This seems like a good time — with the 200th anniversary of Sir John A. MacDonald’s birth wrapping up in 2015 — to take another look at what it meant to the average Canadian to live in this country during the mid- to late-19th century. Sometimes, in our eagerness to celebrate and add colour to a story we forget what it actually may have been like.
In 1867, there were fewer than 3.5 million Canadians and more than 80% of the population lived in rural areas (compared to less than 20% today).
Trans-Atlantic travel by steamship was readily possible. Montréal’s Allan Line Royal Mail Steamers, founded in 1854, was one of the largest companies with a fleet of 100+ steamers. By 1865, the Grand Trunk Railway, which included the Montréal and Champlain and the Buffalo and Lake Huron railways, was 2216 km long. Communications had vastly improved thanks to an extensive network of 471 electric telegraph stations.
Coal gas lighting systems were introduced in Montreal (1838), Toronto (1841), and Halifax (1850). Water distribution systems were in place by the mid-century with steam-powered pumping stations built in Toronto (1841), Kingston (1850), Québec City (1854), and Montréal (1857).
There were jobs across many sectors. Out of 837,718 recorded workers in 1867, 41% were on the farm, 11% were involved in the fisheries, and 25% worked as labourers or in the lumber industry. The remaining 23% of jobs were in shipbuilding, textiles, clothing/footwear production, agricultural machinery, brewing, distilling, and food processing.
So…what do these facts mean to a historical interpreter, like myself?
“It means that in the late 19th century I’m probably living in, or close to, a town or village that is relatively well-connected by rail or stage to a major centre such as Toronto, Kingston, Montréal, Halifax, or Moncton.
If my family lives on a farm, my children attend school at the closest one-room schoolhouse when they’re not needed on the farm. If we live in town, they are pupils at the Common School or maybe even the Grammar School, especially if the school has open spaces for gifted students.
As a family, we have access to some manufactured goods that we buy at our local General Store or we travel by train once or maybe twice a year to the closest urban centre to visit some of the many shops that keep opening each year.
My Town is fortunate to have one or several social/fraternal organizations such as a Mechanics’ Institute (where daily and international newspapers are readily available), a Mason’s or an Orange Lodge, or an Oddfellows Hall. These centres act as gathering places for dances, discussions, and community events. My family may even be founding members.
It is likely that my family subscribes to the Town’s newspaper. Maybe we buy a copy now and then of The Globe (Toronto), The British Whig (Kingston), The Gazette (Montréal), The Chronicle (Halifax), or The Times (Moncton).
What does my family know about the new Dominion?
Depending on where we live, we may be part of a growing nationalist movement. If we’re English-speaking, we may be idealistically caught up in the excitement of an expanding new nation and the building of a railway that will connect the East to the West. We’re reading about this in our newspaper, and there is talk in our Town. At the same time, we’re failing to understand the distinctiveness of other cultures in our country. This is not our intent, but we are caught up in the importance of promoting our new Dominion and generating a strong expression of independence from the United States.
For my family, however, the excitement of the 1860s will turn to apprehension during much of the 1870s. Not only do we know of Irish families torn between loyalty to their new home and sympathy for the Fenian cause, we are saddened by the news we’ve received about the Red River Rebellion and disappointed to hear about the Pacific Railway scandal.
Closer to home, some of my brothers and nephews are having difficulty finding work. Farming is not as profitable, forestry and shipbuilding jobs are not as plentiful, and trade with New England is almost non-existent owing in part to the National Policy.
Politically, I feel I speak for family and friends. After 6 years of Mr. Macdonald, we’re hoping for change with Mr. Mackenzie and his Liberal Party. He’s a man of humble beginnings, and we’ve been told he’ll ease the tariffs.”