strategy failed or was simply not enough, the logical next step was to encourage immigration. The Intercolonial Railway would move Canadians and immigrants around the old provinces, but it was the West that held out the prospect of real growth. The CPR was essential to settling migrants from old BNA across the former Rupert’s Land; it would also be the means by which immigrants would be deposited deep into the new Canadian hinterland. The CPR owned much of the arable right-of-way between Lake Superior and the Rockies, so settlers enriched the Railway as customers and as tenants or purchasers of land. The CPR made it possible to accelerate the process of Prairie settlement and thus to advance the business of producing food for the industrial working people of the older provinces in a tidy symbiosis. Settlement and railways also combined as a strategy for asserting sovereignty across the West against American and Aboriginal ambitions and counter claims.

Third, there were tariffs. Obviously the new farming population would need supplies and equipment. Ideally, this material would be shipped west to them on the same railway that carried their grain output eastward. Tariff barriers would ensure that Western farmers, home builders, and businesses would purchase their supplies from central Canadians at a higher price than they would pay to get the same goods from the United States. This complicates the immigration strategy. Having assigned to immigrants and Canadian migrants the task of opening up an agricultural frontier not a small task by any measure the National Policy then taxes them for the privilege of doing so. These tariffs would sustain central Canadian industries, yes, and that would benefit other immigrants in terms of jobs, but it was in the West that the project of building a new economy based on the labour of immigrants was most apparent and the rise of a new, more diverse Canada was taking place. Of course, and as we shall see, these new Canadians were not always welcomed by nativists in Ontario and Quebec who regarded with some suspicion the value of “foreigners” and questioned the assimilability of Russians and Poles, Mennonites and Hutterites, whose ethnic, linguistic, and religious traditions were highly distinct from those of the founding nations.

How, then, did the immigration aspects of the National Policy fare? Not especially well.

Key Points

  • Immigration was a key piece of the National Policy.
  • It was first used to beef up the supply of wage labour in expanding industries in the central and eastern provinces.
  • The main part of pre-Great War immigration was directed toward farms in the West.
  • The relationship between these newcomers and established Canadian populations was regularly negative.


5.3 Immigrants by the Numbers

Immigrants from Arab countries faced a cool welcome in Canada. Tagged by the Immigration officers, three hopeful candidates at Québec, 1908. (John Woodruff / Library and Archives Canada / PA-020917)

Figure 5.2 Immigrants from Arab countries faced a cool welcome in Canada. Tagged by the Immigration officers, three hopeful candidates in Quebec, 1908.

We have already observed that Canada was a net exporter of people from 1867-1896. Newcomers arrived, but they were very often just passing through. The end to free land in the American West in the 1890s was one factor in redirecting the tide of emigrants from Europe toward the north. Another, from 1896, were the new approaches taken by the Laurier administration under the leadership of Clifford Sifton (see Sections 4.4 and 5.4).

This is not to say that the immigration that was recorded from 1867-1896 did not matter. Hundreds of thousands were added to the mix and the composition of Canadian settler society changed significantly. British immigrants were the most numerous, but people who described themselves as German in origin increased by a third from 203,000 in 1871 to 310,000 in 1901. Three immigrant groups stand out in particular through to 1901: Chinese numbers reached 17,312 (increasing from 4,400 in 1881 to 17,000 in 1901); Russians at 19,825; and Scandinavians (Norwegians, Swedes, Icelanders, and Finns grouped together) at about 31,000. None of these groups had much of a presence in Canada prior to Confederation (although there were Chinese in British Columbia in significant numbers before 1871).

Tables 5.1 and 5.2, respectively, show the growth in population generally and the numbers of immigrants arriving yearly between 1867-1920. What may be seen immediately is: 1) the slowness of immigration’s growth before the 1890s (notwithstanding a couple of spurts); 2) the fact that it was actually in retreat through most of the 1880s and into the 1890s; and 3) the great take-off of immigration as Canada moves into the 20th century. The peak on the eve of the Great War is also unmistakable, in that it is followed by a near-collapse as the conflict rages. In the years 1911, 1912, and 1913 between 300,000 and 400,000 immigrants arrived each year, most of them from Britain and continental Europe.Roderic Beaujot, Population Change in Canada: The Challenges of Policy Adaptation (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1991), 105.

A table about the estimated population of Canada in the 1867-1920 and another table about immigrant arrivals from 1867-1920.

Table 5.1. Estimated Population of Canada, 1867-1920.


A table about the estimated population of Canada in the 1867-1920 and another table about immigrant arrivals from 1867-1920.

Table 5.2. Immigrant Arrivals, 1867-1920.

The complexion of the population in aggregate changed dramatically. On the eve of Confederation, fewer than one-in-five Canadians were born somewhere else, principally in the British Isles or the United States. That share started to decline almost immediately until 1911 when it pushed back through the 22% mark; as a result, a very different country was created. In 1871 there was a significant German community in Canada but otherwise French and English were the norms. By 1911, a quarter of the immigrant tide was coming from continental Europe and most of that from central, eastern, and southern Europe. By 1921, the main “ethnic” immigrant groups constituted more than one-in-eight of the population. The majority (just over half) of the foreign-born to 1931 came from Britain and Ireland; another 20% or more were born in the United States. Regardless of point of origin, as of 1921 the immigrant population in Canada was proportionally larger than in the United States.Donald H. Avery, Reluctant Hosts: Canada’s Response to Immigrant Workers, 1896-1994 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995), 22.

We know as well that immigrants in the pre-Great War period were overwhelmingly male. Men are over-represented in every age category from 10 to 14 years and up (after 65 years, the ratio of men to women nearly balanced out). This suggests that either boys were demonstrating a particular determination to emigrate from Europe and Asia or that they were preferred to daughters when it came time to move (principally because their prospective job prospects were better). In other words, families with more sons than daughters might be more inclined to emigrate than those with more daughters. As to young adults, these sex ratio imbalances had serious ramifications. In the 20 to 34 age cohorts, there were more than twice as many men as women in 1911. Women and daughters might be sent for later, but this pattern of maleness persists throughout much of the 20th century. The sex ratio among the foreign-born reaches a peak of 1.68 men to every woman in 1911 and among certain immigrant groups it could be much higher. Among the Chinese it hovered around 200:1 for decades, and among the Scandinavians in 1931 it was 268:1. These last examples are very definitely outliers, but the implications of a distorted sex ratio for marital fertility ought to be obvious.

What is more, we know that the immigrant population was young but adult. The foreign-born on the eve of the Great War were mostly under 40 years of age and 20-somethings was the largest cohort. Despite photogenic images of immigrant families, surprisingly few foreign-born children appear in these statistics.Warren E. Kalbach, The Impact of Immigration on Canada’s Population (Ottawa: Dominion Bureau of Statistics, 1970), 54. Having said that, the arrival of immigrants brought higher fertility rates, so much so that they slowed and, in places, reversed a significant downward trend in Canadian fertility rates. The estimated annual average number of births per 1,000 population in Canada in 1851-61 was 45; in 1901-11 it fell to 31 and slid to 29 between 1911-1921.Warren E. Kalbach and Wayne W. McVey, The Demographic Bases of Canadian Society (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1971), 56-7, 134-5. Without the high fertility of immigrant communities these numbers would have been more depressed.

Distribution of immigrants provides a different sense of this change. The Maritime provinces and Quebec experienced little demographic change arising from immigration. Lebanese Christians were an important addition to Prince Edward Island, but there were few other ethnic enclaves in the region by the Great War. The share of population that was foreign born in the Maritimes was only 5.2% in 1901, rising to a little more than 6% in 1911 a level that held nearly steady for 30 years. Quebec was similarly mostly native-born in 1901 a comparable 5.4% of the population was foreign but from there the share increased more markedly to 7.3% in 1911 and more than 8% in the Interwar years. West of the Ottawa River, however, 15% of Ontarians were foreign-born in 1901 and that passed the 20% mark before the Great War and continued to rise to nearly 25% in 1931. The Prairie provinces taken as a region began the century with a quarter of the population born abroad, rising to 49% in 1911. The share dropped to 21% in 1921 but that reflected the impact of immigrant fertility the newcomers were adding significant native-born children to the population and thus shrinking their own share of the total. Still, the renewal of immigration in the 1920s created a second surge and by 1931 nearly 37% of Prairie Canadians were born elsewhere. British Columbia behaved differently from the rest of Canada in this respect, being the least native-born population of the lot. Foreigners constituted 44% of the population in 1901, rising to 57% in 1911 and only tapering slightly to 50% in 1921. From 1901 to 1961, British Columbia’s population was, proportionately, the most foreign-born of all regions. Of all the regions, only the North-West Territories reversed the trend. Starting at 37% in 1901, the share of Northerners born abroad fell to 20% 10 years later and then 15% in 1921, where it stayed for the next two decades.Warren E. Kalbach and Wayne W. McVey, The Demographic Bases of Canadian Society (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1971), 143.

Studies of immigrants in Canada tend to focus on their experiences as newcomers adjusting to new circumstances, or as outsiders to which the established population reacts, or as ethnic enclaves whose cultural resilience and change is subject to examination. As a demographic phenomenon, however, their profound impact is often too quickly forgotten. Within little more than a generation, post-Confederation immigrants had fundamentally transformed the population’s main features while changing in significant ways its fertility, family size, and nuptial patterns. In each of these regards, they had a lasting impact.

Key Points

  • Immigrants in the post-Confederation period rapidly changed the ethnic and age composition of the population, as well as the gender ratio in many regions.
  • Immigration was slow to take off but it did so between 1896-1914, and again in the 1920s, making Canada more foreign-born than the United States.
  • The distribution of immigrants was wildly uneven, barely impacting the Maritimes and Quebec.


Figure 5.2
Immigrants, Arabs (Online MIKAN no.3630050) by John Woodruff / Library and Archives Canada / PA-020917 is in the public domain.

Table 5.1
Estimated Population of Canada, 1867-1920 (000s) by John Douglas Belshaw is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license.

Table 5.2
Immigrant Arrivals, 1867-1920 by John Douglas Belshaw is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license.


5.4. The Clifford Sifton Years, 1896-1905

Doukhobor women pull a plough, breaking the prairie soil for the first time at Thunder Hill Colony, MB, ca. 1899. (Library and Archives Canada/C-000681)

Figure 5.3 Doukhobor women pull a plough, breaking the prairie soil for the first time at Thunder Hill Colony, MB, ca. 1899.

Among the most able and imaginative of Laurier’s cabinet ministers was Clifford Sifton (1861-1929). Born in southern Ontario, Sifton entered adulthood in Manitoba where he established himself as a lawyer, entrepreneur, and politician. Under Laurier he was Minister of the Interior, which put him at the helm of Canada’s evolving immigration policy.

In the 30 years after the BNA Act was proclaimed the population of the West increased at a rate that was unmatched in the history of British North America. From a few thousand around Red River and similar numbers across what would become Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905, the North-West Territories (that is, the Prairies beyond little Manitoba) surpassed 56,000 by 1881. Ten years later, this had nearly doubled to 99,000. In 1896, therefore, Sifton inherited a portfolio that was already doing well, though not as well as it might.

The Victorian Food Revolution

Mechanized farming, new crops, new transportation technologies that cut the time and distance between harvest and market, and the need to feed burgeoning urban populations were together revolutionizing farming on a global level. Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries central Europe had become a complex patchwork quilt of ethnic, farming enclaves. Germanic settlers moved into the Ukraine, and minority religious sects often associated with pacifism established farming communities with strong cooperative sensibilities. Some had reasonably deep roots but much of the lands between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea were farming frontiers in their own right. Similarly, agricultural lands were opening in Argentina on the Pampas, in Australia, and across southern Africa. In the United States three million families were drawn into the American West by the promise of homesteads. This was a global phenomenon and as the Indigenous populations were being removed by the colonial regimes settlers were being recruited into various farming colonies with an assortment of promises and assurances. In short, the business of finding farmers was competitive.

Sifton’s timing was good. The American frontier as the United States historian Frederick Jackson Turner announced in the 1890s was “closed”: free land in the United States was all but gone. Sifton replied with a campaign to bill the Canadian Prairies, famously, as “The Last Best West.” Employing a variety of sales and advertising strategies and gimmicks that were startlingly innovative, Sifton and his department changed the face of Canada in the space of one decade.

Selecting Prairie Society

Sifton established a list of preferred sources for immigrants. This is interesting for a few reasons, which are worth enumerating. First, the outcome of his preferential list can be seen even now in the ethno-linguistic and cultural make-up of the Prairie West. Second, it reveals contemporary thinking about the nature of race and ethnicity. Sifton, like most of his peers, believed that ethnicity signalled essentialized qualities: that is, all Italians were, in their essence or fabric, the same. Stereotyping, then, was something he regarded as part of informed decision-making, not a case of narrow-mindedness or bigotry. Third, the composition of the immigrant pool included people whose ethnic differentness from Anglo-Protestants and Franco-Catholics (not to mention Aboriginal peoples) were in some instances profound, and that very differentness created a perceived need to build institutions and policies that would foster their assimilation. As Prairie settlers they might reasonably have been assimilated into the bilingual and bi- or multicultural heritage of the Métis; they might have been assimilated into a new, bicultural French and English Canada. Steps were taken, however, to transform these new arrivals into anglophones. And this would prove profoundly divisive among Central Canadians who were, predictably, not in agreement on the privileging of Anglo-Protestantism over Franco-Catholicism.

So who did Sifton prefer? White Americans, mostly. People who had had experience homesteading and who spoke English (and who were likely Protestants) were the principal group he hoped to recruit. Of course, Americans brought with them the possibility of disloyalty, something which made Canadian politicians generally wary. But even the Macdonald regime (more than a little America-phobic) had circulated recruitment materials in the United States, mostly in the hope of finding Canadian emigrants who could be lured back “home” to the West. Almost one million people arrived in Canada from the United States in the 14 years leading to the Great War, and many of those immigrants were, in fact, returning Canadians. Many more were German and Scandinavian immigrants to the United States who simply kept moving until they landed in the Canadian West.

African-Americans made their way to north-central Alberta, like this group at Athabasca Landing. (Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-040745)

Figure 5.4 African-Americans made their way to north-central Alberta, like this group at Athabasca Landing.

African-Americans, among whose numbers there were many with homesteading experience, were desirous of coming to Canada but Sifton regarded Africans and people of African descent dimly. He was inclined at first to recruit from the British Isles but recognized quickly that mixed-farming on small-holdings in the United Kingdom was a far cry from producing wheat on a quarter-section of land on the Prairies, and Sifton knew, too, that British recruiters would trawl the under-employed urban populations first. He turned his attention to continental options.

German farmers had proven their skill in various settlement projects that had occurred since the 18th century. For 100 years and more, the German states had been sending out farmers to populate borderlands in places across the Austro-Hungarian Empire and as far east as Imperial Russia. Sifton thought highly of the Germans and the Scandinavians. But the further south in Europe he turned, the less impressed he became. Italians and Greeks, in particular, he thought of as worthless to the settlement process. Jews were also to be avoided, as were Arabs.

Eastern Europeans Ukrainians, Poles, and Russians fared better in Sifton’s eyes. In an oft-quoted statement, the western booster described what he saw as the ideal immigrant:

When I speak of quality I have in mind something that is quite different from what is in the mind of the average writer or speaker upon the question of immigration. I think that a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born to the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children, is good quality."Only Farmers Need Apply: Clifford Sifton, ‘The Immigrants Canada Wants’,” Maclean’s Magazine, 1 April 1922: 16, 32-34.

Sifton made this statement in 1922, 17 years after resigning his cabinet post and looking back on his works in retrospect. From 1896-1905, however, immigrants from Eastern Europe were something of an unknown commodity. And, for a cabinet minister in a narrow-minded Protestant community, they were a bit of a gamble. The Eastern Europeans’ arrival in bulk numbers, their enthusiasm for mutually-supportive block settlements, and their overall record of success, however, converted Sifton to their value.

Sifton's ideal immigrants. A family newly arrived from Galicia, ca.1911. (Photo by William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / PA-010401)

Figure 5.5 Sifton’s ideal immigrants. A family newly arrived from Galicia, ca. 1911.

Sifton was likewise convinced that religious sects that had strong internal cohesion and familiarity with the kind of farming that would be conducted in the West were highly desirable. These included Mormons from the United States, Mennonites from Central and Eastern Europe, and pacifist Hutterites and Doukhobors from Russia. Ethnicity, experience, and the likelihood of community success thus became key principles of the recruitment process.

Against this list of preferences, Sifton was highly suspicious of urban and industrial workers. In an era where “modern” was acquiring a cachet all its own and in which civic growth even that of Sifton’s beloved Winnipeg was a principal measure of success, there is something very 18th century about Sifton’s 20th century vision.

Sifton the Salesman

Sifton recognized early on that simply putting up posters at shipping offices in Hamburg and Liverpool would not draw the numbers he required. So in 1899 he established a network of recruiting agents in Europe under the auspices of a shadow corporation called the North Atlantic Trading Company. Shipping agents in European ports were paid to direct farm emigrants toward Canadian ports. This was a clandestine operation in part because the European countries targeted were all trying to stop the bleeding off of their population to new settlement societies like Canada, the United States, Argentina, and Australia. Sifton’s strategy paid off: in the space of a decade, the Prairie population more than doubled to 211,649 by 1901  the greatest part of that growth taking place after the Laurier government arrived in Ottawa in 1896.

Diversity was, as a consequence of these recruitment efforts, growing rapidly in the West and in some Atlantic port towns.  It was politically imperative that English Canadians be reassured that their culture was not at risk. To that end, Sifton stepped up efforts to recruit from Britain in 1903. The results were significant: 1,200 arrived in Canada in 1900 and 65,000 in 1905. This was not, however, a typically agrarian population. This Edwardian-era wave was made up of professionals, merchants, urban labourers, mineworkers, and others whose conditions in a rapidly growing and changing country were in some jeopardy. Canada was presented to them as Brit-friendly, “just like home,” and an opportunity to enjoy real social mobility something that the entrenched class system in Britain stifled at best and prevented at worst. It was this generation that repopulated the Okanagan Valley and southwestern Alberta, with visions of becoming “gentleman orchardists” and ranchers. It was also this generation that supplied many of the early trade union leaders and members whose experience with Britain’s new-born Labour Party would produce echoes across Canada and especially in British Columbia. On Vancouver Island, British immigrants would cultivate two contrary myths of British-ness characterized by both an ersatz upper-class Britophilia in Victoria and British-style labour militance in the coal mining towns of Nanaimo, Wellington, Ladysmith, and Cumberland. Both of these movements overlay existing Island political and social traditions so deeply that they effectively eclipsed them to the point that Britishness became part of the Vancouver Island brand.

Imperialism, steampowered paddlewheelers, railways, and telegram systems made it possible to transplant British and Anglo-Celtic Canadian culture to the 'gentlemanly' business of orcharding in the Okanagan. Kelowna, 1909. (Canadian Copyright Collection, Picturing Canada Project, British Library),_Kelowna,_British_Columbia_(HS85-10-21790).jpg

Figure 5.6 Imperialism, steam-powered paddlewheelers, railways, and telegram systems made it possible to transplant British and Anglo-Celtic Canadian culture to the “gentlemanly” business of orcharding in the Okanagan. Kelowna, 1909.

However much the British immigrants of the pre-Great War years played a role in reaffirming imperial connections and the primacy of Anglo-Protestantism, they were not always welcomed by the locals. Canadians were often irritated by British sensibilities and signs appeared in shop windows across the country, “No English Need Apply.” There was a sense, too, that many of the British immigrants were simply impoverished social detritus, incapable of functioning in their own society let alone in Canada. Tens of thousands of children part of a migration referred to as the Home Children were plucked from British slums and orphanages and placed into apprentice-like situations on Canadian farms. Scandals and outrages plagued the Home Children project as news leaked out from time to time of horrible physical abuse and neglect of the 8 to 10 year old immigrants. It was, however, the failure of the Barr Colony project, an attempt to settle British farmers in a Prairie block, that drew the greatest criticism of Sifton’s office and further confirmed the Canadian belief that British immigrants made for poor farmers.Valerie Knowles, Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-1997, revised ed. (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1997), 70-6.

Some 8,000 boys passed through the St. George's Home in Ottawa as part of the Home Children migration. (Library and Archives Canada / PA-020907)

Figure 5.7 Some 8,000 boys passed through the St. George’s Home in Ottawa as part of the Home Children migration.


Sifton resigned from the Laurier government early in 1905, seemingly at the top of his game. The recurrent issue of sectarian, French-language schooling and the cultural agenda in the West was his last round-up. The North-West Territories had enjoyed non-denominational schools under the territorial regulations of 1901. This was slated to come to an end with the arrival of provincial status for Alberta and Saskatchewan and the extension of guarantees of separate and state-funded schools for Catholics. Laurier, who cautiously promoted the ideal of dualism in the West, would not give way and Sifton  who preferred the vision of an Anglo-Protestant West  resigned. Later, Laurier found himself obliged to change course, but Sifton did not re-enter the cabinet.

In many respects, Sifton was not only an architect of Western Canada: he was an example of what it was becoming. A relentless booster of Winnipeg and Brandon, he was an advocate of social reforms (his wife, Elizabeth Burrows, led the Brandon Women’s Christian Temperance Union), and a champion of non-denominational schools in the West (often used as coded-language for anti-French or anti-Catholic education). The society he envisioned in 1896 was not one that all Canadians at the time embraced: drawn from different and diverse locales, peoples of many languages and cultures would open the economic potential of the West and, thus, Canada. In return, they would be Anglo-Canadianized and offered what Dominion officials immodestly regarded as a superior and more humane cultural alternative to that of the United States. Although many factors independent of Sifton contributed to what was to follow, the fact remains that many aspects of his vision were realized.

Key Points

  • The late 19th century saw a rapid expansion in global food production to feed industrializing communities and nations. Canada’s expansion into the West was part of this process.
  • Canada had to compete for immigrants and did so through strategies that targeted specific groups and whole communities.
  • Clifford Sifton’s term as Minister of the Interior coincides with the largest waves of immigrants to the West and thus gave shape to the population that arrived around the turn of the century.
  • Sifton’s preferences as regards immigrant groups were explicitly in favour of northern Europeans over southern Europeans, Whites over non-Whites, and people with experience farming in prairie-like conditions.
  • Concerns among British-Canadians that their culture might be under threat was met by new recruitment of British immigrants in the early 20th century.


Figure 5.3
Doukhobor women are shown breaking the prairie sod by pulling a plough themselves, Thunder Hill Colony, Manitoba. c 1899 (Online MIKAN no.3193404) by Library and Archives Canada / C-000681 is in the public domain.

Figure 5.4
Black Colony, Athabasca Landing, Alberta (Online MIKAN no.3193364) by Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-040745 is in the public domain.

Figure 5.5
Galician immigrants (Online MIKAN no.3193424) by William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / PA-010401 is in the public domain.

Figure 5.6
Pear blossoms in Mr Stirling’s orchard, Kelowna, British Columbia (HS85-10-21790) by the British Library is in the public domain.

Figure 5.7
Immigrant Boys for the St. George’s Home, Hintonburg (Online MIKAN no.3624193) by Library and Archives Canada / PA-020907 is in the public domain.


5.5 The Promised Land

A photo of John Lanquist, Gino Pakkala and Harold Malm Sr. in Sointula, B.C.

Figure 5.8 A photo of John Lanquist, Gino Pakkala, and Harold Malm Sr. in Sointula, B.C.

Before the Industrial Revolution, working the land was what most people did, in one way or another. And, since it was the norm, it was nothing special.

Then cities took off in earnest, and the cities became not merely bigger versions of their former selves but industrial hives: crowded, dirty, dangerous, unhealthy, and exploitative, and subject to violent economic and political upheavals. Under these circumstances, the land acquired a connotation of relative purity; held up against the cities, the countryside positively glowed with wholesome and godly virtues. Avoiding city life and the prospect of working for someone else became the objective of many Canadians and immigrants. Owning one’s own land and being one’s own boss was highly desirable and it was seen, too, as having a special virtue.

God Made the Country, Man Made the Town

In a 2007 collection of essays on the settlement of the West, several scholars pursue the theme of the promised land. The suffragette, writer, and moralist Nellie McClung saw the West as a place where conditions were good for the raising of Christian-spirited, temperate (that is, free of liquor), and empowered generations  although she experienced disillusion in every regard by the 1920s and 1930s.Randi Warne, “Land of the Second Chance: Nellie McClung’s Vision of the Prairie West as Promised Land,” The Prairie West as Promised Land, eds. R. Douglas Francis and Chris Kitzan (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2007): 217-219. The leading Social Gospeller of his day (and eventually the founding leader of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation), J. S. Woodsworth, believed that the kingdom of God could be established on Earth and specifically “that the fertile soil of the Canadian prairies nurtured the right conditions for the growth of God’s heavenly kingdom on earth – the Promised Land.…”R. Douglas Francis, “The Kingdom of God on the Prairies: J. S. Woodsworth’s Vision of the Prairie West as Promised Land,” The Prairie West as Promised Land, eds. R. Douglas Francis and Chris Kitzan (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2007): 225. In this regard, Woodsworth wasn’t too far out of step with Louis Riel’s 1885 millenarian vision of the West as a nurturing refuge for an assortment of religious creeds.Thomas Flanagan, Louis “David” Riel: Prophet of the New World, revised ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 101. This became something of a reality for the Mennonite and Hutterite colonies that erupted on the Prairies and in pockets in southern Ontario and in the Fraser Valley. A similar, though more checkered, experience was shared by the Doukhobors.

Parallels could be drawn, too, with West Coast utopian communities. These appeared in several locations, notably at Ruskin and, somewhat more successfully, at Sointula on Malcolm Island. While these two experiments had ethnic and working-class roots, there were others that tapped into upper-class aspirations, the best example of which is Walhachin, west of Kamloops, where well-to-do English immigrants attempted to rebuild a throwback village lifestyle in 1909, one that included a cricket oval, fox hunts, and a smart hotel which boasted a dress code. Historian Patrick Dunae has written on the widespread cultural, economic, and political impact of this cohort of “gentlemen emigrants” and “remittance men” second or third sons of money who were unlikely to inherit much if they stayed at home in Britain.Patrick Dunae, Gentlemen Emigrants: From the British Public Schools to the Canadian Frontier (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1981). There were strong anti-materialist threads in all of these enterprises, as there was in individual homesteading. These were themes that would reappear sporadically in the 20th century in the context of back-to-the-land movements, especially in the 1960s and early 1970s.

A hotel in the community of Walhachin.

Figure 5.9 The hotel in Walhachin, BC, an upper-class settlement surrounded by sagebrush, rattlesnakes, and desert.

Key Points

  • Agricultural settlements at the beginning of the 20th century were often associated with virtues and values that were regarded by some as superior to life in the cities.


Figure 5.8
View of John Lanquist, Gino Pakkala and Harold Malm Sr. in Sointula, B.C by UBC Library is in the public domain. This image is available from the UBC Library, Fishermen Publishing Society under the digital identifier BC_1532_1373_9.

Figure 5.9
Walhachin Hotel by CindyBo is in the public domain.


5.6 The Ukrainian Westerners

Of the Prairie immigrants, few were so visible numerically as the Ukrainians. Outwardly a homogeneous group, the Ukrainian experience as immigrants was defined far more by their internal divisions. As part of the Empire of Austria-Hungary, they came from one of the most ethnically and denominationally diverse nations on Earth. The Catholicism of Polish-Ukrainians contrasted sharply with the Orthodox Christianity of Ukrainians, who had stronger connections to Russia. Differences of dialect were important too, but the centrality of religion to the peasant life in Galicia produced deep rifts between the immigrant communities when they arrived in Canada.

Canadian administrators were frustrated by these divisions. They were obliged to keep immigrants who came from Bukovyna (now in northern Romania and southwestern Ukraine) separate from those originating in Halychnya (stretching west from Bukovyna to southeastern Poland), both on the land and even in the immigration sheds. The immigrants’ desire was to settle in blocks, which Ottawa preferred. As was the case with Mennonites and Doukhobors, Ukrainian block settlement improved the chances of economic and agricultural success, and the block settlements tended to fill up with chain migration. Among the Ukrainians, however, there was a definite preference to settle in either Bukovynan or Halychnyi blocks, regardless of the quality of the land. In 1898 one land commissioner despaired to the deputy minister,

They are apparently an obstreperous, obstinate, rebellious lot. I am just sick of these people. They are worse than cattle to handle. You cannot get them, by persuasion or argument, to go to a new colony except by force. They all want to go where the others have gone.W. F. McCreary, Commissioner of Immigration, Winnipeg, to J. A. Smart, Deputy Minister of the Interior, Ottawa, 14 May 1897, RG 76, vol. 144, file 34215, pt.1, Public Archives of Canada, quoted in John C. Lehr, “Kinship and Society in the Ukrainian Pioneer Settlement of the Canadian West,” People, Places, Patterns, Processes: Geographical Perspectives on the Canadian Past, ed. Graeme Wynn (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1990): 141-2.

What the land commissioner disliked were the very things that leant strength to the newcomer population: cultural integrity, mutual support, and the ability to fabricate an expatriate community based around familiar institutions and practices. Distinctive dialects survived; churches were sustained; and agricultural techniques refined in the Steppe and forests of Eastern Europe were honed further to suit conditions on the Prairies. Their ability to succeed in these respects helps to explain the scale of Ukrainian settlement; by 1914 there were 170,000 immigrants from Galicia in the West.See John C. Lehr, “Kinship and Society in the Ukrainian Pioneer Settlement of the Canadian West,” People, Places, Patterns, Processes: Geographical Perspectives on the Canadian Past, ed. Graeme Wynn (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1990): 139-60. The strategies that made Ukrainian and other block settlements viable were antithetical to the Anglo-Celtic Canadian ideals of individualism and the family as the principal independent productive unit; they were also at odds with various legal practices associated with property ownership and liability, as well as representing a serious challenge to cultural assimilation. One study has argued that:

The emergence of ethnic communities played a useful role in helping their members to adjust from one linguistic environment to another, and sometimes from a rural way of living to an urban one. However, in some cases, the ethnic community acted as a brake on the individual achievement and social mobility of its members.Donald H. Avery, Reluctant Hosts: Canada’s Response to Immigrant Workers, 1896-1994 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995), 12.

Although Canadian officials might have in mind a variety of schemes for achieving immigrant assimilation, contexts varied sharply across the West and in urban centres. The question of adaptation was, more often than not, one of immigrant strategy rather than host-nation policy.

Key Points

  • Immigrants from the Ukraine included people with very different and sometimes mutually hostile backgrounds.
  • Established Canadians of British or French ancestry tended to view the Ukrainians as a homogeneous group.
  • Building communities around block settlements enabled the survival of pre-emigration values and cultural features while sometimes dampening the need or ability to adapt to the Canadian host culture.


5.7 Culture and Adaptation

“There is,” writes the historical sociologist Gillian Crease, “no common standard immigrant experience in Canada.”Gillian Crease, The New African Diaspora in Vancouver: Immigration, Exclusion, and Belonging (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 3. The gradations of adaptability, acceptance, material success, biological well-being, and cultural fulfillment are severe. Male immigrants who arrived in cities intent on working in the expanding industrial economy of the post-1945 period generally found far more opportunities to become integrated, to be immersed in the language of the locals, and to develop networks of friends and colleagues who might in some measure substitute for the loss of community from abroad, than did female immigrants. It was not unusual in these years to find immigrant households (particularly in suburban Canada) in which the father/patriarch spoke at least passable sometimes heavily inflected English, the children spoke with the flattest Canadian accents and were functional in one or more ancestral language, while the stay-at-home mother/matriarch remained effectively unilingual. The immigrant experience was thus gendered and also impacted by age. Some immigrant groups struggled more than others to adapt.

Take, for example, immigrants from the British Isles. Like all other newcomers they gravitated toward neighbourhoods in which recognizable institutions and languages could be found. That these were not considered “ethnic enclaves” speaks to the position of British culture in English-Canada as the reference or cultural context group. To be sure, there were class lines that structured the experience of British immigrants: In Vancouver the working-class newcomers planted themselves in East and South Vancouver where housing was affordable and where they had close access to the docks and industries where so many of them found employment; middle-class British immigrants settled in Kerrisdale and Dunbar, effectively ghettos of more plummy English and Scots accents. The landscape of denominationalism was often the clearest sign of these divisions and concentrations: well-to-do High Anglican and Presbyterian congregations to the west, Methodist, Baptist, and after 1925 United Church chapels to the east. Distinctions could be seen, too, in the use of recreational space: cricket ovals and rugby grounds to the west; soccer pitches (and baseball diamonds, too) to the east. In the struggle to determine how best to use the newly-created Stanley Park at the turn of the century, as historian Robert A. J. McDonald has shown, English working-class requests for a large stadium and an amusement park (all accessed by transit of some kind) were pushed aside in favour of a cricket oval, a yacht club, and contemplative gardens.Robert A. J. McDonald, "'Holy Retreat' or 'Practical Breathing Spot'? Class Perceptions of Vancouver's Stanley Park," Canadian Historical Review 45, 2 (1984): 17-53.

For White, English-speaking immigrants from Britain or the United States, the acculturation process involved some challenges but comparatively few. In the West, as historical geographer John Lehr has argued, Anglophones were,

…settling a territory that, in many important respects, maintained the basic societal framework of their points of origin. They encountered familiar elements of law and administration; the creed of the ruling majority was Protestant; and English was the de jure, if not the de facto, language of all in the newly settled west.John C. Lehr, “Kinship and Society in the Ukrainian Pioneer Settlement of the Canadian West,” People, Places, Patterns, Processes: Geographical Perspectives on the Canadian Past, ed. Graeme Wynn (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1990): 140.

This was true of all parts of Canada outside of Quebec (less Montreal and the Eastern Townships), not just the settler West. Anglophone settlers constituted a replenishing of the context group, the mainstream civilization whose values and expectations were so dominant as to be invisible. Newcomers from England might complain that they had trouble overcoming the barrier of accents Canadians strained to pierce their regional tones and the English struggled to understand Canadians  but as one English immigrant in the post-1945 period described the process,

For the first week I found people incomprehensible. We were talking the same language, and I couldn’t understand what they were saying. It took about a week to get into the rhythm of the language…. So that was a bit of a shock.Marilyn Barber and Murray Watson, Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2015), 103.

A whole week to break the codes of language, idiom, and tone. For non-English speaking immigrants these could take years to crack. For them, the challenges of adaptation were much greater.

Ukrainian Students of English and the School for Immigrants, Vegreville, AB, 1916. (George E. Dragan / Library and Archives Canada / PA-088507)

Figure 5.10 Ukrainian students of English at the School for Immigrants, Vegreville, AB, 1916.

Some had a greater incentive to adapt than others. Germans, for example, constituted significant numbers in the Canadian population from the 1890s on, but the two World Wars obliged the German Canadians to develop strategies to reduce their differentness. One approach was to simply keep a low profile. In 1971 the census showed that Vancouver  better known for the large size of its Asian community than for its German diaspora was 7% Chinese but 8% German. The German language was spoken in more Canadian homes in 1961 and 1971 than any language other than English and French. Finding a German enclave, however, was next to impossible and the institutions that signalled an ethnic presence church, community hall, specialty stores were often very discrete.

In sharp contrast, Eastern Europeans and South Asians who arrived in large groups were often able to establish whole communities that sustained older cultural practices and strategies of mutual support (like language, shared parenting, and religion). Indeed, the church, temple, synagogue, or gurdwara often did much more than offer a spiritual anchor to newcomers in urban and rural areas: in the case of the gurdwara, it served as a political forum and a site of strategizing to influence policy-makers. A foreign-language press sprang up in many centres which both served the immigrant community and mitigated the need to assimilate into the mainstream. In particularly stark cases, like that of the Chinese community in British Columbia, ghettoization ensured that all the services needed by the community could be found within a few city blocks, the ancestral language was preserved, educational institutions arose that passed the culture on to new generations, churches and temples could be built and filled, and the need to venture out into the non-ethnic world was reduced. These institutions were social and economic hubs, capable of facilitating individual and/or group entry into the mainstream society and economy or preserving in the face of assaults the values and relationships that the immigrant group most treasured.

This remarkable and rich accomplishment, of course, invited further resentment of outsiders who used the term “clannish” to describe any ethnic enclave. Indeed, assaults from the Canadian host community would come in many forms.

Key Points

  • Adapting to the host society and its expectations was a contextual, community, and personal experience and not a singular process.
  • Even British immigrants developed strategies and institutions to enable their acceptance into the mainstream society.


Figure 5.10
Students of English, School for immigrants, Vegreville, Alberta (Online MIKAN no.3368064) by George E. Dragan / Library and Archives Canada / PA-088507 is in the public domain.


5.8 Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration

Canada’s immigration boom was made possible and made necessary, simultaneously, by the spread of the industrial economy and mechanized transportation. The late 19th century delivered the wherewithal to move large numbers of people faster, further, and in far greater safety than ever before; there was also a rising demand for grain to feed factory towns and coal to feed industry’s furnaces. These economic and technological developments happened to come along at the very moment that racism became a much more powerful way of looking at the world. To say that the Canadian experience included elements of racism is a little like saying that the Canadian Pacific Railway involved a little steel.

Racism is not merely a suite of regrettable or embarrassing attitudes expressed by a reliably odious share of the population at large. Racism constitutes a force in the modern world, a near- or crypto-ideological position that was broadly accepted in mainstream society as commonsensical. If one believed  as a great many did  that different races were inherently and unchangeably different from one another in terms of intelligence, morality, work ethic, personality, and health (among other qualities), and if one also believed that the mixing of races in a society or in a marriage would inevitably have the effect of diluting the strength of superior races and weakening the community overall, then policies to control for these factors were a logical consequence. The belief that race was more than a social construct obliged 19th and 20th century policy makers to erect barriers to the arrival and/or successful establishment of people belonging to “inferior” races. Racial stereotyping advanced from caricatures of 19th century Irish and Chinese immigrants to enclose Japanese and Indian arrivals, Eastern and Mediterranean Europeans, Arabs, Jews, and African-Americans. Aboriginal peoples were subject to similar discrimination and that is considered in Section 11.1. Racist policies also evolved.

Cultural Demography

Through to 1914 the ethnic shape of the older parts of the country was, with a few pockets of exceptions, much as it had been 50 years earlier. White Anglo-Celtic Protestants dominated Ontario and the Eastern Townships of Quebec; while they were the clear majority, a significant Franco-Catholic population and concentrations of African-Canadians lived in the Maritimes. Quebec, of course, was overwhelmingly French and Catholic, and Quebec City especially so.

Montreal, however, was a major port of entry, and many who stepped off the ships did not proceed much further inland. Italian, Jewish, and Polish immigrants could be found in significant numbers and concentrated in specific neighbourhoods in Montreal, which was principally an English-speaking city with a large French minority. Halifax was another entry point, and it acquired diversity in much the same way. The same immigrant groups had significant impacts on the largest industrial towns of Ontario (specifically Toronto and Hamilton) not least because those cities were magnets of employment and opportunity.

The company town of Powell River contained greater diversity among its immigrant community than most older central Canadian and Maritime communities. (Photo by Harry Rowed. Natinoal Film Board of Canada, Library and Archives of Canada, Mikan #3627400)

Figure 5.11 The company town of Powell River contained greater diversity among its immigrant community than most older central Canadian and Maritime communities.

The pattern from the Maritimes through Central Canada is, however, uneven. Some smaller centres Sydney, NS, Sault Ste. Marie, and Fort William (aka: Thunder Bay) for example attracted and retained ethnic communities while much larger cities contained remarkably little diversity. Sydney became a hub of ethnic variety for the same reason some small towns in the West  like Cumberland and Powell River in BC, and Trail and Drumheller in AB  were diverse. That is, they were all part of the emergent industrial world that globalized a particular kind of labour market. People who could work in foundries, mines, mills, and on roads and rails were circulating around the planet through increasingly sophisticated systems of recruitment, transportation, settlement, and resettlement.John Zucchi, A History of Ethnic Enclaves in Canada (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 2007), 4-5.

The West as a whole was a mosaic of immigrants from Eastern and Northern Europe. Before the War, this was instantly visible in the city, town, and Prairie skylines as onion-shaped domes and Eastern Orthodox crosses topped centres of worship from the Ontario-Manitoba border to the Rockies. While cities like Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, and Edmonton announced their British loyalty as loudly as any other centre, they were also sites of acculturation and assimilation of non-British newcomers and the newcomers’ parallel struggle to retain pre-emigration cultural elements.

Further west, in British Columbia, diversity was visible in communities that mixed Euro-Canadians with immigrants from both Europe and Asia. The British Columbian population before the Great War was increasingly Canadian-born (even BC-born) and the share of Chinese residents was actually falling from one-in-five to one-in-twenty between 1881-1921. Immigrants from Japan and the Punjab lifted the Asian numbers a little prior to the War. Each of these Asian communities employed different economic and social strategies in the face of systematized discrimination. Unlike virtually all other immigrant groups, Asians were repeatedly described as unassimilable; barriers to their integration thus created a self-fulfilling prophecy of Asian separateness.

The Welcome Mat

Canadians often did little to smooth the path of newcomers. Organized labour and even native farm labourers regarded most immigrants as part of a plot to reduce workers’ living standards by creating a split labour market. Anglo-Canadian homesteaders, too, demonstrated their own biases in the hiring of seasonal workers and tended to favour Canadian, British, American, and even German labour over Eastern Europeans. Some Prairie newcomers were thus frustrated in their efforts to earn enough money to meet the costs of setting up a homestead. Many turned, instead, to public works like road building and railway construction. Some and this was true particularly of Slavic and Scandinavian immigrants acquired a poor reputation with the railway companies precisely because they had achieved some success in farming. They made their farms a priority and framed their wage labour around the rhythms of planting and harvesting. Donald H. Avery, Reluctant Hosts: Canada’s Response to Immigrant Workers, 1896-1994 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995), 29-30. This is worth underlining: A great many rural immigrants were, nonetheless, industrial immigrants.

Nowhere was this more visible than in the mining towns of the West. In Alberta, coal mining workforces typically ran to more than 14% and as high as 25.5% Italian. Slavics (an all-purpose category that captures Russians and immigrants from the Baltic and Balkan nations) were even more numerous, constituting as much as 36% of the mining workforce in some districts. The same was true in British Columbia, where British miners were a significant factor, as were Finns, Chinese, Italians, and Americans. Employers were happy to have minority immigrants, who would work for less than the Anglo-Canadian and British miners, sometimes for a fraction of their pay. The Western Federation of Miners complained in the Sandon Paystreak newspaper that they were being pushed to the brink in the Kootenays by employers who were,

…importing cheap foreigners from the Minnesota iron ranges to displace union miners… [some employers] have it figured out that if they can run in Dagoes [Italians] at the rate of about two a day they will soon have the union locoed … if [they] can get enuf [sic] of them in, wages can be cut to a whisper and Rossland mapped as a colony of Italy. Already about 35% of the Rossland pay-roll is [Italian]….Quoted in Jeremy Mouat, Roaring Days: Rossland’s Mines and the History of British Columbia (Vancouver: University of British C0lumbia Press, 1995), 96-7.

The Paystreak’s screed is not exceptional. The principal instrument for transmitting ideas of racially-inherent physical, character, and moral flaws was the newspaper press. Reporting on a devastating local fire in 1908, the Fernie Free Press assigned to the diverse community that was battling the blaze the usual (and purportedly immutable) stereotypes: measured against “the serene indifference to danger of the Anglo-Saxons” there was the Italian, “with his excitable nature and glib tongue, the Oriental, with his inherent dread of danger, and his equally great regard for personal safety, [and] the stoic Slavonian [sic]….”Quoted in Leslie A. Robertson, Imagining Difference: Legend, Curse, and Spectacle in a Canadian Mining Town (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005), 57. The pulpit also played a role in this as was seen very clearly in the rise of eugenics (see Section 7.8). There were, too, nativist responses from immigrants (largely British or American) and the grown children of immigrants (providing they were White) that worked to (a) denigrate the outsider, and (b) advance the claims of the nativist to inclusion in the mainstream. This can be seen in the hostility shown toward African-Americans on the Prairies in the 1920s and 1930s by Central Europeans, whose families had themselves arrived hardly a generation earlier.

Racism thus became a bar over which some populations would attempt with mixed results to hurdle. Others, usually by dint of skin colour or religion, could not.


There are many immigrant populations in Canada who faced on arrival a dense thicket of racist attitudes. The experience of African-Americans is illuminating in this respect. Their numbers were not significant until about 1907, at which time conditions in the southern and central states deteriorated and word of opportunities on the Canadian prairies reached African-Americans struggling under Jim Crow Laws. Thirteen hundred reached Saskatchewan and Alberta in the years that followed. The government’s response was necessarily crafty because Ottawa feared stirring up diplomatic anger in Washington. As one study describes the tactics deployed,

Agents were sent into the South to discourage black migrants; medical, character, and financial examinations were rigorously applied at border points, with rewards for officials who disqualified blacks; American railways were influenced to deny blacks passage to Canada.James W. St. G. Walker, Racial Discrimination In Canada: The Black Experience (Ottawa: The Canadian Historical Association, Historical Booklet No. 41, 1985), 14-15.

Liberals and Conservatives alike pursued these strategies to stem the flow of African-American immigration. It was largely successful.

A Chinese workcamp along the CPR line, Kamloops, 1886. (Photo by Edouard Deville / Library and Archives Canada / C-021990)

Figure 5.12 A Chinese workcamp along the CPR line, Kamloops, 1886.

Chinese Communities

The post-Confederation Chinese unlike their Cariboo gold rush predecessors were largely drafted in to build the CPR between tidewater and the Rocky Mountains. Thereafter, some found work in the Vancouver Island coal mines but principally they settled in the cities and towns, especially along the CPR mainline. These enclaves varied tremendously in size but they hosted a familiar variety of services and institutions. Populated overwhelmingly by males (single or, if married, living there without their wives who were still in China), Chinatowns provided immigrants with employment in restaurants, laundries, and grocery outlets that served both the Chinese and the non-Chinese populations. Buddhist temples and clan halls (or tongs) provided cultural anchors while the Chinese Benevolent Association provided some degree of political coordination in what was a largely hostile, anti-Chinese environment. Chinese emigration like most Asian out-migration in these years was stimulated by agricultural crises at home (connected, in China, to drought) and political instability. Those pushes were paired with the prospect of making enough money in British Columbia (aka: Gum Shan) to rescue or advance family-owned farming operations in, mainly, Guangdong. A strong entrepreneurial culture was thus emblematic of the community and instruments for making capital available to members of the Chinese enclave including the hui were well developed.Paul Yee, “Business Devices from Two Worlds: The Chinese in Early Vancouver,” BC Studies, 62 (Summer 1984): 44-67. Living conditions, however, were often very poor: The elements that defined the Chinese experience across Canada and distinguished it from that of European settlers included wages that were a fraction of what was earned by adult White males, overcrowded living conditions in Chinatowns, and the almost total absence of family comforts. Although Chinese market farms in suburban areas became an early and important source of food in West Coast Canadian cities, few Chinese were able to become farmers nor were they able to escape the urban neighbourhoods into which they were cast. In large urban areas and even in smaller resource-extraction towns, Chinese immigrants could be found working in the homes of others as cooks and houseboys.

BC Premier Amor de Cosmos pictured evicting a Chinese immigrant, 1879. The cartoonist, J. Weston, uses caricatures but his blade has two edges: the Chinese immigrant's refusal to "assimilat" means, to De Cosmos, an unwillingness to "drink whiskey, and talk politics and vote like us." (Library and Archives Canada)

Figure 5.13 BC Premier Amor de Cosmos pictured evicting a Chinese immigrant, 1879. The cartoonist, J. Weston, uses caricatures but his blade has two edges: The Chinese immigrant’s refusal to “assimilate” means, to de Cosmos, an unwillingness to “drink whiskey, and talk politics and vote like us.”

Anti-Chinese Policies

Probably no immigrant group has been as heavily managed as the Chinese. Sought out as cheap contract labour, they were recruited to meet finite economic and infrastructural goals. While some Chinese arrivals saw themselves as sojourners temporary immigrants who would return to their country of origin once they’d amassed some money many more were in for the long haul. This was not part of Ottawa’s plan and so steps were taken to limit immigration and thus encourage return migration.

The Head Tax was the main instrument used by Ottawa to regulate Chinese arrivals down to 1923. Some 81,000 people found the wherewithal to pay this fee before it was abolished, even though it rose from $50 in 1885 to $500 in 1903. In this respect, the Head Tax initiative was a failed attempt to stop Chinese immigration. It was, however, a money-maker: It is reckoned that the Head Tax pulled in $22 million for Ottawa, which equates to more than $300 million in 2015 dollars. Not everyone in the Euro-Canadian community supported the Head Tax, though for reasons that we might now consider discomfiting. A group of Euro-Canadian women argued that reducing the Head Tax would attract more immigrants, some of whom could be employed as houseboys and cooks. The Lib-Lab Member of the BC legislature, Ralph Smith, supported this idea and one local newspaper chided him that he was worried that “his gallant wife should have to roast her comely face over the kitchen fire every day because the Chinese Head Tax makes it impossible for him to get a Chinese cook.”Quoted in Lisa Pasolli, Working Mothers and the Child Care Dilemma: A History of British Columbia's Social Policy (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2015), 30. The rate of Chinese immigration varied because of the tax and global events and, like much human movement during World War I, numbers fell. After the war, immigration resumed. By this time, however, there was growing fear among the White community of the opium trade and allegations that young Euro-Canadian women were being lured into the sex trade, what was called at the time “White slavery.” Emily Murphy a leading figure in first wave feminism, the suffrage movement, and counted among the Famous Five  wrote a series of highly popular pieces on the drug trade and its connections with Chinatown. The Black Candle (as it appeared in book form) was one of several diatribes against the Chinese community, one that catalyzed a revision of immigration legislation.

The 1923 Chinese Immigration Act terminated legal Chinese immigration and remained on the books until 1947. This complete ban on arrivals from a specified country was uniquely and exclusively applied to the Chinese. Prejudice might stand in the way of other groups but no others were treated this way in law. What immigration occurred between 1923-1947 was illegal and much of it involved reuniting spouses and family members. The 1923 Act, introduced on the 1st of July and thus coinciding with Dominion Day, was commemorated in the Chinese community as Humiliation Day in the years that followed. (For more on this topic, see Section 5.12.)

Limits on immigration is one thing; limits on immigrants is another. Chinese populations were contained (sometimes by choice but usually by civic regulations) to small urban areas Chinatowns. They were forbidden, in Vancouver, from purchasing homes and opening stores outside of a few blocks of the city core. Like members of some other ethnic/racial/visible groups, they were also forbidden for years from attending post-secondary institutions and specifically from pursuing degrees through the University of British Columbia School of Pharmacy, a restriction that echoed Sinophobic associations between the Chinese community and drug trafficking. Many of these constraints would survive into the 1970s and early 1980s.


Parallels can be drawn with the Jewish community. By 1914 there were reckoned to be 100,000 Jewish-Canadians, roughly 75,000 of whom could be found in Montreal and Toronto. Not all Jewish immigrants went to cities and towns, and there were Jewish farm colonies to be found in Saskatchewan. Enclaves ghettos without walls could be found in Montreal and Winnipeg’s North End in particular, although they were less visible in the other major cities. Vancouver’s second mayor, David Oppenheimer, was Jewish and instrumental in founding the city’s first synagogue in the heart of the East End. The population that gravitated to that neighbourhood dispersed, however, as newer and poorer immigrants intruded and as the Jewish community became more prosperous. A new spiritual and educational hub appeared on the south side, but it was never an enclave in the truest sense. In those cities where the Jewish population was more concentrated, there was inevitably a higher degree of visibility. In largely Catholic Montreal this drew anti-Semitic attacks, especially in the 1930s with the rise internationally of rabidly anti-Semitic political movements.

The Jewish diaspora had more experience of minority status than any other immigrant group in Canada. Centuries of ghettoization in Europe along with religious and legislative oppression had strengthened the community’s instinct to erect institutions of mutual support, social welfare, and education. In Canada this meant that a designated burial ground was the first objective, followed by a synagogue, and related institutions for women, men, and children. The Zionist movement also spilled out of Europe and into Canadian enclaves. In 1919 the pro-Zion Canadian Jewish Congress was established and acted as a voice for the community as a whole. This did nothing, however, to dampen Ottawa’s hostility toward Jewish immigration in the 1930s. Fearful of anti-Semitic violence in Germany, Austria, and, indeed, throughout Central and Western Europe, many Jewish families hoped to find sanctuary in Canada. Ottawa responded by holding the door firmly shut. Through to 1939 Canada accepted fewer Jewish refugees as a proportion of total population than any other nation in the West. Still the definitive work on this question is Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948 (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1983).

Early Japanese Immigration

The Japanese community began arriving in Canada in the 1890s. Like the Chinese, they participated in the coal mining frontier on Vancouver Island and were drawn to the cities. In Vancouver, Chinatown and the Japanese enclave were only two city blocks apart. One important distinction, however, was the important role that Japanese immigrants played in the fishing industry, principally as owners and operators of fishing vessels. While Chinese men and Aboriginal women laboured in the late 19th and early 20th century canneries, much of the fishing fleet depended on Japanese captains and crews.

Vancouver's anti-Asian riot of 1907 resulted in extensive damage in the Chinese and Japanese quarters. W.L. Mackenzie King (to whom this photo is credited) was sent by Laurier to investigate; 34 years later King would oversee Japantown's depopulation. (William Lyon Mackenzie King / Library and Archives Canada / C-014118)

Figure 5.14 Vancouver’s anti-Asian riot of 1907 resulted in extensive damage in the Chinese and Japanese quarters. W. L. Mackenzie King (to whom this photo is credited) was sent by Laurier to investigate; 34 years later King would oversee Japantown’s depopulation.

Like the Chinese, Japanese immigrants faced discrimination when it came to immigrant recruitment and host community hospitality. Public opinion among the non-Asian population was against them, as was demonstrated in a 1907 window-smashing and head-bashing riot led by the Asiatic Exclusion League (in which organized labour played a key role) that swept through the Chinese and Japanese quarters. This followed on the arrival of more than 8,000 Japanese newcomers earlier in the same year and the prospect of an Indian/Sikh migration north from Washington State. Heightened pressure from the non-Asian community caused the Canadian government to negotiate with Japan a Gentlemen’s Agreement (aka: the Lemieux-Hayashi Agreement) in 1908. This pact restricted the number of people leaving Japan for Canada. It capped the number of men who could travel to Canada, but it left open the possibility of female migration across the Pacific by not restricting the emigration of wives. The phenomenon of “picture brides” developed from there and in the decades that followed, significant numbers of women relocated from Meiji Japan to Canada where they met, for the first time, their husbands. The picture brides endured lives with men who were hitherto strangers, many of them living in small fishing or other resource-extraction communities on the northwest coast; despite powerful Meiji traditions of female submissiveness, some women sought their own path and abandoned prescribed gender roles.Midge Ayukawa, "Good Wives and Wise Mothers: Japanese Picture Brides in Early Twentieth Century British Columbia," BC Studies, nos.105-106 (Spring/Summer 1995): 103-118. As for the host community, Euro-Canadians were mostly hostile to the prospect of Japanese-Canadian family formation and the likelihood of growth from natural increase. What is more, Japanese success in the fisheries was so remarkable that new anti-Japanese restrictions on commercial fishing licenses were introduced in the 1920s. The 1923 Immigration Act extended new constraints to human movement between Japan and Canada to such an extent that Japanese migration was effectively as limited as that of the Chinese. The wartime and post-War experience of the Japanese-Canadian community is explored in Sections 5.11 and 6.17.

Immigration from the Indian Subcontinent

The third group to arrive from Asia came mainly from the Punjab. The Sikh migration is another in which males vastly outnumbered females. In each of these cases China, Japan, India Britain’s relationship with the source country is important. Of the three, only India was a British colony and that factored into the treatment meted out to potential and eventual immigrants. It also informed the Indian community’s strategies and tactics when it came time to fight for rights or survival.

Immigrants from India on board the Komagata Maru. The group's leader, Gurdit Singh, wears a light-coloured suit. (Photo by Frank Leonard, Vancouver Public Library, Accession # 6231)

Figure 5. 15 Immigrants from India on board the Komagata Maru. The group’s leader, Gurdit Singh, wears a light-coloured suit.

Neither a Head Tax nor a Gentlemen’s Agreement were possible in the case of India, so the method used to block migration was the continuous voyage requirement of the amended Immigration Act of 1908. Immigrants would be allowed from India (or Japan) into Canada if they could demonstrate that their vessel had travelled directly to a Canadian port without putting into another foreign harbour along the way. Given the distances involved and the ships of the time, this was effectively a barrier to Indian immigration. Sikh nationalists like Gurdit Singh (a merchant based in Singapore) accepted this challenge, chartered a vessel the Japanese Komagata Maru and, in 1914, attempted to bring nearly 400 potential immigrants to Vancouver. The ship was kept in harbour for two months. The passengers seized control of the ship from its Japanese crew and waited as lawyers for the Crown argued that the immigrants had departed from Hong Kong, not India, and so were in breach of the continuous voyage requirement.

The Komagata Maru incident is complex in that it draws together many different threads. Some of the parties involved were anti-British and sought Indian independence; the British, for their part, were anxious about divisive Indian politics just as tensions with Germany were becoming greater; Singh in concert with Indo-Canadians wanted to challenge the continuous voyage requirement just as much as he wanted the immigrants to succeed in reaching Canada; the British were as interested in putting down anti-colonial upstarts as they were in blocking immigration to Canada. Euro-Canadians, for their part, demonstrated little sympathy for the passenger/migrants and seemingly held fast to their desire for a “White Canada Forever.”See W. Peter Ward, White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy Toward Orientals in British Columbia, 3rd ed. (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002) and Hugh J. M. Johnston, The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada's Colour Bar, revised ed. (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2014). The Komagata Maru was driven from Vancouver harbour by the courts. Its passengers returned to India only to face jail and death at the hands of the British authorities.

Cyclone Taylor, former hockey player and No. 3 immigration officer in Vancouver in the infamous Komagata Maru incident.

Figure 5.16 Cyclone Taylor, former hockey player and no. 3 immigration officer in Vancouver in the Komagata Maru incident.

Anxieties about the Indian population before the war were rooted in the White community’s racist and xenophobic perspective on the world. Even so, it is in some respects a challenge to understand. There were, in 1911, fewer than 3,000 Indians in Canada and that number was roughly half of what it had been only five years earlier. Rather than posing a demographic threat, the community was in something like free fall. It was a fear of being overrun and outnumbered that motivated many racists at the time. H. H. Stevens, the Conservative Member of Parliament who played a key role in the Komagata Maru affair, for example, was terrified that Asian populations had a much higher fertility rate and an almost endless stockpile of potential emigrants on which to draw. Stevens would prove to be a lifelong opponent of any kind of Asian immigration. He and his peers saw Canada as “a White man’s country,” and regarded any arrival by visible minorities to be the thin edge of the wedge and a disaster in the making.

Racism, Health, Deviance

As historian Esyllt Jones observes, the state and medical officials gave physical health an ethnic face. Crowded housing and poor water and sewage widely recognized as causal factors when it came to infectious diseases were disregarded when dealing with the immigrant, working poor, and non-White races. It was race and ethnicity (and social class) that Canadian authorities believed made newcomers sickly and, as well, a fertile ground for epidemics.Esyllt W. Jones, “Disease as Embodied Praxis: Epidemics, Public Health, and Working-Class Resistance in Winnipeg, 1906-19,” The West and Beyond: New Perspectives on an Imagined Region, eds. Alvin Finkel, Sarah Carter, Peter Fortna (Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2010): 207-9. Local police authorities extended this way of thinking to social behaviour. Prostitution became associated with ethnic and visible minorities, particularly Chinese, Slavic, and Italian communities. Bootlegging the production and sale of alcohol is an example of an ancient rural practice that became criminalized in the early 20th century and used as an excuse to police the ethnic “other”. Organized gambling was another thread of moral corruption that was traced back to ethnic enclaves. Finally, the import and/or production and sale of restricted drugs from opium to heroin was transformed from a criminal practice into an ethnic and racial crisis. Described as morally, physically, and socially “diseased,” Canada’s ethnic and racial “others” were wrapped in a language that took on scientific and epidemiological tones. Once these notions were affixed to immigrant groups, the logic of barring them from medical schools and positions of responsibility became all but unassailable.

While it is true that official anti-Asian sentiment began to decline around 1947, prejudices remained. Anti-Semitic positions proved especially resilient, as did xenophobia regarding Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and members of other minority, non-Christian faiths. Twenty years ago, the distinguished Canadian historian Desmond Morton, wrote that pre-WWII Canada was “a poor country, full of people who were generous to those they knew, mean-spirited to those they didn’t, and harsh about the distinctions.”Desmond Morton, 1945 - When Canada Won the War, Historical Booklet No. 54 (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1995), 3. This tension between a country that needed and wanted immigration but didn’t necessarily want immigrants took new forms in the years after the Great War.

Key Points

  • Racism constituted a set of beliefs about racial hierarchies and policy alternatives.
  • Some regions acquired greater diversity than others, including the largest cities and the Prairie West.
  • These were the areas where acts of racial and ethnic discrimination were most widespread.
  • Anti-African and anti-Asian racism was expressed in policies and practices aimed to reduce or at least limit the size of the communities in question.
  • The only European community that faced comparable discrimination was the Jewish diaspora.
  • Immigrant communities developed their own respective strategies to secure survival at least and prosperity at best.


Figure 5.11
View of part of the town of Powell River, British Columbia, and the pulp and paper plant of the Powell River Company by Harry Rowed / National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada is in the public domain.

Figure 5.12
Chinese camp (Canadian Pacific Railway), Kamloops, British Columbia. 1886 (Online MIKAN no.3243526) by Edouard Deville / Library and Archives Canada / C-021990 is in the public domain.

Figure 5.13
The Heathen Chinese In British Columbia (Online MIKAN no.2914880) by Library and Archives Canada is in the public domain.

Figure 5.14
Damage to property of Japanese residents (Nishimura Masuya, Grocer, at 130 Powell Rd. S.) (Vancouver, B.C.) (Online MIKAN no. 3363536) by William Lyon Mackenzie King / Library and Archives Canada / C-014118 is in the public domain.

Figure 5.15
Sikhs aboard Komagata Maru by Siddhartha Ghai is in the public domain.

Figure 5.16
Cyclone Taylor by PM800 is in the public domain.


5.9 Immigrants and War

Christmas 1916 at an internment camp. (Internment Camps / Library and Archives Canada / C-014104)

Figure 5.17 Christmas 1916 at an internment camp.

Perhaps the single greatest irony of Canadians’ relationship with immigrants and visible minorities (including Aboriginal people) rose to the surface in the course of two World Wars. Keen to welcome nation-building immigrants but critical of their cultures and suspicious of the kind of nation they might build, Canadians tied themselves in knots when it came time to engage in military adventures.

The diversity introduced to Canada from the 19th century complicated ideas of loyalty. Recall that Anglo-Canadians were extremely suspicious of Franco-Catholic loyalties to the Vatican as articulated by the ultramontanists. The loyalty of the French at the secular level was regularly drawn into question so often so that the apparent disinterest of Québecois in volunteering for service in 1914-17 (see Section 6.4) was both expected and viewed as demonstrable proof of disloyalty to the Crown  regardless of the fact that Anglo-Canadian numbers in the ranks were shored up mightily by recent British immigrants. French Canadians, for their part, characterized Anglo-Canadians as absurdly loyal to an absent monarch in a foreign country, rather than to the country of their birth: Canada. What, then, were they to make of the hundreds of thousands of Europeans and Asians drawn from beyond the borders of France and Britain?

Local xenophobia was, thus, amplified by the arrival of war in 1914. Germans were instantly persecuted, their property attacked, and calls raised for sweeping arrests. Germanic names were part of the landscape of British North America for centuries and now they were Anglicized to demonstrate loyalty and to reduce visibility. Even the Ontario city of Berlin took the name of the British general in the Boer War, Kitchener. Austro-Hungarians that is, Austrians, Hungarians, many Ukrainians, and almost everyone from the Balkans were also targeted. The Hapsburg Empire’s vilification in wartime propaganda gave license to indulge prejudice and hostility toward those Central and Southern European immigrants who had been recruited  at no small expense  to build the Canadian West’s economy. What’s more, eugenicists already regarded the Austro-Hungarians as a liability in the building of a forthright, strong, British nation; Austro-Hungarians were perceived by government and civic officials as inherently impoverished and therefore feckless and unhealthy as well. And now, in wartime, they were subject to arrest and incarceration in internment camps.

Anglo- and Franco-Canadians, however, proved flexible in their distaste for foreigners. At the end of WWI, when the map of Europe was redrawn at Versailles, much of the Ukraine now fell within the borders of Poland, a beleaguered nation-state towards which the public had some sympathies. To be an Austro-Hungarian was to be an enemy; to be a Pole was to be reinvented as a brave ally.

The Pacificists

Pacificism was another barrier to inclusion during wartime. Several immigrant communities were recruited under Sifton’s watch with the promise that their pacifist beliefs would be honoured in Canada. For the Mennonites in particular, this was a critical assurance. In Russia, they were the target of violent repression by the Czarist regime precisely because of their anti-war stance; Canada’s offer to respect their pacificism was a deal-maker.

The Doukhobor experience in this regard offers an example. A dissenting sect established in Russia and Georgia during the 17th century (if not earlier) the Doukhobors’ critique of established church authority and the secular state in Russia attracted repression. This peaked in 1895 when the regime of Nicholas II sent in storm troops in this case, Cossacks to force Doukhobor compliance with state laws and universal conscription. These events produced an international outcry and the search for a new home for the Doukhobors (something which the frustrated Czar was only too happy to permit). Sifton’s ministry stepped forward and offered block settlements in Saskatchewan and Alberta totalling more than three-quarters of a million acres. The communal-ownership model preferred by the Doukhobors was to be respected, as was their anarchist reluctance to engage with the bureaucratic machinery of the state. As well, the Doukhobors were reassured by revisions to the Dominion Military Act that exempted them from military service.

The village of Vosnesenya - Thunder Hill Colony. Its architecture and village layout were copied from the Doukhobor villages in Caucasia.

Figure 5.18 The village of Vosnesenya – Thunder Hill Colony. Its architecture and village layout were copied from the Doukhobor villages in Caucasia.

Three factors caused the Canadians to change their position on the Doukhobor agreements. The bureaucracy of the modern state became more rigorous: Sifton’s replacement, Frank Oliver, began insisting on individual land registrations and pressures grew to send Doukhobor children to public schools. As tensions grew in Europe, an oath of allegiance to the Crown was required. Provincial governments were established in Alberta and Saskatchewan; now the Doukhobors had several levels of government with which to deal.

The communities fractured and the largest part, calling itself the Sons of Freedom, migrated to the southeast of British Columbia. There, their anti-materialist protests (which involved nude demonstrations and the burning of buildings) and their opposition to public schooling peaked in the 1920s and then in the mid-20th century. The growing state formation under W. A. C. Bennett moved to capture Doukhobor children and to educate them in facilities secure from parental influence. Arrests of the Freedomites followed. While all of these steps were taken within the letter of the law, the Doukhobor community experienced their incarceration and the abduction of their children as nothing short of state terrorism. Within only a few decades the Doukhobor experience in Canada looked very much like what it had been under the Czars.

What this history demonstrates is, in part, the conflicting currents of modernism – which involves the growth of the state, record-keeping, militarism, and the primacy of the individual and the survival of pre- or antimodernist belief systems and inclinations including the idealization of rural and communal life, spiritual versus materialist priorities, and anarchistic resistance to the very idea of the nation-state.

Key Points

  • Canadian policy, and much of the public, turned against Central and Eastern European immigrants during wartime.
  • Certain groups were characterized as “enemy aliens” and faced internment during the Great War.
  • Pacifist colonies in the West and elsewhere in Canada were increasingly confronted by public opinion and governments that reneged on earlier assurances of tolerance.


Figure 5.17
Christmas celebration at Internment Camp in Canada, W.W.I – 1916 (Online MIKAN no.3193850) by Internment Camps / Library and Archives Canada / C-014104 is in the public domain.

Figure 5.18
Doukhobor Village of Vosnesenya – Thunder Hill Colony by Themightyquill is in the public domain.


5.10 Female Immigrants and the Canadian State, 1860s through the 20th century

Lisa Chilton, Department of History, University of Prince Edward Island

Four women outside the Finnish Immigrant Home in Montréal, ca. 1929. (Kangas, Victor / Library and Archives Canada / PA-127086)

Figure 5.19 Four women outside the Finnish Immigrant Home in Montreal, ca. 1929.

In the middle of the 19th century, women who immigrated to Canada became the focus of special attention. Philanthropists and social reformers began to lobby officials of the Canadian state to help support their efforts to manage and protect this special class of newcomers. In part, the impetus behind treating female immigrants differently to men was a growing sense that the Canadian nation would be defined by the quality of the people who were settling it. As mothers – symbolically and literally – of future generations of Canadians, female immigrants were considered by architects of the new nation to be particularly significant additions to the population.

The Canadian government (like its counterparts in the United States, Britain, Australia, and other parts of the British Empire) initially resisted pressure to invest in special programmes and facilities for female migrants. The earliest initiatives were all privately funded. But by the turn of the 20th century various government bodies were supporting programmes designed by organisations such as the British Women’s Emigration Association, the Young Women’s Christian Association, and the Travellers’ Aid Society to treat women as both a particularly vulnerable and a potentially problematic class of immigrants. For example, the earliest women-only hostels and transatlantic chaperone programmes were all fully funded by charitable and philanthropic organisations. By the beginning of World War I women-only immigrant reception homes, established and run by women associated with the British Women’s Emigration Association but financially underwritten by Canada’s federal government, were in place in major urban centres across Canada.Lisa Chilton, Agents of Empire: British Female Migration to Canada and Australia, 1860s-1930 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007); Marilyn Barber, Immigrant Domestic Servants in Canada (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1991).

The Canadian government’s consideration of female immigrants as a group requiring particular care came to a head after World War I. In 1920, after much lobbying by Canadian women’s associations, the Canadian federal government established a special branch of the Canadian Department of Immigration and Colonization to recruit women for domestic service and other female-gendered forms of paid employment that Canadian women were unlikely or unavailable to perform, and to manage the movements of all “unaccompanied” women coming into the country. The Women’s Division functioned as a separate unit for just over a decade before the government imposed restrictions to immigration during the Great Depression and the flow of immigrants dried up, making their work essentially unnecessary.Rebecca Mancuso, "Work 'Only a Woman Can Do': The Women's Division of the Canadian Department of Immigration and Colonization," The American Review of Canadian Studies (Winter 2005): 593-620.

While the Women’s Division disappeared, the gendered assumptions and attitudes behind its establishment continued to play major roles in state programmes associated with newcomers after World War II. Women’s sexual histories were interrogated as a part of the selection process to a far greater extent than were those of men. Local government bodies funded immigrant reception programmes that encouraged female immigrants to embrace mainstream Canadian parenting and homemaking practices. And, as had been the case since at least the beginning of the 20th century, the government barred entry to women and even deported female immigrants for past experiences and behaviours that might have been overlooked in their male counterparts. Thus, for example, in the early 20th century, unmarried women who became pregnant were vulnerable to deportation proceedings on the grounds of their immorality and the likelihood that they would require some sort of charitable assistance if they were allowed to stay in Canada.For the late 19th and early 20th centuries, see Mariana Valverde, The Age of Light, Soap and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885-1925 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1991). For the post-World War Two period, see Franca Iacovetta, Gatekeepers: Reshaping Immigrant Lives in Cold War Canada (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2006).

Awaiting deportation, Québec, 1912. (William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada/PA-020910)

Figure 5.20 Awaiting deportation, Quebec, 1912.

The most consistent area of investment relating to female immigrants by the Canadian government concerns recruitment. Because household work and care for the young, the ill, and the elderly typically have been low-paid, exploitative areas of female-gendered employment, Canadian citizens in a position to be more selective have shunned this work. At the same time, prospective employers were quick to assign stereotypes to immigrant women seeking work in these fields: The newly arrived female worker was caricatured as morally suspect because of her race or ethnicity. Public fears and xenophobia in this respect produced extensive scrutiny and regular criticism of government programmes, even as the number of recruitment exercises grew. Perhaps more than any other aspect of the Canadian government’s immigration work, the government’s recruitment programmes associated with domestic and caregiver work represent Canada’s most conservative social politics.

Through domestic servant, caregiver and nurse recruitment schemes, many thousands of women have immigrated to Canada since Confederation. Before World War I, the majority of domestic servants in major urban centres and in the Canadian West were immigrants from the British Isles. They had been recruited by philanthropic organizations heavily subsidized by the Canadian federal government. Throughout the 1920s, the Canadian government continued to invest heavily in the recruitment of British women for this work, though it also struck deals with transportation companies and community groups that wished to support the immigration of European women for domestic employment. In the period after World War II, the government began to openly recruit women for domestic work from a list of preferred European origins. For example, in little over a decade (1951-1963) over 10,000 Greek women became Canadian immigrants through such a scheme.Noula Mina, "Taming and Training Greek 'Peasant Girls' and the Gendered Politics of Whiteness in Postwar Canada: Canadian Bureaucrats and Immigrant Domestics, 1950s-1960s," Canadian Historical Review, 94:4 (Dec. 2013): 514-39. Since the 1970s, the government has moved to a system whereby women recruited to perform domestic or caregiver work in Canada will not necessarily receive immigrant status. Rather, recruitment schemes targeting women in the Philippines or certain Caribbean countries, for example, have been structured around term employment contracts that provide the migrants with limited support and no certain future in Canada.Abigail Bakan and Daiva Stasiulis, Negotiating Citizenship: Migrant Women in Canada and the Global System  (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).

Key Points

  • Female immigrants have been treated by many administrations as a separate category of recruit and applicant.
  • The ways in which prospective immigrants were interrogated for eligibility was gendered.
  • Class prejudices and ethnic biases combined to create particular niches for immigrant females, specifically in areas of work that did not appeal to Canadian women because of low pay or poor working conditions.


Figure 5.19
[Four women on steps of Finnish immigrant home, Finnish Seamen’s and Immigrant Mission, Montréal, (Québec).] (Online MIKAN no. 3367692) by Kangas, Victor / Library and Archives Canada / PA-127086 is in the public domain.

Figure 5.20
Immigrants to be deported (Online MIKAN no. 3365973) by William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / PA-020910 is in the public domain.


5.11 Post-War Immigration

When it comes to immigration, the century can be divided in two along the fulcrum of WWII. Prior to the war, immigration was principally understood within the context of building an agricultural colossus and assembling an army of workers to tear down forests and wrest ore from the belly of the Earth. And it took place within the context of a kind of cultural sensitivity that was mostly alert to anything that would challenge the dominance of Anglo-Celtic Protestant and Franco-Catholic “founding nations.” It was for this reason that Buddhist, Shinto, Sikh, Muslim, and Jewish immigrants in particular – alike in that none were Christian – were especially marginalized. The cataclysms of 1939-45 changed both circumstances and minds.

Post-War Refugees

After 1945 Europe opened its floodgates as hundreds of thousands sought refuge from a devastated continent. British emigrants were fleeing cities destroyed by the Blitz and diets stunted by rationing; there were, too, 41,000 war brides and nearly 20,000 children fathered by Canadian soldiers stationed in the UK during the war. Refugees poured out of Germany, especially in the wake of the quartering of the nation (and Berlin) into Soviet and Western zones (see Section 9.4). The same was true of Czecho-Slovaks uncertain of their country’s future and disconsolate about its immediate past. In Italy, Austria, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium refugee camps were established in the late 1940s. Called DP Camps – for Displaced Persons – these were the focal point of efforts to sort the human chaos into emigrant streams. (Immigrants in this wave were casually, sometimes derisively, referred to as DPs regardless of whether they had endured the camps.)

Canadians played an important role in both the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the International Refugee Organization that succeeded it in 1947. Ottawa was committed to accepting significant numbers of able-bodied refugees, although Canadian anti-Semitism continued to throw up obstacles to Jewish refugees and survivors of death camps. As the Cold War got underway, anti-Communist applicants were favoured over others: Poles and Ukrainians together represented 39% of the 165,000 in this refugee wave, followed by Germans and Austrians (11%), Jews (10%), and smaller measures of Baltic and Central European emigrants. One historical study of this migration by Franca Iacovetta points to the role of Canadian “gatekeepers” who processed applicants in what she describes as “a worldwide labour relocation program.”Franca Iacovetta, Gatekeepers: Reshaping Immigrant Lives in Cold War Canada (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2006), 3-5. There were many ironies and tragedies in this process, possibly the most outstanding being that anti-fascist resistance fighters were often viewed by Canadian authorities as insufficiently anti-Soviet and they were, for that reason, less likely to be allowed into the country. This was notably the case among Jewish refugees whose animosity toward the fascists was understandably greater than their hostility toward communism.

Barely had the immediate post-war exodus tapered off in 1953 when new Cold War migrations got underway. In November 1956, as Soviet tanks rolled across a rebellious Hungary, 30,000 of some 200,000 exiles fled to Canada. There was a humanitarian agenda here, to be sure, but it is also important to note that providing sanctuary and opportunity to Soviet-bloc Europeans during the Cold War had propaganda value as well. And it cut two ways: their successful integration into a prosperous postwar Canadian democratic order taunted those who remained behind and, at the same time, anti-communist refugees spread a message among Canadians of Soviet oppression and terror.

Refugee crisis, 1956. An Immigration Interpreter assists with the interview of a Hungarian applicant. (Canada. Dept. of Manpower and Immigration / Library and Archives Canada / PA-181009)

Figure 5.21 Refugee crisis, 1956. An immigration interpreter assists with the interview of a Hungarian applicant.

The first waves of Cold War-era immigration from Europe were followed in the 1950s and 1960s by family reunification arrivals. As siblings and other relatives found their way to Canada, the majority made their way to urban Ontario. Diversity existed there before WWII but in the 1960s it became transformative. The established British-Canadianism of Toronto and Hamilton was itself being reduced to enclaves of what former Prime Minister Stephen Harper once described approvingly as “old stock” Canadians.

Ideological turmoil had consequences for Asian immigrants as well. Liberalization of attitudes toward Chinese immigration began in 1947, in large measure because China had been a target of Japan (an enemy of the Allied forces during World War II). Chinese Canadians were quick to volunteer for service in the Canadian Army in wartime and, after official barriers were dropped, they joined the Navy and Air Force as well, all of which contributed to a change in attitude in White society. In 1947, then, the 1923 Immigration Act was repealed and it became possible for Chinese immigrants and their descendants to obtain Canadian citizenship. Four hundred did so that year in a mass ceremony in Vancouver.Timothy J. Stanley, Contesting White Supremacy: School Segregation, Anti-Racism, and the Making of Chinese Canadians (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011).

The timing of the policy change, however, was poor. In 1949 the Chinese Revolution brought Mao Zedong (aka: Mao Tse-tung) and his Communist Party to power in Beijing. Almost immediately barriers to emigration were erected and once again Chinese (outside of Hong Kong and Taiwan) were unable to join members of the diaspora.Wing Chung Ng, The Chinese in Vancouver, 1945-80: The Pursuit of Identity and Power (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999). Emigration from Hong Kong would continue, however, and it accelerated in the 1980s as Britain reluctantly prepared to hand over control of the colony to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997. Large numbers of (mostly wealthy) Chinese made their way to Canada at this time, establishing a significant enclave in Richmond, BC, and appearing in most major cities. Changes within the PRC and a growing economy enabled “mainlanders” to emigrate as well, and by the first decade of the new century the Chinese community in Canada had become vastly more complex, consisting of old families – some of which had roots in Canada going back to the 1850s, most of whom had originated in Guangdong, and the majority enjoying modest incomes while still strongly oriented toward community institutions in Chinatowns – contrasting with wealthy and super-wealthy recent arrivals from Hong Kong and the PRC, a great many of whom spoke Mandarin (Putonghua) rather than Cantonese (Guangdong speech) and almost none of whom regarded Chinatown as representative of their history, experience, and aspirations. (For more on this topic, see Section 5.12.)

Post-Centennial Immigration

The centennial year marked a further change in immigration policy. Up to this time, Ottawa preferred settlers from the British Isles, the United States, and Western Europe. In 1967 the government introduced a points system. Under this regime applicants were given preference if they knew either (or both) French or English, were non-dependent adults (that is, not too old to work), had jobs lined up already in Canada, had relatives in the country (to whom they might turn for support), were interested in settling in parts of the country with the greatest need for workers, and were trained or educated in fields that were in demand. The economy was still expanding and in some regions it would continue to do so for many years. Canadians have not always demonstrated sufficient mobility to fill the hiring needs of some regions, nor to fill some economic niches (especially what are often called “entry-level jobs”). Under these circumstances the new legislation was to prove key in attracting large numbers of new Canadians from sources that were considered “non-traditional”.

In the 1970s, Montreal was no longer Canada’s largest metropolis, the increasingly multicultural Toronto having shot past its downriver rival. This was only the most easily observed demographic change. Proportionally greater transformations were seen in cities like Vaughan, ON. Located north of Toronto, Vaughan was a small town until the late 20th century, when it leapt from fewer than 16,000 in 1961 to 182,000 in 2001 (and it has nearly doubled since then). Most of that growth came from Italian and Jewish post-WWII immigration which, combined with immigrants from other sources, made it one of the fastest growing centres in Canada: the English Canadian population in Vaughan is, as a consequence, almost insignificantly small. Similar patterns can be seen in suburban settings like Vancouver’s Richmond and Surrey, where growth rates have outstripped all other centres in Canada in the last decade or more.

Some rural areas enjoyed growth spurts in the post-WWII period. In the 1960s young American men and women fled to Canada to avoid being drafted into the United States Army for duty in the Vietnam War. Especially large nodes were established in British Columbia’s Kootenays, in the Gulf Islands, and along the Sunshine Coast. Others followed, including counter culture, back-to-the-land advocates who were more pulled than pushed into Canada (see Section 9.16). At around the same time, Indo-Canadians coupled suburban living with exurban and rural agriculture, becoming a dominant feature in British Columbia’s farming sector. Hispanic immigrants followed a similar trajectory, particularly in regions that were linked with strong farming settlements immediately south of the border.

African Immigrants

The numbers of Canadians from Africa has been growing rapidly since the 1990s. Urban areas see considerable concentrations drawn from many parts of Africa. One study on the African diaspora in Vancouver indicates that these immigrants consistently experience downward social mobility because their education and skills are often not recognized or valued in Canada. Many are drawn from professional and semi-professional careers in Africa only to find that they must pursue very low status and vulnerable jobs. Access to free farmland is not an option available to this generation of new arrivals nor, because of the diverse sources of African immigration, are social agencies comparable to the Chinese Benevolent Association. Somalians and Nigerians, Sudanese and Mozambicans lack the common set of cultural, political, and economic interests and inclinations to establish what was possible among the more cohesive Guangdonese and Punjabi immigrant communities 100 years ago.Gillian Crease, The New African Diaspora in Vancouver: Immigration, Exclusion, and Belonging (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 17.

Toward a Cultural Mosaic

Although Canadian society has long been composed of diverse elements, the “two founding nations” narrative prescribed absorption, assimilation, and exclusion as strategies for managing newcomers. The idea of a cultural mosaic – as opposed to the American melting pot  –>would have been anathema to most English and French Canadians before the 1960s. Several developments produced a more inclusive society.

The first of these was purely demographic. Large numbers of Laurier-era immigrants had large numbers of children; immigrant fertility – especially in rural areas – was high. That meant that by 1960 there were at least two generations of growing numbers of what Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker called “hyphenated Canadians.” Some were finding their way into post-secondary education – pioneers in their families in this respect – and were critical of narratives they encountered that privileged French and English Canadians. Additionally, incompletely assimilated urban and rural communities now represented significant voting blocks and they could not be treated with condescension by hopeful politicians. The Liberal Party, in particular, was well positioned to take advantage of these changes and did so. Diefenbaker (whose career is surveyed in Section 9.6) occupies an ironic position in this story: a German Canadian, he was critical of “hyphenation”, seeing it as a kind of second-class status. So, while he might decry special privileges to any minorities because it served to perpetuate that minority status, a growing chorus of Liberal Party voices called for more pluralism. As the party that was most likely in office when post-WWII immigrant families first arrived, the Liberals reaped some benefits at the polls in gratitude. The first Chinese Canadian candidates were Liberals and the party prominently ran Italian and Portuguese Canadian candidates as well.

The changes to the Immigration Act in 1967 produced waves of arrivals from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The vast majority of these New Canadians headed to the urban centres, especially the largest five or six cities. After 1971, despite much higher fertility rates in rural Canada, cities continued to grow at a more rapid rate, mostly from new immigration. Typically, newcomers gravitated towards lower-income neighbourhoods where rents were cheap and familiar foods might be obtained. A recent study calls these immigrant nodes within metropolitan areas “arrival cities,” landing pads for migrants who, since the 1960s, have been coming by air and not by sea or rail.Doug Saunders, Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011). These immigrants further reinforced the advantages enjoyed by the Liberal Party.

By the 1960s there had occurred, too, a change in popular attitudes. The Nazi war crime trials in the late 1940 that revealed the extent of the Jewish holocaust under the Hitler regime proved to be a turning point and spurred efforts to develop language around human rights. Full citizenship for many groups, however, only came into reach slowly; Asians, for example, got the vote in the 1960s (as did some Aboriginal people). At about the same time – in the early- to mid-1960s – we see the beginnings of official multiculturalism and inclusivity. The 1963 Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism didn’t issue a report until 1969 but its mandate and early claims for the precedence of English and French in Canada catalyzed a reaction among “Third Force” Canadians – Canadians whose ancestry was neither French nor English.

Espousing a new inclusivity was both a political strategy for election day and a way of breaking with the old “duality” of Confederation. The Liberals under Pierre Trudeau were simultaneously building a bilingual and bicultural society while rolling back assimilative requirements for immigrants. Rather than divide the growing immigrant demographic along ideological lines, they reasoned, it might be held together as a Liberal block if its own (various) values were respected. As early as 1969, Trudeau was quoted saying, “For the past 150 years nationalism has been a retrograde idea. By an historic accident Canada has found itself approximately 75 years ahead of the rest of the world in the formation of a multinational state.” Practices and rhetoric in the 1970s increasingly reflected these values, and was manifest in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982. This movement culminated in the Multiculturalism Act of 1988.

None of these changes erased the reality of bias and prejudices that confronts immigrants, but they did created a legal framework in which discrimination might be challenged. Two such challenges came from the Asian community in British Columbia in the 1980s. While Eastern European immigrants to the Prairie West experienced xenophobia and disadvantage in the 20th century, they were not taxed on entry in an attempt to both control their numbers and to generate government revenue. This, of course, was the experience of Chinese immigrants under the Head Tax regime.Lisa Rose Mar, Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada’s Exclusion Era, 1885-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). Nor were any European, American, or African immigrants confronted with special legislation to stop the arrival of their family members and to deter further immigration from their ancestral homeland. This, too, was the experience of the Chinese community under the federal Chinese Immigration Act (also called the Chinese Exclusion Act) of 1923. And although it is true that some German, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Turkish, and Italian Canadians were interned as enemies of the state during the two World Wars, these were predominantly select individuals who were outspoken supporters of enemy regimes and very few of them suffered extensive or permanent loss of personal property; nor did these internments constitute a community-wide, round-up based on ethnicity alone. For the Japanese Canadians in World War II, the situation was starkly different: property was confiscated, auctioned off, and never returned. The entire community, including infants and the elderly, was captured and incarcerated in camps for the duration of the war with Japan; the end of internment brought further barriers to reintegration and the prospect of deportation to Japan (see Section 6.17). Because of these significant, not to say monumental, differences in the experiences of the Japanese and Chinese communities, apologies and compensation were sought from various levels of government from the 1980s on.

Internment camp for Japanese-Canadians in British Columbia.

Figure 5.22 Internment camp for Japanese Canadians in British Columbia.

Successive Quebec governments dealt with the issue of multiculturalism differently. Fearing that the majority of immigrants would gravitate towards or even demand schooling in English for their children, the provincial government took steps in the 1960s-1980s to close off that avenue. While a disproportionate share of immigrants to Canada from former French colonies chose to settle in Quebec (especially Montreal), there were also large numbers of immigrants who spoke neither English nor French. These newcomers – described as allophones – were a significant demographic and were courted by both the Liberals and the Parti Québécois, especially during the referendums on Quebec sovereignty. (See Sections 9.11 and 12.3 for more on this topic.)

Key Points

  • Post-WWII immigration included refugees from war-ravaged Europe and from communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
  • New sources of immigrants were being increasingly tapped, and greater numbers were heading to cities than to the countryside.
  • After 1967 much of the focus of new immigration was in suburban centres.
  • The increased diversity of the Canadian population created political opportunities; politicians seized on ideals like multiculturalism and recognized long-standing ethnic community grievances.


Figure 5.21
Immigration interpreter aids Hungarian refugee (Online MIKAN no. 3298778) by Canada. Dept. of Manpower and Immigration / Library and Archives Canada / PA-181009 is in the public domain.

Figure 5.22
Japanese internment camp in British Columbia by jkelly is in the public domain.


5.12 The Chinese in Canada

Timothy J. Stanley, Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa

People from China have been in what is today called Canada since before the country existed. Indeed, 50 carpenters and shipwrights from Canton became the first permanent resettlers on Canada’s West Coast when the English sea captain John Meares abandoned them at Nootka Sound in 1789. Ironically, their efforts at building a fur trading fort and ship consolidated the British claim to the Pacific Coast.

Washing gold on the Fraser River, ca. 1875. (Library and Archives Canada / PA-125990)

Figure 5.23 Washing gold on the Fraser River, ca. 1875.

Those of Chinese origin have been continuously present in British Columbia since the 1858 Fraser River gold rush, arriving at a time when the territory was a First Nations one and the non-First Nations population was a few hundred. By the 1880s, Chinese (mainly made up of people from Guangdong province in south China) were likely the second largest group in BC after First Nations. However, after Confederation in 1871, the first legislature of the Province of British Columbia ensured that people of European origins would dominate the new Dominion by taking the right to vote away from Chinese and First Nations peoples. At the time, the racialized White minority was less than 20% of the population.

By World War I, at virtually every turn, legislated discrimination surrounded people of Chinese origins living in British Columbia. In addition to being barred from voting, they could not work for provincially incorporated companies, for the government itself, underground in coal mines, or on crown licenses. Indeed, by 1914 the province had enacted 112 pieces of discriminatory legislation against them and other Asians. In the face of this discrimination, many Chinese moved to other provinces, where discrimination was common but not as systemic. They often worked with other Chinese immigrants in labour-intensive settings that required little initial capital. By the 1940s, virtually every town of any size in Canada had a Chinese restaurant or hand laundry.

Head Tax receipt issued to Lee Don in 1918.

Figure 5.24 Head Tax receipt issued to Lee Don in 1918. The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which largely restricted the immigration of Chinese into Canada was passed on the same day as Dominion Day, causing Chinese Canadians to close their businesses and boycott Dominion Day celebrations every July 1, referring to the event as “Humiliation Day”.

In 1885, John A. Macdonald extended disenfranchisement to the federal level and introduced a discriminatory immigration Head Tax on Chinese workers and their families. By 1904, the Head Tax reached $500, more than an average worker’s yearly wage. In 1923, the federal government banned Chinese immigration to Canada outright. Between 1923-1947, when the legislation was repealed, Chinese immigration to Canada effectively ended. The future Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and her family were among the handful of exceptions allowed. This discriminatory legislation prevented Chinese families from being reunited in Canada. In 1941, 95% of the married Chinese men in Canada were still separated from their families. Supposed bachelors in Canada endured years of loneliness while their wives and kin in China were caught in poverty, civil war, and the Japanese invasions of the 1930s and World War II. It was not until the 1980s that the family structure of Chinese-Canadian communities came to resemble that of other Canadian communities. In the 1980s-1990s, China became the most important source country for immigrants to Canada, moving away from the community’s historic roots in Guangdong province in south China, to northern China. Today, the Chinese community in Canada includes a majority of people who are immigrants and who speak Mandarin as their ancestral language and who come from professional and entrepreneurial backgrounds in China. At the same time, there are others who are seventh or even eighth generation Canadian whose ancestral languages are various dialects of Cantonese, Taishanese, and Hakka, but whose primary languages are English or French. As such, there are many different Chinese communities in Canada.

Throughout their history in Canada, people of Chinese origins and their Canadian-born children, have fought for full political and democratic rights, and for full participation in Canadian life. They have helped to make Canada the democratic and inclusive society that it is today. They organized associations and governing institutions to protect their interests and for mutual support. They formed political organizations designed to make China strong so that it could protect their rights. They fought for inclusion in people’s idea of Canada, moving it from one that was originally envisioned as a White, European nation to one that includes all of its peoples equally.

Key Points

  • The Chinese presence in British Columbia predates the Fraser River and Cariboo gold rush, but the numbers grew rapidly during that time and increased again in the 1880s.
  • Chinese immigration was managed through the imposition of a Head Tax in 1885 and restrictive legislation in 1923.
  • The diversity of emigrants from China has produced a complex pattern of distinct immigrant communities in Canada.


Figure 5.23
Chinese man washing gold (Online MIKAN no.3192437) by Library and Archives Canada / PA-125990 is in the public domain.

Figure 5.24
Head Tax Recipt by Shizhao is in the public domain.


5.13 Summary

Figure 5.25 Immigrants in the years between the 1890s and the 1920s often lacked the capital to buy the kind of machinery that would make their worklives easier and some, indeed, rejected the new technologies. Men and women alike worked the fields. Ca. 1890. Provincial Archives of Alberta, A1615.

Figure 5.25 Immigrants in the years between the 1890s and the 1920s often lacked the capital to buy the kind of machinery that would make their worklives easier and some, indeed, rejected the new technologies. Men and women alike worked the fields, ca. 1890.

Across the century that began with the Great War in August 1914, the complexion of Canada changed significantly. And while the transition from a mostly rural to a mostly urban society continued on course, much of that work had been accomplished by 1921. The population patterns that emerged thereafter mostly reinforced existing urban settlement, adding ethnic complexities in close contact within one another. In 2006, nearly half of Toronto’s population described themselves as belonging to a “visible minority”; about the same proportion now make the same claim in Vancouver’s population.Statistics Canada, Visible minority population, by census metropolitan areas (2006 Census), accessed 16 October 2015, It is not true, however, of the rest of Canada. The share of Atlantic Canada’s population that is comprised of non-northern European stock is tiny. In Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, the foreign-born constitute fewer than 2% and half that share are people of colour. Gillian Crease, The New African Diaspora in Vancouver: Immigration, Exclusion, and Belonging (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 5.

The effects of these patterns have been significant. Earlier in this chapter it was pointed out that the immigration waves of the 20th century did not reframe Canada in the same way as the Edwardian waves. This is true. But they did recalibrate the country from a dualistic to a pluralistic society. Setting aside for the moment the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canada, the non-Native demographic has been transformed. While that non-Aboriginal pluralism may not be experienced to the same extent in rural Manitoba or small-town Ontario, and while it might not be highly visible in Prince Rupert or Medicine Hat, its influence is widespread. That is partly because of the enormous ability of our metropolises to control the national conversation; it is in these major cities that the proverbial rubber hits the road.

Canadian attitudes toward immigration have blown hot and cold, often at the same time. Settlers in the West were necessary to laying claim to that territory; at the same time, these settlers proved to be overwhelmingly foreigners, not locally-raised farm men and women from the original provinces. Immigrants of many different cultures were thus essential tools in the building of the nation and yet, at the same time, their foreignness was regarded as problematic. The newest newcomers promoted economic growth and, simultaneously, competed with native-born Canadians for jobs in an industrializing society. Immigrants thus played a critical role in steadying and expanding the Canadian economy while, usually without knowing it, competing against and undermining the power of labour.Roderic Beaujot, Population Change in Canada: The Challenges of Policy Adaptation (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1991), 103. Even as they offered to lay down their lives for Canada in wartime, the immigrants were treated as not-quite-belonging.

Accounts of immigrants’ experiences tend to focus on host community responses. It is for this reason that immigration policies and narratives of prejudice prevail. This is, however, an approach that many historians of immigration have rejected. Their preference is to place greater emphasis on the role played by the immigrant instead. Ethnic community groups, the orchestration of emigration, the development of employment strategies in response to an often prejudicial environment, the extent to which they embraced, rejected, or found unpredicted advantages in programs of assimilation  all of these aspects point to agency.Franca Iacovetta, The Writing of English Canadian Immigrant History (Ottawa: The Canadian Historical Association, Canada’s Ethnic Group Series Booklet No.22, 1997), 6. The very language of rights in Canada has been strongly influenced by immigrants and their descendants, and the anti-racist movements of the late 20th century owe much to acts of resistance and survival that were launched by visible minorities from the 1890s on. This is worth underlining because the history of immigration is a complex interplay of the personal, the political, the global, and the local.

Key Terms

allophone: A person whose first language is neither French nor English.

anarchist: An individual who advocates the dismantling of the state and the creation of a structure based on voluntary association and participation.

antimodernism: A retreat from modernization and modernity, often associated with rural and traditional values, spirituality, and social hierarchies.

back-to-the-land: Refers to any of several anti-urban agrarian movements in which city dwellers are encouraged to return to simpler, pre-modern ways of living.

Barr Colony: Located west of Saskatoon covering a massive area that extended to and across what would become the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, the colony was populated by some 2,000 immigrants recruited directly from Britain.

block settlements: An initiative in settling the West with groups drawn from the same ethnicity or creed allocated contiguous lands so as to take advantage of cultures of mutual support.

bootlegging: Unlicensed, typically illegal production of alcohol. Also, in some instances, the sale of the same or of other illicit goods.

Chinatowns: Colloquial term for enclaves of Chinese immigrants. In Canada and primarily in British Columbia, these appeared from 1858 on, with the greatest increase occurring during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Created by external forces (Euro-Canadian civic authority limiting Chinese property ownership and business licenses to a small area) and internal needs (the concentration of Chinese financial and social institutions).

Chinese Benevolent Association: An organization that coordinated the interests and politics of the various community organizations in Chinatowns, and provided different levels of social support for its members.

context group: In a society comprised of some diversity, refers to the most influential group whose culture other groups seek to adopt or are obliged to assimilate into. See also, reference group.

continuous voyage requirement: Regulation passed by the federal government in 1908 to restrict immigration from India and Japan; required immigrants to reach Canada by means of a single, continuous, unbroken voyage. Would affect long journeys that necessitated a stop in either Japan or Hawaii. Tightened in 1914, leading to the challenge posed by the Komagata Maru.

counter culture: A challenge to mainstream culture posed by a group’s rejection of dominant values. In the 1960s youth movements and specifically the hippy movement constituted a counter cultural moment.

cultural mosaic: In contrast to the concept of a “melting pot,” refers to a multi-ethnic and multicultural society in which differences are permitted to continue, rather than face assimilation into a single typology.

Displaced Persons: Peoples (principally in Europe) dislocated by World War II; refugees.

Doukhobors: An immigrant group comprised of pacifists belonging to a Russian dissident religious movement. Settled first on the Prairies then mostly relocated to British Columbia. Persecuted in the 20th century for their pacifism and their rejection of material culture.

exurban: Refers to residential lands that lay beyond the suburban fringe.

founding nations: In Canada, typically refers to French and British Canadians.

Galicia: Term formerly used to describe an area of what is now part of Ukraine and Poland, which produced many immigrants to Western Canada. Also the name of a part of Spain, which did not.

Gentlemen’s Agreement: 1908; also known as the Lemieux-Hayashi Agreement; the Japanese government agreed to restrict the number of people leaving Japan for Canada. A loophole allowing wives to join their husbands led to significant use of the “picture bride” system thereafter.

Head Tax: A fee levied by the British Columbian and then the federal government on Chinese immigrants, beginning in 1885 and continuing to 1923.

Home Children: Over 100,000 children who were exported from Britain to Canada between 1869 and the late 1930s. Organized by charitable church organizations to alleviate overcrowding and to provide improved and more healthy alternatives. Stories of abuse abound, although many of the children who were distributed to farms across Canada did enjoy improved circumstances.

human rights: Any right thought to belong to every person. Enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1947.

Hutterites: Along with the Mennonites and Amish, the Hutterites are an Anabaptist sectarian group; emigrated from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, where they faced oppression for their pacifist beliefs and the practice of adult baptism; many arrived in Canada after attempts to settle in the United States. A communal farming community that resists modernization.

Jewish holocaust: The campaign launched in the 1930s and early 1940s by the German National Socialist government aimed at the eradication of the Jewish population in Europe. Estimates of the number killed run to 6 million or more.

Jim Crow Laws: In the United States, post-Civil War racial segregation laws that discriminated against African-Americans; most formal elements dissolved in the 1950s and ’60s in the Civil Rights Movement; was one cause of African-Americans emigrating to Canada in the Laurier and Borden eras.

Mennonites: Along with the Hutterites and Amish, the Mennonites are an Anabaptist sectarian group; emigrated from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, where they faced oppression for their pacifist beliefs and the practice of adult baptism; settled in communities in Ontario, in Manitoba and across the Prairies, and in parts of British Columbia. A communal farming community that has resisted modernization, though with less intensity than the Hutterites.

nativist: A movement or individual committed to preserving privileges to established members of a community over newcomers; often translates into anti-immigration attitudes; many nativists are themselves merely earlier immigrants; has nothing to do with Native peoples.

New Canadians: Term used since the late 1960s to describe recent immigrants, particularly those arriving from non-traditional sources like South Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

Nootka Sound: On the west coast of Vancouver Island; traditional territory of the Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth) First Nation; site of sustained contact between European, Mexican, and American traders and Aboriginal peoples, along with a significant population of imported Chinese labourers in the late 18th century.

pacifism: An anti-war position; pacifists typically will not volunteer for and refuse to be conscripted into conflict. Many eastern European religious groups brought pacifist beliefs with them to Western Canada before 1914.

pluralism: In contrast to dualism, supports the concept of a community or state made of diverse parts, particularly as regards aspects like ethnicity, creed, and/or language.

racism: A set of beliefs and practices that involve the creation of largely arbitrary categories of human peoples and assigning to them behaviours, traits, and tendencies that are essentialized — that is, thought to be an inherent and immutable part of who they are. For example, laziness, alcoholism, unbridled libido, personal restraint and self discipline, deceitfulness, superior or inferior intelligence, greed, corruptibility, cowardice, and courage have, at various times, been regarded as unchangeable qualities of one race or another. As an ideology, argues that the assumed existence of these differences justifies — and necessitates — the development of social policies that reduce the impact that might be had by the less desirable races.

reference group: In a society comprised of some diversity, refers to the most influential group whose culture other groups seek to adopt or are obliged to assimilate into. See also context group.

Sinophobic: Fear of China or Chinese.

sojourners: Immigrants whose intent is to work for a period of time, accumulate savings, and return to their home country (or province). Historically associated mostly with Chinese labourers who were brought to Canada under contract to the Canadian Pacific Railway, for example.

Sons of Freedom: Or Freedomites; a radical anarchist faction within the Doukhobor diaspora in Canada; broke away from the main settlements in Saskatchewan and resettled in southeastern British Columbia; anti-materialist protests and anti-statism led to confrontations with the provincial government in the 1920s, and 1950s-1960s.

split labour market: A labour market in which employers have the option of hiring cheaper labour that is differentiated by race, ethnicity or, possibly, creed. Doing so improves profits and it will embitter relations between the two labour supplies. Used as a theory (split labour market theory) to explain racial divisions between workers.

war brides: At the end of both World Wars, European women — principally British — who married Canadian servicemen and relocated to Canada when their husbands returned home.

war crime trials: Internationally-convened trials to address allegations of crimes against humanity including (but not limited to) murder of civilian populations and enslavement.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. Where did most of Canada’s immigrants come from? Why?
  2. Describe the main features of immigrant waves from the 1880s-1920s.
  3. How was agricultural change reflected in the timing of immigrant waves?
  4. What preferential standards did individuals like Clifford Sifton apply to immigrant recruitment, and why?
  5. What were the main goals of Canada’s pro-immigration policy in the period before WWI?
  6. What were the principal goals of immigrants to Canada in these years?
  7. What was the response of Canadian society to these first waves of immigration?
  8. In what ways were racist and nativist reactions to immigration expressed?
  9. How did immigrant communities respond to Canadian ambivalence toward immigrants?
  10. How did the recruitment of women differ from the recruitment of farming families?
  11. What features of immigration changed between the World Wars and after 1945?

Suggested Readings

Chilton, Lisa. “Preventing the Loss of Imported Labour: Trains, Migrants, and the Development of the Canadian West, 1896-1932,” in Place and Replace: Essays on Western Canada, eds. Adele Perry and Esyllt W. Jones (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2013): 93-106.

Iacovetta, Franca. “From Contadina to Woman Worker,” in Such Hardworking People: Italian Immigrants in Postwar Toronto (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992): 77-102.

Lehr, John C. “Settlement: Farm Families and a New Environment,” Community and Frontier: A Ukrainian Settlement in the Canadian Parkland (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2011): 25-53.

Menzies, Robert. “Race, Reason, and Regulation: British Columbia’s Mass Exile of Chinese ‘Lunatics’ aboard the Empress of Russia, 9 February 1935,” Regulating Lives: Historical Essays on the State, Society, the Individual, and the Law (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press): 196-230.


Figure 5.25
Two unidentified woman and an unidentified man harvesting grain with a cradle farm equipment (A1615) by Provincial Archives of Alberta has no known copyright restrictions.


Chapter 6. The War Years, 1914-45


6.1 Introduction

The years from 1914-1945 are marked by turmoil, what one historical text calls “decades of discord.”John Herd Thompson with Allen Seager, Canada, 1922-1939: Decades of Discord (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1986). Not only was there conflict abroad, there was also tension at home. The workings of parliament and the democratic order in Canada underwent change, some degree of transformation, abuse, and challenge. The culture of Canada like many western democracies changed dramatically because of the war. The increasingly interventionist state might be ascribed to many causes but there was certainly a sense that the sacrifices of the Great War entitled all Canadians to greater security and care. There was an interesting bridge to cross here, one that took Canadians from a society of families, through the atomistic society of individuals, to a vision of Canada as a social state. Not socialist as yet, but the cost of two World Wars and one enormous economic Depression changed people’s expectations.

Imagine someone just old enough in 1914 to enlist or to replace a militia volunteer at their position in a factory or shipyard. Boys and girls of 15 born just before the turn of the century were part of that particular cohort. Some of them saw war; Canada’s substantial mortalities in Europe would ensure that many would never return home. Those who did, however, and assuming they survived the 1918 influenza pandemic as well, would reach their 20th birthday in the year of the Winnipeg General Strike perhaps while the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force was providing a small backstop for the anti-Bolshevik forces in eastern Russia. They’d live through a brief economic depression before the economy began to recover in earnest. Prohibition would come and go, women would enjoy unprecedented and expanding legal rights, and then, just as their work lives were getting well underway, the worst economic downturn in the history of capitalism would hit them. The whole of the 1930s this cohort’s own 30s would see the economic advances of the pre-war years and what recovery there was in the 1920s blow away in dust. If they weren’t married before 1929, they were less likely to marry in the next decade than any generation of 30-somethings in Canadian history. If they were too young to fight in the Great War they might well prove too old to fight in the Second World War. From adolescents to middle-aged adults, the Canada they knew was almost constantly in a state of crisis.

Does this generation matter? Given the number of young immigrant couples who arrived between 1891 and 1911, they certainly do. The birth rate a pre-WWI baby boom created a generation of Canadians that was too young to know the certainties of the Victorian era, too young to know a Canada that wasn’t already ethnically diverse, and old enough to grow both cautious of and eager for, change.

Learning Objectives

  • Explain and describe Canada’s involvement in the two World Wars.
  • Assess the impact of both wars on Canadian society and economy.
  • Describe the domestic social, economic, and political changes that took place between 1914 and 1945.
  • Account for and list the significant changes in the status of women in this period.
  • Outline the experience of Japanese-Canadians and Aboriginal people in wartime.


6.2 Borden vs. Borden

The Bordens at sea, 1912. (Library and Archives Canada / C-017778)

Figure 6.1 The Bordens at sea, 1912.

While Macdonald took Canada to war in its own territory and allowed a party of adventurers to join the Nile Campaign, and while Laurier was Canada’s first PM in global wartime, the commitment involved and the investment of resources in Red River, Saskatchewan, or in Africa, was insignificant compared to what followed in 1914-18. The toll on lives was much greater as well.

So, too, was its impact on Canadian political culture. When Robert Borden took on the role of Prime Minister after the 1911 election, he was a sharp contrast with his predecessor in at least one regard: he was not a compromiser. Speaking to an election gathering in Winnipeg in September 1911, he articulated his position on freer trade with the United States: “I am absolutely opposed to reciprocity and if the West were prepared to make me Prime Minister tomorrow, if I would support that policy, I would not do it.” Reciprocity, he claimed, would not only weaken Canadian industry and the Dominion’s economy as a whole; it would lead to American annexation and the loss of a whole way of life. It wasn’t just a trade deal, as far as Borden was concerned it was a catastrophe.

Many of the other things Borden believed in were comparably solid and unflinching. Before 1916, there was little to suggest that he supported women’s suffrage, even though his wife, Laura Bond (1861-1940), was the President of the Local Council of Women of Halifax, a pro-suffrage organization. There’s even less to indicate that he sought prohibition of liquor, despite  or perhaps because of  the strident teetotalism of Minister of Militia Sam Hughes. Borden was an imperialist throughout his career and his party’s position on the Naval Service Bill was very clear: he would rather build up the British Navy than sponsor a Canadian “tinpot navy.” And, significantly, when the war started he was staunchly opposed to conscription.

But, and this is where he gets interesting, it was Borden who challenged Canada’s subordinate role in the Empire and paved the way to full-blown autonomy in the 1920s and ‘30s. It was also Borden who gave women the vote (albeit under peculiar circumstances and in a tremendously cynical way). It was Borden who forged links with Liberals to create a Union Government in wartime. It was Borden who brought in prohibition and it was Borden who introduced conscription. The ways in which he achieved his goals have been routinely condemned by historians but the fact remains that Borden unlike some politicians of the era demonstrated a profound willingness to change direction.

Key Points

  • Robert Borden’s term as prime minister witnessed extensive challenges to deeply entrenched policy positions and social attitudes.


Figure 6.1
Rt. Hon. and Mrs. Robert L. Borden aboard S.S. ROYAL GEORGE en route to England (Online MIKAN no.3191880) by Library and Archives Canada / C-017778 is in the public domain.


6.3 The Great War

"Are we Afraid? NO!" A 1915 cartoon captures the spirit of the Imperial war and the Canadian Imperialists' view of the larger world. (Canadian Copyright Collection, Picturing Canada Project, British Library)!_(cartoon)_(HS85-10-29954).jpg

Figure 6.2 “Are we Afraid? NO!” A 1915 cartoon captures the spirit of the Imperial war and the Canadian Imperialists’ view of the larger world.

Insofar as there is any truth to the old line that generals are always ready to fight the last war, the Boer War had a disastrous influence on Canada as well as on Britain. The idea that a 20th century campaign in Europe could be conducted with cavalry, with glory, and with few casualties was to prove a nonsense. The martial spirit that was inspired by the adventures of Sam Steele and his peers in 1899-1900 paired up with 19th century enthusiasms for muscular Christianity to produce a decade of jingoism.

These passions had social consequences. Fears of racial degeneration and the weakening of industrial workers by poor conditions and suboptimal diets created room for a perceived crisis in national readiness. It is no coincidence that this was the era that produced the Boy Scout (or Scouting) movement under the leadership of a British officer and veteran of the South Africa campaigns, Robert Baden-Powell. Self-discipline, child discipline, and military-like organization became more widely valued and promoted across Canadian society, even in Quebec, where cadet training enjoyed particular popularity.Desmond Morton, A Military History of Canada, 5th edition (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007), 123. There was resistance to these attitudes the Industrial Workers of the World (see Section 3.6) declared paramilitary organizations, including the Boy Scouts, anathema. And the persistent division between francophones and anglophones over the issues of imperialism and nationalism (see Section 4.5) had the potential to turn further international conflicts into a national disaster. Beginning in 1870 at Red River, through the North-West Rebellion and the Boer War, taking up arms meant straining the very fabric of the Canadian project. What was to come in 1914 would test it further still.

The Imperial War Effort

Economic and imperial tensions between Germany and its chief competitors France and Britain produced a spider’s web of alliances and promises that entwined almost every nation in Europe and a few in Asia as well. The Triple Alliance (Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Italy) was balanced off by the Triple Entente (France, Britain, and Russia). An attack against one member would result in the other partners defending its interests. There were also secondary alliances, such as Britain’s with Belgium. So long as fear of the balance of power was greater than enthusiasm for war, peace would hold. In the meantime, it was easy to imagine someone making a misstep.

This happened on 28 June 1914 when the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. A bubbling crisis in the Balkans (coveted by Austria, protected by Russia) erupted, and by 4 August all the major powers in Europe were at war. The bullet that Princip put into the Archduke, however, was only a proximate cause. There were many others involved and historians continue to debate which were most important. For Canada in the summer of 1914, only one catalyst existed: Britain was at war, so Canada was as well.

A great many Canadians were thrilled. The build up to the war had been ongoing for nearly two decades and marginal wars had been fought around the colonial edges of Africa and Asia. A continental war would settle the issue of imperial dominance once and for all and would put paid to further colonial sideshows. What is more, the economy in Canada had started to sour in 1912 and war was reckoned to be good for business. While Nationalists in Quebec might decry Canada’s involvement, constitutionally there was no question that Britain’s decision to go to war made the choice for the Dominion as well.

It's all a great adventure until you get to the trenches. Enthusiastic crowds turn out to see troops depart Hamilton in 1914. Few likely suspected that this was going to be a war of attrition and not glory. Credit: Andrew Merrilees / Library and Archives Canada

Figure 6.3 It’s all a great adventure until you get to the trenches. Enthusiastic crowds turn out to see troops depart Hamilton in 1914. Few likely suspected that this was going to be a war of attrition and not glory.

Was Canada ready? The Naval Services Act that brought Laurier’s defeat in 1911 was scrapped after the election, and any plans for a Canadian Navy went with it. Worse, Borden’s effort to secure $35 million to pay for the construction of three dreadnought-class warships was blocked in the Senate. Now Canada had neither a Navy nor could it reasonably claim to have contributed to building up Britain’s. The militia was in better shape. In 1898 it had a budget of only $1.6 million, a budget that, under Laurier, increased to $7 million. Then, on the eve of war, Borden raised it to $11 million.Desmond Morton, A Military History of Canada, 5th edition (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007), 127. There were slightly more than 74,000 men in the various regiments but only 3,110 in the permanent force. This was still an amateur’s army, not a professional standing army, but the Canadian offer to Britain of 25,000 men under arms was regarded as a bold demonstration of imperial loyalty. Borden’s administration took the exceptional step of introducing the War Measures Act, 1914, which extended wide-reaching powers to the federal government for the duration of the war. These included the ability to suspend civil rights and thus enabled the arbitrary internment of “enemy aliens.” It was not, however, meant to extend the life of the government, although Borden would us