Chapter 7. Reform Movements from the 1870s to the 1980s

7.2 Social Reform

Victorian-era industrialization created conditions that called out for reform. Child-labour, sexual abuse, poverty-level pay, filthy workplaces, and slum neighbourhoods were made visible by two things: urbanization from the 1860s through to the 1920s (which brought more observers and commentators within reach of factory life) and the new investigative role of the state (in the form of Royal Commissions of Enquiry, for example). Certainly there was poverty and abuse in rural Canada, but fewer observers there to catch it and comment on it, let alone act against it. Factory-life problems became public problems.

The combination of science and urbanization — elements that were at the heart of industrialization — was key to the identification and relief of social and political liabilities. The rise of Darwinian thought and the relatively new concept of  evolution transformed the public’s understanding of biology and the engines of change. The germ theory of infection was just gaining ground as the Dominion of Canada took its first steps, so the possibility of employing strategies to avoid epidemics was increasingly well-understood. The cities were, in this context, laboratories in which social and health experiments were going to occur.

What is more, the idea of “society” was undergoing profound change. The mid- and late-19th century witnessed the rise of the scientific study of society. Sociology, political theory, and psychology are young and dynamic fields in this era, led by powerhouse thinkers like Auguste Comte (1798-1857), Karl Marx (1818-1893), Frederick Engels (1820-1895), Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). This phenomenon — increased curiosity about how society works and how it might be changed systematically — was itself made possible by the rise of the secular state. That is, by the arrival of forms of government in which the Church stood well to one side, while government (Christian, but not subservient to the clergy) was both appropriating and being handed responsibility for more and more of the social environment.

Into this mix stepped the new middle-classes. Professionals and merchants, they were — almost by definition — urban. Their ranks included the well-educated, the literate, and the people who would be tasked with dealing with outbreaks of illness (physicians), ignorance (teachers), political scandal (journalists), infrastructural disaster (engineers), and moral turpitude (the clergy). As a new spokes-class, the bourgeoisie — men and women alike — were increasingly connected to international movements and ideas. They were able to exploit their own rising importance in Canadian cities to launch programs aimed at eradicating, or at least mitigating, the worst effects of modernity.

What distinguishes this generation of reformers from the religious reformers of earlier generations is their shared concentration on social change. The social reformers of the post-Confederation era were less concerned with individual improvement and redemption than they were with achieving urgent, collective, society-wide change. Meeting this goal would, they believed, create an environment in which individual betterment was more likely to occur. Save society and then save the individual; ignore society and watch it crumble and take the individual with it.

Among the most vulnerable populations in the 19th and early 20th century were the elderly. Historian of institutionalization Megan Davies (York University) describes eldercare in the far west.

Key Points

  • The social reform movement was a product of urbanization and industrialization.
  • It was built on a bedrock of evolutionary science that taught that change was possible and desirable, and with advances in medical science that created an awareness of public health.
  • It was informed by a growing body of social sciences thinking about the nature of society.
  • It was led by a growing middle class — an industrial-era bourgeoisie — with the cultural capital and position to develop a common understanding of the need for social change, and the ability to attempt it.


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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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