Chapter 14. The 1860s: Confederation and Its Discontents

14.7 On the Brink of Industrialization

Confederation enabled the creation of a changed investment environment. Like all such environments, it had more to do with subjective confidence than with any objective reality. Nevertheless, the years after 1867 were marked by heavy investment in railroads, the growth and maturation of the banking system, and the rise of an urban-industrial Canada that was only hinted at in mid-century, although the dye had certainly been cast.

The dramatic political/constitutional changes of the 1860s were nothing compared to some of the economic transformations underway. The value of production in agricultural implements — one sector of industrial manufacturing that would be central to the Canadian industrial revolution — exploded in the 1860s from $413,000 in output in 1861 to $2,685,000 in 1871, according to the Canadian census.[1]

In some regions, industrialization overwhelmed old practices and old economic orders. On the face of it, that’s what happened in Atlantic Canada when the age of wind, wood, and water came up against a new generation of larger and steam-powered iron- and steel-hulled ships in the last quarter of the century. It was not the case, however, that shipowners in the region stood still. They adjusted for changes in the economy and changes in demand for their ships by making them more efficient. Innovative adaptations took place right at the moment when capital investment in new modes of production might have been more appropriate. But this was not foolishness on the part of Atlantic Canada’s shipping magnates. One study of the industry puts it this way:

In retrospect the decision to deploy wooden sailing vessels in trades soon to be overwhelmed by iron and steam may seem a short-sighted gamble. But shipowners were businessmen, not economists or social engineers. The were not planning the economic future of the Maritimes within Confederation; they were making profits in a business which they understood thoroughly and in which most had worked for two decades. They continued to make profits and they adjusted the supply of vessels to meet a dwindling demand.[2]

What would come to matter more in short order was the mining of coal (as a fuel for engines, as a source of household heat, and as a necessary element in the production of strong metals) and iron. British North America was already bookended by collieries in Cape Breton and on Vancouver Island, both of which represented industrial frontiers rather than agrarian frontiers, and both of which involved isolated urbanization and the development of powerful working-class cultures. These were going concerns and their prosperity would be lifted higher by the new constitutional and economic framework of Confederation.

A Dying Fur Trade

Ecologically, nothing could be less sustainable than the fur trade. We have already seen how the need to tap fresh beaver populations drew the French and then the British (or at least their influence) farther and farther inland at rates much faster than any settlement frontier made up of homesteading farmers. We have seen, too, how the imprint of the fur trade on the North and the Plains was not always readily apparent: the HBC and its competitors didn’t leave behind a patchwork of farmhouses, barns, roadways, grain mills, and fenceposts the way a farmer-settler society would. They did, it is true, build some impressive forts, small citadels armed to the teeth with cannons, but these were relatively small and distant footprints, pinpricks on a vast canvas of territory. As we have seen as well, the fur trade rapidly depleted populations of fur-bearing animals, which had consequences for the larger environment.

For Aboriginal hunters and families, the declining sea otter and beaver populations had both direct and indirect consequences. Less fur meant less to trade, which meant limited access to exotic goods and manufactures that had become essential. The collapse of beaver and other mammal populations invited, as well, conflict between Aboriginal hunters over territories. There were other less obvious implications as well. The loss of beaver populations affected water reservoirs on the Plains to such an extent that the Niitsitapi suffered seriously from lack of drinking water in the mid-19th century.[3] It also impacted fish populations and diminished opportunities for species that depended on both: weasels, martens, minks (all commercial fur-bearers). The moose population, which provided a major source of meat across Canada, was also affected.

As conventional fur stocks shrank, American traders increased demand for bison hides (the leather was used for high-quality drive belts in the industrialized centres of New England and Pennsylvania) and wolf skins. This latter trade has been characterized as especially vicious in large measure because it involved whisky traders from below the medicine line. Riots were frequent, the most notorious being that at Cypress Hills in 1873, which resulted in a massacre of Nakoda Sioux (Stoney).

Still other resources were negatively impacted by the fur trade. Large posts exploited local stands of trees for their construction and fuel. By the time of Confederation all of the forests across a radius of 160 kilometres inland from Moose Factory and York Factory were severely reduced. Swampy Cree and country-born foresters had to be employed to head upriver every summer to cut, raft, float, and haul timber into the two forts. This created opportunities for wage labour among the Aboriginal communities but it also — quite obviously — had further ecological impacts on wildlife species in the region.[4]

Falling demand in Europe reoriented business practices in the northwest. By the end of the 1860s the HBC was looking to introduce steamboats on its river systems across the northern woodlands, a move that undercut the high labour costs associated with Aboriginal packers and York Boat crews.[5] All the advantages once enjoyed by the Swampy Cree were swiftly evaporating: first access to European products, the privileged and influential position as homeguard, and the opportunity to pick up seasonal work for the HBC.

A similar situation confronted Aboriginal groups on Vancouver Island from the 1840s to the 1860s: the Kwagu’ł of Fort Rupert and the Snuneymuxw of Nanaimo enjoyed a few years as labourers in and around the HBC’s coal mines before being squeezed out of the best paying jobs by imported British colliers. In some sectors, such as freight-handling on waterfronts from Victoria through New Westminster and the emerging commercial fisheries, Aboriginal wage labour was critical.[6] Victorian modes of production offered a transitional opportunity as the fur trade declined, albeit usually a temporary one.

It was in the context of these changes, including starvation among Plains peoples as the bison herds expired, that the Canadians began to exert their influence as an imperialist force. Treaties (negotiated by Ottawa, not London), reserves, and residential schools were on their way.

Key Points

  • Confederation was led by a generation accustomed to moderate industrialization and familiar with market towns with roots in the last century.
  • The fur trade, which had been the core element of life and economy in the northern half of the continent since the 15th century, was on its last legs.
  • The new country came into existence as a new economic order was preparing itself for its debut.

  1. Richard Pomfret, "The Mechanization of Reaping in Nineteenth-Century Ontario: A Case Study of the Pace and Causes of the Diffusion of Embodied Technical Change," in Perspectives on Canadian Economic History, ed. Douglas McCalla (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1987), 81.
  2. Eric W. Sager, "Atlantic Canada and the Age of Sail Revisited," in Perspectives on Canadian Economic History, ed. Douglas McCalla (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1987), 99-100.
  3. James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (Regina: U of R Press, 2013), 75.
  4. Arthur J. Ray, I Have Lived Here Since The World Began: An Illustrated History of Canada's Native People (Toronto: Lester/Key, 1996), 286-7.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Andrew Parnaby, "'The Best Men That Ever Worked the Lumber': Aboriginal Longshoremen on Burrard Inlet, BC, 1863-1939," Canadian Historical Review 87, issue 1 (2006): 53-78.


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14.7 On the Brink of Industrialization by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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