Introduction to Post-Confederation Canada

A woman sits on a wooden bench on an ice rink, holding a hockey stick across her knee.
“Benched”⁠—a collector’s card in the “Canadian Hockey Girl” series of 1903. Documents like this one remind us that the past may be a foreign country, but it’s not necessarily a dull, old place.

Canada is a physically difficult place to govern and a difficult place to adequately conceive of as well. Culturally it presents enormous and largely unique challenges. There are other bilingual countries, such as Belgium, but they are typically small countries. There are other nations that claim vast territories, such as the United States, Russia, and China, but their populations are comparatively gigantic. There are other federations, though most share some definitive historic moment or condition that binds them together (revolutionary America, isolated Australia, and post-Berlin Wall Germany come to mind). Some former colonies threw off the imperial yoke in such a way as to create a common vocabulary of independence, but Canada did not. Internal division between communities in some countries – Northern Ireland, Spain, and South Africa, to cite only three examples from the developed nations – were bloody and lethal in the 20th century; by contrast, Canada’s internal fractures seem much less severe. How, then, did the exercise of creating, managing, and living within a country of this scale and complexity play out in the 19th and 20th centuries?

The Long 19th Century

Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), a historian of Britain and the world, coined the term “the long 19th century” to describe the period from the French Revolution (1789) to the outbreak of global war in 1914. It is a useful concept because, first, it invites us to think outside of calendar boundaries and look at long-term trends in human experience; and second, it underlines the persistence and continuity of historic relations rather than focusing on less consequential ruptures. In the long 19th century the ideals of democracy spread across Europe and the Atlantic. Indeed, one could argue that this process began a decade sooner in what would become the United States. Regardless, it influences the development of colonial cultures like those in British North America. The three ideals of the French Revolution – liberté, égalité, fraternité – make it possible to question institutions like slavery, and they provide a vocabulary with which to challenge oligarchies and exploitative employers later, in the age of industrialization.

This set of beliefs becomes foundational to the 19th century philosophy of liberalism. The individual – understood to be, in practice, an adult male – has rights; such a concept would have been impossible to sustain before the 1780s and yet it was generally embraced around the time of Confederation. When one looks at the history of colonies in the 17th and the 18th centuries, one finds a much more biological language of settlement, population, and sustenance. The village and the commons, the seigneury and the Clergy Reserves are all more corporate ways of seeing the world. By the late 19th century the homestead emerges as a model of colonization based on the emergent ideal of the nuclear family. The paternalism of earlier generations does not go away, but it is refashioned so as to emphasize the authority of the senior adult male in a household of dependants rather than the relationship of many males to the seigneur, or the lord of the manor, or the slave owner.

This kind of liberalism is difficult to escape when one looks at Canada from 1867-1914. Loyalty to the monarchy is unshaken and there is important continuity there but, in practical terms, Parliament in Ottawa and in Westminster is sovereign. And it becomes sovereign by the will of the electorate. Every addition to the landscape of Canada is conceived within the context of a language of individual rights: voters’ rights, land rights, the freedom to believe in whatever creed appeals (providing it is Christian), and a vocabulary of reciprocal obligations to the maintenance and protection of the source of these liberties. It is for this reason that so many conflicts undertaken in the years from 1850-1918 are conceptualized as battles for freedom and the protection of liberties. This is a kind of language almost reflexively associated with the United States but it resonates around the Atlantic rim and across Canada in 1914 every bit as much. Too, the Canadian version incorporates the notion of freedom from the United States. This aspect is invoked in 1869-70 when talk of American annexation of Rupert’s Land catalyzes Canadian imperialism in the West; it is invoked again in 1885 when Louis Riel returns from exile in the United States to lead further resistance to Canadian authority. At that juncture we see collective identities – Métis, Indigenous, and others – being invoked by Riel and others (some in Quebec) as concepts equivalent to if not greater than that of the individual. The victory of Canada in the North-West Rebellion is, therefore, interpreted by the Canadians themselves as a triumph of democratic and individual values over something closer to “tribal,” an concept that is dismissed as older and less progressive.

Progress and Modernity

Indeed, no word so fully captures the spirit of the 19th and 20th centuries as “progress.” It is bound inexorably with the notion of modernity. Clearly, social changes occurred repeatedly in the pre-19th century world but the combination of scientific and philosophical developments led to a widespread belief that the past was largely static and the present – not to mention the future – were domains of positive transformation. Scientific knowledge – progress – was increasingly viewed as key to improving human life and social conditions. As society progressed, so too would the individual. Progress thus became an all-consuming force, a tide of change that led in only one direction: toward continuous improvement.

Among historical writers, this view of onward-and-upward change was embodied by the Whig School. They looked to the past for evidence of human, social, and material progress and understood recent historical events as further proof that the world was improving. Indeed, this has proved to be a powerful and persistent way of viewing past events and peoples. If we are the product of progress, then those who came before us were necessarily less advantaged and we are merely a stage on the path toward something better still. It is a view that does not easily accommodate setbacks and, of course, it privileges what it views as progressively valuable: reason, democracy, rights, equality, greater human numbers, technological innovation, the conquest of nature, and so on. It is no coincidence that the ideals of progress are contemporary with the ideas associated with biological evolution and Charles Darwin.

The whole package came to be understood as “modernity.” The modern world is marked by a break with the pre-modern. Science versus superstition; individual merit and upward social mobility versus a life-sentence in a single social class determined by the status of one’s parents; cities rather than the countryside. In each respect, modernity constitutes a revolution in its own right, a rejection of the norms of previous centuries wherein authority resided in the landed gentry and the clergy.

Modern Canada was, as one might expect, created in the forges of modernity. The values of that day and age were hard-wired into its constitution, and many were embraced and advanced by advocates of the new nation-state dominion. In this sense, the history of Canada since 1867 is the story of an idea: modernity. Much else happened, to be sure, but this intellectual context – one that is shared and advanced by more than 150 years worth of media and educational institutions – is not to be ignored.

Contrary Winds

There are contradictions bolted onto the framework of late 19th century modernism. The most outstanding and portentous of these are race, class, and gender. While the individual was increasingly viewed as a self-defining and free-acting agent of his (definitely “his”) destiny, that doesn’t mean that the modern mind is free of the notion of collectivities and categories. Racial categories were widely accepted as commonsensical, scientific, and essentially immutable. These categories extended to what we might now think of as ethnicities or visible minorities in a culture dominated by what were increasingly called “Caucasians”: White Europeans descended mostly from the British or French. The emergence of the industrial working class produced a collective response to grim working conditions, poor compensation for labour, and political oppression. That collective response — which sometimes took the form of labour organizations like unions — was viewed by the Canadian middle- and upper-classes (and by many artisans as well) as corrosive of individual values. Finally, the language of individual rights was challenged very directly by the call for women’s rights. So long as the definition of individual was inherently male, movements that were led by women (mostly middle-class women at that) and which called for social reform, electoral reform, and general equality for women would be viewed by the male establishment as problematic at several levels.

And here is the twofold contradiction. Generations that called for individual rights denied them to groups that were described as collectivities outside of the paradigm of individualism. That’s one contradiction. Individual Indigenous people, individual Asian immigrants, individual women from any quadrant of Canadian society — they were all denied individual rights and equality. What’s more, in racializing the Chinese and the First Nations, White Canada racialized itself. In classifying working people as an other, middle-class Canada held up a mirror to itself as a distinct social element with its own collective identity. In essentializing women as a population that lacked a claim on rights, or the intellectual, moral, or physical ability to participate in civic life alongside men, male Canadians were essentializing themselves as a set of values at the same time.

In so many respects the Great War challenged these perspectives and changed the course of modernity. Before conscription there was voluntarism — the individual male choosing to serve king and country. Women’s suffrage was repeatedly rejected, as were working-class demands for improved conditions and wages. As the war wore on, however, women gained the vote, the relationship of labour and the state was revisited, and conscription was introduced to override individual choice and (without irony) to force Canadian males to fight for their liberty.

The Short 20th Century

Whether measured from August 1914 or the Treaty of Versailles that ended the Great War, the “short 20th century” is said to have concluded in 1991. The collapse of Europe’s old dynastic regimes gave way to a century of modern nation-building, the rise of two conflicting ideologies and, after 1945, two superpowers. It ends with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. In this phase, modernity becomes bound up in the nature of industrial and commercial production, comprehensive liberal democracies at odds with tyrannies on the right and left, a more expansive state that moves into fields associated with energy production, healthcare, and social welfare, and a reconsideration of race and inclusion.

For Canadians the short 20th century starts badly. The economy is in tatters on the eve of the Great War and it barely recovers in the Interwar period. The prosperity of the post-World War II era is all the more important, historically, because of the long period of denial and hardship that preceded it. Racism and xenophobia were commonplace during World War I, and they never fully abated. There were internment camps for the enemy population in WWI whose loyalty to foreign and hostile regimes was assumed to be visceral and not a matter of choice. These would be reopened and expanded in the 1930s to house unemployed men, and then again in 1939-45 when Italian, German, and Japanese Canadians found their liberties severely curtailed. Canadians of Asian descent and Indigenous peoples would have to wait until 1948 and 1960 respectively to get the franchise and access to professions that racist legislation previously closed off. Working-class movements were lively and effective in the years between 1914-1920, but they were so in the face of considerable opposition. Women (that is, White women) got the vote, but their conditions under the law were largely unchanged from Victorian constraints.

Two World Wars and a Cold War later, Canada was a very different place from what it had been in 1867. In the space of little more than a century it passed from industrialization through de-industrialization. Its city centres transformed from commercial centres, to industrial hubs, to hollowed out postwar strips, to revitalized and densely repopulated metropolitan capitals. Gender roles transformed repeatedly with no apparent constant course of direction for many decades. Indigenous peoples, who were systematically contained on small pockets of land with their movements restricted, their choices narrowed, and their culture under continuous assault, found themselves increasingly taking a leading role in redefining and reorienting the country as a whole. These themes of change and contradiction are at the heart of the history of Canada since Confederation — the theme of continuity is as well.

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Canadian History: Post-Confederation - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2020 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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