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The North-West Is Our Mother

The North-West Is Our Mother

The Story of Louis Riel's People, the Métis Nation
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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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A Brief History of Money

A Brief History of Money

4000 Years of Markets, Currencies, Debt and Crisis
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Modest Hopes

Modest Hopes

Worker's Cottages of Toronto
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As our city evolves it is critically important to preserve and understand our community and the stories of the people who built the city. The physical form of their modest homes reflects this largely ignored part of the narrative. With this understanding can come value. The validation of these houses can in turn help to support their preservation and reuse. We hope that these stories will continue to be embedded in the city context and enrich the story of Toronto. Without value these various elements of the story of Toronto, the cottages, the mansions, the bridges, factories, public buildings and parks are vulnerable. So often it appears easier to demolish these structures, to rip those pages out of the Toronto history book than to edit and preserve them.

George H. Rust-D’Eye coincidentally summarizes the purpose of Modest Hopes in his Author’s Preface to Cabbagetown Remembered, when he writes that this book “… is intended to remedy, in some small way, the imbalance of attention to the lower social orders and their environment, caused by the perspective of the early writers on the history of this city.” In the early 1800s York was defined by Simcoe’s 1793 “Plan of York Harbour” with its ten square block grid just west of the river. The geography of the lake, river and rising ground to the north contained the small community of one and two storey, log, frame and later brick buildings. “Muddy York “, named after the condition of the streets, had a population of 700 in 1812 that was made up of mostly English, Scottish and Irish settlers, Loyalists who had fled the American Revolution and a small number of escaped slaves from the southern United States. Forty years later by 1852, York had become Toronto and had a population of 30,000 people.

As the use of brick, fired from local clay, became more common, initially as a way to clad wood structures to reduce the spread of fire, the red and “white” (really yellow or buff brick) used in Toronto houses became an architectural symbol of affluence and taste. Visitors to the city in the early part of the century often remarked on the clouds of wood and later coal smoke that obscured the community and the few church steeples, such as St. James Cathedral. They would also have been assailed by noise of industry, carters and merchants yelling in the streets as well as by the unavoidable smell of horse dung, and backyard privies.

These were some of the conditions that would have greeted so many of the thousands of newcomers that had begun to flood into Toronto at that time. Though this environment did not dim what must have been for many of them their almost inconceivable sacrifice, commitment and hope for the future. Their sense of dislocation, their fear of the unknown and the utter strangeness of this community in the wilderness would have been almost overwhelming but would have been somewhat lessened by the fact most of them spoke English, the language of their new home. Some of the new arrivals may have had family in Toronto with whom they could live until they found their own homes, which would have made the transition from the old to the new easier. But for most of the newcomers it must have been a struggle that is only comparable to the experience of immigrants today.

The enduring need for and dream of a “Home” as a safe and nurturing place to live and raise a family in the “New World” must have helped to sustain them. So many of these new arrivals to Toronto left or were driven out of their homes and off ancestral land that they and their families had lived in and worked on for countless generations. From the peasant’s stone huts or hovels of rural Scotland and Ireland to the crowded tenements of cities like Edinburgh, Dublin and London, the hope for a better future led them to Upper and Lower Canada and cities like Toronto and Montreal.

The conditions they had left behind, the experience of their passage across the ocean or the trek from other parts of the continent, the conditions they met on arrival, and their expectations that they had for Toronto would all affect their progress and success in their new home. The following sections will introduce a range of different immigrants who came to Toronto from the 1820s-1920s, describe who they were, where they had come from and the conditions they had left behind and talk about the reaction of Toronto’s citizenry and ruling elite to these waves of new arrivals. But more importantly as this is not about the social or immigration history of Toronto, this book will provide a detailed account and picture of the homes that these new arrivals to Toronto were able to rent, to own and to live in. The modest brick and wood “vessels’ contained and nurtured the lives of these future citizens of the City. Living in these small homes, these worker’s cottages that still exist and are scattered throughout the oldest parts of the city today, provided one of the first and most important, upward steps for these recent arrivals and embodied their hopes for a better future for them and their families. These 300 - 600 square foot (sf), narrow houses, found singly or in rows, often located in the less desirable, southern and eastern sections of the city, whether rented, shared or owned, symbolized their dreams for a better life, their improved economic status and success. Multi-generational families consisting of parents, grandparents, multiple children and sometimes other members of the extended family, lived and flourished in them.

A city can be seen as a collection of neighbourhood communities. Each one consists of a physical and tangible context made up of streets, buildings, open spaces, natural features, as well as an intangible context that is made up of the events, stories and the lives of the people who lived there. These varied communities combine all of these tangible and intangible elements to contain, enable and enrich the lives of generations of people who have lived and worked in them. This context and the individual elements within it reflect their stories. Scattered throughout the older neighbourhoods you can still find some of Toronto’s first “worker’s cottages”. Detached houses are squeezed between their larger, newer neighbours, or still exist in short rows and are hidden behind decades of change and “modernization”. The layers of porches and second storey additions, clapboard fronts, angel stone and vinyl siding, disguise the original modest homes that sheltered and nurtured the families of the waves of immigrants and labourers that built Toronto.

To have worked and saved enough money to move from the crowded conditions of areas such as Toronto’s former “Ward” neighbourhood into, for example, a self-contained, 12-16 foot-wide, frame and brick, 600sf row house, was the result of an unimaginably strong hope, belief and commitment to their future. For the workers and their families these houses were far from modest, they improved their quality of life and reflected their social and economic advancement, their ambition and values.

From the perspective of many Torontonians today though, these tiny, modest couplet and row houses are cramped, poorly constructed, unlivable and historically unimportant “teardowns”. John Doyle in The Globe and Mail comments:

There is little thought for the past, especially the past of the working poor, those who lived in tiny homes and laboured in the traditional industries and trades. Memory or acknowledgement of those who truly built the country with their hands and their skill and fortitude is obliterated. We just romanticize them as an idea and pave over their existence.

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Flourishing and Free

More Stories of Trailblazing Women of Vancouver Island
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