Chapter 10. This is the Modern World

10.10 Teenage Rampage

Another theme that recurs through the post-Confederation era and that played out mostly in urban areas is the public’s fear of youth. Migration from the countryside into the cities from the 1860s brought children in tow and created the demographic conditions for an explosion of young, dependent populations. Schooling was one response to this development as a means to contain and channel the energies of children, and this became even more important after the introduction of child labour laws that incrementally stripped economic purpose from children. Fear of youth was, as well, a spur to the rational recreation movement of the late 19th century (explored in Section 10.16) and to the creation of a national militia. In 1913, before the Great War was fully on the horizon, the Minister of the Militia Sam Hughes outlined his vision in this regard: he claimed that one purpose of military training was to “make the youth of Canada self-controlled, erect, decent and patriotic through military and physical training, instead of growing up as under present conditions of no control, into young ruffians or young gadabouts….”[1] Prosperity in the 1920s and unemployment in the 1930s were both seen as contributing forces in the creation of dangerous youths, and these were themes that were reinvested with urgency in the post-1945 period. From zoot-suiters in the 1940s, through greasers in the 1950s, to hippies in the 1960s, the mid-20th century produced a succession of caricatures of young men and women as deviant and disruptive.[2] The creation of additional (and freer) high schools and new post-secondary institutions were meant to absorb some of that unbridled energy as it bubbled forth from the advancing baby boom. Historian Katharine Rollwagen comments on aspects of this moral panic in Sections 10.11 and 10.12.

Inevitably these were principally urban concerns and they were bound up in modernity. The perceived weakening of familial and clerical influences, the loss of the discipline associated with employment from an early age, the appearance of too much leisure time, and the (presumably baleful) influence of popular culture through new media like cinema, radio, television, and recorded music was the array of modern social features that connects Hughes’ “gadabouts” to teenage hoodlums, juvenile delinquents, punk rockers, and late-20th–century “slackers.” It also, of course, played out in gendered ways, as women — mothers — were rather predictably held responsible for deviant behaviour by the nation’s children. Finally, science – notably in the form of psychology – was mobilized to address the issue of child and youth problems.

Key Points

  • Growing numbers of children and youths, particularly in cities, fed a public fear of purposeless young people who might pose a threat to property, values, and public order.

  1. Quoted in Desmond Morton, A Military History of Canada, 5th edition (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007), 128.
  2. Joan Sangster, “Creating Social and Moral Citizens: Defining and Treating Delinquent Boys and Girls in English Canada, 1920-65,” in Contesting Canadian Citizenship: Historical Readings, eds. Robert Adamoski, Dorothy E. Chunn, and Robert Menzies (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2002): 338-9.


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Canadian History: Post-Confederation Copyright © 2016 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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