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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 151-152

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The Politics of Population:
State Formation, Statistics, and the Census of Canada, 1840-1875

The Politics of Population: State Formation, Statistics, and the Census of Canada, 1840-1875. By Bruce Curtis (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2001) 385 pp. $60.00

Curtis' study of "census making" in Canada from the period of union of Upper and Lower Canada through confederation adds to the growing list of case studies probing the relationship between state making and population counting (10). Curtis provides a rich historical account of the development of censuses in mid-nineteenth-century Canada and a strong theoretical analysis of census making as it relates to the emergence of liberalism, statistical internationalism, and the politics of representation and ethnic nationalism in modern states. The study can be read from a variety of viewpoints. Historians of Canadia and North America as well as those interested in historical census data, historians of science interested in the development of statistical methodologies, and social theorists, will find it a valuable resource.

Curtis starts his narrative with British imperial authorities restructuring Canadian state institutions on the heels of the armed insurrection in Lower Canada in 1837. At the time, Lower Canada, renamed Canada East, was Catholic, French, feudal, and rural, with an estimated population of 650,000; Upper Canada, renamed Canada West, was British, Protestant, and in debt, with an estimated population of 420,000. The new union legislature provided equal representation for the two sections. The census, which became a mechanism of developing a national intelligence and a national vision of Canada, was taken, with varying degrees of success, in the 1840s, 1852, and 1861. During the period, the problems of governance remained, and population dominance shifted to the West. Curtis traces out the details of the individual censuses, the problems in defining de jure or de facto population, and the problems of deploying a successful administrative effort in socially bifurcated Canada.

In 1867, the Canadian state was remade once again. The Dominion of Canada Act created a state of four provinces—New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec (the latter two were the new names for Canada West and Canada East). Representation in the House of Commons was to be determined by population, and the 1871 census was restructured under the supervision of Joseph-Charles Tache to provide the authoritative conceptualization of "population" in Canada. Tache "modernized" the administration of the census, though he was no liberal. In fact, he combined an ultramontane Catholicism with a commitment [End Page 151] to traditional virtues of rural Quebec, and his census aimed to illustrate as much. Ingeniously, for example, he classified ethnicities in detail for the "British"—listing those of English, Irish, Welsh, and Scottish descent—while leaving a unified "French" category. The "French" became "the largest nationality in Canada" (251). When the 1871 population count disappointed the nation, Tache defended his work, including responding to a recount of Montreal in 1872. The local press had predicted Montreal's population to be 150,000. The census reported 107,225. The Montreal City Council took a new census for February 1872. That count reported 118,000, more than the 1871 count, but considerably less than expected. The local officials were unable to convince Tache and federal authorities to change the official report.

Curtis' study reveals how "science in the making" became "made science," as procedures for census making in Canada were invented, authorized, consolidated, and "black boxed" into procedures and classifications that could no longer be undone (17, 23, 305). He concludes by pointing out how Tache's "seemingly neutral numbers" still resonate and shape the discourse of "nationalist identity politics as fought out in contemporary Quebec" (316).


Margo Anderson
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee



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