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

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) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oshawa%27s_Factories_(HS85-10-22386).jpg

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.[1] 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,[2] 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.[3] 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,[4] while the dire living conditions for the emerging working class became a major focus of historical work.[5] 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;[6] at the same time, careful analysis of work processes demonstrated the significance of gender to understanding working class resistance.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.”[10] The significance of class conflict in Ontario has since been questioned by the suggestion that, there, industrialization was more a case of craft capitalism.[11] 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.[12]

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.

Attributions

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


  1. 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).
  2. Stanley B. Ryerson, Unequal Union: Roots of Crisis in the Canadas, 1815-1873 (Toronto: Progress Books, 1968).
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. Gilles Lauzon, "Cohabitation et Déménagements en Milieu Ouvrier Montréalais,"Revue d'Histoire de l'Amérique Française, vol. 46, no. 1 (1992): 115-42.
  7. 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.
  8. 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).
  9. 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).
  10. 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).
  11. Robert B. Kristofferson, Craft Capitalism: Craftworkers and Early Industrialization in Hamilton, Ontario, 1840-1872 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).
  12. 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).

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3.2 Industrialization, Labour, and Historians by Robert Sweeny, Dept. of History, Memorial University of Newfoundland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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