During the 19th and early 20th centuries most Canadian children, formerly economic assets, became economic liabilities to their families. Boys' and girls' time was increasingly taken up in securing a formal education. By 1911 about 40% of all children aged 5-9 and 50% of children 10-19 years old in Canada were in school. The proportion of boys aged 14-19 who were gainfully employed had dropped from 68% in 1921 to 40% in 1961. An important factor contributing to the decline in child labour was the steady increase in the percentage of children attending school.
Opportunities for paid employment broadened for the minority of children not in school. From the mid-19th century Canada began to undergo industrialization and urbanization. As the proportion of urban residents grew from about 17% at Confederation in 1867 to over one-third by 1901 and almost one-half by 1921, new jobs for children became available in Montréal textile mills, Hamilton businesses, Cape Breton and BC mines, and small manufacturing enterprises in the Maritimes. At the end of the 19th century, approximately 70% of Canadians lived in rural communities. While the number of children 10-14 years old employed in agriculture dropped from 62 700 in 1891 to 5400 in 1911, the total otherwise gainfully employed, primarily in business and industry, actually expanded from 13 000 to about 20 000.
Many jobs were "dead end": poorly paid, menial positions without any opportunity for advancement. Some positions, such as those of messenger boy and newspaper vendor, did not lead to adult employment. Moreover, most children holding jobs came from working-class backgrounds and were of special concern to middle-class reformers intent on improving Canadian society. As well as supporting compulsory schooling and measures to combat juvenile delinquency, reformers sought to ban child labour. Although the first provincial legislation regulating child labour in factories and mines had been passed in the 1870s and 1880s, the prohibition of child labour came only in the new century.
Several conditions combined to restrict and eventually end child labour in Canada and by the beginning of the 20th century most provinces had enacted labour legislation that restricted the employment of children. From the early 1870s to the mid 1920s all the provinces enacted legislation requiring school attendance and sanctions that were imposed on families that did not comply. In 1891 Ontario legislation required compulsory school attendance for 8- to 14-year-old children, and in 1921 the Adolescent School Attendance Act increased the age of compulsory attendance in urban areas to age 16. Following compulsory attendance, provinces gradually restricted child employment by age of the child and by requiring educational standards such as a passing grade upon completion of a minimum grade level. Although exemptions were common, an attempt was made to design legislation for compulsory education and labour restrictions to be mutually supportive.
Labour legislation governing the restriction of child employment in mines was enacted in Nova Scotia (1873) and British Columbia (1877). By 1929 children under 14 had been legally excluded from factory and mine employment in most provinces. During the GREAT DEPRESSION, many adults sought jobs formerly done largely by children. During WORLD WAR II, however, many children entered the work force, defying school-attendance legislation. Since the war, it has been argued that women came to replace children as part-time contributors to family income.
Child labour persisted into the 20th century in less visible forms. Between Confederation and the mid-1920s about 80 000 British children, most under 14, were brought to Canada by humanitarians wishing to give them a new start away from their working-class backgrounds. Almost all were apprenticed to rural families and in general became child labourers rather than adopted children. Growing sensitivity to their fate led to the prohibition of child immigration in 1925.
In 1926, the International Labour Organization (ILO) established a convention that defined slavery as "...the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised...." and identified child labour. By 1930 the convention was broadened to specifically define forced labour. Convention 29, the Forced Labour Convention (1930), supplemented the convention to include the abolition of slavery, the slave trade, and institutions and practices similar to slavery, and defined forced labour as "...all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily." Canada helped develop the convention but was one of only nine countries that did not ratify the convention. In 1959 Canada ratified the ILO Convention 105, the Abolition of Forced Labour, which specifically prohibits forced or compulsory labour as a means of political coercion.
Working Youth in Canada Today
In Canada, work outside school hours is generally allowed, however, for children under age 16, school attendance is compulsory and employment is restricted. The legislation governing minimum age, number of working hours per day and the time of day that a youth may work in Canada varies between the provinces and territories, and some provinces require parental permission for a minor to be employed. Legislation also exists to protect minors from working under dangerous or hazardous conditions such as in the mining industry, manufacturing, construction, forestry, and where liquor is sold or kept for sale.
Child labour is associated with poverty and limited educational opportunities, and is correlated with social and economic conditions. In 1999, Convention 182 of the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work was adopted unanimously at the International Labour Conference and in 2000 Canada ratified Convention 182. Two of the four fundamental principles of the Rights at Work declaration that specifically relate to child labour are Convention 182, which concentrates on the elimination of the worst forms of child labour, and Convention 138, regarding minimum age for employment. Convention 182 in the international treaty concentrates on the "prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour" including the sale and trafficking of children, forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict, and child prostitution and other forms of exploitation; however, the long-term goal is the complete elimination of child labour. Convention 138 defines the basic minimum age for employment of a child, the minimum age for a child performing light work, and the minimum age of employment for work in hazardous conditions; however, not all countries, including Canada, have ratified this convention.
See also IMMIGRANT CHILDREN.
Author JEAN BARMAN Revised: ANNE-MARIE PEDERSEN
K. Bagnell, The Little Immigrants (1980); G.S. Kealey, ed, Canada Investigates Industrialism (1973); Joy Parr, Labouring Children (1980) and ed, Childhood and Family in Canadian History (1982); Neil Sutherland, Children in English Canadian Society (1976).
Links to Other Sites
Online information source about programs and policies related to the prohibition of child labour and other forms of exploitation in Canada and around the world. A Government of Canada website.
Institute for Health and Social Policy
The website for the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University. Research focuses on the impact of social conditions on health, human rights, education, labour, and related issues.