Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

History Social History

Canada the Good

A Short History of Vice since 1500

by (author) Marcel Martel

Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Initial publish date
Mar 2014
Social History, Post-Confederation (1867-), Pre-Confederation (to 1867)
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Mar 2014
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2014
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


To invest in vice can be a sound financial decision, but despite the lure of healthy profits, individuals and mutual funds have been reluctant to invest in this type of stock. After all, who would take pride in supporting the tobacco industry, knowing it sells a deadly product? And what social responsibilities do investors bear with respect to compulsive gamblers who have lost so much money that suicide becomes an attractive option?

Canada the Good considers more than five hundred years of debates and regulation that have conditioned Canadians’ attitudes towards certain vices. Early European settlers implemented a Christian moral order that regulated sexual behaviour, gambling, and drinking. Later, some transgressions were diagnosed as health issues that required treatment. Those who refused the label of illness argued that behaviours formerly deemed as vices were within the range of normal human behaviour.

This historical synthesis demonstrates how moral regulation has changed over time, how it has shaped Canadians’ lives, why some debates have almost disappeared and others persist, and why some individuals and groups have felt empowered to tackle collective social issues. Against the background of the evolution of the state, the enlargement of the body politic, and mounting forays into court activism, the author illustrates the complexity over time of various forms of social regulation and the control of vice.

About the author

Marcel Martel is a professor in the Department of History at York University, where he holds the Avie Bennett Historica Dominion Institute Chair in Canadian History. He is the author of Not This Time: Canadians, Public Policy, and the Marijuana Question, 1961-1975 (2006), Le Deuil d’un pays imaginé. Rêves, luttes et déroute du Canada français (1997), and co-author of Speaking Up. A History of Language and Politics in Canada and Quebec (2012).

Marcel Martel's profile page

Editorial Reviews

“Canadians have been sticking their noses into each other’s business for about as long as they’ve had noses and business. That part is perhaps no surprise. But, what Martel does so impressively well in this concise volume is to uncover the mutability of that ‘business’—what he has defined as ‘vices’—in the long sweep of Canadian history. In other words, this is a book about the changing and highly contingent ways Canadians have understood taboos and prosecuted transgression. It traces what Canadians have been afraid of (HINT: it’s usually something to do with sex or race), what activities they have tried to control (at every level from the familiar to the federal), and what kinds of tools they have used in an effort to protect a shifting set of ideas about propriety over 500 years. It’s fascinating stuff.”

Stuart Henderson, author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (2011)

“Our uniquely Canadian concept of liberty and vice is documented by Professor Marcel Martel of York University’s Department of History. Canada the Good is a sweep through three centuries of gambling, drinking, and fornication. There emerges a kind of consensus that Canadians should be left alone to do what they want in the privacy of their homes, but for heaven’s sake don’t make a fuss about it. When Parliament held an 1898 plebiscite on prohibition a majority voted to ban booze, and MPs promptly ignored the result. In Catholic Quebec and New Brunswick, liquor was never much restricted. In Protestant Ontario and Alberta, dry laws were so successfully enforced the crime rate fell. It seemed everybody was happy.... Martel’s research is delightful. Who is not wiser on knowing Canada’s first lottery was licensed in 1732; or that Confederation-era Halifax had 600 working prostitutes; or that Parliament’s 1869 Act Respecting Vagrants targeted any ‘night walker wandering in the fields...not giving a satisfactory account of themselves.’ They just don’t write Acts like that anymore.... ‘The regulation of vice has changed over time,‘ notes Martel. ’This should give us pause for reflection.”

Blacklock’s Reporter

“Vice exerts a perennial interest, regardless of how and by whom it is defined. In Canada the Good: A Short History of Vice since 1500, an admirably condensed social history of Canadian vices over the past five centuries, York University historian Marcel Martel shows exactly how during this time the definition of vice in Canada has shifted from a discourse centred on sin to one that, when still applied, is viewed primarily in medical terms.... A well-researched and informative discussion of the trajectory of Canadian morality and the significant actors who have sought to define it.... Even when the particular causes taken on by present-day reform movements may diverge markedly from those in the past, there is a discernible continuity in the methods and tactics. By giving his readers a sense of the long-term trajectory of Canadian moral beliefs and their practical application, Martel allows us to see how the regulatory compromises of today are likely to be just as transitory and provisional as those of the past.”

Literary Review of Canada

Other titles by Marcel Martel