Manitoba History: “Wrestling with the Meaning of Citizenship:” A Review Article [1]

by Tom Mitchell
History Department, Brandon University

Number 36, Autumn/Winter 1998-1999

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Citizenship is the focus of a growing body of historical and contemporary analysis evident in research projects, newsletters, academic conferences, new journals, special editions of existing journals, monographs, and book length syntheses of existing literature. [2] The historical construction of citizenship in Canada in relation to race, gender, class, social movements, and state initiatives is a central preoccupation of the three publications considered below. The first provides a skillful synthesis of the current literature on the historical relationship among law, moral regulation, and citizenship in Canada, the second on the history of public schooling in Canada, a subject connected closely to citizenship. The last book under review discloses a new and provocative perspective on the historical - memory and meaning of the Great War for Canadians.

Making Good: Law and Moral Regulation in Canada, 1867-1939, published as part of the University of Toronto Press’s social history series, provides a model of judicious and balanced synthesis of the growing literature on law and moral regulation in Canada. The authors of Making Good, both established scholars in the field of Canadian law and society, are particularly interested in exploring the relationship between civil society, the state, and moral regulation in relation to citizenship. [3] They argue that “laws provide state-sanctioned muscle to enforce informal moral codes.” Yet they also posit the notion that the alchemy of law, morality, and state power transforms the state into a site of struggle—a struggle to shape and impose fundamental notions of citizenship on the Canadian population.

Implicated in their analysis is the notion that the state is an evolving entity, historically constructed and historically specific, always in formation, bereft of any essential, definitive character. They are less interested in the state per se than in the products of state activity. While they do not provide a definition for “moral regulation” they would almost certainly agree with Sayer and Corrigan who in their study of the development of the English state define moral regulation as a project of normalizing, rendering natural, taken for granted, in a word ‘obvious’, what are in fact ontological and epistemological premises of a particular and historical form of social order. Moral regulation is always coextensive with state formation, and state forms are always animated and legitimated by a particular moral ethos. [4]

Manitoba school concert, circa 1915. “The centrality of citizenship education in the emerging public schools was evident in the ever-present British flag, homilies to the Queen, non-American textbooks, and the promotion of Loyalist mythology.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

In Making Good, the idea of regulation is advanced as a more nuanced way to probe and analyze the nature of hegemony within society. Previous conceptualizations of “social control,” argue the authors, denied the possibility of effective resistance to the state or agents of civil society. Moreover, regulation frames the problem of social control to disclose how the state shares authority and power with other agents including religious institutions, schools, gangs, factories, and peer groups. As Strange and Loo explain “the rise of state agencies geared towards regulation was a critical factor in modem state formation, but never sup-planted these extra-legal regulatory agencies.”

Making Good examines the connections between law and morality concentrating on the changing scope and subjects of regulation, the administration of morals laws, and the ideological interests which underlay the imposition of legislation. It is also concerned with the technology of power and the molding of social dominance and subordination. The authors assert that the common-sense pervasiveness of individualism, hierarchical social relations, capitalist economics, self-discipline, the “traditional” family, and the ideology of separate spheres were central to the moral and cultural authority of Canada’s late Victorian middle class elite. Given the centrality of the family to production and social order, social practices that were viewed as undermining this social unit such as prostitution, homosexuality, abortion, or claims for equal employment opportunities were central preoccupations of Victorian morals regulators. Yet, in the first quarter century of Canada’s history Canada’s ruling class elite was preoccupied with the construction of a transcontinental nation and the manufacture of good citizens. The focus of moral regulation to this end was largely “a project of imposing upon aboriginals, the poor, immigrants, children, and women standards of conduct idealized (but often flouted) by the principal power holders in early-national Canada: wealthy Anglo-Celtic Protestants and to a lesser extent, bourgeois French Catholics.”

Making Good also explores the growth of the state’s apparatus of moral regulation. In the northwest the advancing bourgeois moral order was in the final analysis the product of the activities of the RNWMP launched in 1873. In urban Canada, police forces dubbed by some historians as “domestic missionaries” sought to impose bourgeois ideals of respectable behavior on a mostly working class population. The construction of the penitentiary was another feature of the emerging state apparatus of order. With roots in English utilitarian and evangelicalism, Canada’s early penitentiaries were designed to reform not punish. As with the criminal law, gender shaped the approach to reform. The construction of the Andrew Mercer Ontario Reformatory for Females in 1874 reflected the prevailing belief that women required a different kind of moral reformation. Correctional institutions for boys and girls were constructed on the same premise. Strange and Loo argue as well that “the same concern for discipline and moral development that animated ... correctional institutions also informed the curriculum of public schools.”

Prisons and policing were reactive actions in the quest to shape a moral citizenry. The treatment of Native Canadians, framed in the consolidated Indian Act 1876, required that they be transformed into wards of the state to be protected, civilized, and assimilated to Anglo-Canadian norms of citizenship. A variety of strategies were employed to this end including the reserve system and the penitentiary-like industrial school. The latter, like the prison, was designed as a total institution combining religious teaching and work to instill Christian and bourgeois habits and values.
While the state could introduce attempts at moral regulation, its initiatives were occasionally of limited effectiveness. Mounties tolerated crime and booze and refused to cooperate with the Department of Indians Affairs in the notorious pass system introduced in 1885 to restrict Plains Indians’ mobility. Similarly the enforcement of laws to protect girls and women selectively filtered through prevailing attitudes about race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Indeed, as the authors explain “Legislation that was meant to protect women actually worked to police their behavior, reinforcing the idea that women fell into two categories: the innocent victim and the designing vixen.” And in the final analysis, centres of reform such as prisons soon became simply centres of punishment and detention. For their part, Native Canadians actively resisted and subverted directed cultural change directed at them.

In the early twentieth century the Canadian state, at the behest of powerful groups in society, became a more active player in moral regulation. The campaign of temperance reformers from the Temperance Act of 1878 to prohibition during the Great War illustrates this theme. In a similar vein, Making Good relates how the morality of Sunday streetcar service in Toronto triggered the formation of a coalition, initially in the form of the Lord’s day Alliance, of a Protestant reform “social purity movement” committed to a vision of moral uplift for the entire country. Leaders of the movement set out to transform the state into an “an interventionist moral watchdog.”
Ontario’s Lord’s Day Alliance launched a national campaign to standardize the right and wrong ways to spend Sunday. In 1906 the federal government approved the Lord’s Day Act. Though Quebec rejected the Act and many in the west ignored it, success inspired social purity reformers to seek alliances with the state against prostitution, the master problem of the age. The “social evil” of prostitution excited a special moral panic among reform minded Protestant clergy, the YMCA, the National Council of Women, and the WCTU. The focus of these campaigns was typically the moral frailty of working class men and women and of ethnic and racial minorities who stood outside the Anglo-Canadian ideal of Canada’s dominant Anglo-Protestant middle class.

During the Great Depression the Criminal Code and the Immigration Act, both amended in 1919 in response to the post-war crisis, were employed against any who espoused radical political solutions to the crisis of capitalism or fell victim to the exigencies of a relief system that invited municipalities to have people deported rather than sup-ported through relief. As Strange and Loo explain “simply being unemployed was labeled as immoral because it raised questions about justice of the capitalist order.” Those who could not be deported were victimized by a system rooted in narrow stereotypes of gender, marital status, residence, race and ethnicity.

Like the authors of Making Good, Paul Axelrod believes that the development of public schooling was essentially about moral regulation as the central technology in the manufacture of citizens of good quality. [5] In The Promise of Schooling: Education in Canada, 1800-1914, also published in the University of Toronto Social history series, Paul Axelrod describes the principal developments in the history of public schooling in Canada prior to the Great War. [6]

Axelrod, a leading scholar on the history of Canadian education, frames the growth of public schooling as a feature of the social changes that swept through society in the nineteenth century. Until the 1840s privately funded schools were as numerous as those receiving state aid. Sunday schools operated exclusively by Christian churches were teaching approximately 10,000 students in 1832. In Lower Canada, the very limited success of the Royal Institute for the Advancement of Learning compared unfavorably with more broadly based initiatives under the Syndics Act 1829 which allowed locally elected trustees (or syndics) to administer the establishment of government aided schools. Public schooling in Lower Canada was dealt a considerable blow following the Lower Canadian Rebellion when schools closed following the suspension of school legislation.

Great educational change from 1840 to 1870 coincided with a period in which British North America was transformed economically, technologically and politically. In this changing social order, popular education assumed a new importance. The state committed unprecedented resources to the construction and regulation of publicly funded schools. The 1837 rebellions served as a catalyst for school reform. Reformers called for popular education as an instrument of democratization. “No longer should political authority or the opportunity for formal learning be the prerogative of the privileged.” Conservatives also acquired a new sense of the value of public schooling. As Axelrod explains “For them the rebellion was a sign of a society in danger—threatened, without rule of law, by social collapse.” Public schooling, it was hoped, would underpin economic progress and civil order, and would play a key role in ensuring political stability in a period of profound social change. It would achieve this by cultivating loyalty to the Crown, respect for property, and deference to authority—in short, reliable citizenship.

The centrality of citizenship education in the emergent public schools was evident in the “ever-present British flag, homilies to the Queen, non-American textbooks, and the promotion of Loyalist mythology.” Cadet training followed in the 1860s; later, the Loyalists cult and Empire Day became central features of the political socialization of Canadian children through the schools. Axelrod is quick to note that the cultural divide between French and English Canada, evident in contemporary curriculum practices and content, dates from the earliest days of public schooling.

Aboriginal students working in the fields of the Residential School at Elkhorn, Manitoba, circa 1915. The Residential School was “designed as a total institution combining religious teaching and work to instill Christian and bourgeois habits and values.”
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Elkhorn Collection-Schools-Indian Residential #2, N3491.

The advance of public schooling was also directly related to the problem of regulating the poor and idle. Schools provided an instrument for the dissemination of middle class attitudes and values. Through schooling, the children of the poor would be taught “discipline, respect for private property, the virtues of manners, and morality.” Central to the moral regulation advanced in the schools was the notion that the poor were morally obliged to accept their lot in society; those who rejected their station in life—no matter how unattractive it was—disclosed their moral frailty not society’s inequity. In the final analysis, schools were a crucial instrument in the evolution of class rule. In a world of mass education, the community would be rendered safer. Yet schooling was also a strategy for the middle class to ensure the future economic and social ascendancy of their children. In Upper Canada, grammar schools expanded from 12 to 100 in the years 1840 to 1870.

Consistent with the theme of public schooling as an instrument of social dominance, Axelrod contends that the campaigns for school expansion were “top-down” projects, with social and religious elites controlling the agendas and determining the process of educational change. Not surprisingly, tension developed between the centralized, bureaucratic authority that dominated textbooks, curriculum, and the certification of teachers and the authorities in local communities who sought to control the schooling of their children. The latter were not powerless: they hired and fired teachers.

Axelrod explains that the assimilative mission of public schooling was perhaps most evident in the treatment of Native peoples and the children of European immigrants. Both were subject to policies designed to advance cultural uniformity over cultural accommodation. As he does throughout The Promise of Schooling, Axelrod makes excellent use of the work of other historians of education in Canada. In his discussion of minority education practices, Axelrod relies on the ground-breaking work of J. R. Miller in a review of the development of the schooling of Native children through day schools on Indian reserves and church-run industrial schools across western Canada. The failure of coercive efforts of the state to impose forms of public schooling on Canadian natives was evident by the early twentieth century in escalating death rates of native students and the refusal of Native parents and student refusal to cooperate educational initiatives outside their control. The cultural impact of schools on non-Anglo-Saxon/English speaking immigrants was also ironic. As Axelrod explains “ethnic pluralism survived in Canada in part because schools and other Canadianization agencies—ironically—were forever reminding immigrant workers and farmers for their cultural differences.”

In 1914 Canadians went to war for Empire; in 1919, sixty thousand Canadian dead were commemorated as a sacrifice to an imagined nation. Imagined because, as Benedict Anderson has said of the individuals who compose any nation, only “in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” In Death So Noble, Jonathan Vance explores this “communion” through an interrogation of the meaning of the Great War for Canadians as reflected in expressions of memory and commemoration. The creation of Canada’s memory of the Great War was, Vance explains, “... about reconstructing a mythic version of the events of 1914-1918 from a complex mixture of fact, wishful thinking, half-truth, and outright invention, and expressing that version in novel and play, in bronze and stone, in reunion and commemoration, in song and advertisement.” [7] And Vance has explored the material and literary evidence with sensitivity and thoroughness. In a lucidly written narrative, Vance discusses the meaning of the war as reflected in popular writing, memorial stained-glass windows, sculptures, bronze and marble honour-rolls, Remembrance Day sermons, and veterans’ reunions. His text is carefully illustrated with photos of paintings and representations of cemeteries, war ruins, and sculptures.

The mythic version of the war reflected in these representations and memories is rooted in the conviction that Canada’s 60,000 dead gave their lives in the service of nation, freedom and civilization. As Vance explains “Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the language of commemoration was dominated by the figures of Winged Victory and the rejoicing soldier, symbols of earthly triumph that constituted the single most important theme in war memorials erected by Canadians.” Through their sacrifice and accomplishments on the battlefield, Canada’s “citizen-soldiers” also launched Canada as a nation. The memory of the Great War served, Vance argues, as a cornerstone for the emergent Canadian nation. To be truly a nation, Canadians required “a common vision of history that locates the community in time and space, giving it an appreciation if its own past as well as well as a sense of its future.” Vance believes that the Great War did just this by furnishing a pan-Canadian nationalism that had the potential to bridge the divisions of the country along the fault lines of class, ethnicity, region and language. Moreover, the myth of the Great War was not a feature of hegemonic manipulation by an Anglo-Canadian intellectual, political, and social elite. Average Canadians created this myth, this common vision of history; as Vance asserts, to have any salience in Canadian society, the myth required the active and enthusiastic support of people throughout the “Canadian mosaic.”
Yet, was the construction of the meaning and memories of the Great War so uncomplicated and beneficent? The Great War, the first total war waged under democratic conditions, triggered a widespread crisis of citizenship that deepened as the carnage continued. The relentless demands of a war of attrition drove participants to impose unprecedented sacrifice on their citizenry. Related campaigns of propaganda and censorship followed. Surely such state campaigns played an important role in shaping the popular experience of the war on the home front. Though Vance asserts that “If we are really to understand how the First World war imprinted itself upon the consciousness of Canadians, we must first understand the form it took in their minds and why that form evolved.” Death So Noble ignores the centrality of the state’s role in shaping the memory and meaning of the Great War.
In a recent study of propaganda and censorship during the Great War Jeffery Keshen argues that war-time propaganda and censorship constructed Canadians’ collective memory of the war in the memorable, but misleading, romantic images of duty, sacrifice and bravery. As he explains “although drawing initial strength from pre-war philosophies, the enduring influence enjoyed by clichéd notions, despite nearly five years of bloodshed, points to the significant and successful management of information-dispensing systems.” [8] Moreover, Keshen argues, Canada’s geographical isolation from the war, the enthusiastic support of a compliant press, and the existence of a naive public allowed Canadian propagandists and censors to shape popular images of the war that survived “the butchery” and were not significantly challenged by realistic accounts of the war published after 1918.

While Vance argues that the myth of the Great War described in Death So Noble had broad popular support, he also acknowledges that the memory of the war contained in Death So Noble was principally one cultivated by English-speaking Canadians and that it had limitations of appeal. It did not, for example, capture the imagination of immigrants, Natives, and French Canadians, because “the nation it envisioned was a melting pot, in which all inhabitants would be rendered down into a single type.” Nor did this myth fulfill its promise of a better post-war Canada. As Vance explains “the myth assumed that everyone would return to their proper places in the social hierarchy and proceed as if nothing had happened; any inconvenient questions about the justice of the hierarchy were to be deprecated.” In the end Vance accepts that “elites may well have promoted such a version of the war as a thinly veiled way to control dissent ....”

Early in this provocative book, Vance acknowledges that social memory is the product of struggle “between the dominant or civic memory and the popular or private memory.” As he explains, “the dominant memory emerges after a struggle between conflicting interpretations of historical events and comes to act as a bulwark for the establishment. Yet, Vance is also reluctant to explore the contested nature of the process of constructing the meaning and memory of the war asserting that only the words and actions of those “outside the rank of the literati” are relevant to the investigation of the roots of this social memory. Such a claim seems inconsistent with his assertion that “if we are to come to any conclusions about the Great war’s legacy, in political, social, psychological, or any other terms, we must be careful to discuss it in the language of its contemporaries.”

Canadian troops storm Vimy Ridge, April 9, 1917. “War-time propaganda and censorship constructed Canadians’ collective memory of the war in the memorable, but misleading romantic images of duty, sacrifice, and bravery.”
Source: Archives of Ontario

And there was a struggle to shape the meaning of the war for Canadian society. In the Queen’s Quarterly in the fall of 1919 W. L. Grant explained in a piece titled “The Education of the Workingman” that since 1914 the old order had been discredited and that the business class, unchallenged in authority and prestige at the outset of the war, was in disarray. Change was the product of new ideas about the “moral and economic” basis of society triggered by the experience of war. In Grant’s view, the “cash nexus” had to be replaced with something more spiritual. O.D. Skelton in the same journal in Current Events July-September 1919 explained that the war had “produced a reckless and desperate temper ...” and that it had destroyed “much of the old stability and acquiescence in the established order.” James Aikins advised the Canadian Bar Association in August 1919 that the post war crisis was a “recrudescence” in new cultural clothes of the old contagion of disorder. In 1920, historian W. S. Wallace urged Canadians to consolidate a national feeling based “not on the factors of language and religion, but on those of a common fatherland, a common history, a common allegiance, common political ideals, and common hopes for the future.” [9] Wallace was intruding into a debate about the nature of Canadian citizenship and nationhood which certainly predated the Great War, but which had been recast and galvanized by the epochal changes unleashed by that European conflagration. It is difficult to comprehend why the interventions of such individuals in the construction of the historical memory of the Great War should be deemed irrelevant.

The memory of the war contained in Death So Noble has other limitations. Surely women had some recollection of the Great War. Yet the meaning and memory described by Vance was constructed by men, principally about the activities of men at the front. Vance points out that Canada’s clergy were among the most vigorous supporters of the war effort and the post war myth of the great patriotic struggle. It was principally from the clergy that the dominant image of the war, that of the fallen soldier as an immortalized Christ-like saviour, emerged. Moreover, the centrality of the gendered discourse of the soldier-citizen to Vance’s myth of the war virtually excluded consideration of how women—particularly those on the home front—experienced the war. In Vance’s treatment, the principal construction of women in the myth of the war was not that of the reconstructed woman as citizen but that of the bereaved mother, “the personification of traditional, even immutable, values, her strength and constancy lending a sense of continuity to events.”

Each of the books reviewed above provides evidence of the vitality of Canadian historical writing. Carolyn Strange and Tina Loo’ s Making Good; Law and Moral Regulation in Canada provides a model of judicious and balanced synthesis of the growing literature on law and moral regulation in Canada. In The Promise of Schooling: Education in Canada, 1800-1914 Paul Axelrod provides a fine synthesis of the contemporary historiography on the history of education in Canada with a particular focus on the historical foundations of public schooling. Notwithstanding the criticisms advanced above, Jonathan Vance’s Death So Noble is a rich and provocative book that deserves a wide audience.


1. This phrase originated with David Montgomery, Citizen Worker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) p. 11.

2. The literature is voluminous. See the online newsletter “Citizenship, Democracy and Ethnocultural Diversity” of the Canadian Center for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Ottawa at; the new journal Citizenship Studies and the special editions on Citizenship and Rights of the International Journal of Canadian Studies Vol 14, Fall, 1996.

3. Carolyn Strange and Tina Loo, Making Good: Law and Moral Regulation in Canada, 1867-1939. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.)

4. Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer, The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution (Blackwell, 1991), p. 4.

5. This phrase is taken from an address by J. A. Aikins. See Tom Mitchell, “‘The Manufacture of Souls of Good Quality’: Reconstruction, the 1919 Winnipeg Conference on Citizenship, and the New Order After the Great War.” Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 31., no. 4, Winter 1996-97.

6. Paul Axelrod, The Promise of Schooling: Education in Canada, 1800-1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).

7. Johathan Vance, Death So Noble - Memory, Meaning, and the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997), p. 3.

8. Jeffery Keshen, Propaganda and Censorship During Canada’s Great War (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1996), p. x.

9. W. S. Wallace, “The Growth of Canadian National Feeling,” Canadian Historical Review, No.2, June 1920, p. 165.

Page revised: 28 July 2010