Geography, economy, class, sex, ethnicity and institutions are the major themes of the new social history. They can be seen interplaying in Canadian history, with particular clarity at the beginning of European penetration. The aboriginal population was divided into hundreds of tribal units. Regional splintering made impossible any unified response to European threats; instead, it created intertribal animosities (such as that between the HURON of central Ontario and the IROQUOIS of northern New York) which could be exploited by whites seeking to use native peoples in European struggles for supremacy (see IROQUOIS WARS). These struggles, in turn, sprang from both political rivalries and the needs of the European economies for American resources.
Marked differences in the institutional structures of Indian and European societies contributed to the eventual outcome of their contact. Native concepts of citizenship and ownership were usually flexible and accommodating, and their religious beliefs were tolerant. As a result, most native groups accepted French visitors, and they were prepared to share land and resources with the newcomers and to consider French religious and social practices sympathetically. In contrast, the whites tended to have rigid, proselytizing religious beliefs, which they were anxious to impose on the aborigines, and exclusive concepts of ownership and of appropriate social behaviour to which all had to conform.
The flexibility of Indian societies was indicated by the skill with which some nations learned to conduct the FUR TRADE with Europeans and with other tribes. Ultimately, however, native societies buckled under the combined pressure of European economic demands, constant warfare, and the European diseases that swept through Indian communities. By the time of the British Conquest, the Indians of eastern Canada had been so reduced in numbers and power that they were no longer a key factor in either the economy or politics.
As native power waned, it was replaced by that of the French and British, whose empires had competed for dominance from the beginning of the 17th century until the fall of Québec in 1759. Each had reached out to the New World with its own imperial forms and its peculiar institutions. Economic motivations were primary and, as a result, the initial form of social organization was essentially that of a business. Until 1663 the control of New France was granted to a series of private companies, each charged with developing the fur trade and settling the colony. The English, for their part, rested their imperial hopes in Canada on the HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY (chartered 1670).
The French pursued an intrusive fur-trade policy, sending traders into native villages to conduct their business, whereas the English company required natives to come to its posts on Hudson Bay to trade. One consequence of this difference was that French traders more often established marriages with native women "in the style of the country," a practice that the HBC actively discouraged. In addition, relations between the many traders in the West and native women created a whole new society, the MÉTIS. After the Conquest removed France from competition in the fur trade, rivalries arose between the HBC and other traders of British background, particularly those who formed the Montréal-based NORTH WEST COMPANY. Alcohol and violence were used more frequently to gain furs, with profound effects on the cohesion of native social organization.
New France had been a controlled society, at least in design. The basic institution of the colony was the SEIGNEURIAL SYSTEM, a quasi-feudal form of landholding in which large lots were granted to lords, or seigneurs, who in turn provided farms to peasants. But few lower-class French migrated to Canada (no more than 10 000 in the entire history of the colony). These few always had alternatives to seigneurial farming, particularly in the fur trade. The government needed to keep its people on the farms in the St Lawrence Valley to supply food for the army and to help defend New France, but it had difficulty coercing the people into giving up the fur trade and had to make seigneurial life attractive.
Strict limits were placed on the dues and taxes that seigneurs could levy, and a state legal system (see CIVIL CODE) protected the peasants against feudal oppression. As a result, the Canadian peasant retained far more of the product of his labour than the European peasant did, and he was far freer. A symbol of this was that the farmers in New France rejected the traditional appellation paysan and instead called themselves HABITANTS.
The British North America that succeeded New France grew quickly, and its social patterns became more complex. Although the patterns became more difficult to discern, as in New France the social structure emerged from the interplay of institutions, geography, economy, ethnicity and class. The most obvious elements were geography and its adjunct, climate. BNA existed on a large continent which, after the AMERICAN REVOLUTION, it shared with an aggressive rival, the US. This geographical fact helped to give contradictory conservative and progressive casts to Canadian society.
Many of the LOYALIST refugees who resettled in BNA carried with them a powerful bitterness against the US, republicanism and democracy. The WAR OF 1812 reinforced TORY belief in the duplicity, irrationality and menace of the US and in the need to protect Canada from "infection" by American ideas. The colonial form of government imported from Britain was a suitably conservative instrument for the purpose. So were institutions such as the Church of England (see ANGLICANISM) and a highly stratified class system. Elites emerged to implement this Tory ethos, groups such as the Family Compact in Upper Canada [Ontario], the CHÂTEAU CLIQUE in Lower Canada [Québec] and the COUNCIL OF TWELVE in Nova Scotia.
At the same time, American ideas and practices were permeating Canada despite the best Tory efforts. Many Americans who came to BNA before 1812 were not Loyalists but simply landseekers with no political motivation. Even the Loyalists were as much American as British; Britain found them as likely as non-Loyalists to cling to American concepts of local self-government. The Canadian colonial period was marked by a conscious rejection of the political hegemony of the US but, equally, by an instinctive refusal to become a facsimile of Britain.
The American phase of settlement had passed by 1812, and after 1818 a new wave of British migration broke over Canada. The values and customs of the British settlers intermixed with those of the Americans to produce the essential compromise that was "English" Canada. Geography continued to be a powerful influence, so that the economic assumptions, business forms and TECHNOLOGY of Canada remained predominantly American, and the economic success of the US was the brass ring pursued by English Canadians. Social institutions, however, were often a blend of the 2 cultures. American individualism influenced Canadians, but it was coloured by a British sense of group and class solidarities and a more explicit class system.
French Canada, too, was influenced by American and British migration. In some respects, however, this influence worked to emphasize the unique characteristics of French Canadian society. Again geography played a major role. The Conquest left French Canada surrounded by the "English." By the early 19th century the growing population was already bursting the seams of the seigneuries, producing overcrowding and overcultivated farms, with a resultant decline in the standard of living. The seigneurial system was finally abolished in 1854, but this was too late to solve the problem of Québec agriculture or to prevent the economic retardation of French Canada. The end of seigneurialism put even greater emphasis on 2 other institutions which helped French Canadians to retain their distinctiveness: the Roman Catholic Church (see CATHOLICISM) and the FRENCH LANGUAGE.
The church remained central in the Québécois identity until the 1960s. Its decline then, under the force of modern secularism, left language as the key mark of distinctiveness. The often fervid attempts by successive Québec governments in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s to compel the use of French in schools and workplaces and on public signs demonstrated the significance of this last great distinction in an increasingly homogeneous North American continent.
In Canada's cultural mix, ETHNIC IDENTITY and RELIGION assumed special importance, for English as well as French Canadians. From the 1830s, for example, the ORANGE ORDER played a major, bloody role in the life of Ontario, Québec and New Brunswick. Militantly Protestant and ostentatiously loyal to the British Crown, the order was a focus of identity and reassurance for many immigrants, especially Protestant Irishmen (see SHINERS' WARS). Unhappily for social peace, Orangemen expressed their identity in verbal abuse of Catholics (and often French Canadians), in provocative parades and in frequent riots with Catholic opponents. Yet the Orange Order was an important institution of social adjustment for hundreds of thousands of Protestant immigrants. Ethnic and religious bonding papered over class differences in Canada, obscuring socioeconomic conflicts that might have been even more productive of social conflict.
The transition to an industrial society altered many social patterns. Mechanized industry began to emerge in Canada in the 1840s; it was dominant by the 1890s and produced widespread concentration of economic power before WWI. The old elites, created by British economic and political needs, gave way to elites of industrialists and financiers who were represented politically by professional men, especially lawyers. Industrialism also created a working class and an organized response - trade unionism - to the new economic order.
Unions sprang up in the 1870s and were a permanent feature of the social environment by the end of the 19th century. As with the economic system itself, unions were heavily influenced by American ideology and example. By 1902 "international" unions with headquarters in the US had become dominant in the Canadian labour movement. Their espousal of moderate, apolitical approaches helped to prevent class conflicts in industrial Canada. Exceptional conditions could cast light on class differences, which were given sharper outlines by the gulf between capital and labour in an industrial setting. The unrest that grew out of WWI produced the labour upheaval of 1919, focused on the WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE (much as Québec's QUIET REVOLUTION would trigger unprecedented labour militancy in that province in the 1960s and 1970s).
For the most part, however, Canadian labour remained moderate, committed to peaceful collective bargaining. The American example, North American ideology and the influence of institutions, such as schools and the mass media, which cut across class lines and inculcated a classless ideology, minimized social group conflict (see SOCIAL CLASS).
Industrialism had a homogenizing effect. Mass markets were created for mass-produced products, railways sped goods and ideas across the country, and NEWSPAPERS (later radio and TV) helped to reduce regional differences. Geography continued to resist these tendencies, however. Confederation was, in many ways, a logical political response to the needs of the railway, or industrial, age (see RAILWAY HISTORY). It erected a larger political and economic structure, which could press forward with grander economic programs. But the continuing reality of regional economic and social communities required that Confederation, like Canada itself, be a compromise. It was a federal not a unitary state; it was a parliamentary system on the British model, but one operated by political parties whose style was more American than British (see FEDERALISM).
Industrialism also demanded a larger labour force. After 1897 a booming Canadian economy supplemented its familiar American and British sources of immigrants with large numbers of continental Europeans. Canadians who in the 19th century had defined theirs as either an American or a British society - but certainly an Anglo-Saxon-dominated one - in the 20th century had to deal with a cultural mosaic. What is striking is how little the basic social institutions had to adjust to ethnic diversity. Political and economic forms continued to evolve within the same broadly Anglo-American patterns, and leadership continued to be exercised by those of British stock. Geographic proximity to the United States, the maintenance of a modified free-enterprise economy and the inertia of social institutions allowed Canadian society to absorb and assimilate immigrants.
Québec, the most rapidly modernizing part of Canada after 1960, was also the most troubled by the social implications of a mass North American society. Among other groups, as well, there were somewhat paradoxical reactions. If institutions such as the media helped inculcate a stabilizing common ideology, it also became clear to some disadvantaged elements that they were not receiving an equitable share of the bounty promised by those institutions. Native people began to demand, especially after 1960, compensation for economic and social losses they had suffered.
More influential were the demands of women, who formed a majority of the population. As in Québec and among the native peoples, women began during the 1960s to insist on the removal of some of their disadvantages. The economic system had delivered the promised improvement in wages and working conditions to male workers, and the media had become pervasive and pervasively successful in publicizing the triumphs of the society. Women began to demand a place in the mainstream, and social institutions slowly responded. A royal commission on the STATUS OF WOMEN was appointed in 1967; divorce reform was introduced in 1968; and traditionally all-male professions began to open to women. However, the basic institutions of society were resilient enough to survive the adjustment with little disruption.
The pace of 20th-century change seemed very great. A predominantly rural country until about 1940, Canada became thereafter an overwhelmingly urban one (see RURAL SOCIETY). In 1941, for example, 41% of Québec Francophones lived on farms, in 1971 only 6%; the Quiet Revolution was stimulated in significant measure by the upheaval produced by this shift. The family, always the rhetorical focus of social ideology, seemed to be challenged. Canadian divorce rates soared after WWII, especially after the divorce law reform of 1968, while birth rates, especially in Québec, declined. Yet the patterns remained remarkably stable. Although many more women worked outside the home in the 1980s, the gap between male and female wages had not narrowed. Far more marriages ended in divorce, but most Canadians still chose to marry. Although agricultural employment was replaced by urban employment, the distribution of wealth in Canada changed little and wealth continued to be maldistributed geographically, with the Atlantic region lagging behind other regions economically.
Geography remained a solid anchor for society, sheltering regional and economic differences. Social classes and institutions evolved, and growing importance was attached to the educated professionals who serviced more complicated social needs. Yet studies such as John PORTER'S The VERTICAL MOSAIC (1965) and Wallace Clement's The Canadian Corporate Elite (1975) suggested a remarkable continuity in the groups that wielded social and economic power in Canada. The relative influence of organized religion in Canadian life declined, again most dramatically in Québec. Fraternal groups and SECRET SOCIETIES lost prominence after WWII as the religious and imperial causes they espoused became less significant. The visit of a pope to Canada in 1900 would have set off religious riots; in 1984 it produced celebrations in a country whose population was by then almost half Roman Catholic. Part of the reason for the decreasing influence of voluntary organizations, as well, was the WELFARE STATE, in which government assumed responsibility for charity, job placement and training, education, social adjustment and a myriad other social roles once filled by voluntary organizations and religious and ethnic communities. Still, the social and institutional patterns in which these changes were worked out were those of the Anglo-American compromise that was at the base of Canadian society.
For a treatment of specific themes in social history, see also CHILDHOOD, HISTORY OF; DISEASES, HUMAN; EPIDEMIC; GREAT DEPRESSION; POLITICAL PROTEST; SOCIAL DOCTRINE OF THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH; SOCIAL GOSPEL; TEMPERANCE.