As the 19th century came closer to its end, Canada, similar to many other nations in the West, enjoyed an unprecedented industrial boom which was to change drastically the economic, social, and demographic situation in the country. Indeed, historians agree that the period between the turn of the twentieth century and the beginning of the World War 1 was particularly distinctive in the country’s history. As the prairies got opened for foreign settlers, and Canada was turned into a more affordable place to immigrants, millions of people poured into the country. In the period between 1896 and1914 as many as 3 million immigrants settled down in Canada. They became central to the nation’s progress in industrialization and changes that resulted from it. Importantly, the newcomers did not just make use of Canada’s economic prosperity, but fueled it by their demand and supported it by their labor at the factories, in the mines, on farms, in service sectors and at railways (Kelley & Trebilcock, 2010, p.114).
The economic boom and subsequent transformation of the society in Canada came at a price. The price was poor conditions of immigrants’ life and work, and their lack of benefits. Ironically, the wealth generated by those people led to a dramatic expansion of the economy and huge revenues for the business owners while workers still lived in abject poverty (Kelley & Trebilcock, 2010, p.116).
Life in Canadian cities was marred by inadequate housing conditions, disease, poor sanitation, crime, and pollution. Apart from that, the urban worker’s plight and desperate state resulted from the unregulated working day and week, as well as other anti-social conditions. The majority of urban workers had to work from ten to twelve hours on a daily basis, six days in a week, doing monotonous and dull work at the factories and being subject to quite harsh discipline (Kelley & Trebilcock, 2010, p.116). They were paid from $10 to 15 per week, which was a meager sum.
In addition, there was hardly any compensation for injuries at work. To be more accurate, workers were typically devoid of any job security and did not have any unemployment insurance; besides, the compensation for injuries in the workplace was not common. Workers were made redundant or fired without any benefits or redress, due to the absence of job security. To make matters worse, the wages were low due to the laborers’ abundant supply, and that sum was incapable of keeping pace with the overall cost of living. That caused women and children to go to work at the factories, where they would be paid from one-quarter to one-half of what male workers got (Kelley & Trebilcock, 2010, p.116).
Apart from the bleak working conditions, the immigrant workers who contributed to the economic boom of 1896-1914 had to endure dreadful living conditions. They lived in ghettos, and their overcrowded accommodations often lacked common facilities and services. A typical accommodation of an immigrant worker family would be a two-roomed building, which had little fresh air, heat, or water. People who lived in those conditions were exposed to a disease. The only help that the poor could rely on were their relatives or friends, and sometimes charities. The state did not provide any welfare programs since, at that time, the Canadian government did not feel it was responsible for the plight of the poverty-stricken workers.
The immigrant settlers who came from a variety of countries lacked benefits, too. When Sir Clifford Sifton was appointed a new immigration minister in the Liberal government of Sir Wilfred Laurier, he encouraged immigration to a great extent. However, his advertisements were not entirely true. It was claimed that the settlers could get up to 160 acres of land free in Canada. In reality, homesteaders were still obliged to pay a $10 fee (in modern value – $150) for registration. That money covered neither the cost of equipment nor the cost of animals to work on the land. Plus, additional sums had to be spent on building a shelter (Canada in the Making, 1896-1914, n.d.).
To start as homesteaders, the newcomers had to raise funds to buy a plough, horses, a wagon, and a milk cow. To do this, immigrants took up menial jobs in the lumber industry, mining camps, on railways, or on the farms of other homesteaders. Having raised a necessary sum, the immigrants would go to live on their newly acquired homesteads. The living and working conditions were poor, so people had to adjust to life on the Canadian prairies. Namely, they had to live in “soddies” – sod houses covered with mud (sod was used instead of bricks), with thatched roofs, and with windows which were open and could be covered with sacks. Those soddies were typically infested with fleas and were often full of flies. They smelt when it was hot in summer and leaked in autumn. However, the living conditions were not the major concern among immigrants, most of whom could not afford to have houses built out of lumber (Canada in the Making, 1896-1914, n.d.). From the available literature the following example of a young immigrant’s typical experience has been taken:
“When I went to school, on my way home every day I stopped to look at a big colored poster of a wheat field in stook. On it was printed ‘160 acres land free’. I made up my mind, ‘That’s what I want’ and I got all the pamphlets on it and read all about it….The result was I left home, worked in a hotel and saved my money, and sailed in March on the Allan liner ‘Corsican.’ I arrived in Winnipeg with thirty cents which I spent on some pork and beans and coffee. I went to work on a farm south of Boissevain for $10.00 a month. After two years I went Saskatchewan for a homestead.” (Kelley & Trebilcock, 2010, p.124).
As it is evident from this extract, the immigrant had to work for a meager pay of $10.00 per month for earning the sum that was necessary to start his own farm. While the man was eventually able to fulfill his ambition, he had to work hard to obtain the ‘free’ land. Otherwise, he would not be able to become a homesteader in Canada.
Back to life in urban centers, social stratification was complicated by racial discrimination. Specifically, inside the working class in Canadian cities there appeared ethnic divisions, which in real life meant that Asian workers got excluded from fair labor competition. This situation was exacerbated by the difference in treatment of Asian and white workers by the Canadian government. Asians were denied political rights and had the status of “permanent foreigners”. Indeed, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia, the government was fraught with ethnic anxieties, which resulted in the creation of a list of ideal settlers. At the top of the list were agriculturalists from the States and Great Britain. Those were followed by French settlers, Belgians, immigrants from Denmark, other Scandinavians, then Swiss, followed by Finns, Russians, and Austro-Hungarians, settlers from Germany, farmers from Ukraine, and immigrants from Poland. Next to them, at the list’s bottom were less prone to assimilation and thus less desirable nations, such as South Slavs, Syrians, Italians, and Greeks. At the list’s bottom the government placed Jews, Asians, blacks, as well as gypsies (Troper, n.d.).
This led to the following situation: Asian workers were discriminated both on the part of their employers/government and their white co-workers. The foregoing racial stratification was the cause of Asian workers being a considerably cheaper workforce. It also resulted in a series of restriction agreements and taxes that prevented Asians from coming. Female Asian immigrants were not allowed to settle in Canada at all (Troper, n.d.). Thus, the Asian immigrants who came to Canada in the period between1896-1914 faced the both lack of benefits and harsh working conditions, due to racial and class inequality (Creese, 2006, p.200).
Immigrants from the countries at the bottom of the list were to work in the lumber industry and mines, which were considered the worst working places, and had to return to the cities during the off-season. Others were subject to life of rural isolation. Those who decided to stay in cities faced ethnic hostility by Canadians, as well as awakened the religious prejudices of the Protestant Canadians. Despite being engaged in the hardest work, which included laying streetcar tracks, digging the systems of sewage, and laboring in large textile factories, many Canadians had a hostile attitude towards the immigrants that came from the countries at the bottom of the list (Troper, n.d.).
In conclusion, the immigrants that came to Canada between 1896 and 1914 played a central role in the country’s economic boom. They, however, obtained few benefits from this economic prosperity. While some immigrants were gradually able to become homesteaders, others were bound to live in cities where they were used as cheap labor force. Immigrants did not have any job security or benefits; neither did they get welfare from the state. Besides, some ethnic groups of immigrants encountered hostility on the ground of racial difference.