The interesting times in which I have been fortunate to live include the 1960s – most of which I remember. On reflection, what stands out is how one age seemed to be closing while another opened.

We started school days with The Lord’s Prayer, until that stopped. At assemblies we sang God Save the Queen, until we did so no longer. There was one particularly fearsome Grade 4 teacher who kept a strap in the top drawer of her desk and she wasn’t afraid to use it, until she was no longer permitted to do so. There was a class project on the new flag and bitter muttering on the part of the plentiful WWII vets in the neighbourhood about losing the old Red Ensign. We stopped singing God Save the Queen in favour of O Canada, the lyrics of which changed a few years later. (I remain conflicted as to which version I should sing at sporting events.) We used Imperial measures until, in 7th Grade, Canada annoyingly went metric.

All the children in my class were White, with the possible exception of a small number who might now be comfortable identifying as Métis; I don’t remember more than a couple of Chinese Canadians in the whole school. By the end of the 1960s there were Indo-Canadians in our suburban neighbourhood, a pioneer wave of the Asian immigration that would transform Greater Vancouver’s demographics in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Homosexuality, in those days, was illegal and punishable in brutal ways; consequently no one was “gay”, a term that itself would not emerge for nearly a decade. “Normal” was carefully policed. For the most part “diversity” was a couple of Ukrainian families, a very small contingent of Catholics, and an African-Canadian household. Not much diversity, really.

The focus was on belonging, not on differentness. There was a profoundly nationalistic world’s fair in Montreal in 1967, and we all learned rather sappy nationalistic songs, which we sang at the top of our little nationalistic lungs. The world was divided neatly into Leafs fans and Habs fans until, in 1970, the Canucks joined the NHL.

Our mothers were all stay-at-home housewives, or at least that’s how it seemed. Many of them, my own included, had been Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWACs) or nurses during World War II, a couple were war-brides, some had worked in the Vancouver shipyards. My mother had a piece of shrapnel that nearly claimed her life during the Blitz in London, and she had been involved in the relief of a concentration camp in Germany. She wasn’t the only woman whose quiet life in suburbia was in sharp contrast with dramas in the past. By the end of the ‘60s many of her cohort were shedding domesticity and finding their way back into employment.

Our parents – nearly all of them, it seemed – had false teeth; women talked about the wisdom of getting their chompers pulled in their early 20s because, after all, who had the time or money for dental pain and surgery? Then, rather suddenly, dental hygiene became a suburban cult and people just got caps, but nothing more, for the one or two “Chiclets” they lost playing ball or hockey.

The other thing about teeth was they were almost always stained yellow by tobacco. Black and white television – a technology that persisted until around 1969 in our household – spared us from the worst blemishes and disfigurements of world leaders. Those who had hung around since the 1950s or earlier all had the same puffy and jowly faces, haggard and creased like old leather shoes. The suits they wore seldom fit well. Their wives always seemed terrifically myopic. Then, overnight, they were all replaced by angular, smooth-featured, telegenic, less Kremlinesque figures who didn’t wear trilbies or fedoras. Diefenbaker and Pearson, like Dwight Eisenhower and Harold MacMillan, were all born in the 19th century.

Kennedy and Trudeau were not part of that generation. In fact, the new generation of leaders and journalists were born after the Great War, the war to end all wars, the war that had an even bigger sequel, the war that everyone feared would turn out to be the first in a trilogy with a still bigger atomic finish. One of my earliest memories of watching the TV news – and this is something I recall with uncharacteristic clarity – came during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. I was nearly five years old. They presented a map that showed the probable striking-range of Soviet nuclear missiles launched from Cuba. I was pleased to see – and to have confirmed by my parents – that although Toronto and Montreal would be incinerated (too bad about the Habs, I remember thinking), Vancouver was just beyond the missiles’ reach.

Being part of the baby boom generation, even a later part of it, means that most of my memories are in some measure shared with a very large share of the current Canadian population. People my age and older talk about where they were when John Kennedy was shot, Woodstock (c’mon, I was 10 – of course I didn’t go), and hearing The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine played repeatedly – yes, the entire album – on one of a small number of rock radio stations. This was another way in which our lives changed: Media was being transformed. Suburban flocks of birds roosted on ridiculous television antennae on long poles attached and lashed like tallship masts to the rooftops of homes. Ours picked up two local stations, a redundant channel from Victoria, and a slightly exotic CBS station from over the border in Washington State. Occasionally a phantom station – Channel 11 from Tacoma – would come in clear enough to make out a few foggy images. Then cable arrived and we had twelve channels, albeit still in black and white. The rooftop antennae were dismantled and redeployed as badminton net posts. FM radio arrived around the same time, utterly changing our music choices and sources of information. The possibility of another Yellow Submarine moment – when everyone in the country listened to the same album on the same day – had passed.

These changes are recalled in one way or another by almost everyone my age who grew up in Canada’s cities and suburbs in the 1960s. In some respects they are sharply Canadian memories; in others they are borrowed wholesale from the United States. As a historian, I look over this flotsam and jetsam of baby boom nostalgia and see transitions and continuities, the end of one vision of Canada leading seamlessly into a very different set of expectations.

The country turned 100 years old in 1967. In this respect it was a success.  It had endured a whole century, during which time it had grown geographically, matured technologically, and – in the twenty-five years before the Centennial – transformed economically. Ironically, Canada was about to enter into a period of renegotiated federalism, an age of uncertainty in which the dissolution of the Dominion was a real possibility. Bombs were exploding in mailboxes in Montreal; political hostages were murdered; martial law was declared. People – informed and rational people – would talk seriously about the possibility of border wars along the Labrador frontier and in the Eastern Townships. Our current culture places a high value on ironic detachment; in the 1960s and ‘70s the joys and trials of being a Canadian were enough to reduce folks to genuine tears.

Canada since 1867

This textbook introduces aspects of the history of Canada since Confederation. “Canada” in this context includes Newfoundland and all the other parts that come to be aggregated into the Dominion after 1867.

Where it begins is relatively easy to pinpoint. Where it ends is not. We are now well into the 21st century. Our feet have crossed the threshold and the welcome mat as well. Some of the developments of the new millennium are possible to contextualize in longer histories, while others, of course, are too recent to interpret. History is not tea-leaves waiting to be read: We cannot reasonably predict how events will unfold based on what has occurred in the last 10 or 20 years. What can be shown, however, are the many ways in which the past pursues us into the future, clinging to our heels and ankles, refusing to release us entirely or ever. This is one reason why we study history.

Another benefit of history is to grow analytically. Being able to interpret evidence and to revisit established versions of events is key to being a good historian and an alert human being. There are historical traditions about Canada that arise in the 19th and 20th century that merit revisiting. Demonstrating how that work has been done and suggesting ways in which you might continue that work is part of the purpose of this textbook.

The Challenge of Canada

Canadian history since 1867 involves an over-arching constitutional narrative: the story of a country forged not in fire but at a bargaining table. How it transforms from a mutually convenient administrative arrangement into a country for which individuals have real sentiments and a collectivity that can and occasionally does accomplish something of consequence is, certainly, at the heart of that story. As well, however, it is the story of how “Canada” – initially a consortium of four rather bickersome colonies – came to dominate half of a continent. Inevitably that tale involves the imposition of one group’s rule over others. Canada is an empire in its own right. It has had its own colonies and it continues to engage with certain of its citizens in ways that can only be described as “colonial”. As well, it is an economic machine. The British North America Act was designed in part to enshrine the private ownership of property, facilitate commerce, and enable the making of profit. It is an artifact and an instrument of 19th century capitalism and, as such, it has framed relations between social classes. And, at the very heart of Canada there is an implicit assumption about the relationship between humanity and the environment. It was originally called the Dominion of Canada to distinguish it from the Republic to the south and the United Kingdom to the east. The word derives from the biblical story of Genesis, in which humanity is given “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the Earth.” As a nation of “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” Canadians have imposed themselves with force on their landscape and, occasionally, on one another.

This makes the writing and reading and understanding of Canada challenging. An older generation of historians of Canada emphasized the ways in which the country grew politically and as a civic experiment. Alternative identities, such as those described by gender, sexual orientation, race, Indigeneity, and social class (to name only a few), were viewed by older historians as divisive. Canadian historians since the 1980s have struggled with this task of describing a people and a nation at the same time when the two things are not, clearly, the same thing.


Much of this text follows thematic lines. Each chapter moves chronologically but with alternative narratives in mind. What Indigenous accounts must we place in the foreground? Which structures (economic or social) determine the range of choices available to human agents of history? What environmental questions need to be raised to gain a more complete understanding of choices made in the past and their ramifications?

Each chapter is comprised of several sections and some of those are further divided. In many instances you will encounter original material that has been contributed by writers other than myself. These sections are the work of university historians from across Canada who are leaders in their respective fields. They provide a diversity of voices on the subject of the nation’s history and, thus, an opportunity for you to experience some of the complexities of understanding and approaching the past.

Pedagogical Tools

Canadian History: Post-Confederation includes several learning and teaching assets. The first section (the x.1) of each chapter includes Learning Objectives. These are, I think, consistent with what most introductory Canadian History courses hope to accomplish.

Key Points are provided in most chapter sections. These are intended to help you identify issues of over-arching importance. There are, of course, other “key points” to be found in the chapters, so do read carefully.

Recent interviews with historians from across Canada have been captured in video clips that are embedded throughout this book. These, and links to other videos, are highlighted by placing them in a shaded textbox. If you reading a hard copy or e-reader, refer to the web version of this book to view these videos.

At the end of each chapter, the Summary section includes additional features: Key Terms, Short Answer Exercises, and Suggested Readings. The key terms are bolded in the text, but it is likely that there are additional (or fewer) terms for which you’d like to see definitions. One of the advantages of an open textbook is that you can do something about that. The key terms are collected in a Glossary at the very end of the textbook. The Short Answer Exercises are a means of testing your understanding of the material covered. And, of course, the Suggested Readings are there to help you launch your research and further your voyage of discovery into the history of Canada and its peoples. Everything listed in the Suggested Readings ought to be available through your university or college library.

You will also find Exercises throughout the textbook. No one likes doing exercises but, then, no one likes that cramped feeling you get from sitting too long in front of the computer either. Think of these as a chance to stretch and renew yourself as you work your way through the textbook. They are designed as a chance to get you thinking like a historian. And one of the things that historians do is see the past around them manifest in buildings, landscapes, faces, music, plants and animals, and even smells. For the mind that is trained to understand history, historical processes, and historical actors, the world is perceptible in many dimensions. It is an incredibly impressive feeling and we want to share it with you.


What is Canada? Is it what it encloses now or what it was on 1 July 1867? Is it its people or its geography? These sound, probably, like hair-splitting questions but think about it for a moment. Much of the Acadian population in the Maritimes was sent into exile in 1755, where large numbers of their descendants remain today. If Canadian history is about the “Canadian” people, then the Acadians are part of that story, regardless of their zipcode. In the 19th century Euro-North Americans drew brutally straight lines across the continent and, in the process, chopped in half the Niitsitapi Confederacy, sheered off large Anishinaabe communities from one another, and deeply inconvenienced the Stó:lō of the Fraser Valley. So, whose history are we studying and to what extent are we really concerned with the “Canadian peoples”? If we prefer to look at the geography as the determining factor, what if this course stopped in 1948? No Newfoundland! But since we cover the time since the union of the two Dominions, Canada inherits Newfoundland’s history as though it were some kind of dowry. What if, just imagine, Canada annexed the Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indies? Or Belize? This might sound ridiculous but the proposal to do so has been made several times over the last century or so. Would “Canada” thus inherit their history as well? Could Manitobans thereafter intone on their Mayan heritage the way those of us who have never been to Newfoundland have appropriated the story of Guglielmo Marconi’s telegraph breakthrough in St. John’s in 1902?

The point is that we make some choices about what is to be covered, and those choices are often arbitrary. That should not stop us, however, from remembering that the decision of Newfoundlanders to join Confederation in 1949 was not inevitable; nor does it delete the island colony’s own historical identity. What it does, however, is reveal the extent to which “Canadian” history is “national” rather than transnational or even hypernational.[1]

The same is true, if not more so, of Indigenous peoples in Canada. The First Nations have histories that are vastly older than Confederation. The period since 1867 may have presented challenges to Indigenous communities – no one would argue otherwise – but it is, in terms of time and historical encounters, a blip on the radar screen. The depth of First Nations’ history is not a topic into which this textbook goes, but it is one that this textbook assumes. To that end, the nomenclature preferred by Indigenous groups is, as often as possible, used here. If the Heiltsuk tell us that they have always been Heiltsuk and that “Bella Bella” was just a convenient term used by Europeans, who am I – a Euro-Canadian – to question that? Heiltsuk it is, then. The question of terminology, however, is complicated by centuries of colonialism. If you’re reading a 19th century account of relations between Indigenous peoples and settlers, you’re bound to encounter the colonial terms. To help, this textbook provides the current (and usually ancestral) name along with the most well-known alternative where it seems appropriate to do so. For example: Niitsitapi (aka: Blackfoot); Stó:lō (Coast Salish); Innu (Montagnais or Naskapi).

As is the case with the companion text, Canadian History: Pre-Confederation, an exception to this rule has been made of the Cree. In the post-1867 period the various people associated with this term – whose lands stretch from northern Quebec west through Ontario and across the central plains to northern Alberta – have developed a common, if occasionally fragmented, collective identity. The use of “Cree” may be problematic and even artificial, but it has been reinforced by the experience of the Numbered Treaties and Canadian imperialism, and sustained by a shared language and historical heritage. For want of a better metaphor, Cree is used as a flag of convenience here.

Inevitably the word “Indian” comes into play. There was, of course, a Department of Indian Affairs and a slew of Indian Residential Schools. Journalists spilled gallons of ink on various “Indian issues”, and Indigenous leaders themselves appropriated the term. I have endeavoured to use these vexed terms with historic accuracy and with sensitivity; I would encourage you to do the same.

Think Like a Historian

There are ways to get history wrong. Clearly, events that come after cannot be used to explain events that came before (not causally, although they may reveal something of intent). The person that a historical figure becomes is not the person that they once were; We might look for evidence of poor ethical choices in the youth of John A. Macdonald to explain how he winds up entangled in the Pacific Scandal, but the Pacific Scandal does not prove that he was always morally lax. As well, the absence of something does not prove that it once existed. (Given the fact that the universe is overwhelmingly an airless and gravity-free blackness, there’s clearly no truth to the rumour that nature abhors a vacuum.) An outcome with which we have become comfortable (e.g.: Allied victory in 1945) is by no means pre-determined. And it is very seldom the case that human beings have no choice: Sometimes they have alternatives that are simply very bad alternatives. That doesn’t mean they are not historic actors; it just means they are historic actors faced with rotten decisions.

Of all the historic fallacies and bad practices, the one that looms largest in a subject area like modern history is that of presentism. This is the representation of the current state of affairs as the pinnacle of historic development. It projects current circumstances into the past in such a way as to suggest a direct connection between earlier events and the here and now. For example, one often reads that it is thanks to the sacrifices made in the Great War that we enjoy the freedoms we have today. This, of course, eclipses generations of struggle to translate the events of 1914-18 into laws that actually provide real “freedoms”. It overlooks the many challenges to those “freedoms” in the interim. It pays no heed to the fact that “our freedoms” are not shared by everyone equally and so are demonstrably not “our” freedoms at all. Worse, it has the immodesty to assume that our “freedoms” are greater and/or better than those of past generations. Worst of all, it neglects to consider how one might consider those sacrifices if “freedoms” were to be lost. I write this in the shadow of the passing of Bill C-51, which – palpably – reduces the freedoms of some if not all members of our country with an eye to mitigating a perceived terrorist threat. I do not judge this legislation here but I do say this: We now have fewer freedoms than we did a few months ago. In that light, should one interpret the events of WWI thus? It is due to the sacrifices made in those terrible years of conflict that many Canadians feel their rights have been compromised.

The point is to look at the past and people in the decades and centuries gone by as acting and living in the past. If they hoped for a future, they certainly didn’t have yours in mind. The present is special; so too is the past.

  1. On this topic, see Allan Greer, "National, Transnational, and Hypernational Historiographies: New France Meets Early American History," Canadian Historical Review, 91, 4 (2010): 695-724.


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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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