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Reviewed by:
  • Daniel Samson
Canada's Rural Majority: Households, Environments, and Economies, 1870–1940. Ruth Sandwell. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. Pp. 272, $70.00 cloth, $29.95 paper

No one is better placed to offer an overview of rural Canada than Ruth Sandwell. For over twenty years, she has led efforts to craft a new understanding of "the rural" in Canada. In many ways, this book extends and enriches her west coast-focused primary work into a national synthesis that knits together Canada's varied history and geography. Here, in the thirteenth volume of the University of Toronto Press's Canada's Social History series, Sandwell offers the undergraduate reader a coherent, conceptually organized overview of the many varied settings that were rural between 1870 and 1940. And lest any reader think [End Page 830] "coherent" is faint praise, given the messy terrain covered, coherence is an enormous achievement.

Sandwell divides the country into five zones–Mountain, Prairies, St Lawrence and southern Great Lakes, the Coast, and the Shield –and takes the reader well beyond commercial agriculture to see more fully the many forms of rural society across the country. Thus, the book serves as a major corrective to an agriculture-focused "rural" history of Canada, allowing the reader to better see the incredible range of rural folk who inhabited the agricultural, industrial, and resource frontiers of industrializing Canada.

It is an ambitious route. Beginning with the premise that most Canadian lives were rural but that most Canadian rural dwellers were not farmers, Sandwell sets out to explore the fundamental bases of change and continuity in rural life in the era of modernizing Canada. Geography and environment stand at the centre of a series of complex parameters that categorize different dimensions of rural life. There is, indeed, something Arthur Lower would appreciate in her approach, though he would also quickly acknowledge the many subtle complexities relating to gender, the household, and other dimensions of inequality that were not foregrounded in his work. Sandwell shows an adroit handling of so much complex and varied material. She also has a really effective ability to crystalize key features of the sometime abstract considerations. Rural people, she explains, were "directly reliant on the relationship between their bodies and their environment to find, tend, and fabricate much of what they needed to live" (20). I love that kind of pithy focusing.

In that core, the student of rural history can find much of what Sandwell offers as a coherent framework. While stressing the common features of outdoor, physical work, and the critical role of the rural household, she organizes her framework around what she terms the three pillars of rural life: self-provisioning, market production, and off-farm/household wage labour. Recognizing this core, and its geographical, environmental, and domestic contexts, Sandwell's framework allows her to explore the effective continuities of rural existence across the diversity of modern Canada. Although rural people employed the three pillars in different ways, and to different degrees, Sandwell illustrates effectively the modern industrial world's impact on rural lives.

The coherence also comes with a price. If Sandwell succeeds in bringing much more within our grasp, to do so she needs to flatten a lot of historical difference. Much of that flattening stems from her need to build a general narrative, a common framework for describing patterns and change. In many ways, the book reiterates something of [End Page 831] an older resource-centred view of the mine and forest settlement zones described by Arthur Lower and Harold Innis almost 100 years ago. To be sure, there's much more than that; the writing is subtle and weaves a fantastic amount of contextual and specific detail into its larger fabric. But this is a book in a teaching series, and, as such, I wondered if students will catch those subtleties in a work that so firmly eschews narrative, reiterates numerous general points about the place of rural workers and households, and highlights the contexts of environment and political economy more than human agency. The reiteration of basic points from chapter to chapter is not only necessary but also serves to undercut further some of the regional...


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