Families in Canadian History: A Review of Four Recent Monographs

By Chambers, Lori | Journal of Canadian Studies, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Families in Canadian History: A Review of Four Recent Monographs


Chambers, Lori, Journal of Canadian Studies


Families in Transition: Industry and Population in Nineteenth-Century Saint-- Hyacinthe. Peter Gossage. Montreal: McGill-Queen's, 1999.

A Sense of Their Duty: Middle-Class Formation in Victorian Ontario Towns. Andrew Holman. Montreal: McGill-Queen's, 2000.

Normalizing the Ideal: Psychology, Schooling and the Family in Postwar Canada. Mona Gleason. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Regulating Girls and Women: Sexuality, Family and the Law in Ontario, 1920-1960. Joan Sangster. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Family history, once relegated to the margins of historical inquiry, has emerged in Canada as a vibrant and multi-faceted discipline. Ideals of family life permeate society and the word "family" has potent metaphorical meanings. The day-today realities of family life, however, are unique; race, class, gender, region, religion, ethnicity and age shape the experience of family life in multiple, overlapping ways. Families - their demographic structure, economic role, affective bonds and power dynamics - are varied and changeable. Charting the history of families, therefore, is a complex task. Four recent monographs - Peter Gossage's Families in Transition, Andrew Holman's A Sense of their Duty, Mona Gleason's Normalizing the Ideal and Joan Sangster's Regulating Girls and Women - illustrate the complicated nature of historical inquiry into families and family life. Utilizing divergent methodologies and sources and illustrating the links between family history and demographic study, the history of class, work and politics, the history of ideas, and women's and gender history, these books exemplify the richness, diversity and importance of this emergent discipline. Ultimately, as these monographs make clear, understanding families is fundamental to understanding society itself.

Peter Gossage contests the stereotype of the prolific nineteenth-century Quebec family. While demographic methods have been successfully used to study New France, Montreal, and emigration to the United States, Gossage asserts that little is known about the changing patterns of family life and population in towns outside of Montreal during the nineteenth century (Bouchard, Bradbury, Charbonneau, Copp, Gagnon, Robert). He attempts to "fill this gap, by applying the family reconstitution methodology to the population of Saint-Hyacinthe" (6). He looks to parish records to ask whether the "emergence of the `family wage economy' made a difference to young people, particularly as they decided if, when and with whom to marry; where and how to establish their households; and how many children to bring into the world" (5). Moreover, he queries, did responses to industrialization vary between classes, between privilege and dispossession?

Gossage begins by providing necessary context about Saint-Hyacinthe, a town that in the early part of the century was simply a small village "at the heart of a thriving agricultural region in one of the more recently settled parts of Quebec's seigneurial heartland" (11). With the arrival of the railway in 1848, Saint-Hyacinthe became a "regional entrepot and service center" (11). In the final decades of the century "a series of labour intensive manufacturing establishments" were built and the population of the town tripled between 1851 and 1901 (while the provincial total only doubled) (11). Although both men and women worked in the new industrial sector, their work was strictly segregated; men earned consistently more than women, but few earned a living wage (55-61). Exploitative industrial practices forced families to rely "on the labour of secondary workers - usually unmarried children aged 13 to 25 - for daily survival" (77). What impact, Gossage asks, did the insecurity of wage dependency have on the "most intimate areas of human relations, as individuals strove to create and maintain viable and meaningful family relationships" (78).

Citizens of Saint-Hyacinthe, he argues, adapted to new conditions of urban, industrial life and "distinct patterns of family formation came to characterize the local bourgeoisie, the growing working class, and the farming population living in the nearby countryside" (79). …

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