Review: How Agriculture Made Canada

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Reviewed By: Peter Anderson (Queen’s University)9780773540644

Published: The Otter-NiCHE (July 2014)

Peter A. Russell, How Agriculture Made Canada: Farming in the Nineteenth Century. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012. 400 pp. ISBN 978-0-7735-4065-1. $34.95 (paper). Rural, Wildland and Resource Studies Series, Number 1.

Peter Russell argues that the settlement of the Prairies was shaped by the dynamics of two agricultural crises in nineteenth century Quebec and Ontario, which created a predominantly English Canadian context that later European immigrants assimilated to. As agricultural settlement reached the environmental and technological limits of the open land frontier in each province, farm communities and elites reacted in different ways. In Quebec the impulse was to turn inwards whereas in Ontario settlers looked west for a new frontier.

Rather than presenting new research, Russell provides a book length literature review of the major debates in agricultural history in these three regions. Indeed, it can be argued that this book is mistitled in that it nearly completely ignores British Columbia and the Maritimes. The focus is on whether there were a series of agricultural crises in Central Canada and how those crises influenced settlement on the Prairies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Chapter 1, “Farm Families and Markets – Peasants, Pioneers, and Profit Maximizers,” lays the groundwork for Russell’s argument by reminding readers of the different agricultural economies that individual farmers and farm families have participated in throughout Canadian, and world, history. For example, peasants tend to be focused on subsistence, whereas pioneers seek to create new farms with a goal of becoming capitalist profit maximizers. While critiquing Fernand Ouellet’s view that habitants were held back by cultural factors, Russell generally portrays Quebec farmers as “peasants,” and portrays agriculture farmers in Ontario as pioneers and profit maximizers.

Following the introductory chapters (“Introduction” and Chapter 1), the book is divided into three broad sections. First, Russell returns to the debates surrounding Ouellet’s agricultural crises in early nineteenth century Quebec, which takes up close to a third of the book (1). Next, he examines the reception of David Gagan’s similar thesis regarding Ontario in the decades immediately preceding confederation (2). Theses first two sections, and particularly the retelling of the Ouellet debates, are exhaustively detailed. Russell traces individual battles and points of contention over the validity of various sources, such as the 1851 agricultural census or the use of wills and tithe records to determine economic status (i.e. peasant, pioneer, profit maximize).

Finally, the book ends with a discussion of the historiography of agricultural settlement on the western Prairies. In contrast to the vigorous back and forth between scholars from the sixties to the nineties, the debates portrayed in the latter sections on the Prairies seem tame and well behaved. Critiques and expansions of the staples thesis, particularly as it relates to wheat exports, are interwoven into these discussions.

Russell’s account of agricultural development in Ontario, Quebec and the Prairies sometimes gives the impression that settlers met an empty land as they pushed the boundaries of agricultural colonisation. Chapter 8, “Native Farming on the Prairies,” feels like a token acknowledgement of Aboriginal presence much in the same way textbooks are criticised for mentioning First Peoples in the first chapter. It also focuses more on the work of Indian agents to limit the agricultural settlement and assimilation of First Nation communities confined to reserves than on those communities themselves. Russell’s occasional use of “Indian” in the place of “First Nations” is jarring and his use of “native” to refer to both Canadian-born European settlers and Aboriginal communities at different points throughout the book can be confusing.

The focus of How Agriculture Made Canada is largely on how historians have selected, analysed, interpreted, and made arguments based on a growing collection of evidence. Russell relies heavily on economic historians and quantitative data analysis. His statement that “the limits of history” are “the survival of written documents” (p. 211) will disappoint many social, cultural, environmental and oral historians as well as those who work with material culture. Indeed, the bias towards portraying farmers as ahistorical rational “economic men” (and Russell, with a few exceptions, talks largely about men) is a weakness present throughout the book. The frequent refrain, especially regarding the Prairies, that economic rather than geographic (by which Russell means environmental) factors are the most important limits on agricultural settlement highlights this focus.

As my personal interest is on the role of federal scientists at the Central Experimental Farm in promoting agricultural settlement, I read the book with a keen eye for details about the role of federal agricultural science in this colonisation project. Perhaps reflecting wider trends in the historiography, Russell never directly mentions the Central Experimental Farm—though he mentions Marquis wheat, a hardy strain that thrived in the west and was developed under the guidance of Charles Saunders at the Farm in Ottawa, in passing twice (p. 233 and 242). Nonetheless, some of the few primary sources employed in this book are regarding research at the Brandon Experimental Farm (p. 234) and the Indian Head Experimental Farm (pp. 233, 268 and 272).

In How Agriculture Made Canada Russell provides an exhaustive review of some of the major debates in the academic, and especially economic, history of farming in Ontario, Quebec and the Prairies. As a result, it is an excellent primer for students of Canadian history interested in learning about the ways agriculture has been thought and written about between the Rockies and the Maritimes. Structurally, the book is poorly served by its endnotes, particularly for anyone who consults an electronic version of the book. Footnotes, in text citation or endnotes at the end of each chapter would have been more appropriate for a historiographical review. The bibliography, titled “Other Sources Used,” is inconsistent and sometimes excludes works directly cited in the text, limiting its usefulness. Despite its shortcomings, or perhaps precisely because of them, this book points to opportunities for environmental historians to expand our understanding of the environmental histories of agriculture in these three regions.


(1) Ouellet was quite prolific. A selection of the works most frequently cited by Russell include: Economic and Social History of Quebec, 1760-1850: Structures and Conjonctures, Gage Publishing, Toronto, 1980; Economy, Class and Nation in Quebec: Interpretive Essays, Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1991; Lower Canada, 1791-1840: Social Change and Nationalism, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1980; and “Le Mythe de ‘L’Habitant Sensible au Marché,’” Recherches sociographiques, vol. 17, no. 1, 1976.

(2) Gagan, while less prolific than Ouellet, has a large oeuvre. Key sources used by Russell include: “Geographical and Social Mobility in Nineteenth-Century Ontario: A Microstudy,” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, vol. 13, no. 2, 1976; (with Herbert Mays) “Historical Demography and Canadian Social History: Families and Land in Peel County, Ontario,” Canadian Historical Review, vol 54, no. 1, March 1973; Hopeful Travellers, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1981; and “Land, Population and Social Change: The ‘Critical Years’ in Rural Canada West,” Canadian Historical Review, vol. 13, no. 2, 1988.

Pete Anderson is a PhD student in Geography at Queen’s University. After completing an M.A. in Public History at Carleton, he worked in the federal civil service and as an independent public history consultant before returning to the academy. He is currently the NiCHE New Scholars’ Representative and sits on the National Council on Public History’s Consultants’ Committee.

Citation: Pete Anderson. “Review of Peter A. Russell’s How Agriculture Made Canada: Farming in the Nineteenth Century. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012.” The Otter ~ La Loutre Reviews. (July, 2014).

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Pete Anderson

Public History Consultant at History Applied
I am an Ottawa-based historical research consultant. My personal research examines the confluence of science, settler colonialism, and landscape change in Canada and my doctoral thesis explored the early history of Ottawa's Central Experimental Farm.


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