Chapter 10. Societies of British North America to 1860

10.2 Demographics

Detailed records pertaining to population characteristics and behaviour were kept under the ancien régime, but it was during the 19th century that the bureaucratic machinery necessary to running a regular census appeared. Aggregate totals generated in these years (as today) reflect the ability and competence  of the census takers and the registration machinery. Births and deaths were often registered only at the parish level, census takers had to do their work on foot and were not always welcomed by local residents (for fear that being surveyed meant being taxed), and people sometimes just lied.

Broadly speaking, however, we know that between the 1820s and the early 1850s the population of every colony except those on the West Coast rose significantly. Newfoundland’s and Lower Canada’s doubled; Nova Scotia’s did slightly better than that. New Brunswick and PEI posted a trebling and Upper Canada (Canada West) grew sixfold. Within each of these colonies there were more men than women living in areas of resource extraction, but otherwise the sex ratio was relatively even. (This was not the case in British Columbia from 1858 on, when the gold rush transformed demographics.) See Table 10.1 for details of the earliest census counts, by region.

Table 10.1 Census counts, by region, 1820s-1850s.[1]
[Skip Table]
*Figures for Assiniboia (a.k.a. Northwest Territories) reflect only the settler populations. There were at least another 30,000 Indigenous people on the northern Plains and in Rupert’s Land in the first half of the century.
**Of this number, perhaps 4,000 were non-Indigenous.
Region First Census Second Census Third Census Fourth Census
Upper Canada 150,066 (1824) 213,156 (1830) 432,159 (1840) 952,004 (1851)
Lower Canada 427,465 (1822) 553,134 (1831) 650,000 (1841) 890,261 (1851)
New Brunswick 74,176 (1824) 119,457 (1834) 156,162 (1841) 193,800 (1851)
Nova Scotia 123,630 (1827) 199,906 (1837) not available 276,854 (1851)
Prince Edward Island 24,600 (1824) 32,292 (1833) 47,042 (1841) 71,490 (1855)
Newfoundland 55,719 (1825) 73,705 (1836) 96,295 (1845) 101,600 (1851)
Assiniboia* not available 3,356 (1834) 4,871 (1846) 6,691 (1856)
BC and Vancouver Island  not available 55,000 (1851)**

Details from the early part of the 19th century are difficult to access and assess, but we know that 1851 British North America was dominated by those under 19 years of age (56%). In the absence of more precise numbers, we can only guess the distribution of the young population itself, but it is entirely reasonable to imagine that three-quarters were under the age of 15, which means that the dependent population (which includes the 2.7% over the age of 65 years) made up about 45% of the total.[2]  (Keep these figures in mind when considering the ubiquity of child labour in these years, as discussed in Chapter 12.)


Fertility, migration, and mortality are the three elements that govern population growth or shrinkage. Beginning in the early 19th century, mortality rates around the North Atlantic began a long-term decline. This was not immediately evident in British North America where the crude death rate (CDR) moved downward only irregularly. This contrary trend was likely because it was a period of urbanization, and mortality rates are generally higher in cities. The evidence suggests that rural Lower Canada, for example, was experiencing an improvement in life expectancy while Montreal’s numbers distorted the pattern for the colony as a whole. In 1821-30 the CDR for Lower Canada was 25.86 per thousand; for Montreal it was 44.30. Twenty years later the figures were 22.99 and 51.1 respectively. Matters improved somewhat in the 1850s, but the CDR rebounded in the first decade after Confederation.[3]

Mortality rates in the 19th century owed much to the difficulty of surviving infancy. The first five years of life were perilous. In places where the water supply was inconsistently safe — which is to say, in most towns and cities — infants were vulnerable to catching the various bugs in circulation and to suffer (often mortally) from diarrhoea. For a child born in 1851, life expectancy at birth was 43 years (that is, roughly half of what it is today). But if he or she could make it to 15 years of age, there was greater likelihood of living longer.

The risks associated with childbirth also affected female mortality rates. Two-thirds of girls born in 1801 reached adulthood but fewer than half of the original cohort made it to 45 years and the greatest risk they faced in those intervening 25 years was pregnancy.[4]

There were several mortality spikes in the 19th century arising from highly infectious and contagious disease epidemics. Of these the foremost was cholera. The Canadas experienced epidemics in 1832, 1834, 1849, 1851, and 1854. Each of these began in Quebec City, where immigrant ships carrying cholera first put into port; most of the epidemics made their way upriver and into the Great Lakes. The worst year — 1832 — witnessed about 2,000 deaths in Montreal, a city of roughly 32,000 individuals at the time. That is to say, one out of every 16 Montrealers succumbed to cholera.

The numbers are horrifying enough, but the disease itself was far more so. Michael Bliss, a historian of disease epidemics in Canada, describes the disease:

When the cholera struck a community, nightmarish events occurred. Apparently normal and healthy people would start vomiting and defecating uncontrollably, sometimes at work or in the street. Putrid liquids poured from bodies racked by spasms and cramps. Dehydration caused eyes to sink into their sockets, skin to wrinkle and wizen, the voice to become low and husky. The body turned black and blue as capillaries ruptured. For more than half the victims death came in one or two days, sometimes in only a few hours. Sometimes bodies spurted poisons, aged, withered, and died, seemingly in minutes, the way they do in horror movies today.[5]

In the first half of the century no one knew with any certainty what caused epidemics. As a consequence there seemed to be little urgency to attend to open sewers, contaminated water supplies, the large number of horses in any colonial city (and their manure and urine), and the slaughtering of beef cattle and other animals in the streets by butchers (and thus the flow of blood everywhere). Public health was a concern but not yet a policy area. People were left with a fear of the unknown, a certainty that cholera or some other nasty epidemic would return, and a belief that it would be brought in all likelihood by immigrants — and no one was doing much about it.

Fertility and Nuptiality

Fertility rates across the colonies were, by 21st century standards, very high. Anecdotally, one finds accounts of many families with eight to a dozen children. Certainly it was not unusual for women to marry young and carry to full term six or more pregnancies. Infant mortality rates, however, were also high. A comparative study of two leading Victorian-era families (one in Red River, the other on Prince Edward Island) reveals that the former produced “at least thirteen children” and the latter eight, of whom only four made it out of childhood.[6] For farming families, of course, children were a source of labour and security: they constituted the workforce from an early age and they were depended upon to provide for aging parents in an era when pensions and social welfare did not exist. In the early towns, too, children played a role in building up the household wage. On the mid-century Vancouver Island coalfield, a skilled miner with two or three sons over the age of eight years could double his income by taking them into the mines.

But the pattern was more complex than this. In mid-19th century Hamilton, for example, the average age at first marriage for women was about 22 years. Only one-quarter of the female population married before the age of 20, though nearly three-quarters were married by the time they turned 25.  This represents a significant delay in the onset of marital fertility, so much so that the fertility rate (the number of children under 15 years of age divided by the number of women aged 15 to 45 years) was a modest 2.3 to 2.9. Irish Catholic women, defying stereotypes of high fertility, occupied the middle range: around 2.5 children per woman. Catholic women did tend to marry younger and therefore had more of their children at an earlier age than their Protestant contemporaries.[7]

Across British North America, however, one pattern that leaps out is the universality of marriage: in a population where there were about 96 men for every 100 females, nuptiality (the incidence of marriage) for women born between 1832 and 1866 was in the range of 88% to 91%. [8] This matters to the story of fertility because colonial laws were especially punitive of sex outside of marriage.

Less consequential to fertility but indicative of how long it took for males to secure their economic footing, the age at first marriage for men was high and getting higher. In 1851 it was about 26 years in the Province of Canada and 10 years later it was closer to 27 (and 28.8 years in Nova Scotia). Just after Confederation the average age at marriage for men was 29.4 in Nova Scotia, 28.8 in New Brunswick, 26.9 in Quebec, and 28.4 in Ontario.[9] A trend toward postponing marriage is apparent from these figures.

Larger patterns of fertility are worth noting. The population of French Canada in the century before Confederation doubled every 25 years, which follows the Malthusian model of natural population growth exactly. Keep in mind that this growth occurred in the absence of significant immigration into the French-speaking community — and considerable migration out, especially to New England. This growth was sustained by a high rate of marriage, at least until 1820. At that time the crisis in land availability dampened the possibility of marriage for many young people in Lower Canada.[10]

Voluntary family size limitation, or what we refer to colloquially as birth control, had only a minor impact on population growth before Confederation and only much later still in French Canada. In 1851 the total fertility rate (TFR) per woman was 7.02 and there were 120.3 children under the age of five years for every 100 women between the ages of 20 and 44. (By the late 20th century this last ratio had dropped to 40 per 100.) We know that women’s mean age at first birth was 25.4 years and that the mean age of last birth was 35 years. With six to seven births per married woman, these figures tell us that women spent those years between their mid-twenties and their mid-thirties either pregnant or wrestling with newborns.[11]

Over the longer term the high fertility rates can be seen to be in retreat. The crude birth rate (CBR) in Lower Canada was close to 60 per 1,000 population in 1811 and fell to about 45 by 1861. At mid-century this might seem like a significant decline, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see that British North America was marching in step with the fertility transition underway across Western Europe and in the United States. The Canadian CBR would continue to fall with very few reversals (although there were more in Quebec than in English Canada) until the 1930s. In fact, Canada’s current below-replacement-level fertility is nothing less than an outcome of this two-century-old trend.[12]

Key Points

  • The first half of the 19th century saw substantial population growth in eastern British North America, driven by a combination of births and immigration, both of which had to compete with a high mortality rate.
  • The population at mid-century was divided roughly evenly between dependants and adult providers.
  • Nuptiality rates were very high: marriage was the common experience of almost all women.

  1. Statistics Canada, "The 1800s ( 1806-1871),", accessed 15 December 2014; F.H.Leacy, ed., Historical Statistics of Canada, 2nd edition (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1983) Series A2-14, Population of Canada, by province, census dates, 1851 to 1976.
  2. Roderic P. Beaujot and Kevin McQuillan, "The Social Effects of Demographic Change, Canada 1851-1981," in Perspectives on Canada's Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, eds. Frank Trovato and Carl F. Grindstaff (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 1994), 43.
  3. Roderic Beaujot and Don Kerr, Population Change in Canada, 2nd edition (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2004), 35-6.
  4. Ellen Gee, "The Life Course of Canadian Women: An Historical and Demographic Analysis," in Perspectives on Canada's Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, eds. Frank Trovato and Carl F. Grindstaff (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 1994), 50.
  5. Michael Bliss, Plague: A Story of Smallpox in Montreal (Toronto: Harper Collins, 1991), 19.
  6. J.M.Bumsted and Wendy Owen, "The Victorian Family in Canada in Historical Perspective: The Ross Family of Red River and the Jarvis Family of Prince Edward Island," Manitoba History 13 (Spring 1987): 12-13.
  7. Michael B. Katz, The People of Hamilton, Canada West: Family and Class in a Mid-Nineteenth-Century City (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975), 32-35.
  8. Gee, "The Life Course of Canadian Women, 50-1.
  9. Ellen Gee, "Marriage in Nineteenth-Century Canada," Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 19 (1982): 311-25.
  10. Jacques Henripin, "From Acceptance of Nature to Control: The Demography of the French Canadians Since the Seventeenth Century," in Perspectives on Canada's Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, eds. Frank Trovato and Carl F. Grindstaff (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 1994), 27-8.
  11. Roderic P. Beaujot and Kevin McQuillan, "The Social Effects of Demographic Change, Canada 1851-1981," Perspectives on Canada's Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, eds. Frank Trovato and Carl F. Grindstaff (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 1994): 36-7, 41.
  12. Anatole Romaniuc, "Fertility in Canada: Retrospective and Prospective," in Perspectives on Canada's Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, eds. Frank Trovato and Carl F. Grindstaff (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 1994), 216.


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Canadian History: Pre-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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