Industry, ideology, and social formation in British Columbia, 1849-1885




Morton, Jamie

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This study examines how the systems of production of the commodity exporting industries of pre-1885 British Columbia contributed to the social formation of the region. Such industries provided the economic base for post-contact development and non-Native settlement of the region, mediated by the cultural values of immigrant and indigenous populations. The intent here is to synthesize a more inclusive model to clarify how these economic and cultural factors intersected to produce a distinct regional society. Beginning with Ian McKay’s suggestion to interpret the history of Canada as a process of naturalizing the liberal order, this study moves the analysis away from microstudies of individual industries or social groups in order to emphasize the way in which a broader vision became naturalized. This approach avoids some of the simple dichotomies of class and race that have informed much of the historiography of BC, in favour of a more nuanced analysis that emphasizes the negotiated process that leads to social consensus. Beginning with the merchant capitalist relations of the fur trade, and accelerating with the 1858 gold rush, BC became understood as a place that provided opportunities for economic and social mobility through participation in commodity exporting ventures. A consensus emerged that emphasized the producer ethic [the economic and cultural value of independent producers], and the creation of a meritocratic socio-political environment to support opportunities for achieved, rather than ascribed, social position. This attracted Euro-North American immigrants hoping to escape social restrictions or proletarianization by achieving independent producer status. Such a goal meant that these immigrants resisted waged labour, creating a chronic shortage that impeded industrial development. This was filled with Chinese immigrants or Aboriginal participants, attracted by the prospect of converting earnings into increased status in their originating societies. Combining the demand for labour with racial ideology, certain jobs were racialized, and BC industries were typified by split labour markets, with an upper echelon comprised of occupationally-mobile Euro-North American workers, and a lower echelon defined by race as well as skill, with little opportunity for mobility. In turn, this contributed to naturalizing ideology concerning race, class, and social position. The emphasis on the producer ethic contributed to an artificial division between “producers” and “agents,” with the former celebrated, while the latter, arguably more important to the systems of production by providing links to export markets, are portrayed less favourably. A commodity exporting, producer-centric variant of the liberal order was naturalized in nineteenth century BC, providing the logic for social and political development, and explaining how certain groups were valued, and either integrated into or excluded from hegemonic society. The degree to which individuals or groups conformed to the naturalized values of the emerging society largely determined their social position in the nineteenth century, and their subsequent treatment in the historiography.



Industries, British Columbia