Unrest, Violence, and the Search for Social Order in British North America and Canada, 1749-1876

As part of our partnership with the new early Canadian history blog Borealia, we’ll be posting highlights from that website here every Saturday in November.

By Elizabeth Mancke

Mancke 1

Benjamin Sulte, Histoire de Jos. Montferrand, L’athlète de Canadien (Montreal: Beauchemin et Fils), 73; detail (Public Domain).

From the mid-eighteenth century to the early Confederation era, British North Americans and then Canadians confronted a wide range of phenomena that could engender disorder: imperial wars, rebellions, the arrival of immigrants, epidemics, political unrest, and relations with First Nations. All, directly or indirectly, presented challenges to maintaining social and political order. In response, British North Americans and then Canadians engaged in protracted discussions about the definition of order and experimented with strategies to confront and limit disorder when it broke out. These discussions and processes reinforced the pervasive belief, held by both Canadians and outsiders, that Canada developed historically distinct relations shaped by notions of “peace, order, and good government,” or, in the terms of this project, themes such as unrest, violence, and the search for order. Processes of negotiating order and disorder, however, varied dramatically across British North America. But despite distinct political, social, and cultural dynamics, the colonies shared enough practices and temperaments that something recognizably Canadian emerged as part of the national identity. Yet very little inter-colonial analysis has been done to comprehend what British North Americans understood by “peace, order, and good government.” Rather, scholars who study incidents of unrest and violence in Canadian history more often employ comparisons to events in Europe or the United States, often with the effect of highlighting the distinctiveness of British North American developments.

A group of approximately 25 historians is undertaking a SSHRC-funded project to re-examine “Unrest, Violence, and the Search for Social Order in British North America and Canada, 1749-1876.” Explicitly designed to encourage inter-colonial comparisons, this project attempts to analyze how unrest varied across colonial societies, and how provincial leaders sought accommodations to maintain or regain control when discord threatened. In this endeavour, we have set ourselves a challenge: to think critically about the ways in which political and social order were defined and refined in British North America and into the early years of Confederation. The provinces were not monolithic in ethnic, religious, or social composition, and British North Americans disagreed on what constituted political and social order. The current understanding of those processes has been overwhelmingly couched in evolutionist values of a positive and logical progression to achieve superior forms of political and social order. The positivist and nationalistic ideals that have dominated the historical scholarship of this period – often expressed as “colony-to-nation” – merit re-examination. [Continue Reading]

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