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Economic Challenges for the Dominion of Canada (1850s–1890s) Confederation and National Expansion

Economic Challenges for the Dominion of Canada (1850s–1890s) Confederation and National Expansion

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Montréal 1882. St-Urbain Street

 Canadians experienced far-reaching changes in the second half of the nineteenth century. All of the existing British North American colonies, with the exception of Newfoundland, had joined a new Canadian political structure by 1900. Despite this unification, deep seated political and cultural disputes between francophones and anglophones continued to fester, shaped by old themes of language and religion and new themes of provincial-federal tensions and education. Dramatic expansion into the West yielded new provinces in the interior and on the Pacific Rim; it also triggered violent confrontations between Native peoples and whites.

Most people lived in cities or countrysides, but an obdurate environment, which they considered wilderness, was never far off and often on the horizon. In many places, settler lives worked out ongoing relationships with this rougher, less tamed land long after local farms had been cleared. Moreover, because this land checked agricultural settlement, the competition between newcomers and Native people for land was relatively muted. The “wilderness” provided resources for staple trades but also, however precariously in changing circumstances, homes for Native peoples. At Confederation, Native numbers, livelihoods, and cultures had been drastically altered by the fur trade, introduced diseases, and missionaries, but Native peoples, speaking their languages and well aware of who they were, remained the dominant population throughout most of British North America.

These basic North American differences – between land that could be sown and land that could not, and between those who had come and those who had always been there – were usually at hand and unlikely to go away.

At the start of the period, British North America had some improved roads and canals but very few miles of railroads. By 1900 Canadians had completed a marvellous transcontinental railroad, and the plans for two more lines were underway. The vanguard of a wave of European immigrants had arrived. Thousands poured into the continent’s interior to clear land and provide the muscle for a new industrial-based economy. A modest exporter in mid 19th century, Canada by 1900 was becoming one of the world’s great producers of wheat and other agricultural products.

Contemporary political parties focused on raising funds to pay civil servants, build roads, improve waterways, construct railroads, and develop educational systems. An impetus arose to seek a greater unification of the various colonies in British North America out of the complex political party development, an event called Confederation. Although British North Americans had discussed this idea periodically since the late eighteenth century, various factors account for the emergence of Confederation in 1867.

Confederation was superimposed on most of the pockets of predominantly existent agricultural settlement, plus some land beyond them. Yet the fur trade, coupled with a gold rush had created a transcontinental possibility, and with the addition of the small province of Manitoba in 1870 and of British Columbia in 1871, a federal transcontinental polity emerged within British North America. There had been no events around which a common British North American story had crystallized: no declaration of independence, no successful revolutionary war, no constitutional defence of freedom. Behind Confederation, rather, tended to be bargains over railways, apprehension about the United States, and for various reasons from various vantage points a desire to remain British. More generally in the background were the power and executive authority of a British imperial state that sought to withdraw honourably and relatively cheaply from British North America while leaving behind an enlarged, self-governing British colony that would match the continental scale of the United States while posing it no military threat.

The repeal of the British Corn Laws and of preferential treatment for the British colonies led many in British North America to realize that the motherland could no longer be counted on economically. In 1854, the Canadian colonies signed Canadian-American Reciprocity Treaty with the United States to try to ensure access to the American market. But reciprocity with the United States, a fairly successful trading arrangement, was endangered by Britain’s relationship with the Confederacy during the American Civil War (1861–1865). With Americans threatening to let reciprocity lapse, British North Americans envisioned the creation of a trading zone—or customs union—among the British colonies.

Thus, the abrogation of the Reciprocity Treaty by the U.S. in 1866 pushed the British North American colonies to favour an economic and political union. Confederation was founded on the belief that a full free trade zone would expand markets for each colony's goods, especially through the use of a common currency and a common taxation base. The reality, however, was that the two Canadas had already been a free trade zone since 1791, and that the two Maritime colonies that were to join the union were small and did not provide a significant expansion of the overall market for Central Canada's growing manufacturing sector. However, what was perhaps more important was Central Canada's "imperialistic" motive of integrating the hinterland of Western Canada within its economic sphere via a political union. This was by far the most important motive of the political elite throughout the post-Confederation period - that is, to overcome the financial and physical difficulties of building a transcontinental transport system, to make the railway system financially viable, and to overcome the barrier of the Hudson's Bay Co. proprietorship over the Northwest. During the next decades, this will thus become the prime focus of the new United Canada.

Many of the individuals pushing for Confederation invested both financially and emotionally in the great vision of the day: railroads. The main reason was represented by the technical problems of the navigation on canals. Steamships grew rapidly in size so that the deepened waterways already built were soon too shallow, and the canals and the ship channel had to be deepened again and again. The complicated St. Lawrence route, with its canals of varying depth, its heavy towage and pilotage fees, and high insurance rates, fell steadily behind in the traffic race with the Erie Canal and the American railways, which furnished an easy route to New York with low insurance rates and a large available tonnage. The Welland Railway was built to solve the problem presented by the shallowness of the canal, but the delay and trouble of transhipment prevented a large increase in traffic. Waterways could no longer compete with New York trunk railways, and in 1856 the Grand Trunk was completed from Toronto to Montreal. Many branch lines were constructed to lake ports and to towns in the interior to build up both through and local traffic. In 1860 sixteen railway companies operated 1,800 miles in Canada, using iron rails, burning wood, and owning 384 locomotives. In 1875 thirty-seven railways operated 5,157 miles laid with iron or steel rails, and owned 1,000 locomotives.

 Railways had a profound influence on the timber trade, which was forced to give way to more developed industries serving the needs of a developing community. Exhaustion of more accessible large trees for square timber was followed by exploitation of smaller trees in the sawn-lumber industry. Saw-mills and wood-working plants appeared at convenient water-power sites on the Ottawa, and as railways offered transportation facilities, steam mills were built in the interior to serve areas not served by water.

Lumbering was meant to meet the needs of building and mining. Coastal saw-mills exported lumber to all parts of the world. The waning square-timber trade and the lumber industry based on white pine were followed by exploitation of spruce on the large tributaries of the St. Lawrence and in turn by the pulp industry. Pulpwood was exported to mills in the United States, and ground-wood mills followed by paper mills flourished in areas where spruce was abundant, rail and water transport available, and the American market near.

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But wood was no longer the great staple product of the country, for the farms settled in the thirties and forties had not only trenched on the forest, but were producing great quantities of wheat for export. Wheat was the basis of the provincial economy in most of the settled parts of Upper Canada. In 1863 it was said that half the vessels which formerly took on cargoes of lumber at Quebec now went to Montreal for grain. Wheat remained preeminent even as late as 1860, when, after a decade of economic expansionism and diversification, about half of the acreage cultivated in Upper Canada was still given over to wheat; of all crops grown, only wheat and barley were said to have been traded in significant amounts. Thus, it has been argued that actually the export trade in wheat and flour hold the key to Upper Canada’s development.

Railways opened new land to settlement, and carried wheat raised on older lands to the seaboard for export. By 1860 the best lands were occupied, so that colonization roads had to be built, and special inducements offered to immigrants to take up poorer and less accessible lands.


Intensive wheat-growing in this period brought its own nemesis, for, as in Lower Canada a generation earlier, over cropped and unfertilized lands became worn out, and wheat was gradually re­placed by coarse grains and by the raising of livestock. Sheep and oxen, characteristic of the frontier farm, gave way to horses and cattle. The steam­ship facilitated the shipment of dairy products, particularly cheese in the sixties and livestock in the seventies of the 19th century.

The growth of towns opened a market for dairy products, especially butter and milk. Cattle-raising and dairying in­volved rotation in agriculture and con­struction of farm buildings; fields had to be fenced, and root and forage crops raised and stored for winter use. Specialized agri­culture emerged in the production of milk and vegetables in the Fraser valley and of fruit in the irrigated areas of the Okanagan.

In eastern Canada the agricultural lands were largely settled by the time of Confederation, although on many farms much soil still lay under forest. Most families gained a livelihood by farming, but in the earliest days of creating a farm from the wilderness many also worked for wages, perhaps on others’ lands, perhaps in lumber camps or the fishery. Once sufficient acreage was cleared, the land supplied a large portion of a family’s needs; meat, milk, butter, vegetables and cloth were all produced on the farm. Other farm products required local processing before they were useful; wheat needed to be ground to flour and oats to meal, logs provided better housing when sawn into boards, hides were tanned to leather and manufactured into harnesses or shoes by skilled artisans, wool was carded and for some the enjoyment of rye and barley was much increased by distillation or brewing. As a result, agricultural communities always enjoyed a degree of diversification, since farming families’ willingness to exchange farm produce for processed goods gave artisans a livelihood.

Even with local manufacturing, neither the farms nor the cluster of activities in farming communities could meet all the needs and wants of settlers. Sugar, tea, coffee, fine cloth, quality shoes and boots added greatly to settlers’ comforts, while tools, nails and other iron goods helped farmers become more efficient in their trade. To secure these imported commodities, external markets for some local produce had to be found. Established families with sufficient good land were able to provide for their basic needs and to produce goods for sale on local or export markets; less fortunate families, however, continued to rely on wage labour to purchase both local and imported goods. Agriculture was only a part of the economies of the provinces of Canada in 1871, but it was the most important single sector. Where a large number of people secured a livelihood in agriculture, a sound foundation had been established for a rich domestic market.

Industry in Canada, with the excep­tion of stave-cutting and flour-milling for export, was almost entirely local and domestic until the demands of the new steam and steel had started to rise. The iron industry produced only a few stoves and potash kettles till it was stimulated by the demands of the railways for rails and car wheels. Domestic bog ores were becoming ex­hausted, and pig iron imported from England and the United States was manufactured in foundries situated along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence for the sake of cheap coal supplies and easy water transportation. Sewing machines, agricultural machinery, and implements of all kinds were produced; and the Massey and Harris firms were estab­lished.

Under the protection of the National Policy inaugurated by Confederation, other industries increased rapidly, such as woollen and knitting mills, boot and shoe factories. Hardwood was made into furniture in many Ontario towns, and after 1870 Montreal became the site of many factories producing hardware, textiles, soap, drugs, paint, rubber goods, to­bacco, and paper. Factories sprang up at sources of water-power, and where water-power was limited railways brought cheap supplies of coal.

Crafted in the age of railroad development, Canada’s constitution in 1867 included passages that addressed the completion of an intercolonial railroad. Events in Britain provided yet another important motivation to develop a federal scheme in Canada. Endowed with the world’s strongest industrial complex and largest commercial fleet, the British moved aggressively away from mercantilism and toward free trade in the nineteenth century. Canadian discussions about Confederation coincided with a relatively brief period called “Little England,” during which Britons considered colonies expensive to protect and not cost effective.

British North America seemed to make the case for imperial detachment. Staples produced in the colonies could be easily obtained from other sources through international trade, and many British thought the time had come for the colonists to defend themselves. Troubled relations with the United States provided the remaining essential impulse for Confederation.

The debates for Confederation transpired during the Civil War, a grisly conflict that tore the fabric of the United States and strained Anglo-American relations. British North Americans mostly sympathized with the northerners and antislavery interests, and thousands volunteered to fight in the war. British public opinion divided in its support of the Confederacy, but for a time the desire to retain southern cotton to supply Britain’s textile mills created tensions with the North.

Moreover, the integrity of the international border was sorely tested during the war. American deserters and draft evaders skipped across the border seeking refuge, and a dramatic raid from Canada East by Confederate raiders in 1864 to rob banks in St. Albans, Vermont, caused great anti-Canadian sentiment among northerners. With depressing familiarity, some politicians called for the seizure of British North America to remove a long-standing irritant. Although the crises eventually passed, the souring of Anglo-American relations suggested to British North Americans that a stronger federal union was needed for defensive purposes.

Some opponents of the Confederation argued that the smaller provinces would suffer because of unequal representation. A timed series of Fenian raids, a brotherhood that included Irish Americans who planned to wrest Irish independence from Britain by attacking its British North American colonies provided a new incentive for Confederation. One attack on Campobello Island, just across the Maine border, was quickly repelled in 1866. Further raids occurred in the Canadas. Given their expressed objectives, the Fenians’ attacks effected the opposite result. They inadvertently helped to drive the colonies, especially New Brunswick, closer to a political union for defensive purposes.

The colony that most formally approved of Confederation was the one that stood to benefit the most from greater union: the Canadas. Prince Edward Islanders and Newfoundlanders rejected Confederation. They would join Canada later, when compelling circumstances made Confederation a more attractive proposition. Nova Scotia adopted a similar position. Confederation garnered a clear vote of approval only in the Canadas.

Thus, a change of governments in several provinces, coupled with formidable popular and political opposition, meant that New Brunswick and Nova Scotia moved to the next series of meetings without a definitive vote on the idea and with hopes of improving the terms of Confederation. Late in 1866 delegates from the Canadas, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia met in London to complete their discussions for union. With few changes, the British approved of the plans and agreed to submit them to Parliament for approval. Instead of calling the new entity the Kingdom of Canada, the British persuaded the Canadians not to antagonize the United States by creating a “kingdom” on its northern border. One of the delegates offered a more neutral alternative, a biblical term from Psalm 72: dominion. From the same psalm Canadians borrowed one of the country’s mottoes, A Mari Usque Ad Mare, translated as “from sea to sea.” In March 1867, with precious little fanfare, the British Parliament passed the British North America Act (BNA Act). On July 1, 1867, the Dominion of Canada came into being. The BNA Act served as the constitution for Canada until 1982.

Central Canada, with its tariff-protected industries, was to become the industrial and financial heart of the new Dominion. The agricultural region in the western interior was to grow grain, primarily wheat, for export. Linking the two, and tying British Columbia's small pocket of population near Victoria to the rest of the Dominion, was to be a transcontinental railroad: the Canadian Pacific Railway.

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The relationship between the West, the rest of Canada, as well as the Canadian Pacific was difficult right from the beginning. There was much to the western argument that they sold their wheat in a highly competitive world market while they bought from highly protected Canadian manufacturers. Moreover, because there was competition from other railroads as well as water transportation in Central Canada, their freight rates were much lower than those in the West, where the CP had a government-protected monopoly. In short, many in the prairies thought they were paying for Confederation through higher cost industrial goods, and the transcontinental railroad through higher tariffs. These were to become recurring themes as the wheat economy developed on the prairies.

The opposition to Confederation was overwhelming in Nova Scotia as well. With one exception, all of the federal members of Parliament elected in 1867 were anti-confederates. Some met with the British, some suggested seceding from Canada, and a few raised the possibility of joining the United States. Rebuffed by the British, who endorsed a closely knit dominion, the “antis” reluctantly struck a bargain with the willing federal government. The province received financial subsidies and Ottawa promised to complete a railroad line connecting Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to Quebec. Opposition to Confederation diminished somewhat as a result, yet it remained a significant force in Nova Scotia’s political landscape into the twentieth century.

The issues evident in Nova Scotia were also at work on Prince Edward Island, which turned its back on Confederation in 1867. With a population of about 90,000, many still struggling to extract themselves from a system of land tenancy, islanders generally opposed joining Canada on the grounds that it would ensure the province’s permanent marginalization as the country developed. Economic misfortunes and railroad development problems quickly brought the colony to the brink of insolvency, making Confederation a more attractive prospect. Ottawa’s offer to assume debts and provide subsidies, including cash to purchase farms from landlords and improved ferry services, became Prince Edward Island’s handmaid to Confederation in 1873. With both Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, financial incentives and transportation linkages to the rest of Canada trumped idealistic notions of joining a nationalistic enterprise. Only a handful of visionaries dreamed that continental expansion would be Canada’s destiny.

Whereas reinforcing Confederation in the East was achieved through skilful political manoeuvring and more generous economic offers, expansion to the West was fraught with conflicts that on several occasions threatened to tear the bonds of the newly created dominion.

Concerns about possessions and occupancy had been ongoing since the Convention of 1818. The West was immense; however, it was not a vacuum. It encompassed the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur trading empire, the colony of British Columbia on the Pacific seaboard, the old Red River settlement, and thousands of Amerindians and Métis inhabitants. Americans, engaged in the post–Civil War Reconstruction era, were rapidly moving into the continent’s interior.

In addition, an expansion-minded secretary of state, William Seward, had purchased Alaska from the Russians at virtually the same moment of the dominion’s birth. The decision to establish control over the West spurred the Canadian federal government into swift action.

Capitalizing on a discussion that predated Confederation, Macdonald’s government entered into negotiations to purchase Rupert’s Land from the languishing Hudson’s Bay Company. The transfer was delayed due to mounting tensions in the Red River area, yet by 1870 Canada owned Rupert’s Land as well as the former British possession, the North-West Territory. While this was an obvious coup for Ottawa in clearing the path for western development, the transfer of interior lands to the government without the assent of its population practically ensured that a struggle would ensue.

The flashpoint for the struggle over control of the interior came at the settlement with a history of competition between white settlers and Native peoples, the earlier battleground between competing fur trade empires. Assiniboia, also known as the Red River settlement, centered around the old Hudson’s Bay Company post at the confluence of the Red River and Assiniboine River. The locality was home to Métis, the “country-born” offspring of Scots and English trappers and Amerindians, and people who arrived during subsequent migrations. These groups carried on their lives according to their heritage and the environment. They hunted buffalo, trapped furs, raised crops, and traded. Many adhered to established Christian religions, particularly Roman Catholicism. They possessed an established culture—or rather cultures—which they clearly wished to keep intact.

When the federal government sent out a governor and surveyors in 1869, the initial signs of eastern control, local inhabitants non-violently blocked their entry. Spearheading the Métis’ drive to maintain local control was Louis Riel, an articulate native of Red River who had been sent to Montreal for religious training. Riel’s involvement in the tangled series of negotiations and armed resistance, both at Red River in 1869 and in the North-West Rebellion in 1885, makes him one of the most controversial figures in Canadian history.

The result was the Manitoba Act of 1870. Originally called the “postage stamp” province because of its shape and relatively diminutive size, Manitoba obtained federal representation, a provincial assembly, the assurance that French and English would be official languages, and the right to support separate schools through provincial taxes. The last two principles were embraced to placate French Canadians in Quebec as well as Manitobans. They also kindled intense political and social discussions well into the following century. Finally, the federal government retained rights to Manitoba’s public lands and natural resources, a clear departure from the privileges enjoyed by the charter provinces. This federal control over resources, a contentious power, would be replicated as other western provinces joined Confederation.

Many of the fears of Red River’s indigenous and mixed-blood peoples were realized after Manitoba became a province. Migrants from eastern Canada flooded into the province, thereby changing its culture and economy. Many Métis migrated westward to the Saskatchewan River area in the North-West, an area inhabited by the Cree. From 1871 to 1877, seven treaties ceded land from Native peoples to the Canadian government in an immense area from the Great Lakes to the present province of Alberta and from the American border to the Nelson, Churchill, and Athabaska rivers.

Although the specific terms of these numbered treaties varied, in general they incorporated reserve areas for Native peoples, promised government subsidies, and provided for certain Amerindian rights. The Indian Act of 1876 planned for the assimilation of Native peoples by subordinating tribes and offering full citizenship to Amerindians who left the reserves and relinquished their treaty rights. This created distinctions between status Indians—those still on reserves and in tribal units—and nonstatus Indians—who accepted citizenship and abandoned their special rights as Native peoples.

After 1873 a federally sponsored North-West Mounted Police—the forerunner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police— maintained control in the area. In addition, the almost completed Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was primed to move reinforcements and supplies deep into the continent.

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After a series of rebellions from the part of Metis population, with the North-West firmly in the hands of the federal government, the West was ensured for Canada’s development. As with the Red River crisis of fifteen years earlier, the North-West Rebellion inflamed enduring passions in the East. Riel became a hero, if not a martyr, to Quebec’s francophones. To many of Ontario’s anglophones, he was a traitorous opponent of national development. The conflicting perceptions of Riel’s role in history, borne of two western conflicts, illustrate the cultural, ethnic, and religious divides that characterized Canada into the twentieth century.

Soon after, Canada’s desire to gain a foothold on the Pacific Ocean led Macdonald’s government into negotiations with British Columbians. Negotiators representing the approximately 10,000 whites, the legacy of the fur trade and a brief gold rush, skilfully extracted the most favourable terms possible from the eager Canadians. In 1871 British Columbia officially entered Confederation following a number of promises from Ottawa. Most of them, such as absorbing the colony’s debts and sponsoring a public works program, were fairly easily tackled. The biggest challenge would be to fulfill the commitment to link the province to eastern Canada with a railroad, making celebrations in Ottawa over British Columbia’s inclusion short-lived. The headache of funding and constructing the Canadian Pacific Railway plagued Conservatives and Liberals for over a decade. Still, the overextended reach of the federal government seemed worth the risk. To many Canadians in the late nineteenth century, the country’s survival without British Columbia seemed improbable.

Macdonald’s Conservatives won re-election in 1872, largely on their successes in confronting Nova Scotia’s anti-confederates and dramatically expanding the Canadian map in the West and North. To facilitate the movement of people into the interior, the government passed the Dominion Lands Act in 1872. The legislation, modeled on the American Homestead Act, created the machinery for issuing land—typically quarter sections of 160 acres—to homesteaders for a small fee and a requirement to construct buildings and plant crops.

The National Policy launched now would not only give Central Canadians a market for their goods, it would also keep the fertile prairie lands out of the clutches of the U.S. Overcoming tremendous geographical barriers, CP completed its rail line in 1886, and agricultural development in Manitoba and what became Saskatchewan and Alberta began.

The Canadian Pacific Railway:

Intense bidding for the charter to construct the Canadian Pacific Railway led to an intertwining of the Conservatives and a company headed by Hugh Allan, a Montreal businessman. Canada’s first serious political scandal erupted as information leaked that Conservatives, had received funds from Allan’s company during the 1872 campaign in return for the transcontinental contract.

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The Pacific scandal led to Macdonald’s resignation, the collapse of the Conservative government, and Canada’s first Liberal administration in 1873. For five years the Liberals, under the ineffective leadership of Scots born Alexander Mackenzie, attempted to offer Canadians a stimulating plan for national development. To compound the government’s problems, a general economic depression, felt on both sides of the Atlantic, coincided with its arrival. Work on the transcontinental railroad slowed to a crawl, and the U.S. Senate rebuffed the Liberals in their attempts to re-establish a reciprocal trade agreement. On the other hand, the Liberals altered the country’s judicial structure and extended the vote to a wider range of citizens. The Supreme Court, created in 1875, laboured for years to establish its role in the shadow of the still powerful British Privy Council. Liberals also introduced the secret ballot and expanded the electorate to include most non-Amerindian males. In spite of these positive changes, Mackenzie’s government met defeat at the hands of a reinvigorated Conservative party in 1878.

Macdonald’s Conservatives mounted a successful return to Ottawa by crafting and publicizing a plan called the National Policy. An interconnected scheme, the National Policy called for the construction of a transcontinental railroad, the protection of Canadian industries against less expensive imports, and the settlement of immigrants in the West to develop the land’s agricultural potential.

Few other events in Canadian history are more laden with emotional appeal than the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Long envisioned as a way to encourage east-west growth and started as a result of a promise to British Columbia when it entered Confederation, the CPR’s funding and construction led to woeful blunders and heady triumphs. Chastened by the Pacific scandal, Macdonald’s Conservatives made the line’s construction an imperative in the National Policy. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company, a joint venture that brought together an international cast of engineers, financiers, and workers, received the contract to construct the railroad. To create the most favourable environment possible, the government gave the company twenty-five million acres of land and economic incentives. Rising construction costs necessitated more government loans, imperilling Macdonald’s government on several occasions. Nonetheless, under the guidance of a robust American engineer named William Cornelius Van Horne, tracks were rapidly laid across the prairies. The feats of blasting rock in the Shield, bridging countless waterways, and tunnelling through the Rockies and British Columbian mountains made the CPR a world-class model. The railroad also came at a high human cost. By the time the last spike was driven at Craigellachie, British Columbia, in November 1885, hundreds of laborers, called navvies, had perished. Many of them were imported Chinese workers.

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In British Columbia, Chinese men began arriving from California in 1858, along with others in the gold rush. Their numbers increased sharply during the early 1880s, when contractors for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) imported construction labourers on contract from China to perform the most dangerous building projects through the Rocky Mountains. Already by the 1870s Anglo-Celtic unionists in the coal mines of Vancouver Island were clashing with Chinese workers whom the white unionists first excluded from their ranks and then treated as scab labour. By the late 1880s organized labour on the west coast, supported by unionists across North America, were playing a leading part in the fight to exclude Chinese immigrants from Canada. In 1885, the year construction of the CPR was completed, the white labour movement of British Columbia proudly shared credit for the Canadian government's discriminatory $50 head tax on Chinese entering Canada, the first in an escalating series of anti-Chinese measures adopted by the dominion and provincial governments.

When the CPR began service connecting Vancouver to Montreal, a national dream had become a reality, a dream for which the price paid by some people was very high.

The Conservatives acted on the National Policy by adopting high tariffs on imports in 1879. This triggered angry outcries from consumers and people in the Maritimes and West, who claimed that tariffs unfairly favoured the developing industrial heartland in Ontario and Quebec. The principle of raising the cost of imports so that Canadian-made goods would be more attractive led to mixed results. Some industries grew, including textiles, shoemaking, and agricultural machinery. However, the National Policy sharpened regional disputes and encouraged the development of American branch plants in Canada to sidestep the tariff schedules. Thus, the impact of this component of the National Policy on Canadian history remains debatable.

Just as industrialization provided the necessary base for Canada's survival as a national state, technology offered the solution to the difficulties confronted by a thin, scattered population divided by history, geography and ethnic diversity. Not surprisingly, those charged with building the Canadian dream embraced the promise, moving quickly to ensure that Canada would benefit as fully as possible from technological innovation. In 1869, only two years after political Confederation, the federal government passed Canada's first patent act. The main aim of this legislation, and successive acts passed in 1872 and 1903, was to encourage the easiest possible access to breakthroughs in applied science and industrial technique. Foreign inventors were to have their patents pirated and copied without compensation; native innovators and licensees lost their protection the moment they stopped manufacturing the device or when the foreign patent (if the technology was borrowed) expired. Canada also refused to join the International Union for the Protection of Industrial Property, intended to stop such abuse. The strategy was a conscious one—an effort to gain maximum benefit from the new science and industry quickly at the lowest possible cost. The same principle applied to information, the other staple of modern development. The Canada Copyright Act of 1872 offered similar protection to intellectual property as the Patent Act, which is to say little or none.

Instead, the Act licensed Canadian printers to reproduce and distribute foreign copyrighted work without regard for the original copyright holder. Disallowed by the Imperial government on the grounds that it contravened the (Imperial) Literary Copyright Act of 1842 and the 1847 Foreign Reprints Act, it was replaced by the Canadian Copyright Act of 1875 which extended nominal protection to British authors, but seemed designed for all the loopholes and anomalies that ingenious publishers could find. Just as Canada ignored the International Patent Union, it resisted the International Union for the Protection of Literary and Scientific Works (the Berne Convention) of 1885 by first revising the Canadian Act to circumvent its provisions and eventually, in 1894, announcing its formal withdrawal. Whatever Canadians lost in international respect, they gained in access to a flood of cheap reprints, school texts and technical publications.

Canada in the late nineteenth century was still primarily a rural place, dominated by the extraction and processing of raw materials as it had been since the early colonial era. Yet it was undergoing rapid change. Its urban areas grew, assisted by railroad development, improved communications, and technological advancements. Immigrants and people from outlying settlements sought employment in the cities. Montreal and Toronto expanded their influence, while small towns such as Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Calgary saw their populations mushroom. In a land of many contrasts, great social and economic distances separated men and women, native-born and immigrants, Amerindians and whites, francophones and anglophones, Protestants and Roman Catholics, and workers and owners. The emergence of entrepreneurial capitalism in Canada was accompanied, as it was elsewhere, by new social tensions. As the division between employer and employee grew sharper, skilled workers in the shops and small factories, on the railways, and in the mines began to organize into unions in an effort to protect themselves from the vagaries of the trade cycle and the arbitrary authority of their employers. Strikes and other protests became more common and calls for independent political action by labour more numerous. In short, the arrival of small-scale industrial capitalism gave birth almost immediately to the “labour questions”.

With power still clutched firmly in the hands of relatively few elites, primarily those of English, Scots, and French-Canadian extraction, Canada survived the post-Confederation era to face the twentieth century. Still part of the powerful British Empire, and sharing its only boundary with an expansive neighbour that was on the verge of becoming a global leader, Canada’s experiences illuminated its European roots as well as its North American orientation.

The second half of the nineteenth century, the era of Confederation and territorial expansion, whetted a national appetite for further growth and triggered debates on Canada’s international position. Issues crowded the political and social landscapes, including the dividing line between federal and provincial responsibilities, education and language privileges, and the rights of women, workers, Amerindians, ethnic minorities, and immigrants. The approximately five million Canadians of the late 1890s looked forward to the next century. Perhaps, as their prime minister suggested, it would belong to them.




Bohi, Charles W., Kozma, Leslie S., Canada's century: people called the 20th century 'Canada's Century.' See how the wheat boom grew a nation in “Trains Magazine” 69, nr. 4 (Apr. 2009), p. 50.

Eden, Lorraine, Molot, Maureen Appel, Canada's National Policies: Reflections on 125 Years and Canadian Public Policy, in Analyse de Politiques”, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Sep. 1993), pp. 232-251.

Harris, Cole, The Spaces of Early Canada, in “The Canadian Historical Review”, Volume 91, Number 4, December2010, pp. 725-759.

McCalla, Douglas, The Wheat Staple and Upper Canadian Development, in “Historical Papers / Communications historiques”, vol. 13, n° 1, 1978, p. 34-46.

Murray, Gregor, Giles, Anthony, Toward an Historical Understanding of Industrial Relations Theory in Canada, inRelations industrielles / Industrial Relations”, vol. 43, n° 4, 1988, p. 780-811.

See, Scott W., The History of Canada (Second Edition), Grey House Publishing, 2011, pp. 89-111.

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