- The Lay of the Land: Four New Books in Canadian Rural History
The trouble with writing a review essay on Canadian rural history is that the field does not exist. Rural history is challenged by the vastness of its reach. The books reviewed here cover a range of communities united chiefly by not being urban. They span a period in which rural people went from being the majority of Canadian society to a small minority. They have much to say about farming but consider also other economic activities of rural people. They might be classed, variously, as social, political, religious, and environmental history.
Yet to emphasize heterogeneity and diversity is to miss the common issues that rural historians have grappled with since the field shifted, under the aegis of the 1970s social history revolution, from the economic history of agriculture to broader questions of what it meant to be rural in Canada. How do we explain the shift, over the last several hundred years, from agriculture as a “way of life” [End Page 204] to farming as a “business”? (Thompson 1990, 111). Given this shift (and not all historians accept that it has happened, or at least not this simply), what is the relationship between rural society and economy, and the forces of market capitalism headquartered in the city? As capitalism and modernization chipped away at rural economic independence, did rural society remain a unique phenomenon, and in what ways and for how long? Finally, who controlled the land, and how did that control contribute to, or impede, rural independence?
I pose these as four separate questions, but answering one inevitably leads to another. In Rural Protest in Prince Edward Island (2006), for instance, Rusty Bittermann argues both for the critical importance of debates over the control of land and for a close and mutually constitutive relationship between city and country. He does so in the context of the Escheat Movement of the 1830s and 1840s. The Escheat Movement was an attempt to bring to an end the quasi-manorial land system of Prince Edward Island (PEI). PEI had been colonized in the late eighteenth century through the granting of land to a small group of proprietors. In exchange for the grants, the Crown had required landlords to locate a certain number of people on the land and to ensure its development. Few met these terms. Tenants, seizing on these lapses, called for the imperial government to “escheat—revoke—proprietorial grants and redistribute lands to settlers in fee simple grants” (4). Escheators argued that the state was obligated to ensure a “just social and economic order” (4) and that settlers’ work on their land gave them rights—more rights than their landlords. British authorities saw the Escheators as an example of mob rule and crushed them.
Out of a richly detailed study of petitions and elections, high politics in London, and rent resistance in places like Bay Fortune comes one of Bittermann’s key points: that PEI cannot be understood without considering London, the Escheators without the Lower Canadian Patriotes. Grievances were local, arising from a system where farmers...