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Cover of issue #219

Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013) is now available. The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Miriam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, and others, as well as new poetry & book reviews.

Vancouver's Early Life

  • Robert A. J. McDonald (Author)
    Making Vancouver: Class, Status, and Social Boundaries, 1863-1913. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Lindsey McMaster

Telling a story of frontier opportunism, social formation, and struggles over class, race, and status, Robert McDonald’s Making Vancouver is a vibrant history of the early social and urban development of Canada’s westernmost city. Between 1863 and 1913, a narrative unfolds which sees Vancouver grow from its inception as a few scattered sawmills into a burgeoning metropolis with all the conflict and opportunity of a complex urban landscape.

An impressively comprehensive social history, McDonald’s study fills a gap in the research and writing on Vancouver’s history, making it a useful addition to the current literature. A brief citation by the author to Kay Anderson’s Vancouver’s Chinatown signals one book that might usefully be read in conjunction with this narrative, hers detailing the racial conflict inherent in Vancouver’s origins, his emphasizing the struggles over class and status also fundamental to the city’s social configuration.

Indeed, the interrelation of class and status is McDonald’s main focus. As he argues, while class was an integral structuring feature of Vancouver society, equally or more important was the construction of status or respectability, qualities related to but not wholly dependent upon class. As he puts it, "Status analysis retrieves from obscurity the manner in which Vancouver’s British majority, regardless of class, successfully defined themselves as respectable citizens and the single men, the ’immigrants,’ and the poor as not respectable, as non-citizens, as ’outsiders.’" Where class proves a somewhat immobile hierarchy for analysis, status is a more complex and mutable category whose descriptive power is useful for a social scene like Vancouver’s, in which the shadings of identity are influenced by a host of markers such as race, wealth, marital status, country of origin and so on, all constitutive of one’s potential to attain respectability and social prestige. While McDonald’s project is to address the whole social spectrum, the weight of his argument coalesces around the upper classes, the industrial owners and managers, where class and status most fully merged: "It was in the upper class that Vancouverites acted most purposefully in a class-conscious manner.... By contrast, the transient and ethnically diverse mill workers lacked the permanence to develop a class identity."

The strength of Making Vancouver lies in the wealth of information developed through primary sources and in McDonald’s analysis which renders such statistical data meaningful. The shifting distribution of population and attendant ethnic affiliations as influenced by the completion of the CPR and other socio-historical events all find a place in the complex and layered narrative.

While the focus on status provides a usefully flexible term of analysis, allowing for affiliations and differences which cut across class lines, I had some reservations about just how much explanatory power was attributed to it. For instance, the quest for social status was shown to motivate the racial prejudice that relegated non-whites or non-British to outsider status and social ostracism; while this is undoubtedly one aspect of ethnic conflict, I do not think that status considerations alone can be used to describe the virulent hatred that has characterized the city’s history since its earliest days.

The complex ways in which social status was influenced by gender relations might also have been developed further. Since the industrialists and mill owners as well as the workers and indeed the majority of Vancouver’s early population were all male, it is natural that women occupy a less substantial portion of the narrative. However, since wives and families were a crucial marker of social status in this setting, when McDonald did turn to women, he could have provided a more complex and nuanced explanation of their roles. Readers familiar with Daphne Marlatt’s work may recognize the subject of Ana Historic when one prominent mill manager’s wife is mentioned: "Mrs. Springer, formerly Mrs. Richards, who was Granville’s second schoolteacher and had married Ben Springer in one of the earliest ’Society’ events of the 1870s, led the way in importing social rituals such as tennis parties, teas, and ’at homes’ that aimed to enhance social cohesion and identity among this small exclusive group." Like Marlatt’s heroine, one wonders how and why women engaged in lilis work of importing soual rituals, and whether, as we are told at one stage, the "increasing numbers [of women, children and families] by the i88o’s served to lessen the raw edge of masculine dominance."

McDonald is much stronger in describing the battles surrounding class and labour, especially where labour unions began to organize against the more cohesive and powerful elite. The dramatic quality of these conflicts as specific to Vancouver comes to the fore in his account of urban unrest arising in the downtown core where high density housing of mostly single working men gave rise to a vibrant street life of crowded gatherings and public speeches by unionists, political parties and so on. Such "teaming" streets appeared threatening and unruly to the more suburban elite, who in turn pressured police into more aggressive suppression of such gatherings, thus inciting highly politicized disputes over free speech in the city. The ways in which the spatial and political overlap here proves highly fascinating reading for scholars of both social and urban history. With a wealth of detailed accounts like this, McDonald conveys the struggles and social upheavals which attended the making of Vancouver, and his rich documentation and carefully articulated arguments make for a rivetting narrative which Canadian scholars will undoubtedly appreciate.

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MLA: McMaster, Lindsey. Vancouver's Early Life. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 30 Aug. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #163 (Winter 1999), Asian Canadian Writing. (pg. 187 - 189)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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