Social History | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Social History

Social history is a way of looking at how a society organizes itself and how this changes over time. The elements that make up Canada’s social history include climate and geography, as well as the transition to industrialization and urbanization.
Knights of Labor
Hamilton's Knights of Labor parading down King Street during the 1880s (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-103086).
Working-Class District
Near the Lachine Canal in Montréal, 1896. During the late 19th century, working-class families began crowding into neighbourhoods located close to factories (courtesy Notman Photographic Archives, McCord Museum/2942).
Carpenters Sawing a Log
In the pre-industrial economy, craftsmen produced according to the needs of their customers, using hand tools (courtesy NMC/75-14258).
Steam-Powered Sawmill
Early in industrialization, usually only large factories were able to use the costly and heavy steam engine. The sawmill on Matapedia Lake (1880) ingeniously used an old steam locomotive as the motor by extending its smokestack (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C 6354).

Social history is a way of looking at how a society organizes itself and how this changes over time. The elements that make up Canada’s social history include climate and geography, as well as the transition to industrialization and urbanization. An Anglo-American compromise was at the base of Canadian society until the 20th century, when Canadians who had previously defined their society as either an American or a British dominated one, had to deal with a cultural mosaic.

What Shaped Social History?

Canada presents some particular problems for the social historian. The country is a complex mosaic of ethnic groups, cultures, traditions and institutions. The French and English cultural backgrounds have been felt in political institutions, as well as the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches and elite cultural activities. But popular entertainment, architectural styles, marriage customs, etc., have found their social forms and institutions from influences coming from the United States, Ireland, Ukraine and elsewhere. Once imported, these diverse forms have sunk roots into the different regions of Canada, and have developed in different ways.

Canadian geography also influenced social development, in ways unlike the American experience. Americans often explain their social and political uniqueness through the impact of the "frontier" — the meeting point between civilization and wilderness that moved west across the US as settlement advanced. At the frontier Americans were cast upon their own resources and learned to be independent and inventive. However, while the Frontier Thesis applies to American development, Canada had a very different experience. Still, the theory was popular during the interwar years among Canadian historians, such as A.R.M. Lower and Frank Underhill.

Canada only had a continuous frontier before 1763, during the French regime. Thereafter the wilderness was quickly pushed back in eastern Canada, as the arable land was rapidly occupied. The frontier experience lapsed, to be renewed two generations later on the Prairie West, where a similarly rapid settlement process occurred. For most Canadians the frontier was transitory. Canadians were rarely far from authority and social institutions and they were rarely divorced from social solutions. Government moved out onto the frontier with and sometimes before the population. That authority came in the form of the British military, colonial officials and later the North-West Mounted Police.

There are other theories of Canadian social development. The Staple Thesis, formulated in the 1920s by economic historians H.A. Innis and W.A. MacIntosh, asserted that Canada's export of commodities influenced its social and political systems. The Laurentian Thesis, expounded from the 1930s to 1950s, argued in favour of the influence of the St Lawrence River valley on Canadian development. Since the 1950s the Metropolitan-Hinterland Thesis, presented by historians such as J.M.S. Careless, has been used to explain the development of Canada's economy and regional tensions.

Government also gave shape to social structure. New France has been called an "aristocratic welfare state", with a tiny population protected by the French military, supported by enlightened laws and sustained by government expenditures. After the Conquest of 1759-60, British aristocratic ideas were imported into Canada. With the structure of a colonial government, local elites were created, such as Upper Canada's Family Compact. Government initiative helped launch the Canadian Pacific Railway and western settlement. Meanwhile, immigration policy determined the Prairies' ethnic mix.

Study of Social History

Social history is concerned with how all of these influences shape society. Sociologist S.D. Clark is sometimes referred to as the parent of Canada’s social history. In his many works, Clark assessed the impact of the frontier, social movements and Canadian economic activities on society.

Beginning in the 1970s, as Canadian scholars drew on the example of British historian E.P. Thompson and cultural history, anthropology also began to influence historians. By the 1980s, computers began to be applied in historical analysis and permitted generalizations from the experience of large groups. Québec historians have been particularly active in large-scale demographic studies of population characteristics. But the most polished printed account is Michael Katz's The People of Hamilton, Canada West (1975), which reports the results of a massive computer-aided analysis of that southern Ontario city.

Two series of books in social history give some sense of the interests of Canadian historians working in the field. The Social History of Canada series (University of Toronto Press) and the Canadian Social History series (McClelland & Stewart) were both launched in the early 1970s. The M&S collection presented studies of poverty in Montréal, the ideology of 19th-century businessmen, attitudes towards immigrants, educational reform, working-class history, and the history of childhood, of medicine and of women. The UTP series was begun to reprint important books and documents, such as Mackenzie King's 1918 musings on industrial relations.

In the first generation of Canadian social history some long-neglected areas came to prominence, including the history of women. A natural interest for those pursuing an integrated history of society, the study of women was given additional impetus by the growth of feminism and by the entry of increasing numbers of women into the academic world. Themes from women's suffrage to the ideology of reproduction to women's work were explored in early collections on women's history. The history of childhood has also been studied. Other previously neglected areas drawing new attention were the immigrant experience (see immigration), ethnic groups, communications, urban history (see urban studies), Native People and the history of violence in Canada. Since the 1960s some of the most significant social history has been written in Québec on a wide variety of topics. S.M. Trofimenkoff's The Dream of Nation (1983) is a major contribution to Québec social history. But more than any other area, working-class history prospered. Geography, economy, class, sex, ethnicity and institutions are now the major themes of the new social history in Canada.

Aboriginal Contact

The interplay of elements that make up Canada’s social history can be seen from the beginnings of European exploration. The Aboriginal population was divided into hundreds of tribal units. Regional splintering made any unified response to European threats impossible. Instead, it created intertribal animosities, such as that between the Huron of central Ontario and the Iroquois of northern New York. These fractures were exploited by whites seeking to use Aboriginal peoples in European struggles for supremacy (see Iroquois Wars). The struggles, in turn, sprang from both political rivalries and the needs of the European economies for American resources.

Marked differences in Aboriginal and European societies contributed to the outcome of their contact. Aboriginal concepts of citizenship and ownership were usually flexible and accommodating, and their religious beliefs were tolerant. As a result, most Aboriginal groups accepted French visitors, and they were prepared to share land and resources with the newcomers and to consider French religious and social practices sympathetically. In contrast, the Europeans tended to have rigid, proselytizing religious beliefs, which they were anxious to impose on Aboriginal peoples. Europeans also held exclusive concepts of ownership and of appropriate social behaviour to which all had to conform.

The flexibility of Aboriginal societies was indicated by the skill with which some nations learned to conduct the fur trade with Europeans and with other tribes. Ultimately, however, Aboriginal societies buckled under the combined pressure of European economic demands, constant warfare, and the European diseases that swept through Aboriginal communities. By the time of the British Conquest, the Aboriginal population of Eastern Canada had been so reduced in numbers and power it was no longer a key factor in the economy or politics of the region.

French and British Commerce

Aboriginal power was replaced by French and British power. The two empires had competed for dominance in North America from the beginning of the 17th century until the fall of Québec in 1759. Each had reached out to the New World with its own imperial forms and peculiar institutions. Economic motivations were primary and, as a result, the initial form of social organization was essentially that of a business. Until 1663 the control of New France was granted to a series of private companies, each charged with developing the fur trade and settling the colony. The English rested their imperial hopes in Canada on the Hudson's Bay Company (chartered 1670).

The French pursued an intrusive fur-trade policy, sending traders into native villages to conduct their business, whereas the English company required Aboriginal people to come to its posts on Hudson Bay to trade. One consequence of this difference was that French traders more often established marriages with native women, a practice the HBC actively discouraged. In addition, relations between the many traders in the West and native women created a whole new society — the Métis. After the Conquest removed France from competition in the fur trade, rivalries arose between the HBC and other traders of British background, particularly those who formed the Montréal-based North West Company. Alcohol and violence were used more frequently to gain furs, with profound effects on the cohesion of Aboriginal social organization.

New France had been a controlled society. The basic institution of the colony was the Seigneurial System; a quasi-feudal form of landholding in which large lots were granted to lords, or seigneurs, who in turn provided farms to peasants. But few lower-class French migrated to Canada (no more than 10,000 in the entire history of the colony). These few always had alternatives to seigneurial farming, particularly in the fur trade. The government needed to keep its people on the farms in the St Lawrence valley to supply food for the army and to help defend New France, but it had difficulty coercing people to give up the fur trade; it needed to make seigneural farming more attractive.

Strict limits were therefore placed on the dues and taxes that seigneurs could levy, and a state legal system (see civil code) protected the peasants against feudal oppression. As a result, the Canadian peasant retained far more of the product of his labour than the European peasant did, and he was far freer. A symbol of this was that farmers in New France rejected the traditional label "paysan," and instead called themselves Habitants.

British North America

The British North America that succeeded New France grew quickly, and its social patterns became more complex. The BNA colonies existed in a large continent, which they shared, after the American Revolution, with an aggressive rival to the south.

Many of the Loyalist refugees who resettled in BNA after the American Revolution carried with them a powerful bitterness against the US, republicanism and democracy. The War of 1812 reinforced Tory belief in the duplicity, irrationality and menace of the US, and in the need to protect Canada from "infection" by American ideas. The colonial form of government imported from Britain was a suitably conservative instrument for the purpose. So were institutions such as the Church of England and a highly stratified class system. Elites emerged to help realize this Tory philosophy. They included groups such as the Family Compact in Upper Canada [Ontario], the Château Clique in Lower Canada [Québec] and the Council of Twelve in Nova Scotia.

At the same time, American ideas and practices were permeating Canada despite the best Tory efforts. Many Americans who came to BNA before 1812 were not Loyalists but simply land-seekers with no political motivation. Even the Loyalists were as much American as British. Britain believed this group would likely cling to American concepts of local self-government. The Canadian colonial period was marked by a conscious rejection of the political hegemony of the US, but equally by an instinctive refusal to become a trans-Atlantic copy of Britain.

The American phase of settlement was finished by 1812, and after 1818 a new wave of British migration broke over Canada. The values and customs of the British settlers intermixed with those of the Americans to produce the essential compromise that was "English" Canada. Economic assumptions, business forms and technology in Canada remained predominantly American, and the economic success of the US was the brass ring pursued by English Canadians. Social institutions, however, were often a blend of the two cultures. American individualism influenced Canadians, but it was coloured by a British sense of group and class solidarities and a more explicit class system.

French Canada, too, was influenced by American and British migration. However, this influence worked to emphasize the unique characteristics of French Canadian society. The Conquest left French Canada surrounded by the "English." By the early 19th century, the growing population was already bursting the seams of the seigneuries, producing overcrowding and over-cultivated farms, resulting in a decline in the standard of living. The seigneurial system was finally abolished in 1854. But this was too late to solve the problem of Québec agriculture or to prevent the economic retardation of French Canada. The end of seigneurialism put even greater emphasis on two other institutions, which helped French Canadians to retain their distinctiveness: the Roman Catholic church and the French Language.

Ethnic Divides

The church remained central in the Québécois identity until the 1960s. Its decline then, under the force of modern secularism, left language as the key mark of distinctiveness. Attempts by successive Québec governments in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s to compel the use of French in schools and workplaces and on public signs demonstrated the significance of this last great distinction in an increasingly homogeneous North American continent.

In Canada's cultural mix, ethnic identity and religion assumed special importance, for English as well as French Canadians. From the 1830s, for example, the Orange Order played a major, bloody role in the life of Ontario, Québec and New Brunswick. Militantly Protestant and ostentatiously loyal to the British Crown, the order was a focus of identity and reassurance for many immigrants, especially Protestant Irishmen (see Shiners' Wars). Unhappily for social peace, Orangemen expressed their identity in verbal abuse of Catholics (and often French Canadians), in provocative parades and in frequent riots with Catholic opponents. Yet the Orange Order was an important institution of social adjustment for hundreds of thousands of Protestant immigrants. Ethnic and religious bonding papered over class differences in Canada, obscuring socio-economic conflicts that might have been even more productive of social conflict.

Industrialization and Labour

The transition to an industrial society altered many social patterns. Mechanized industry began to emerge in Canada in the 1840s. It was dominant by the 1890s and produced widespread concentration of economic power before First World War. The old elites, created by British economic and political needs, gave way to elites of industrialists and financiers who were represented politically by professional men, especially lawyers. Industrialism also created a working class and an organized response — trade unionism — to the new economic order.

Unions sprang up in the 1870s and were a permanent feature of the social environment by the end of the 19th century. As with the economic system itself, unions were heavily influenced by American ideology and example. By 1902 international unions with headquarters in the US had become dominant in the Canadian labour movement. Their support of moderate, apolitical approaches helped to prevent class conflicts in industrial Canada. Exceptional conditions could cast light on class differences. The unrest that grew out of the First World War produced the labour upheaval of 1919, focused on the Winnipeg General Strike (much as Québec's Quiet Revolution would trigger unprecedented labour militancy in that province in the 1960s and 1970s).

For the most part, however, Canadian labour remained moderate and committed to peaceful collective bargaining. The American example and the influence of institutions, such as schools and the mass media — which cut across class lines, fostering a classless ideology — minimized social group conflict (see social class). Industrialism had a homogenizing effect. Mass markets were created for mass-produced products, railways sped goods and ideas across the country, and newspapers (later radio and TV) helped to reduce regional differences. However, geography continued to resist these tendencies.

Confederation was a logical political response to the needs of the railway and the industrial age (see railway history). It erected a larger political and economic structure, which could press forward with grander economic programs. But the continuing reality of regional economic and social communities required Confederation, like Canada itself, be a compromise. It was a federal not a unitary state. It was a parliamentary system on the British model, but one operated by political parties whose style was more American than British (see federalism).

Industrialization also demanded a larger labour force. After 1897 a booming Canadian economy supplemented its familiar American and British sources of immigrants with large numbers of continental Europeans. By the 20th century, Canadians, who in the 19th century had defined their Anglo-Saxon society as either an American or a British dominated one, had to deal with a cultural mosaic. What is striking is how little the basic social institutions had to adjust to ethnic diversity. Political and economic forms continued to evolve within the same broadly Anglo-American patterns, and leadership continued to be exercised by those of British stock. Geographic proximity to the US, the maintenance of a modified free-enterprise economy, and the inertia of social institutions allowed Canadian society to absorb and assimilate immigrants.

Post-War Change

Québec, the most rapidly modernizing part of Canada after 1960, was also the most troubled by the social implications of a mass North American society. If institutions such as the media helped instill a stabilizing common ideology, it also became clear to some disadvantaged elements that they were not receiving an equitable share of the bounty promised by those institutions.

After 1960, Aboriginal people began to more vocally demand compensation for economic and social losses. But more influential were the demands of women, who formed a majority of the population. The economic system had delivered the promised improvement in wages and working conditions to male workers, and the media had become pervasively successful in publicizing the triumphs of the society. Women began to demand a place in the mainstream, and social institutions slowly responded. A Royal Commission on the Status of Women was appointed in 1967; divorce reform was introduced in 1968; and traditionally all-male professions began to open to women. However, the basic institutions of society were resilient enough to survive the adjustment with little disruption.

The pace of 20th century change seemed very great. A predominantly rural country until about 1940, Canada became an overwhelmingly urban one (see rural society). In 1941, for example, 41 per cent of Québec francophones lived on a farm; by 1971 the number was only six per cent. The Quiet Revolution was stimulated by the upheaval produced by this shift. Families seemed to be challenged. Canadian divorce rates soared after the Second World War, especially after the divorce law reform of 1968. Meanwhile, birth rates, especially in Québec, declined.

Although many more women worked outside the home in the 1990s, the gap between male and female wages had not narrowed. Far more marriages ended in divorce, but most Canadians still chose to marry. Although agricultural employment was replaced by urban employment, the distribution of wealth in Canada changed little and wealth continued to be unevenly distributed geographically, with the Atlantic region lagging behind other regions economically.

Geography remained a solid anchor for society, sheltering regional and economic differences. Social classes and institutions evolved, and growing importance was attached to the educated professionals who serviced more complicated social needs. Yet studies such as John Porter's The Vertical Mosaic (1965) and Wallace Clement's The Canadian Corporate Elite (1975) suggested a remarkable continuity in the groups that wielded social and economic power in Canada.

The relative influence of organized religion in Canadian life declined, again most dramatically in Québec. Fraternal groups and secret societies lost prominence after the Second World War as the religious and imperial causes they espoused became less significant. The visit of a pope to Canada in 1900 would have set off religious riots; in 1984, and again in 2002, it produced celebrations in a country whose population was by then almost half Roman Catholic. Another reason for the decreasing influence of voluntary organizations was the welfare state, in which government assumed responsibility for charity, job placement and training, education, social adjustment and a myriad other social roles once filled by voluntary organizations and religious and ethnic communities. Still, the social and institutional patterns in which these changes were worked out were those of the Anglo-American compromise that was at the base of Canadian society.

For a treatment of specific themes in social history, see also Childhood, History Of; Diseases, Human; Epidemic; Great Depression; Political Protest; Social Doctrine of The Roman Catholic Church; Social Gospel; Temperance.

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