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Manitoba History: Review: The Limits of Rural Capitalism: Family, Culture, and Markets in Montcalm, Manitoba, 1870-1940

by David G. Burley
Department of History, University of Winnipeg

Number 42, Autumn / Winter 2001-2002

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Kenneth Michael Sylvester, The Limits of Rural Capitalism: Family, Culture, and Markets in Montcalm, Manitoba, 1870-1940. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

The national policies of post-Confederation Dominion governments—we have read in one version of Canada’s National Dream—imposed protective tariffs, subsidized transcontinental railroad construction, and promoted prairie homesteading in order to capture a hinterland market for producer and consumer goods and for financial services that would stimulate metropolitan capitalist development. Most of the farm families who ventured west in the late nineteenth century, according to Kenneth Sylvester, had their own and different goals: they had no intention of allowing rural capitalism to compromise the independence of small landholding traditions that they sought for themselves and their heirs. Frustrated by the scarcity and cost of farmland in eastern North America and dissatisfied with wage labour, they sought to reproduce in the West family economies in which large families sustained themselves through their own efforts and which rewarded a younger generation for their efforts in the collective enterprise with land of their own on which to continue the cycle. Sensitive to commercial opportunities, they nonetheless avoided commodity exchanges as much as possible lest market vagaries wipe out their hard won independence. As Sylvester explains in his case study of two generations of farming families in the rural municipality of Montcalm, Manitoba from 1870 to 1940, market entanglements were more easily avoided when transportation was difficult and the wheat economy underdeveloped. The advance of both injected cash into local exchanges, encouraged the hiring of labour to increase cash-crop production, and required new debtor relationships. “The accretion of these forms of capitalist change is the grist of this study.” (9) The families of Montcalm experienced the intrusions of rural capitalism in several dimensions of their lives, in their reproductive patterns, family economies, credit and debt relations, cultural life, inheritance practices, and in the end in the migration of redundant population to the city.

The Dominion government land policy of granting 160-acre quarter sections set a scale for prairie farming that encouraged production for commercial exchanges. But the first generation of Montcalm farmers, Sylvester argues, set the pace of their market involvement and restricted its extent to what was required to purchase sufficient farmland for their children. In their new homes, settlers sustained or even increased pre-industrial levels of fertility. Families worked together to earn a livelihood on the land, at first with only limited use of machinery. The size of their farms permitted mixed crop and livestock production alongside substantial acreages devoted to wheat, a diversification that perpetuated the importance of women’s work in minimizing the need to purchase commodities for domestic consumption. To acquire things that they could not produce themselves, they relied upon local merchants who provided seasonal credit and also marketed their surpluses. And when it came time to attend to the interests of children who had devoted their labour to the family farm, fathers commonly gifted land to their sons, with the expectation that they would attend to the well-being of their aging parents.

The next generation, reaching maturity at the turn of the century, encountered greater difficulty in carrying on farming operations and in reproducing the farm family itself. With settlement and improvement, land was in shorter supply locally and more expensive. Its purchase required a greater commitment to cash crops. Working on their parents’ farms, sons delayed marrying and, when they did, had fewer children. As a result, they needed to hire help and to mechanize, first by purchasing implements cooperatively with kin or neighbours and later on their own. Greater access to mortgages on land and chattels provided by banks and financial institutions financed these operations, while they also required the assembly of acreage sufficient to secure the debts contracted. External credit relations, according to Sylvester, contributed to divisions within the community. Some were judged more credit-worthy than others. As well, because of their dependence upon the market valorization of the land to finance production, and with less land available for their heirs in any case, the older generation grew more reluctant to convey land to their children before their death. In devising their estates, parents remained committed to providing for as many of their children as possible, rather than benefiting an elder or favoured son. Though the land was insufficient to settle all, its monetary worth was partible. The monetarization of land, ironically a consequence of rural capitalism, enabled parents to realize their traditional objective of rewarding their children for their labour on the farm. It also facilitated the migration of children off the farm, first weakening ties to parents by delaying inheritance and then giving cash. As farming became geared to making money rather than providing a livelihood, Sylvester observes, the dynamics of family relationships changed: “ambition became more individual and was shaped by men.”(65)

This eventual accommodation of farm family life to rural capitalism, Sylvester also finds within local culture. A common secular and pluralistic prairie culture dissolved the boundaries between ethnic groups in Montcalm. Francophone settlers, served by ultramontane Roman Catholic clergy, initially maintained their distance from other ethnic groups. But English was the technical and commercial language of farming and, though the first generation was more illiterate than their English- and German-speaking neighbours, the local administration of the public schools, even after the end of the bilingual system in 1916, permitted sufficient latitude for subsequent generations to learn English at the same time as they maintained their Catholic faith and French culture. Employing clerical teachers was a cost-saving measure for thrifty farmers as it was an expression of religiosity. Indeed, Sylvester points out that with time French-speaking local politicians came to be just as cautious in authorizing expenditures as their English-speaking counterparts and just as committed to a local separation of church and state. One of the advantages in studying Montcalm is this opportunity to draw ethnic comparisons. Sylvester argues ethnic clusters formed in Montcalm and elsewhere on the prairies not because of any cultural affinity, but because of chain migration and kinship ties. As well, the cultures that migrants brought with them were malleable and changed within the economic and social structures and contexts that were produced in new areas. Those structural and contextual influences led different groups to develop similar strategies. For example, both francophones and anglophones responded similarly to the increasing difficulty of acquiring more land for the next generation. Thus, Sylvester attributes lower, though still declining, fertility levels and the greater recourse to hired workers among anglophones, not to cultural difference, but to an imbalance in the sex ratio within that group and the consequently greater difficulty in generating population growth within the community. Similarly, the smaller size of the anglophone community, not its cultural alienation from the majority, contributed to its higher rate of migration. Inheritance practices, however, do suggest one area wherein cultural habits may have persisted. Francophone fathers did not adopt a semipartible division of their estates (by which a single heir inherits the family farm in return for making some cash settlement to other heirs) as readily as English-speaking fathers. Instead, they were more likely to bequeath their property intact to their wives, unrestricted by instructions for some future division. This practice learned in Quebec, Sylvester argues, was useful in maintaining patriarchal authority in a context where fathers were less able during their lives to settle their sons on the land.

Sylvester has for the most part been meticulous and painstaking in his research, linking information from census manuscript schedules, tax assessment rolls, parish records,probate files, land records, and various manuscript collections to reconstitute the families of Montcalm. In two places, he may have slipped. Discussing the assessed values of personal property, he reports that this category of wealth included homes and outbuildings. (52) They are forms of real property. Later in analysing the estate of Jacques Parent, one of Montcalm’s wealthier citizens (95-7), he misinterprets the profitability of shares in various corporations. Comparing the par value of the shares with their market value, he concludes that Parent suffered substantial losses when he strayed from investing locally, which was his normal preference. This was not necessarily so. A corporation’s charter determined the par or face value of a stock certificate: incorporation authorized a company to issue a limited number of shares in a specific denomination, or par value, to a fixed total capitalization. Those shares then traded at a discount or a premium on their par value. Since we do not know the price at which Parent purchased his shares or the extent of the dividend income he received from them, we cannot judge the wisdom of his investment. These issues, however, do not question the great bulk of evidence, or the line of his argument.

On the other hand, the last chapter on the experiences of Montcalm youth in the city does not advance his argument effectively, though in itself it is a welcome piece of research on the francophone presence in Winnipeg and St. Boniface. Sylvester’s admission that “relatively few Montcalm farm youth made their way into the city before 1940”(168) diminishes his subsequent discussion of a few individual experiences, which do not integrate well with the consideration of more general organizational and community development involving francophones from a variety of backgrounds. As well, the fruitful comparisons between French and English in Montcalm cannot be sustained in the analysis of urban experience. The concluding remarks about urbanization after the Second World War and the Roman Catholic’s acceptance of a secondary role in education drift into an observation that until the 1960s migration to the city depended on the rhythms of agriculture and that until then individuals going to the city had to fashion their own identities. The chapter does not fill well.

Overall, however, Kenneth Sylvester has given us an empirically sound and interpretively persuasive account of the ways in which two generations of Montcalmois, as he calls them, settled on the land, engaged in market activities, and adjusted their family structures accordingly. They embraced the market cautiously and reluctantly, but with a continuing commitment to preserve the role of the family in agriculture and rural life.

Page revised: 14 October 2012

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