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Family and Community Life in Northeastern Ontario: The Interwar Years (review)
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Françoise Noël ’s Family and Community Life in Northeastern Ontario: The Interwar Years creates a comprehensive history of the city of North Bay, its environs, and its population base. Noël not only creates a solid contextual geography and history, but also delves into several major themes about community life, such as population demographics, unemployment, family constructs, and community development. Noël’s in-depth analysis of the District of Nipissing transforms her micro-history into a bold statement about rural and urban life in Ontario’s northern frontier during the early 20th century.

The inclusion of maps and charts to break down statistics is one of the book’s strongest features as Noël establishes the text’s historical context. The maps and charts are not only strategically placed, but also clearly disseminate complex information, such as population increases and several demographic statistics: country of origin, ethnic origin, and religious background. Through visual aids, Noël tracks trends in population changes as migrant workers from Ontario and Quebec settled along the Ottawa and Mattawa Rivers. As the District of Nipissing experienced a population boom due to industrial expansion, the city of North Bay quickly emerged as the region’s largest community and became a major northern Ontario economic centre. Accordingly, North Bay’s larger population led to greater diversity and higher numbers of immigrant workers.

Even though Noël offers a thorough and comprehensive history of North Bay and its surroundings, her text is not without fault. Noël provides several stories through interviews with North Bay and area residents. However, in the process, Noël’s mention of the Dionne family gets lost amidst a flurry of other anecdotes. Noël mentions the Dionne family briefly throughout her text, beginning with an introduction and alluding to several milestones in their history. Because the Dionne family, famous for having living quintuplets, quickly became a symbol of family life in Northern Ontario during the interwar period, Noël could have turned her discussion of the Dionne family into a major case study of larger families during the interwar era, the social support they needed and received, and their legacy for the community of North Bay.

Noël’s analysis of communit y life in North Bay discusses several major themes: ethnicity, unemployment, religion, education, and leisure. Outside of the city of North Bay, the region’s population base lacked major diversity due to the available unskilled jobs in natural resource-based industries. As Noël states, a striking majority of the population was of Western European descent, particularly French and English, and belonged to a Christian-based religion. Within the city, however, significantly more immigrant workers resided, including Asians, Italians, and Scandinavians. Regardless of ethnic diversity, the majority of North Bay’s population spoke only English or French. The growing rift between French- and English-speaking residents undoubtedly dominated community life during the interwar years.

Contrary to traditional stereot ypes about the Canadian North, the lumber industry, rather than the fur trade, was this region’s main attraction for migrant workers during the late 19th century. Accordingly, because of the region’s economic dependence on natural resource-based industries, unemployment rates soared during the interwar era due to decreasing market values and demands. Noël explains thoroughly how English-speaking residents seemed the least affected by the Depression, as they held more educated, skilled positions. However, unskilled working-class French, Italian, and immigrant workers were often uneducated and felt the brunt of the nation’s economic downturn of the 1930s. In addition to her analysis of unemployment rates, Noël spends a great deal of time explaining how unique neighbourhoods grew because of ethnic and economic bonds, and how family constructs and community life differed between neighbourhoods.

One of the major influences in the District of Nipissing’s development was the Church and its role in developing strong family values and personal virtues. As commonly seen in early 20th-century rural towns, the Church played a significant role in the community. Rite of passage rituals educated the region’s residents about virtues, religions, and living a good life. These rituals had an air of extravagance and...

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