Footwear Industry

Footwear industry, sector of Canada's MANUFACTURING industries that produces footwear to meet various needs, including specialized industrial footwear, functional footwear, cold-weather footwear, slippers, and dress, casual and athletic shoes for men, women and children.


The footwear industry is one of the oldest in Canada. The name of the first person in Canada to cobble a pair of shoes has not been recorded, but François Byssot of Pointe-Lévy, Québec, built the first tannery in 1668. Byssot was assisted by Jean TALON, who advanced the sum of 3268 livres from the royal coffers. The Compagnie des Indes occidentales contributed another 1500 livres.

The first Canadian census (1666) revealed that 20 shoemakers served a population of 3215 inhabitants. The industry was required not only to look after the needs of the colony but also to equip a regiment of soldiers. Like cobblers all over the world, Canadian shoemakers used an awl, a curved knife, a needle and a wooden last. They set up shop in their own homes, employing 4 or 5 workers.

Toward the middle of the 19th century, the introduction of machinery revolutionized the production of footwear. The sewing machine was adapted for stitching footwear components. Other devices were developed for cutting, cementing, nailing and vulcanizing parts of the shoe.

Eventually, what had been a cottage craft became a sophisticated, highly mechanized factory industry. The 1871 census reported 4191 footwear-manufacturing establishments in Canada. Most were small shops which also did shoe repairs. With the advent of mechanized shoemaking equipment, many of these small manufacturers were forced out of business by the high capital cost of machinery and plant construction.

The Modern Industry

Consolidation has also marked the modern industry. In 1950 the 292 footwear factories in Canada produced 33.9 million pairs of shoes, valued at $111 million. The industry employed 20 785 workers. In 1985 there were 169 factories employing 14 164 persons and producing 43 million pairs of footwear valued at $870 million. The industry is concentrated in Montréal, Québec City, Toronto and the Kitchener-Cambridge, Ontario, area. About 90% of the firms are Canadian-owned.

Successful Canadian shoe manufacturers include Bastien Brothers Inc of St-Émile, Qué, who produce winter boots for the North American market; Santana Inc of Sherbooke, producers of women's winter boots and casual footwear; Greb Industries, producers of Bauer skates, Hush Puppies and Kodiak work and hiking boots; Kaufman Footwear of Kitchener, producers of waterproof footwear, safety boots and Sorel winter footwear; Susan Shoe Industries Ltd, Hamilton, producers of Cougar casual footwear; and Tender Tootsies Ltd, Canada's most successful and largest maker of popularly priced women's footwear using man-made materials. Bata Ltd in Don Mills, Ontario, is the world headquarters of the Bata Shoe Organization, the largest shoe marketing and manufacturing enterprise in the world (operating 192 companies in 61 countries).

In 1968 shoe production reached a peak of 52.9 million pairs, falling to 43 million pairs in 1986, a drop caused chiefly by the influx of footwear imported from low-wage countries in which average earnings are one-tenth those of a Canadian shoe factory worker. Until the early 1960s, imports were not significant in the Canadian market, but they soared from 6.8 million pairs in 1972 to 75 million pairs in 1986, the latter figure representing 63% of the apparent Canadian market for footwear that year. Imports from Asia took over most of the low-price ranges; those from Europe captured much of the market for fashion footwear.

The deterioration in the Canadian share of the domestic market caused shoe manufacturers to seek the protection of the federal government against the flood of imports. The industry maintains that the current market share, less than 50%, threatens the survival not only of the Canadian footwear industry but also of related industries (eg, the leather industry) and many suppliers. In response to the shoe manufacturers' briefs, the government instituted protective measures against imports in 1977 by imposing quotas on all footwear coming into Canada. Quotas were to be in effect until December 1988.

Under their protection, the industry continued to introduce automation and electronic technology and to undertake restructuring programs to help it meet foreign competition. The Canadian industry is also developing export markets and increasing specialization in winter footwear, for which it has already gained a world reputation for excellence.

Although wages have more than doubled in the past decade, they have remained below those for other manufacturing industries. Of every dollar received by manufacturers from footwear sales, half pays for materials and a quarter for labour. The remaining 25% covers administration costs and profits.