Contested Countryside: Rural Workers and Modern Society in Atlantic Canada, 1800-1950


272 pages
Contains Bibliography
ISBN 0-919107-49-0
DDC 305.5'55'09715





Edited by Daniel Samson
Reviewed by Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur is supervisor of the Legislative Research Service at the
New Brunswick Legislature, and the author of The Rise of French New


This collection of five essays has all the pluses and minuses of modern
academic scholarship. Footnotes and annotated bibliographical references
abound, indicating that the authors have read reams of tomes relevant to
their chosen topics. There is also some solid research into original
documents. Those are the pluses.

Alas, some of the writing is so riddled with sociological and economic
jargon as to be almost unreadable: for instance, “one of the most
striking things revealed by a survey of the waged work of farm-based
labourers during this era is its multiformity” or “artisan-headed
households were equally integrated into the household organization of
production.” The author of the first quote, Rusty Bitterman, has a
good thesis—namely, that fewer and fewer 19th-century Nova Scotian
farmers could get by on what they earned from their land. Likewise,
Steven Maynard is on solid ground with his argument that the rural
household played a key role as the economy shifted increasingly to wage
labour. He seems surprised to discover that household tasks “were not
distributed equally but were divided by gender and age,” even though
this is still a fact of life in 1995.

Sean Cadigan’s reappraisal of merchants’ role in Newfoundland’s
19th-century fishery is just as scholarly but far more readable. He does
a convincing job of refuting the long-held view, established by academic
icon Harold Innis, that the merchants’ use of the truck system was
based on greed and exploitation of defenceless fishermen.

Despite a narrow focus in both time and content, Bill Parenteau’s
study of class politics and the administration of the New Brunswick
Labor Act (1919-29) further strengthens his reputation. It, more than
any other article, is based on original sources. Among his conclusions:
despite the top-down administrative and political forces, rural forest
workers were not as powerless as historians have always assumed.

Eric Kristiansen’s detailed examination of the major works of Nova
Scotian writers Charles Bruce and Ernest Buckler concludes this
collective effort by urban academics to reassess rural society.


“Contested Countryside: Rural Workers and Modern Society in Atlantic Canada, 1800-1950,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 24, 2024,