Social Life Today Of Canada
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE last thirty or forty years has seen a great change, an inevitable change in the social life of Canada. In the history of all nations one may read in the social life of the people the history of their progress in the scale of nations, but in a young and quickly-growing country the transition becomes extremely rapid. Already in Canada one finds classes whose lives from the social point of view are as far apart as the poles.
In an earlier chapter has been described the condition of Canada some forty years ago. Disorganised, her finances in parlous state, held almost in fief by the United States, the great prairie areas of the West regarded as the " great lone land," Canada was little more than a chain of small communities. The agricultural population was ill-organised and struggling, and the few small towns were dependent entirely upon the farming community for their existence. They were, indeed, little more than centres of exchange, where the fanner would obtain for his produce the necessities of life. Everybody had enough, no one had luxuries, and wealth as it is regarded to-day did not exist. In the social economy of early Canada the millionaire was unknown. The parliamentary representatives were recruited from the farming class or the storekeeper class, and parochial politics reigned supreme. In these small communities everybody knew everybody ; there was no extravagance in dress, and pleasures were of the simplest, and centred round the home and the Church. Active and indeed hard lives were passed by these early pioneers, and living as they did face to face with nature and the necessities of mutual support, a spirit of sympathy circulated strongly among them.
Though the life they led was hard yet it was healthy. Though at times hunger may have been close to their doors, actual want did not exist ; and this kind of existence lived in the bracing climate of Canada, produced a fine race of men and women. On the whole, existence in these small communities was happy though restricted, comfortable, though luxuries were not ; contented, be-cause imbued with a stern sense of duty and possibly because the people knew no other life.
If the life of the small communities was hard, what of the life in the remoter districts peopled by the pioneers ? In the records of the early days we read of the feats of endurance performed by these hardy woodsmen, who, far from any civilised life, housed often in log " shanties " roofed with bark, were cut off from all outward companionship, except on the rare occasions when they came into a little market town, carrying on their shoulders sacks of wheat for the mill, and returning to their families laden with flour through the blazed forest trail, invisible to all but them.
Not only are these things to be read, but there remain today representatives of this hardy race of pioneers, who will tell stirring tales of summer heats bravely endured, and of winter snows with howling wolves for company ; tales of torrent and of storm, and of woman's endurance to complete the story of man's heroic struggle for existence. Many of us have heard in Canadian homes from the children and grandchildren of those noble men and women who went forth into the forests and the plains of those vast territories now known as the Dominion of Canada. No monument stands erected to the memory of those pioneers, but the story of their long and insufficiently recorded fight with nature is precious to every Canadian. It is an irony of fate that while military achievement is always fully appreciated, and properly so, the pioneer waging his long-sustained battle, demanding qualities of the rarest strenuousness, and resulting in great and permanent benefits for mankind, should pass away unremembered, unwept and unmourned.
The effect of these hard conditions is to be found to-day in the Canadian people. The conditions made for physical efficiency, and above all, for character. In the larger centres, though the effect undoubtedly remains on the temperament of the citizens, the accumulation of wealth is making a great change. Those Canadians, and they are many, who retain their love of the simpler forms of life, must regret the passing of these conditions and will shake dubious heads at the more artificial, though highly civilised surroundings which are considered necessary to-day outside the agricultural areas. It is to be hoped we shall not witness in the Canadian any access of vulnerable English characteristics.
In 1878-9, as we have shown, a great rush began from the East to the West. In all the eastern provinces was a surplus population of young men, sons of more or less struggling farmers, who, attracted by the glamour of the United States, had hitherto emigrated south of the border. But with the opening of the North-West the great movement began, and it is not hard to find the reason. Eastern Canada, generally speaking, was a heavily-wooded country, and the pioneer among the forests secured as the price of a life of toil and privation a clear farm of possibly fifty acres. Trees had to be cut and burnt and the roots left to rot. In these circumstances two or three acres a year was a creditable performance for the strongest, and it was a process of years before the tree stumps rotted below the level of the soil. In the West the conditions were entirely different. The vigorous man, with the simplest of farm tools and a yoke of oxen could begin immediately ploughing or breaking the fertile prairie land ; an acre a day would be easy work, and in one month of summer his yoke or pair of oxen would lay twenty-five acres under the plough.
In two or three years the farmer would have under crop as much or more than his father had as a result of fifty years' work, and with far less arduous toil. In a few years more the young farmer would have one hundred, two hundred, or three hundred acres under the plough, and as his possibilities grew his ambition increased. To-day these same men, who in their early youth fought nature for, say, a five hundred bushel crop, now harvest yields varying from four to twenty thousand bushels on the rich prairie lands of the West.
In these circumstances the Westerner becomes more than a farmer of the old type. Any man who has to deal with the labour, the outlay on implements, and the financial transactions connected with a large farm, must develop business qualities of no mean order. So the Western farmer has grown up a perfectly distinct type, a militant, self-reliant, well-to-do type of man, with the bronze of the sun on his face, and the marks of toil on his hands, yet a rounded man in every respect. True, he lives separated by considerable distances from what, until recently, we were wont to regard as the chief centres of civilisation, but development has been rapid, and today the farmers of the West have available all the advantages of applied science, none of which is more appreciated nor potent in its influence than the govern-ment telephone system, which links up East with West and town with country.
It is one of the most useful public works ever under taken by government, and the terms extended are so liberal that now even the farmers in remote districts can have the line brought up to their township line free of charge, and pay only the cost of the extension to their own farms. Beyond the social effect which the linking up of rural communities has produced there is also a very marked result both commercially and politically. In the quiet hours of the evening the farmer takes advantage of reduced telephone rates and rings up his broker to find out the latest market movements and the prospects of the season, and he is thus able intelligently to control at a distance the marketing of his goods. Politically, too, the effect must be great, for he is no longer an isolated unit; he can discuss politics with his neighbour ; and he is altogether more in touch with the world, more alive to the everyday cycle of affairs.
A first glance at the condition of Canada would no doubt incline the observer to imagine that since Eastern Canada is the older and more closely settled, and the West the more simple and rugged, that in trading, for example, the principle to be followed would be to send the finished product to the East, and the rougher commodity to the West. This, however, is entirely wrong. To a Westerner money comes easily, he demands the nice things of life just as much as his brother in the East, and he will have the best, whatever it may cost. In the East where the struggle for life has been keener, the rural population has not so much to spend, and is more frugal in the spending of it.
But though the Westerner is prosperous he still remains the man of simple life. Those tastes and qualities which in the frugal East helped him to struggle against hardships sustain him in the more easy conditions of the West. He remains a rugged, healthy type. His life is frugal, but his wants are supplied the more easily for that, and his environment makes for a fuller type of man than had he been compelled to chop a clearing out of the " Bush." The pioneer of the West must yet handle an axe, he must yet be his own carpenter, and his wife must be, in the best sense of the word, a helpmate. If he is to prosper he must have few household cares, he must be well fed, and he has no time to look after the "side-shows " of the farm, important though they are, such as the dairying and the chicken-raising, or even feeding the stock in his busy time.
Another very potent influence which has gone to the making of this Western nation is the advent of the American settler, who came with his acquired experience and his up-to-date notions from the States. He is the outcome of a cosmopolitan population where the best ideas of agriculture have been evolved from the experience of many lands, and a long process of experiment under various conditions, and he has developed into one of the most effective workers known to any country.
If one looks at the Western farmer as a whole one finds a considerable dash of the Scotsman in his composition. The hard work of the summer keeps him physically very fit, and the large spaces of prairie involve that much of his life shall be spent in the open air ; so that when the long winter nights come he spends them contentedly in his home, bringing to bear upon the problems of the day a refreshed mind. His great stand-by in literature is the weekly paper, where he may read full reports of parliamentary affairs, in addition to which his own member will probably send him full reports of his speeches. It is a well-known saying amongst all parliamentary candidates that an agricultural audience requires very careful handling, and this is perhaps especially true in the case of a western Canadian audience. The Canadian farmer has time and inclination to think things out, and if his mind moves slowly it is generally a precise mind. He loves a political meeting, which is usually kept up until the small hours of the morning, and he has the unpleasant Scotch fashion of putting questions with a directness which is staggering to a candidate not well posted on the public issues of the day.
Where contact with his fellow-men is more rare than in the closely settled parts of Canada, it is natural that the farmer should be a good deal influenced by the Press, and on the whole there is much to be said for the provincial Press of Canada. Agriculture is life to the farmer, and the editor who wants to make his paper " go " gives him the best notions and ideas on agriculture suited to his particular conditions, and consequently a purely agricultural paper of a very good type has grown up, and has become well established in the provinces. Of late years, owing no doubt to the influx of immigrants from England, together with the reduced postal rates, there has been a great increase in English periodicals, and these, presenting as they do an entirely fresh point of view to the Canadian, must necessarily exercise an important influence upon public opinion.
The town-dweller is often tempted to imagine that the life of these Western farmers is very dull, one without much relaxation. Hard it undoubtedly is, but it may be said without fear of contradiction that it is a life infinitely more full of real pleasure to the working man and the man of moderate means than any life that can be offered to him in his own society in the cities or in England. The church of the rural districts is the chief centre of social relaxation. In the small towns some one or other of the denominations, which are very well represented, holds almost every week a concert, tea-meeting, or a supper. Distance has no deterrent effect, for parties of young people will drive from one small town to another—ten miles or more--in search of enjoy-ment. " Surprise parties " are common, and dances to beguile the long winter evenings are frequently arranged.
In the summer, between seeding and haying, picnics, some political, but mostly social, are the order of the day. Farmers from all around rendezvous in some shady spot, each member of the party bearing baskets for the common benefit. Picnics, one supposes, are very much alike all the world over, but to a Canadian the Canadian picnic seems to have a charm all its own, and above all others. There is an informality about the arrangements, and a hearty friendliness extended to all, which is missed at the more sophisticated picnics of the old country.
By a natural process of thought in speaking of social conditions, the mind wanders from picnics to the question of marriage. In the older communities the taking of a wife becomes more and more a process complicated by irrelevant factors. Social conditions, luxuries, inherited prejudices, all play their part in the fight against natural selection. The young men of , Canada take a healthier view, they do not want to start married life as big as their fathers, and as the bread and butter question does not exist in so serious a form as we know it, natural selection plays a greater part in the making of marriages. Marriage very frequently takes place at a much younger age, and the prejudices of parents do not show themselves to the extent that they are said to do in this country. The Canadian young man is not overwhelmed with female society, and the marriage question more nearly approaches the ideal than it does in some older countries. The proportion of men to women in Canada is as eight to one, and the " spinster of necessity " is unknown, though the spinster for choice may exist.
The conditions of life have made the Canadian woman one of the most competent in the world, not only as a housekeeper, but as a complete woman. Even the Canadian girl, whose early advantages may not have been great, often exhibits in all society a sang-froid, an attractiveness, and a vivacity free from restraint yet perfectly developed such as will certainly not be excelled. In short, she will bear herself in the true womanly manner which is above all passing fashions and beyond all petty criticisms.
It is almost impossible for the traveller taking a hurried trip across Canada to realise how complete and how enjoyable are the social conditions found even in the most outlying districts. It is only in those rare cases when the settler is really far from the beaten track that the hardship of loneliness is felt. To the chance visitor the scenery of the prairies offers nothing but a series of monotonous curves with an unbroken horizon. Yet there is a love of the plains as there is a love of the mountains, and the man who remains on the prairies long enough to establish himself, and to become acquainted with the actual conditions, finds that a passion for those prairies develops full and strong enjoyment in their fruitfulness, and an ever-present wonder at the kaleidoscope of the year's growth, and an intense love for the wide horizon which leaves his imagination unfettered. " In the plains," he says, " one can breathe," the mountains oppress him, and he scoffs at the idea of monotony. " Monotony is only for those who do not think, who do not observe." " Look at that field of wheat," he will say, " where is the monotony in that ? In a hundred days the country round is changed from a plain of green to a glowing carpet of gold." He scorns the mountains which can grow nothing, and the forest which hinders the hand of man.
One of the first questions that the Englishman is apt to ask is, " What about sport ? " The Englishman is fond of his horses and his shooting, and quite rightly ; but the Canadian does most of his riding in a buggy or a buckboard, and the short seasons mean such close application to the work of the farm, that while game is plentiful his sport must be subordinated to the main chance. However, in the spring he will often find time for a little duck-shooting, and get a few shots at the elusive goose, whilst in the fall there are prairie chickens and partridges to be walked up, to say nothing of moose, and deer, and cariboo, for those who can afford the long trek to their country ; but this kind of sport is chiefly confined to rich city dwellers and English tourists.