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Ontario, Canada
Historical Summary
19th-20th Centuries

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1870's  1880's  1890's  1900's  1910's

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These summaries are a supplement to the family histories and place the ancestor's stories in their historical context. They tell of only the major events that could have affected the ancestors living in these places and times, and are collected from several sources 1. Other historical summaries exist.

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Upper Canada before Confederation - 1860's

Historical Summary
Ontario in the Early 1870's
The Dominion of Canada is three years old as the decade opens. The original provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are joined by the more recent colonies of Manitoba in 1870 and British Columbia in 1871. Prince Edward Island joins in 1873. John A. Macdonald is elected to a second term.

Toronto is an industrial capital with a population of 56,000 and 497 industries. Out of Ontario's 1.6 million, only 20% are urbanized -- most Ontarians are still farmers -- yet urbanization and industrialization begins to grow, and infrastructure follows the trend. Aid from Britain goes toward the building of a great transcontinental railway and this is attractive to the remote British Columbians, though it is at the cost of allowing Americans free access to fisheries. Britain's foreign policy takes precedence now, though Canada replaces British judicial authority by receiving her own Supreme Court. Labour movements begin to coordinate. Workers strike for work days shortened to 9 hours, and a Canadian Labour Union is formed to improve working conditions. The lot of children improves when Ryerson institutes compulsory free education for every child, called the public school system in 1871, and the Hospital for Sick Children opens in 1875. Post secondary schools remain gender-segregated.

A world-wide depression begins in 1873, slowing growth, especially in the now floundering railway project. Macdonald and his Conservative cabinet resigns after a scandal in which he received bribes to award contract to Sir Hugh Allan and American-backed Canadian Pacific Railway. By 1874 Alexander Mackenzie becomes Liberal Prime Minister, and to stem election bribery and voter-intimidation, creates the secret ballot. The Canadian Pacific Railway is begun in Fort William in 1875 in anticipation of opening the prairies. The government sponsors an immigration campaign, but attracts few. Economic depression, sparse population, underdevelopment, misinformation among Europeans, and steep competition from the American Great Plains settlements (Wild West) are to blame for low entry levels.

Ontario in the Late 1870's
The second half of the decade sees several new technological advancements suggesting imminent social change. Canadian Alexander Graham Bell operates the first telephone in Boston in 1876. The First "long-distance" call occurs later in the year between Brantford and Paris, Ontario. Soon there are private telephones in Hamilton, and Toronto and the printing of the first telephone directories. In 1877, Thomas Edison invents phonographic recording, and demonstrates the incandescent light-bulb by 1879. The bicycle makes its appearance, prompting the third bicycle club in North America to meet regularly in Montreal. John Labatt wins an award in Paris for his India Pale Ale (IPA), yet the same year the Canadian Temperance Act becomes law, giving greater local control over alcohol sales.

Although defeated by the Railway Scandal five years past, John A. Macdonald retakes the government after Mackenzie's inability to deal with the financial distresses of the recent Great Depression. He formulates a National Policy to finish the railway, settle the west, and institute tariffs on foreign goods to bolster national production.

Costumes of the 1870's

Historical Summary
Ontario in the Early 1880's
John A. Macdonald's National Policy continues its forward momentum. Further funding is given to the languishing Canadian Pacific Railway venture, providing many jobs in Northern Ontario and Western Canada. The town of Sudbury is founded when railway excavation uncovers valuable nickel deposits. The Edison Electric Light Company is incorporated in 1882, and the Canada Cotton Mill in Cornwall becomes the first plant to use electric lighting the following year. Electricity provides for longer working hours, and shopping hours -- Eaton's is illuminated by arc lamps in 1884, while their first mail order catalogue is published. Bell Telephone is permitted to string lines alongside all public rights-of-way.

In health and education, efforts of those like Dr. Emily Stowe of Toronto provide more opportunities for women. Stowe is the first licenced woman doctor in Canada, although has been practicing since 1867. Her Women's Literary Club is renamed the Toronto Women's Suffrage Association and lobbies for greater electoral power. The first School of Medicine for Women is inaugurated with Dr. Stowe's daughter on the faculty. The University of Toronto admits women in 1884, six years behind Queen's University in Kingston, and slowly, higher education becomes possible for women. To protect working women and youths, legislation is passed to restrict the maximum working day to 10 hours, and a minimum age set to 12 years for boys and 14 for girls. By 1885, the franchise is extended to married women, owners of lower valued property, but not unmarried women or native people.

The National Gallery of Canada and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts is founded under the patronage of the Marquis of Lorne, the new Governor-General, and his wife HRH Princess Louise. An emigration crisis is apparent when the census shows many are leaving for the United States, and its highly mechanized, better paying jobs in New England, and the cheap homesteads in the American Midwest. Toronto stands at 86,000 and the province reaches 1.9 million. There are only 12 hospitals, with all but two concentrated in the burgeoning cities of Toronto, Hamilton, London, Kingston and Ottawa.

Ontario in the Late 1880's
The last spike in the transcontinental railway is driven at Eagle Pass, B.C. in 1884. Fearing the coming migrations, native Cree peoples and the Metis under Louise Riel stage the Red River Rebellion northwest of Manitoba's young borders. Riel is hung and the revolt put down by 5,000 troops.

A commission studies labour and capital relations as the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada is formed in Toronto. Factory inspectors discover poor conditions continue for women and child workers, especially in cotton and tobacco processing. Some garment shops can pay as little as 80 cents for a 60-hr week of work. Average female earnings are generated in a 54 hour week and just meet the break-even wage.

Macdonald wins election in 1887 and becomes Prime Minister for the fourth time. Liberal opposition leader Edward Blake steps down for new head, young Wilfred Laurier. It is noted that Scots dominate the economic arena, with half of all industrialists being born in Scotland or of Scottish parentage. In Toronto, Saturday night magazine begins publishing. The CPR opens a line through Maine to St. John, New Brunswick, completing a link to the all-weather Atlantic port. Standard Time, an idea brought about by CPR engineer Sir Sandford Flemming, is employed cross-country to improve rail travel efficiency.

Map from 1888
Costumes of the 1880's

Historical Summary
Ontario in the Early 1890's
The full force of the Industrial Revolution has arrived in Canada about a century later than in Europe. Canadian industry is booming, especially along the transcontinental rail corridor, where John A. Macdonald's tariffs have promoted national production since 1879. Responding to the healthy consumer markets, Ontario's factories, prolific throughout the province, produce iron, steel, tools and farm implements with clothing, shoes and food processing the leading industries.

Rural life gives way to urban life in this decade. Agricultural workers and new immigrants move into the cities and the factories, especially women and children, labouring under the glow of the electric lamp, uninterrupted by the setting sun or the changing seasons, "liberated" by the machine and still largely unconcerned with safety. Production soars and the economic disparity between rich and poor widens. There is poverty and over-crowding, and the birth of the slum. The indigent are jailed to keep the poverty off the streets. A new industrial proletariate establishes itself along side the industrial tycoon.

Forty percent of Ontarians live in the cities. Toronto reaches 181,220 by census time -- more than double in size since 1881. Electric street cars replace the horse drawn cars there, and Joseph Lee's Pharmacy operates the first public telephone by 1893. Most large cities have outdoor electric lighting -- Canadian General Electric opens the Edison Electric Plant in Peterborough.

In 1891, Sir John A. Macdonald dies and is succeeded by Conservative Prime Minister John Abbott. John Thompson relieves the ailing Abbott the next year. In 1892 the Canadian Criminal Code is established, based mostly on British coding.

With access to higher education and paying jobs, women take greater control of their circumstances. On average, women marry around age 26, fully 3 years later than a generation ago, and have smaller families. Women become a stronger voice in the call for social changes. The Women's Christian Temperance Union looses its bid for women's suffrage, but makes gains in the control of liquor sales, and the fight against prostitution. Women may also begin practicing law in 1892.

In 1893, the United States experiences a severe stock market crash. Many Canadians, who emigrated to America, return home in these bad times.

Massey Hall opens in 1894 and is considered world class with excellent acoustics. Labour day becomes an end-of-summer holiday in honour of our new working class. Alcoholism is seen as a serious problem and opposition to the sale of liquor is noted by plebiscite.

PM Thompson dies, and is replaced by Mackenzie Bowell. Bowell resigns after a short time and is replaced by Charles Tupper, who promptly calls an election.

Ontario in the Late 1890's
In 1896 the conservative government, held by several short-term Prime Ministers, is defeated by Wilfred Laurier and his Liberal Party. He is immediately favoured for his deft handling of a broiling Catholic Schools issue in Manitoba. Laurier's plan for the Canada involves reducing the tariffs imposed by Macdonald in previous decades, and favouring free-trade with Great Britain and other like-minded nations.

Technological milestones abound. The Niagara Falls power company begins producing AC power for Buffalo N.Y. X-Rays are used for the first time in Canada at McGill University. The first public film screening uses a Vitascope projector in West End Park, Ottawa. Soon single-cylinder automobiles are imported as novelties from the United States.

Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee is celebrated across the British Empire in 1897. As part of the commemoration, Lady Aberdeen founds the Victorian Order of Nurses. The Two Cent postage stamp appears, and in the Yukon Territory north of British Columbia, a gold rush begins along the Klondike River.

Further labour legislation is issued to protect "shop girls", paid lower wages even than "factory girls". It is estimated that one third of Torontonians are in poverty, and the poor are now seen as victims of circumstance instead of people responsible for their own suffering. The sentencing of parole is introduced into the penal system. Toronto opens a new City Hall at Queen and Bay Streets.

In 1899, Britain solicits aid in protecting Cape Colony and Natal in South Africa from an attack by the Boers. Late in the year, 1000 Canadian troops are sent to fight the Boer War, the first conflict fought by Canadians overseas.

Costumes of the 1890's

Historical Summary
Ontario, Early in the first decade of the 1900's
Although not participating in the Boer War directly, Canada sends supplies and more volunteers to the British. A total of 8300 men take part, with heavy opposition by French-Canadians. By February, 1900, British forces take the upper hand and defeat the Boer Republics and annex them into British South Africa within 18 months.

The Victorian Era ends with the death of the Queen in 1901, and the accession of King Edward VII. Victoria Day is designated to mark the reign many considered the British Empire's golden age.

Ontario’s economy booms and jobs are plentiful. Canadian Niagara Power builds a new power house. The Collingwood shipbuilding industry is beginning. In the north, "New Ontario" settlement is rapid; the mining and logging regions of Timiskaming and Port Arthur/Fort William (Thunder Bay) benefit from the arrival of more railways and a second transcontinental link. Urbanization continues, and with so many workers flocking to Toronto a housing crisis ensues. Child labour continues – school attendance is dropping due to the increased employment, and the most popular charity is the Children’s Fresh Air Fund.

Canada’s first car manufacturer, Good Brothers, produces 32 LeRoys in 1901. In two years there are 178 registered automobiles in Canada, and by 1904 Ford Motor Company is operating in Windsor and building the Model A.

The National Council on Women is active, and women property owners may now vote in municipal elections. Women make up 25% of the industrial workers and half of clerical and professional positions, especially in nursing and teaching.

Marconi transmits the first transatlantic wireless message from St. John’s Newfoundland, establishing a permanent link in 1902. In the Pacific, underwater cable completes the round-world communications link within the Empire. At McGill University, Rutherford establishes that the atom is not the smallest particle and eventually discovers the proton and electron. South of the boarder, the Wright Brothers make the first motorized flight.

Canada is angered when Britain resolves the Alaskan boarder issue in America’s favour. Liberal PM Laurier wins his third federal election defeating new Conservative leader Borden and sweeping all but Ontario. Immigration practices are favouring certain "aliens" and angering Quebec MP Bourassa, who sees coast-to-coast billingualism as impossible. Alberta and Saskatchewan become provinces. Prohibition is favoured in local elections.

In 1904, a disaster strikes Toronto when 12 hectares burn to the ground in the downtown wholesale district bounded by Bay, Yonge, and Wellington Streets.

Ontario, Late in the first decade of the 1900's
To this point, industry relies on self-generated steam or electric power. Desiring cheaper abundant electricity, the Hydroelectric Power Commission of Ontario strings transmission lines from Niagara generating stations to power lights and street cars in Toronto.

Pharmacist and bottler John J. McLaughlin develops Canada Dry Ginger Ale. Toronto’s Thomas Ryan invents 5-pin bowling. The Royal Alexandra Theatre is completed, and Canadian Tom Longboat wins the Boston Marathon.

The labour environment continues to develop and strikes abound in this decade. In 1906, Hamilton street-railway workers erupt into violence over strike-busting "scab" workers. Miners in Cobalt walk off the job and CPR dock workers in Thunder Bay clash with police. Female telephone operators strike when their day is expanded from five hours to eight – and they stand all day. Laurier’s Deputy Minister for Labour, William Lyon Mackenzie King mediates the disputes.

In 1908 the Royal Mint in Ottawa starts producing Canadian currency, and 8 cents now buys a short message sent overseas using Marconi Wireless Telegraph out of Montreal.

Although all forms of contraception are illegal, abortions are being practiced to limit family size and, combined with the desires of many to reduce immigration, are seen as racial suicide.

The Juvenile Delinquents Act protects children now that courts interpret the root their misbehaviour as poor upbringing and economic environment. This mode of thinking does not, however, apply to adults – evidenced by the negative reception given to Sigmund Freud’s views of psychology, as explained in lecture by a visiting British Doctor in St. Catherines.

The Liquor Licensing Commission severely limits the liquor licenses in Toronto in response to the people’s desire to be "dry".

Samuel McLaughlin begins producing the McLaughlin-Buick in Oshawa in 1908, buying engines from Flint Michigan.

Laurier wins the federal election for the fourth time in 1909. In Canada’s first forty years, only he and John A. Macdonald have been voted to multiple terms as Prime Minister.

Costumes of the 1900's

Historical Summary
Ontario in the Early 1910's
Laurier opens the decade with an eye to strengthening ties to both the United States and Great Britain, who crowns King George V in 1910. In response to the European naval arms race between Britain and Germany, Laurier establishes the Canadian Navy – eventually commissioning the HMCS Niobe. Labour Minister King authors an Anti-Combines Bill against unethical business practices, monopolies and price fixing, while Laurier promotes freer trade with the U.S.. Fears over increased trade competition in Ontario, and a distaste for supporting international foreign concerns in Quebec topples the Laurier government in 1911, and Robert Borden becomes the new conservative Prime Minister. Borden, with an odd mix of support from Quebec nationalists and Ontario conservatives, scraps free trade discussions. To gain greater independence for Canadian foreign policy, however, he argues in parliament for further aid to Britain’s naval expansion.

Language battles begin in the Ottawa valley, where many Francophones have settled. They demand better French education and clash with Anglophone Catholics when separate schools increase French curriculum. The fire is fueled when the Ontario conservatives respond by regulating French use to Grades 1 and 2 only, and as single subject thereafter.

Slums abound in the bigger cities, and child poverty and child labour remains unresolved. Boy Scouting arrives in Canada, 3 years after it’s start in England by Robert Baden-Powell. Also, as in England, Canada has a growing Suffragette movement, and Flora Mcdonald Denison writes of the need for greater vote and power for women. Stephen Leacock is also active writing his humorous social commentaries.

As society embraces technological advances and the haves and have-nots pursue their various recreations and vices, traditional segments call for restraint. Edison demonstrates talking motion pictures in New Jersey in 1910, and Americans begin using Canadian scenes in movies about Mounties, villainous French-Canadians, gold miners and lumber jacks. Motion pictures have proliferated over the last ten years, and the Anglican church frowns on movies shown on Sundays, not to mention Sunday picnics, teas and bridge playing. The temperance movement increases its efforts, giving anti-alcohol sermons in Toronto, and appealing for legislative change. Cocaine abuse is also a concern and stronger controls are advised since illegalization in 1908. Some see the ills of society as rooted in new Canadians – Christian missionary complaints over too many immigrants focus on increased crime, poverty, illiteracy, and socialism.

The first flyby of Toronto is conducted by Count de Lesseps in a French monoplane presented at an air show in 1911. There are also automotive shows, particularly at the Armories and St. Lawrence Market. The toy of the rich in previous years is now heralding the age of the automobile. By 1912 there are 50,000 autos registered in Canada, and in Detroit, car maker Henry Ford launches the assembly line concept in 1913, reducing price and increasing availability.

The romance of the Atlantic crossing and the grandeur of commercial ship construction is shaken with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 – a great naval disaster with 1500 lives lost.

The north continues development after Timmins and Kirkland Lake begin mining gold. The northern border is expanded to the shores of Hudson’s Bay, and a tragic forest fire kills 300 in 1912.

In 1914, Ontario is effected by an international trade depression. With 15,000 out of work in Toronto, people’s savings carry them through the difficult times, also job sharing occurs and the most far reaching labour legislation ever is introduced in the Workmen’s Compensation Act.

Ontario in the Late 1910's
War in Europe: Germany invades Belgium and France in the summer of 1914. Canada joins Britain in declaring war automatically, but the degree of participation is Canada’s prerogative. Foreign wars have not been popular but defending the allied British and French from an unprovoked attack is just, parliament is cooperative, and the armed force of mostly partially trained reservists are sent overseas to complete their training. Early 1915 sees the first Canadians fighting on the Western Front. In Ypres, Belgium, the 1st Canadian Division is besieged by poison gas, machine guns and artillery, fighting from trenches – 5000 die, are wounded or taken prisoner. Concerns over shoddy equipment results in a reissue of boots and rifles. In the second battle of Ypres, Lt.-Col. John McCrae writes "In Flanders Fields" – as 6000 more are sacrificed and the front line moves little in the first year.

At home, women assume many of the jobs left vacant by fighting soldiers and receive lower pay, while volunteers knit socks and make bandages. Beginning in the western provinces, women are included in the franchise, eventually arriving in Ontario by 1917. Federal suffrage is granted to women with fighting family members, and a tax on income is instituted as war measure.

The language battle continues in eastern Ontario. The Separate School Board supports a teachers strike when separate school taxes are withheld from bilingual schools. The British Privy Counsel declares it is the Ontario government’s right to dictate the language(s) of education and the bilingual battle ends in the province’s favour in 1916.

Anti-German sentiments spread. The city of Berlin, Ontario changes its name to Kitchener, and "alien" internment camps are set up to detain those of enemy heritage, causing riots in places like Kapuskasing. The main block of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa mysteriously burns down, and some blame German sympathizers.

Prohibition begins banning sales and possession of alcohol in all public places until war’s end, prompting a minor scuffle with convalescing soldiers during a temperance march in Toronto. Soon importation of liquor is banned and Ontario becomes completely "dry".

The Great War continues with a Canadian triumph at Mount Sorrel, and 90,000 troops move out of Ypres salient and into the Somme, where the tracked vehicles called "tanks" are first used. Camp Borden is opened near Barrie to train more volunteers, but Quebec is criticized for it’s lower turn-out. Unprecedented mail service during the Christmas season quickly brings parcels to and from the front.

By 1917, the United States enters the war. George V sends home a congratulatory telegram on the victory at Vimy Ridge, but as volunteers dwindle and many more soldiers must be sent, the re-elected Borden restructures a unionist government composed of pro-draft members from several parties and soon begins conscription. The further isolated Quebec, supported by the remaining anti-unionist Liberals of Laurier, controls its rioters with martial law and considers separation. Ontario’s draftees demonstrate as vigorously Ottawa. In Toronto, businesses close for days to preserve coal, and people are urged to volunteer for farm service to bring in the harvest.

Billy Bishop earns the Victoria Cross as top airman, and the first use of radio observer directed artillery bombardment aids a victory at Hill 70. Further Canadian engagements are seen at Passchendale, St. Eloi, and Beaumont Hamel. The contribution of women in the war effort is notable, especially in army medical corps, where nurses are nick-named "bluebirds" caring for the wounded overseas.

A French munitions ship collides with Belgian steamer causing greatest man-made explosion on record in Halifax harbor. The National Hockey League is formed, and the CNR becomes publicly owned.

British and Imperial Forces launch a summer campaign in 1918 and retake Amiens and Arras. As Canadians break the Hindenburg line at Belcourt and liberate Mons, armistice is called and the fighting ends in November. All in all, Canada lost 60,000 dead and tended to 229,000 injured. Worldwide, the empires of Germany, Russia, Turkey and Austro-Hungary have fallen, western nations have income taxes, and the United States turns from isolationist to major world power.

Borden stresses Canadian independence and demands a new relationship within the Empire - as one in an association of nations, rather than colonies. War Victory Loan bonds are sold to overcome economic burdens, unemployment, interrupted education, lost wages, and every British subject over 21 may now vote, including women.

The Spanish Flu brought back by returning soldiers ravages Canadians. Public meetings are banned, hospitals are overwhelmed by wounded and flu-stricken and in 1918-19 a further 30,000 die in Canada during the worst world epidemic ever recorded.

In 1919, settlement in a Building Trade workers strike in Ottawa is a triumph for unionism as wages increase and the eight-hour day is achieved. Ontarians vote in the United Farmers of Ontario as their provincial government. Having ousted the long-governing Tories, they have strengthened prohibition, women suffrage, and the labour movement.

The federal Canadian Northern Railway becomes the new Canadian National Railway, eventually absorbing the Grand Trunk in a few years. Wilfred Laurier dies, and the divided Liberal Party is lead by William Lyon MacKenzie King.

The Treaty of Versailles ends the great war, and in 1919 the League of Nations is created.

Costumes of the 1910's