Economic history of Canada

Economic history of Canada

Canadian historians until the 1960s tended to focus on economic history, including labour history. In part this is because Canada has had far fewer political upheavals or military conflicts than other societies. This was especially true in the first half of the twentieth century when economic history was overwhelmingly dominant. Many of the most prominent English Canadian historians from this period were economic historians, such as Harold Innis, Donald Creighton and Arthur R. M. Lower

Scholars of Canadian history were heirs to the traditions that developed in Europe and the United States, but frameworks that worked well elsewhere often failed in Canada. The heavily Marxist influenced economic history that dominates Europe has little relevance to most of Canadian history. A focus on class, urban areas, and industry fails to address Canada's rural and resource based economy. Similarly, the monetarist school that is dominant in the United States also has been difficult to transfer north of the border.

The study of economic history in Canada became highly focused on economic geography, and for many years the dominant school of thought has been the staples thesis. This school of thought bases the study of the Canadian economy on the study of natural resources. This approach has since also become used outside of Canada in Australia and in many developing nations.

Before the arrival of Europeans, the First Nations of what would become Canada had a large a vibrant trade network. Furs, tools, decorative items, and other goods were often transported thousands of kilometres, mostly by canoe thorough the many rivers and lakes of the region.

The early European history of the Canadian economy is usually studied through the staples thesis which argues the Canadian economy developed through the exploitation of a series of staples that would be exported to Europe.

Atlantic fisheries

The earliest European settlements in Canada were the fisheries of the East Coast, especially the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Boats from France, Portugal, Spain, and Great Britain would traverse the Atlantic fish for a summer and then return laden with fish. The trade was originally dominated by fishers from southern Europe. In Catholic countries, demand for fish was much greater. It was from the northern nations of Britain and France that the first settlers came, however. Spain, Portugal and the south of France had abundant supplies of salt because in the warm climes it was a simple matter to evaporate seawater. They would thus bring barrels of salt with them to the fishing grounds salt the fish aboard ship and return to Europe never having touched land. In the colder and wetter climate of the British Isles and northern France, salt was in scarce supply. To preserve the fish, they were dried by hanging them on large fish racks on the coast of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. These drying stations were active for months of the year, and eventually permanent settlements grew up around them. These small settlements totalled only a few thousand people, but they were many of the first European arrivals in North America.

Fur trade

The fur trade is often considered to be the most important factor in the population of the Canadian interior. In Europe, beaver fur had become especially fashionable, and the forests of North America were home to many of the creatures.

This trade closely involved the Native peoples who would hunt the beavers and other animals and then sell their pelts to Europeans in exchange for guns, textiles, and luxury items like mirrors and beads. Those who traded with the Native were the "voyageurs", woodsmen who travelled the length of North America to bring pelts to the ports of Montreal and Quebec City.

The French dominated the trade through the New France, the Ohio Valley, and west into what would be Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In an attempt to break the French monopoly the English began trading through Hudson Bay and the Hudson's Bay Company built an elaborate network of trading posts and forts.

There was fierce rivalry between the French and English and their respective Native allies. Even when the two nations were at peace fierce fighting would occur in the interior.

The great disadvantage of the fur trade for the Canadas was that it did not encourage settlement. The fur trade only needed a few highly skilled workers. Also, the fur trade required more tonnage of goods to be shipped to North America than going the other way. This meant that there was no excess space on the westward voyage and passage costs were high. Unlike the United States where agriculture had become the primary industry, requiring a large labour force the population of what would be Canada remained very low.

This was a great benefit to the British in their struggles with the French. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the French possessions were gradually seized by the British until, in 1759, all of New France was conquered. The continued dependence on trade with Europe, also meant that the northern colonies were far more reluctant to join the American Revolution, and Canada thus remained loyal to the British crown.


In the early nineteenth century timber became the dominant staple commodity. Timber for the domestic market had long been a small industry in the colonies, but it was changes in Europe in the early nineteenth century that created a large export market. Great Britain had exhausted its supplies of quality timber by the start of the eighteenth century. The great oaks that had built the Royal Navy were all but gone. The lack of very large trees that could supply great masts was especially problematic as they were a necessity for both its war and merchant shipping. A thriving timber importing business had thus developed between Britain and the Baltic region. This trade was very unpopular for both economic and strategic reasons.

For much of the eighteenth century, Britain had encouraged the timber trade with the New England colonies. The American stands of timber were primarily located along the small, but easily navigable rivers of New York and Massachusetts. These were fairly quickly exhausted. Even without the American Revolution new sources would have been needed by the start of the nineteenth century.

Thus the British looked northwards to the colonies that had remained loyal. The industry became concentrated in three main regions. The first to be exploited was the Saint John River system. Trees in the still almost deserted hinterland of New Brunswick were cut and transported to Saint John where they were shipped to England. This area soon could not keep up with demand and the trade moved to the St. Lawrence River where logs were shipped to Quebec City before being sent on to Europe. This area also proved insufficient and the trade expanded westward, most notably to the Ottawa River system, which, by 1845, provided three quarters of the timber shipped from Quebec City. The timber trade became a massive business. In one summer, 1200 ships were loaded with timber at Quebec City alone, and it became by far British North America's most important commodity.

The cutting of the timber was done by small groups of men in isolated camps. For most of the nineteenth century, the most common product was square timber, which was a log that had been cut into a square block in the forest before being shipped. The timber was transported from the hinterlands to the major markets by assembling it into a raft and floating it downstream. Because of the narrower and more turbulent waters that one would encounter on the Ottawa River system, smaller rafts, known as "cribs," were employed. On the St. Lawrence, however, very large rafts, some up a third of a mile in length would be employed. The most common type of tree harvested was white pine, mostly because it floated well. Oak, which does not float, was in high demand but was much harder to transport and oak timbers needed to be carefully integrated into the raft if they were to be carried to market.

In 1842, the British preferential tariffs were lifted; however, the transatlantic trade still remained a profitable one. Demand in Britain remained high, especially for railway ties. Improved ships and new technologies, especially the steam engine, allowed the trade to continue to prosper. After the middle of the century the trade in timber began to decline, being replaced by trade in cut lumber and the pulp and paper industry.

One of the most important side effects of the timber trade was immigration to British North America. Timber is a very bulky and not a particularly valuable cargo. For every ship full of British manufactured goods ,dozens would be needed to carry the same value of timber. There was no cargo coming from the British Isles to Canada that could take up as much room on the return voyage. Exporting salt filled a few ships, and some vessels were even filled with bricks, but many timber ships made the westward voyage filled with ballast. The population of Canada was small and the lack of wealth in the area made it an unattractive market.

There was, however, one cargo that the ship-owners did not have to worry about finding a market for in the sparsely populated New World: people. Many of the timber ships turned to carrying immigrants for the return voyage from the British Isles to fill this unused capacity. Timber ships would unload their cargo and sell passage to those desiring to emigrate. During the early nineteenth century, with the preferential tariff in full effect, the timber ships were among the oldest and most dilapidated in the British merchant fleet, and travelling as a passenger upon them was extremely unpleasant and dangerous. It was, however, very cheap. Since timber exports would peak at the same time as conflicts in Europe, such as the Napoleonic Wars, a great mass of refugees sought this cheap passage across the Atlantic.

In later decades after the repeal of the tariff and the increase of competition, the quality and safety of the ships improved markedly. Since the travellers would bring along their own food and bedding the trade was an extremely easy one to operate. All that was required was a few advertisements, generally in Irish newspapers, and the installation of bunks along the side of the hold. An average timber ship could thus carry about 200 passengers. Even with only a fraction of the hundreds of timber ships carrying passengers, this created an unprecedented influx of new inhabitants. By comparison, it has been calculated that the trade between New France and Europe only included an average sixty-six immigrants per year over the lifetime of that colony.

The timber trade did not only bring immigrants to British North America, it also played a very important role in keeping them there as well. While many of those disembarking from the timber ships would head south to the United States, many others would stay in British North America. In large part, this was because of the employment that could be found in the timber trade. At the peak of the trade in the 1840s, 15,000 Irish loggers were employed in the Gatineau region alone. This when it had been only a few years before that the population of Montreal was only ten thousand. Similar situations could be found in the other centres of the timber trade.

Upper Canada

The timber industry also created large peripheral industries, the most important of these being agriculture. Unlike the fur trade, the timber trade saw large numbers of men in one location for a substantial period of time. The lumber camps, and the lumber towns needed to be supplied with food and other provisions. In the early years of the trade, much of the food, mostly barrels of pork, was shipped from the United States. Mostly coming from around the Cleveland area, shipping costs were high, creating a market for locally-produced goods. As the loggers pushed ever westwards, farmers followed to take advantage of this captive market. Some of these farms failed after the loggers moved on, but many found new markets and became permanent settlements. This process formed the basis of many communities in what is now Ontario.

To encourage the settlement of the best land in the region, the government created the Canada Company. It was given much of the land in Western Ontario|Southwestern Ontario and tasked with selling it off to immigrants. It was successful in this, but it also became deeply unpopular for its monopolization of the land. This was an important trigger of the 1837 Rebellions.


To aid settlement and the timber trade, the nineteenth century saw a spree of canal building projects across the region. Canals could not only bypass rapids and falls, but they could connect previously unlinked parts of the river system. They also made transport of goods far easier and safer. Canals were created for the timber trade, the transport of wheat, and also for military reasons.

Canals such as the Rideau Canal, the Welland Canal, the Trent-Severn Waterway were massive engineering projects, and huge expenditures. The government of Upper Canada was bankrupted by these projects, and this was an important factor in the merging of Upper Canada with the still solvent Lower Canada into one colony in 1840 (see Act of Union (1840)).


With only water routes as the primary transportation network, further integration was propelled by the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1854 linking Montreal to the Great Lakes by rail. This network also continued later into the American Heartland. The main beneficiary of this system was Canada West, later Ontario, where the a web of rail lines promoted quicker settlement of both cities and rural areas. It also led to the beginning of urbanization and rapid growth of Montreal and Toronto, which became the largest industrialized ports in Canada.

Expansion of the railway westward, with the eventual goal of linking the two ocean coasts became a main goal prior to and especially after Confederation. This was eventually achieved in 1885 with the final spike driven into the Canadian Pacific Railway line near Revelstoke, British Columbia, the result was more rapid settlement of the Canadian West.


The repeal of the British Corn Laws and of preferential treatment for the British colonies led many in British North America to realize that the motherland could no longer be counted on economically. In 1854, the Canadian colonies signed Canadian-American Reciprocity Treaty with the United States to try to ensure access to the American market. This treaty was cancelled in 1866, however, leaving the colonies once again adrift.

The railways were also an important factor. The Province of Canada had again nearly bankrupted itself by promising unwise subsidies to railway companies. The Maritime colonies wanted a railroad, but as disunited as they were, building one would be all but impossible.

Both the Maritime colonies and the Province of Canada desired access to the large and unexploited western hinterland. They hoped that if these areas were developed they would become a market for their manufactured goods, and provide exports for the eastern ports.

For these reasons and others, the colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the two Canadas agreed to merge into one Dominion in 1867. While in name it was a confederation, the new constitution, the British North America Act outlined a strongly centralized federation. The federal government had control of most of the taxation power, and was responsible for the largest expenditures, railroads, canals and the military. The provinces were given exclusive jurisdiction over what at the time seemed merely local or minor matters such as health care and education. The pledge to build the Intercolonial Railway of Canada linking the Maritimes to Quebec and Ontario was finally realized in the 1870s.

In 1871, British Columbia, which was nearing bankruptcy due to railway construction agreed to join the union in exchange for a transcontinental railroad. Prince Edward Island joined in 1873 for similar reasons, because the government had again emptied the treasury by building railroads.

See also: Canadian Confederation

The National Policy

The first Prime Minister of the new nation was John A. Macdonald, and he outlined what would be Canada's economic program for decades. This would be the National Policy a system of protective tariffs that would encourage the development of Canadian manufacturing. This would be combined with great railway building projects such as the Canadian Pacific Railway to link the east with the west and the Intercolonial Railway to link central Canada with Atlantic Canada.

Canada had traditionally been committed to free trade and had only had one experiment with a protective tariff with the Cayley-Galt Tariff of 1858. This policy has long been controversial as it is seen to have favoured Central Canada at the expense of the Maritimes and the West.

Post-Confederation slump

In the years after Confederation, the once-buoyant BNA economy soured, an event some blamed on union or government railway policy, but was more likely caused by the Long Depression that was affecting the entire world. Demand for Canadian resources slumped, and protectionist policies in the United States and Europe hurt Canada's trade.

There was little immigration to Canada during this period. Despite efforts to settle the west including the Dominion Lands Act of 1871, few immigrants were willing to settle on Canada's colder and dryer prairies when open land was still plentiful in the States. In the thirty years after Confederation, Canada experienced a net out flow of migrants, as a large number of Canadians relocated to the United States.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, the economies of the Canadian Maritimes were, by some measures, the most industrialized, and prosperous in British North America. The 1850s and 1860s were especially prosperous. By the start of the twentieth century, however, they were far poorer than the rest of the country, and remain so to this day. It has been said that the provinces never emerged from the post-Confederation slump. See Economy of the Maritimes for a full discussion of this issue.

Boom years

The economy of the rest of the country improved dramatically after 1896, and from that year until 1914, Canada had the world's fastest growing economy. The west was settled, the population grew quickly, so that by 1900, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier could predict that the twentieth century would be Canada's century as the nineteenth was the United States' [] .

The cause of this boom is fiercely debated. Whether the settlement of the west was a cause or effect of the boom is one of the most important issues. Globally the economy was improving with the end of the Long Depression. The last semi-humid farmland in the United States was exhausted, leaving Canada with the best unexploited farm land in North America. Technological changes from the steel plow to combine harvesters played an important role, but perhaps the most important development was the practice of dry farming that allowed farmers to profitably grow wheat on the semi-arid southern prairies.

The most noted expansion was in western Canada, but at the same time Central Canada was undergoing a period of significant industrialization.

While western and central Canada boomed during the pre-World War I years the economies of the three Maritime provinces grew far more slowly. There is also much debate over the cause of this, but its consequence was a growing disaffection with Confederation in the east, manifested by the Maritime Rights movement.

The First World War and the Roaring '20s

Canada played an extraordinarily large role in the First World War relative to its size. It sent over hundreds of thousands of troops, and was also the granary and arms producer for the allied side. This led to a further boom on the prairies as wheat prices skyrocketed. The rest of the country, even the Maritimes, benefited from an increase in manufacturing.

The immediate post-war years saw a short, but severe, recession as the economy readjusted to the end of wartime production. By 1921, the Canadian economy was back on its feet and rapidly expanding. In the 1920s, there was an unprecedented increase in the standard of living as items that had been luxury goods such as radios, automobiles, and flush toilets became common place across the nation. While in the United States the boom of the 1920s had petered out by mid-decade, it continued in Canada well into 1928.

The Great Depression

Canada was hard hit by the Great Depression. When the American economy began to collapse in the late 1920s the close economic links and the central banking system meant that the malaise quickly spread across the border. The U.S. raised tariffs in 1930 and Canada retaliated, raising rates against the U.S. while forging closer ties to the Empire.

By 1933, 30% of the labour force was out of work, and one fifth of the population became dependent on government assistance. Wages fell as did prices. Gross National Expenditure had declined 42% from the 1929 levels. In some areas, the decline was far worse. In the rural areas of the prairies two thirds of the population were on relief. Population growth contracted markedly as immigration slowed, and birth rates fell. Crime rates increased, and a new class of unemployed vagrants appeared.

Like the United States, Canada remained in depression far longer, not passing 1929 levels until 1939, with the outbreak of the Second World War. There was no national recovery program similar to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal,

The Second World War and the boom years

The turn around brought about by the command economy imposed at the beginning of the Second World War was immense. Unemployment virtually disappeared by 1940 as soldiers were recruited and factories turned to war production.

In the twenty-five years after the war, there was an immense expansion in the Canadian economy. Unemployment remained low and the end of wartime production was quickly turned over to making consumer goods. Canada, along with many Western nations, firmly established itself as a welfare state with publicly-funded health care, the Canada Pension Plan, and other programs.

During this period, the Canadian economy became much more closely integrated with the American one as tariff barriers fell and trade agreements like the Canada-United States Automotive Agreement and the Hyde Park Declaration were signed.

Recent years

Canada experienced economic recession in the early 1980s and again in the early 1990s. [ [ Ecolnomic Concepts: Recession] ] This led to massive government deficits, high unemployment, and general disaffection. The poor economy helped lead to the overwhelming rejection of the
Progressive Conservative Party in the 1993 election, and the fall of other governments such as Bob Rae's Ontario New Democratic Party. The poor economy may have increased support for sovereignty in Quebec, an option that was just barely rejected in the 1995 Quebec referendum.

A brief recovery in 1994 was followed by an economic slump in 1995-1996. Since that date, the Canadian economy has improved markedly, in step with the boom in the United States. Once referred to as a fiscal basket-case, Canada has become a model of fiscal stability as the government has posted surpluses every fiscal year since 1996.

The recession brought on in the United States by the collapse of the dot com bubble beginning in 2000, hurt the Toronto Stock Exchange but has affected Canada only mildly. It is one of the few times Canada has avoided following the United States into a recession.

Following this downturn, Canadian economic growth has been concentrated in the petroleum, real estate and income trust sectors.

Canada's health-care system, colloquially called "Medicare", is a significant economic factor. As most aspects of the health-care system are financed from general government revenues, and as provincial governments bear the majority of these costs, health-care has grown to become the largest component of Canadian provincial budgets. Medicare is also a relevant factor in the decisions of employers to locate businesses in Canada (where government pays most of employees' health-care costs) as opposed to the United States (where employers are forced to pay most of these costs).

Poverty in Canada remains a prevalent issue within some segments of society. The most frequently quoted measure, the low-income cut off or LICO, displays a downward trend since 2000 after a spike in the mid-1990s and is 10.8% as of 2005. [ Poverty Measure in Canada Analysis] , CBC, URL accessed 4 January 2007] Another measure, published by the conservative and libertarian Fraser Institute, displays a constant downward trend since 1970 and stands at 4.9% as of 2004. There is a debate about which measure is more valid. [ Poverty in Canada: 2006 Update] , Fraser Institute, November 2006, URL accessed 3 December 2007]

Change In Real GDP From Previous Year


Population History

source: Marr and Patterson 151
* online:: [ "Hist Stats]

ee also

* Economy of Canada
* History of Canada
* Science and technology in Canada
* Economic history
* Canadian and American economies compared
* History of the petroleum industry in Canada
* Economic impact of immigration to Canada



* Kenneth Norrie, Douglas Owram, and J.C. Herbert Emery. "A History of the Canadian Economy" 3rd ed. (Toronto, 2002)
* Desmond Morton. "Working People: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Labour Movement" (1999)
* M. Brook Taylor ed. "Canadian History: A Reader's Guide". Vol. 1. Doug Owram, ed. "Canadian History: A Reader's Guide". Vol. 2. Toronto: 1994. historiography
* Graham D. Taylor and Peter Baskerville. "A Concise History of Business in Canada", 1994
* Richard Pomfret. "The Economic Development of Canada" 2nd ed. (Scarborough, Ont., 1993)
* Bryan D. Palmer. "Working Class Experience: Rethinking the History of Canadian Labour, 1800-1991", 1992
* W.T. Easterbrook and H.G.J. Aitken. "Canadian Economic History" (Toronto, 1988)
* Michael Bliss. "Northern Enterprise: Five Centuries of Canadian Business". Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987.
* D. A. Muise, ed., "A Reader's Guide to Canadian History: i, Beginnings to Confederation" (1982); historiography
* J. L. Granatstein. "A Reader's Guide to Canadian History: Confederation to the Present" (1982)
* William L. Marr and Donald G. Paterson. "Canada: An Economic History" (Toronto, 1980)
* A.W. Currie "Canadian Economic Development" 1st ed. 1942; 4th ed. 1963.
* [ Harold A. Innis, "Essays in Canadian Economic History" (1956)]
* [ D. G. Creighton, "The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence, 1760-1850" (1937)]
* [ H. A. Innis, and A. R. M. Lower, ed. " Select Documents in Canadian Economic History, 1783-1885" (1933)]
* Myers, Gustavus (1914). "History of Canadian Wealth", Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co, co-operative, 337 p. ( [ online] )

External links

* [ Set of audio lectures on Canadian economic history]

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