Colonial Canada: Canadian history in the early modern era

Module 8: Liberalism and Social Change in British North America


The first half of the nineteenth century in British North America was a period of change and tension. As we saw, the early century featured a powerful focus on Loyalty as a kind of unofficial (and sometimes official!) measure of citizenship, while the 1830s, 40s and 50s, saw a opening of reform and enhanced democratisation. The achievement of responsible government in most of the colonies in 1848 was key here. It marked a moment where much greater power was granted to members elected to the people’s assembly, and the diminishment of the appointed executive. At the same time, there were many avenues of political and social organisation that demanded work at the local level, as well as many groups who were denied formal representation even in these people’s institutions. Much of this work occurred in what we call civil society.
When historians talk about emerging democracy in this period, they are often drawn to the concept of civil society. Civil society is that political space between the private sphere (the sphere of the family or the individual) and the public sphere (the sphere of business and politics). It’s where private and public interests meet. People with common interests come together, form groups or societies, and work to promote those interests. Today, common civil society organisations might form a group dedicated to environmental protection, or building parks, or organising recreation in a community, or raising money for charities, or any number of other things. Often, these have only indirect political connections, often they have very immediate political considerations. We saw some 19th-century examples last week in the "benevolent" socieites that were assisting poor Irish immigrants. Others formed groups to encourage public education, workers rights,literary and scientific socities, charities of various sorts, advancing rights for women, and perhaps most famously temperance.

This week our readings take us to an examination of different civil society organisations and an examination of how race, class, and gender often defined the issues by which they joined together. For example, in one of our readings this week, we’ll examine how African-Canadians in Halifax strived to support both their own community, and to support broader African-American communities in advocating to abolish the slave trade. There were lots of abolition societies in BNA, but few of them were run by African-American. In claiming a place in that public discussion, these black Nova Scotians - a socially marginalized group themselves - were not only advocating for a particular cause, but also claiming a place in the broader public discussion of the day, asserting their value as citizens. Other groups we’ll examine, for example the agricultural societies in Nova Scotia, were already well-placed. These societies joined together to promote good farming practices in their communities. Their members were not politically weak; they were the elites of their local communities, typically the best educated and wealthiest members. But they felt it was important to show themselves to be leading their communities, to be offering a good example, and to be participating in the major questions of the day. Here we might conceptualize these people as members of an emerging middle class collectively asserting their leadership both in their local communities and on the larger provincial stage.

Liberal politcal reforms meant that what we might call "the political tent" was growing bigger - i.e. more and more people were gaining admittance. These groups show us the local workings of social and political activity in BNA as that democratic tent continued to open up. This was a liberalising society, not only offering more freedom to more people, but also calling on those same people to demonstrate their abilities to lead and to govern themselves. In this, whether they be politically marginalised groups like the African-Canadians, or the politically dominant groups of white, male, elite farmers, they were all stepping forward to show their worth: their abilities and willingness to take on important questions of the day.

Civil society, then, was a growing and increasingly critical space in BNA. It offered possibilities for the marginalised, and for the elite. In this, though, it also showed us the limits of liberalism. Liberalism promised liberty and freedom, but many people had weaker claims on that freedom. Civil society for the elite offereded a way to demonstrate leadership, and thus also to consolidate control; civil society for the politically marginalized - for example, women and African-Canadians - offered a channel to engage with politics in a way that formal politics did not permit. Look, for example, of the women in New Brunswick who petitioned in support of temperance legislation. They did not even have the vote, but through the institutions of civil society – in this case their church organisations – they put pressure on politicians (men, with the vote) to enact legislation. They had no formal political rights; but they exerted political pressure.

These two screencasts offer introductions to the some groups of people we'll meet this week: Indigenous people, women, African-Americans. The screencasts don't spend much time on the issue of civil society, but offer you a general sense of these groups place in BNA at the time.


Read, chapter 7 in Visions - "Race, Class, and Gender: The List of Victorian Liberalism".

An introduction to the Limits of Victorian Liberalism

An introduction to Race Class and Gender: the Limits of Victorian Liberalism 


These readings all examine identifiable groups - women, Indigenous peoples, African-American, and elite white men - and explores their mid-nineteenth-century relationship to civil society. 

We're changing the instructions this week to encourage DISCUSSION with one another. Many of you are posting as if no one else has. You are being graded not simply on the quality of your posts but also on how you engage with one another. Early in the week, that's not so bad, but several of you are posting late in the week, and doing so as if no one has already said much the same thing.

1. Read all four pieces and the primary documents.

2. Formulate a general question that deals with all four readings.

3. In the forum: With reference to ONLY ONE of the writers, (i) identify how this author answers that question (their argument), and (2) identify the specific challenge faced by the subject group for that piece, and how those people sought to change it. (The case of the Indigenous people is quite different. Why?) Bring in some discussion of a primary document that highlights a theme, or an additional theme, or a contradiction, to the secondary reading you've discussed.

4. Read each other's posts - talk to each other: People responding should also compare their piece with the others. In your conversation amongst each other, ask if these historians, despite their very different topics, arrive at similar conclusions? Your aim is to generate a discussion of all the pieces, but building from those initial posts on one author. 

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