An enthralling exploration of the lifestyles, ideas, habits, organizations, customs, fears, and aspirations of Canadians in the age of Confederation.
Too often we think of Victorian Canada as dull. We imagine our ancestors as sepia-tinged, dour, excruciatingly respectable figures sitting stiffly in over-decorated parlours. In How Different It Was, Michael J. Goodspeed changes all that, bringing to life the tumult and enthusiasm of ordinary and unconventional Canadians — from across the country and every walk of life — in an extraordinary time.
The political manoeuvring and power struggles of the decades when Canada was emerging as a nation are well known, but we are less familiar with the lives and circumstances of everyday Canadians in the Confederation era. How Different It Was vividly brings to life the lifestyles, attitudes, habits, and mindset of a colourful generation of Canadians who were, in so many ways, so different from our own.
About the author
MICHAEL GOODSPEED has degrees in literature, business administration and strategic studies. Currently an infantry officer in the Canadian Forces, he has lived and worked in many parts of the world. He and his wife reside in eastern Ontario.
Excerpt: How Different It Was: Canadians at the Time of Confederation (by (author) Michael J. Goodspeed)
Background to a New Nation
Between 1840 and 1880, Canadians were fortunate enough to live relatively unhindered by much of the turmoil that characterized the rest of the world. Canada had no external security vulnerabilities. The country had few conflicting venomous ideologies, or religious or ethnic tensions that threatened to tear it apart. There were no debilitating class conflicts, and such regional rivalries as existed were mild and certainly not violent. However, as we will see in later chapters, Canada had its share of bigotry, intolerance, and foolishness.
By 1840, Canada was well on its way to establishing the cultural and political foundations of a modern nation. But before examining particular aspects of mid-nineteenth-century Canadian society in detail, and at the risk of oversimplifying history, we should briefly examine the situation in which Canadians found themselves in the years leading to Confederation.
The circumstances of First Nations and other aboriginal peoples will be examined later with each of the country’s regions, but in broad terms, aboriginal Canadians, Canada’s first inhabitants, were largely ignored in the years prior to Confederation. That wasn’t always the case. Up until the War of 1812, in the web of alliances negotiated between the French, the British, and the Americans, First Nations were militarily useful to the various colonists and, as a result, were treated as a more influential partner. But with political stability and the increasing industrialization that followed the war, the status of aboriginal peoples began to decline. By the outset of the Confederation decades, First Nations peoples found themselves completely marginalized.
This change in status marked a sudden shift from the status quo that existed in North America before the arrival of European colonists. Aboriginal Canadians are believed to have arrived from Asia ten thousand years ago. Anthropologists believe that the ancestors of the aboriginal population of North America migrated across the Bering Strait that separates Siberia from Alaska during the last ice age and established societies in the traditional regions that Europeans found them in prior to and after the fifteenth century.
Canada’s first peoples have been classified according to geography, into seven very broad major groupings.* The Inuit were in the Arctic region and right across the Canadian North. In the Sub-Arctic were First Nations such as the Innu and the Dene, the Cree, the Ojibwa, the Atikamekw, and the Beothuk. Out on the Pacific Coast were a highly differentiated mix of linguistic and cultural bands that lived in what is now coastal British Columbia. In the high plateau areas and adjoining regions of the interior of British Columbia lived the Southern Dene and the numerous branches of the Athabaskan peoples. On the Prairies lived diverse bands of Plains First Nations, which included groups such as the Blackfoot, the Plains Cree, the Ojibwa, and the Assiniboine peoples. Further east, in a region thousands of kilometres wide and consisting of numerous tribal and linguistic groups, were the highly varied First Nations of the Eastern Woodlands. This last group consisted of a very broad range of peoples and cultures that included many different tribes of the Algonquian peoples, the Huron, the Iroquois, the Woodland Cree, and Ojibwa tribes, as well as the Maliseet and Mi’kmaq nations. The Métis, a mixed society that grew from the merging of First Nations peoples and European fur traders, lived primarily on the Prairies, and had rapidly established themselves as a unique and distinct culture in the late eighteenth century.
Although population estimates vary, it is widely accepted that at the time of the first European settlements there were approximately half a million aboriginals living in several hundred tribal groupings in what is now Canada. Aboriginal populations were subject to their own dynamic changes and there were several major ongoing migrations amongst indigenous peoples prior to and just after the arrival of Europeans, but these changes were minor in comparison with what was to follow: the lifestyles, the locations, the health and security, and the cultures of all the aboriginal peoples were to change even more drastically over the next three hundred years.
The second group of founding peoples, the French, began to arrive in the early seventeenth century. French migration started with an annual journey of fishing boats to the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland. Shortly thereafter, the lure of the fur trade and the beginnings of European imperial expansion soon saw thriving settlements established at Quebec, along the St. Lawrence, and in the Maritimes.
During the period of French colonization in Canada, the British established colonies south of the area controlled by the French, in what is the present-day eastern United States. The settlement of this area by the British was not accomplished without significant resistance from the resident aboriginal populations, and the period was characterized by a ragged and seemingly interminable succession of wars between the British and First Nations.
French expansion in North America stopped abruptly with the British seizure of Quebec in 1759 and the subsequent Treaty of Paris in 1763. With the Treaty of Paris, most merchants, civil administrators, and the military garrison chose to return to France, leaving behind habitant** farmers and their Catholic clergy.
It was a migration that was to have a defining effect on the nature of French-Canadian society for almost two hundred years. From 1763 until well into the very late nineteenth century, the French-speaking peoples of Canada led a generally quiet life under British rule. Allowed to keep their language, laws and religion, the remaining 70,000 French inhabitants of Quebec and the Maritimes lived a peaceful existence in a unique and predominantly rural culture.
English-speaking Canadians had somewhat more diverse origins. One of the first handful of such immigrants to the Canadas were discharged British soldiers — mostly from the Fraser Highlanders, one of the units that participated in the Battle for Quebec. These men stayed on as a part of the first British garrison, and after their regiment was disbanded, many of its soldiers moved to the area near Rivière-du-Loup. They married local women and were almost all assimilated into the larger French culture. It wasn’t until the American Revolution that large numbers of English-speaking immigrants began to settle in Canada. In a series of waves, 100,000 United Empire Loyalists emigrated to Canada. Loyal to the British Crown, they settled in the Maritimes, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, and on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. Amongst the many legacies left by these people, one of the most evident and enduring ones was that, ever since, Canadian English has had a North American accent rather than a British one.
With the British division of Quebec in 1791 into Upper and Lower Canada, English-speaking immigrants were allowed to live under British institutions and laws in Upper Canada, while Lower Canadians could maintain their French civil code with protections given in law to their Catholic religion. At a time characterized by intense and often violent religious intolerance, it was a remarkably broad-minded proposal, but as a solution to the colonial management of these two regions, it soon proved to be inadequate.
Shortly after the establishment of Upper Canada, which roughly covered what is now southern Ontario, there was an immediate increase in British immigration. At the same time, the population of Upper Canada and Lower Canada’s Eastern Townships continued to swell with a continuous stream of land-hungry settlers from the United States. At the same time as this massive English-speaking migration was taking place, the French-speaking population of Lower Canada grew steadily as a result of high birth rates and falling mortality rates. Canada’s total population by 1840 had grown to just under 1.2 million people.
Despite the economic growth that accompanied this rapid increase in population, critical political grievances festered. Colonial governance in Upper and Lower Canada was not harsh, but it was burdensome, discriminatory, and irritatingly autocratic. The appointed executive branches of government in both provinces operated as self-serving oligarchies that frequently chose to ignore their elected legislative assemblies. Insurrections demanding reform in the two provinces in 1837 and 1838 were almost inevitable.
These rebellions were indifferently supported by much of the population, and the rebels in both provinces were badly organized and poorly led. The government handily defeated the rebels. By comparison with contemporary uprisings elsewhere, particularly in Europe, Canada’s troubles were relatively minor. But these insurrections were not entirely bloodless. In Lower Canada, over three hundred men died in various skirmishes, and in total more than one hundred leaders were subsequently transported to Australia. A handful were executed. It was a tense and unstable time that could have spiraled into much broader and more violent civil war.
* Among Canada’s aboriginal communities there are over 600 identifiable tribal, linguistic, and cultural groupings. Reducing these to seven major categories is a necessary but regrettable distortion.
** The term habitant was of seventeenth-century origin and referred to the class of francophone Quebecers who made their living doing agricultural work in seigneuries. Over the years, it has evolved into an affectionate term for rural French-speaking Quebecers and is symbolic of the hardy and spirited lifestyle of early Quebec.