Chapter 7. Reform Movements from the 1870s to the 1980s
Urban living and industrial working conditions, the prevalence of alcohol abuse, the vulnerability of families (more visible now in urban conditions), and a nativist response to immigration, all contributed to the growth of reform movements in the post-Confederation period. These were like crusades, their knights tilting at issues that were, one after the other, guaranteed to cause the moral, economic, and even genetic destruction of whatever constituted “Canadian” society.
Some reform movements sought to accomplish, on a society-wide scale, what the emergent labour movement hoped to achieve at the factory level. Better conditions, more time for leisure and reflection, and supports for the most vulnerable member of society were common goals. The things that animated reform movements varied tremendously. Political reform movements in the West, for example, were united in their criticism of Central Canadian imperialism.
After the Second World War, reform movements ceased to be a mass phenomenon. That is not to say they went away. Many of the strategies and goals of pre-WWII reform movements were carried forward by the social democratic parties and some, too, were transmitted to the populist right-wing parties. In Quebec the Catholic Church continued to play a role and there was, as well, the powerful secularization of the reform agenda in the Quiet Revolution. In some respects the environmentalism of the late 20th century — descended from conservationism — continues the reform movement tradition, as do prohibitionist movements like the “war on drugs.” These are, however, movements that are either limited in their membership or so generalized as not to constitute a coherent agenda of social change with clear objectives and outcomes. And, for the most part, they lack the cure-all quality to many of the earlier reform programs. The rise of mass education, the professionalization of teaching, and the development of a social work sector all became extensions of the reform movement tradition, but in ways that closed off access and engagement to everyone but the experts.
anti-party: The position that political parties constitute an unwelcome constraint on democratic politics.
balance of power: In parliamentary politics, describes a minority government that is dependent on another party to provide enough votes to prohibit defeat through a vote of non-confidence.
Comintern: Also the Communist International, the Third International; 1919-1943; called for world revolution and the establishment of communist regimes.
cooperative movement: Also spelled co-operative. Established in growing numbers in Britain in the mid-19th century and is associated with the “Rochdale Pioneers”; several typologies; goals include making available goods and/or supplies to members at low costs by taking advantage of economies of scale as a group, also obtaining optimal prices for community products by pooling output for sale. Surpluses and profits are redistributed to members of the cooperative; some have an educational mandate as well. Examples include grocery stores, housing co-ops, and the dairy industry. See also wheat pools.
Court of Chancery: In England, the Court dealt primarily with trusts; dissolved in 1875.
established churches: Organized religion recognized by the state. In Canada there are no officially recognized sects but the Anglican Church is the “established church” of England and the Queen is its head. Similarly, the Catholic Church was historically the official church of French Canada and it retains in the post-Confederation period a de facto official status.
eugenics: An early theory respecting genetic transmission of physical, social, intellectual, and moral qualities which sought to advantage “races” that it considered superior stock against those that it regarded as inferior.
evangelicalism: In Christianity, a belief that salvation is achieved through faith in Jesus; individualistic in that redemption occurs at a personal, not a social level; evangelical denominations are often associated with fundamentalism as well.
Fabian: A belief that reforms to capitalism can produce a social and economic order of fairness for working people; sometimes called “gradualism.”
fertility transition: Demographic trend in which populations move from a level of high fertility to a much lower level; associated with urbanization and modernization.
first-past-the-post: Electoral system in which the candidate receiving the greatest number (though not necessarily a majority) of ballots wins; considered problematic by some when a party wins a majority of seats while winning much less than a majority of votes.
generation gap: Notable differences in values, tastes, interests, and practices between individuals and whole cohorts from different generations. In the 1960s, used extensively to describe the conflict in values between people born before WWII and the baby boom generation.
genocide: The premeditated extermination of an identifiable group of humans, often defined by race or ethnicity. See also cultural genocide.
germ theory: The identification of microorganisms as the cause of some illnesses, particularly infectious diseases.
Ginger Group: An alliance of progressive MPs in Ottawa that led to the founding of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).
gradualist: 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.
Greenpeace: An environmental movement founded in Vancouver in the early 1970s as part of an international anti-nuclear arms movement; became more directly associated with environmental issues like sealing and whaling.
impossibilists: Among left-wing activists, a belief that it is impossible to reform capitalism and that it must be overthrown rather than overhauled. See also gradualist and reformist.
internationalist: In the history of organized labour, the belief that workers of all countries had more in common than they did with co-nationals who belong to other social classes. Views nationalist movements as antithetical to the interests of working people.
League for Social Reconstruction (LSR): A socialist think-tank established by Frank Underhill and F.R. Scott in 1932.
Left: Coined during the French Revolution to describe opponents of the monarchy; since then, used to describe a spectrum of reform and radical positions and political organizations that includes some Liberals, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the New Democratic Party, the Socialist Party of Canada, and — at the far end of the Left — the Communist Party and, in some instances, anarchists. See also Right.
Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion: A 1,500-strong contingent of Canadian volunteers in the war against the Fascists in Spain during the Civil War, 1937-38; took their name from the two leaders of the Rebellions of 1837-38, Louis-Joseph Papineau and William Lyon Mackenzie (the grandfather of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King).
Marxist-Leninist: Building on the scientific socialism of Karl Marx, which argued that socialist, worker-led governments would supersede bourgeois capitalism, the Leninist thread — arising in revolutionary and post-revolutionary Russia — introduced the idea of a vanguard of the proletariat, single-party rule, internationalism, and a state-run economy. In Canadian communism, one of several variants on Marxist doctrine.
maternal feminists: Adherents to the ideals of maternal feminism.
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939): A mutual non-aggression treaty signed between Germany and the USSR; allowed Germany to move forward with its attacks on France and the Low Countries while the Soviet Union annexed territories in the Baltic region.
National Action Committee on the Status of Women: Established in 1971 to agitate for implementation of the recommendations of the Bird Commission. See also Royal Commission on the Status of Women.
New Democratic Party (NDP): Successor to the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation; created out of the union of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and the CCF in 1961.
non-conformist churches: A descriptive term attached to dissenting Protestant sects that broke with the Anglican Church as early as 1660; associated specifically with Methodism, Congregationalism, and the Baptist Church.
Official Opposition: In parliamentary systems, the party with the second largest number of seats in the House of Commons. On occasion, the second largest caucus has refused the title of Official Opposition.
official party status: The recognition of a political party’s representatives in an assembly as sufficient to merit certain parliamentary privileges, including the right to ask questions during question period. In Ottawa, the federal House of Commons requires that a party have no fewer than 12 MPs in order to qualify for official status.
patriarchy: A socio-economic system in which males have legal, political, social, and economic primacy and privilege, sometimes to the complete exclusion of women. Under a patriarchy, control over children is also a male (fatherly) prerogative.
Poor Laws: A series of laws enacted in Britain, including several amendments in the 19th century; aimed at providing support for the unemployed and impoverished; characterized by the use of “poor houses” and “workhouses” in which conditions were sufficiently appalling to keep all but the least able-bodied and most desperate off of the public dole.
progressive: In politics and social policy, the belief in the improvability of human society. In partisan politics, associated with the Progressive Party (below) and the Progressive Conservative Party. In music, indicates a sub-genre of rock and roll which tends to be more symphonic and influenced by electronic jazz.
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 reflects in some measure the percentage of votes they receive. For example, 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.
race suicide: An idea common to the eugenics movement; the idea that “inferior races” will inevitably squeeze out “superior races” by dint of having higher reproductive rates; especially popular at times when fertility in the anxious community is falling.
referenda: A public opinion poll for registered voters, the results of which may or may not be binding. Members of Parliament debate actual bills that they can see and hold, and on which they may offer suggestions and amendments; referenda typically ask for general agreement on a broad principal without providing any of the details.
reformist: Among left-wing activists, a belief that incremental changes to capitalism can produce a social and economic order of fairness for working people; derided by revolutionaries as delusional. See also gradualist and impossibilist.
Regina Manifesto: 1933; the original statement of purpose and beliefs of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.
Right: Individuals, groups, and parties espousing a conservative perspective; a broad continuum that includes Red Tories, Blue Tories, neo-liberals/conservatives, the late 20th century Reform Party, and — far to the Right — fascists.
Royal Commission on the Status of Women: Created in 1967 and reported out in 1970; chaired by Florence Bird; produced 167 recommendations that focussed on issues of equality of opportunity and identifying the many institutional, legal, and systemic barriers to the same. While most of the recommendations have been adopted, provision of day care remains an outstanding exception. The RCSW did not address issues associated with sexual identity or sexual orientation and its failure to discuss violence against women was a major oversight. The Office for the Status of Women was established as a consequence of the Commission’s report.
Salvation Army: Founded in England in 1865; a Christian denomination identified with charitable works in urban industrial areas; adopted a military model with uniforms, marching bands, and ranks. Introduced to Canada in 1882, where it is also known as the “Sally Ann,” sometimes as the “Starvation Army.” Keenly interested in social justice issues, the Salvation Army was instrumental in the social gospel movement.
scientific racism: The use of scientific technique or pseudo-scientific technique to provide a rational and empirically verifiable basis of racial discrimination. Utterly demolished as a theory in the postwar period, it nevertheless contributed not only to the spread of racism in Euro-Canadian communities but to its legitimation and respectability.
second wave feminist: A renewal of movement feminism in the postwar era; focussed on rights in the workplace, equality of opportunity and pay, reproductive rights, and violence against women. See also Women’s Liberation
social control: The regulation of social behaviour through direct (laws, policing) and indirect (social pressure, moral suasion) means.
social credit: Primarily an economic theory and monetary policy, developed in the 1920s and touted as a solution to the Depression in Canada by Social Credit political parties.
social democratic: A political movement that advocates reform that will achieve greater social equality, a degree of socialist governance, and the preservation of democratic institutions. Associated with the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and New Democratic Party.
social reformers: Advocates of change at the social — rather than individual — level; associated with 19th century social movements like the suffragettes, maternal feminism, and temperance agitation.
suffrage: The right to vote in elections; associated strongly with women’s suffrage.
third parties: Political parties other than the Liberals and Conservatives; distinguished from “fourth” or “fringe parties” by their more respectable showing at the polls. Principally, the CCF-NDP, Social Credit, and Reform Party of Canada. The Bloc Québécois occupies a special place in this respect because it has enjoyed a large following and has formed the official opposition in Ottawa, but is not a national party.
Waffle: A faction within the NDP in 1969-1971 that embraced left-wing nationalism, feminism, and social activism, and called for an independent socialist Canada.
War in the Woods: 1992-1996; a series of mass protests against logging in old growth forests in British Columbia.
Winnipeg Declaration: Fully, the 1956 Winnipeg Declaration of Principles of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation; replaced the Regina Manifesto; significant in that it moved the party away from socialism and closer to democratic socialism and a pro-union position; made possible the alignment of the CCF with the CLC very soon after.
Women’s Liberation Movement: Both an informal and loose organization of various women’s advocacy and political groups, and an alternative term for second wave feminism; first appeared in 1968.
Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA): Originated in Britain in 1855 as a faith-based organization in support of the first generations of women in urban industrial settings; first Canadian chapter established in Saint John in 1870.
Short Answer Exercises
- What were the main features of social reform movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
- In what ways were they distinctive historic phenomena?
- How was social reform connected to feminism and women’s issues?
- What was the Social Gospel and how did it understand the need for social change?
- What role did alcohol production, consumption, and sales play in the social reform agenda?
- In what ways did political parties take the social gospel and other social reform urges into the ballot box?
- What influence did eugenics have on social reform movements?
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Girard, Philip. “‘If two ride a horse, one must ride in front’: Married Women’s Nationality and the Law in Canada 1880–1950,” Canadian Historical Review, 94, Number 1 (March 2013): 28-54.
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Naylor, James. “The British Columbia CCF’s Working-Class Moment: Socialism Not Populism,” Labour/Le Travail, 71 (Spring 2013): 101-21.
A flyer from a Toronto “Take Off Your Clothes” clothing swap by Neelan Rach is used under a CC BY SA 2.0 license.