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Canada, A Working History



This is a book about how work in Canada changed from the period of European colonization to the year 2020. It is intended to provide a broad overview of major developments and trends in Canada, and show how work was shaped by wider influences in Canadian society. Work is a central human activity that has innate value whether or not it involves receiving compensation. The historical development of work in Canada parallel’s the nation’s progress. Workers in their many times, places, and occupations made Canada and their work is ongoing This narrative is divided into six chapters, and they cover time periods of varying scope.

Chapter One described the period from European colonization to the years before Confederation in 1867. Canada was initially a collection of disparate colonies and long-established indigenous tribes that was formed into a nation with the different political actors involved showing varied levels of enthusiasm for the new country. Canada’s ties with Britain remained strong during the long period from colonization to Confederation, and the new nation was gradually formed within the context of an occasionally fraught relationship with the United States.

Chapter Two describes a longer time period from Confederation to the 1930s. Canada experienced profound change between 1867 and 1939. Canadian workers most importantly left their civilian jobs in droves in 1914 to enlist in the army to fight in Europe. Many of them did not return to resume their civilian lives. Canadians built a railway from coast to coast, welcomed scores of immigrants, built new cities and factories, and experienced industrialization. They also formed workers organization, created new business structures, and organized themselves into professions.

Chapter Three covers the crucial period years from 1945 to 1969. Canada was much different at the end of World War II than when it started. The Great Depression drove unemployment to record heights in the 1930s, and the war eliminated it in short order. Canada became a major contributor to the war effort. Women streamed into industrial jobs in large numbers for the first time. Unions were inspired by the struggles waged by their American comrades, and they gained the right to engage in legal collective bargaining.

The 1950s and 1960s were prosperous decades for many, but not all Canadians. Wages often met or exceeded the cost of living. Working-class people were able to own their homes rather than renting. A vibrant consumer culture shaped people’s identities, and also furnished a wide array of new goods and services. This was part of the era of the Cold War ideological struggle, and work and employment were touched by it. Women demand social change in the 1960s, and the structure of families changed. Important social programs were introduced that immeasurably improved the lives of working people.

Chapter Four describes working in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s. The seventies were a sort of socio-economic interregnum between the sixties and eighties, but they still brought substantial change to work and labour. Women became an ever-larger percentage of unionized workers, especially in the public sector. A crucial legislative change in the late sixties gave federal public sector workers the right to formally unionized and engage in collective bargaining, and that right spread across the provinces as well. The seventies were an important economic turning point for workers of all types. Wage increases gradually stopped providing expanded standards of living. The postwar Baby Boom generation graduated from high school and post-secondary education and entered the paid workforce. Media culture continued to include representations of working life.

Chapter Five describes the 1980s and 1990s. The pace of change in working life markedly accelerated during those decades. There were major labour struggles, governments made deliberate policy decisions that did things like deregulate areas of the economy and those policies harmed workers. Canada experienced some early industrialization, and its economy became even more oriented toward services and away from manufacturing. The Cold War ended during this period but its end did not bring significant benefits to working Canadians.

Chapter Six discusses the period from the turn of the millennium to 2020. Canadians approached the end of the twentieth century with mixed feelings of anticipation and trepidation. The new twenty-first century brought enormous opportunity for workers who were well-educated and possessed marketable skills, but also came with uncertainty and upheaval for other workers. It almost came to seem like Canada was going back to the pre-World War II period with the growing prevalence of non-standard work arrangements.

Work continued to be bifurcated along gender, racial, and ethnic lines into the new century. Women did not earn as much as men for doing equal work, and immigrants and people of colour were often relegated to low-wage jobs. Technology permeated virtually every workplace, but it was used for control and surveillance as much as to enhance profitability.

The history of work in Canada has often been tumultuous, sometimes violent, and shaped by technological change. It has shaped society while being reciprocally shaped by it. It is the product of many different influences and is fundamentally about the individual and collective experiences of people who toil at tasks on paid and unpaid bases. As the coming chapters will show, work in Canada has ultimately never been dull.

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