Unwilling Idlers: The Urban Unemployed and Their Families in Late Victorian Canada


294 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-8144-4
DDC 331.13'7971'09034




Reviewed by Terry A. Crowley

Terry A. Crowley is a professor of history at the University of Guelph,
and the author of Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality.


Unemployment is an unpopular topic among those seeking work as well as
those hoping not to be without a job. The subject of much moralizing in
Victorian Canada, unemployment was more pervasive in the past than is
generally acknowledged. Not until the depression of the 1870s, after
industrialization had spread and cities had begun to grow substantially,
did workers bring the issue to public attention in marches featuring
black flags emblazoned with such mottos as “Work or Bread.”

Although the unemployed were not a marginalized group at the turn of
the 20th century, workers and their families were subject to seasonal
vagaries and structural defects in capitalist economies. More than one
in five urban wage earners were without work in 1901, but that figure
might have been as high as 39 percent if those who gave no occupation on
the census were factored in. One in seven families experienced some form
of unemployment during the year, as many needed more than one wage
earner in order to survive.

In this broad-ranging and perceptive study of an area in which it is
difficult for historians to find reliable sources, University of
Victoria professors Peter Baskerville and Eric Sager have employed the
1891 and 1901 manuscript censuses well. Firmly grounding their inquiry
within the international historiography on the subject, they focus on
Victoria, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Hamilton, Montreal, and Halifax. After
elucidating how unemployment became identified as a social problem that
warranted political attention, they argue that being without work was
not totally random, as some American studies have found, but related to
positioning within the work-skills hierarchy. General laborers and those
in primary and manufacturing industries were likely to be laid off or to
secure a job. Except in Vancouver, spatial segregation did not separate
those in want of employment. Placement in the age spectrum, differences
between men and women, and date of immigration did play a role.
Developing a minimum-standard-of-living index, the authors show that a
quarter of the urban population—particularly those with young
families—lived in poverty.

Despite a laudable commitment to eschewing jargon, Unwilling Idlers
makes for challenging reading at times. This is not, however, a book in
quantitative history whose significance rests in inverse proportion to
the sophistication of its social science methods. Those who persevere
will be rewarded by the light it sheds on a subject that many historians
have found intractable in the past.


Baskerville, Peter, and Eric W. Sager., “Unwilling Idlers: The Urban Unemployed and Their Families in Late Victorian Canada,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed December 6, 2023, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/30406.