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REMEMBER THIS: Fertility once propelled growth in population

History Hound Richard MacLeod begins a series exploring historical demography through sharing the stories of how local residents came to live and work here
Racial Diversity
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This is the first article in a series on a topic that has captivated me for years. Since the early 1950s, historians have been working on a new branch of Canadian history that I find fascinating – the historical demography of Canada.

For the last few weeks, I have been asking you to send me your family’s story, the story of how you found yourself living and working here. I am delighted to have the opportunity to share your stories with our community. Your stories are the very fabric upon which this area’s history was built and upon which we shall build our future.

History is made up of the movements of people from place to place and the vital contributions they in turn bring to their new, chosen home. Be it your story, your parent’s story, or your grandparent’s story, all these stories document our incredible mosaic. Please continue to send me your stories.

We should probably begin by defining historical demography. It is defined as the quantitative study of human population in the past. It is concerned with population size, with the three basic components of population change (fertility, mortality and migration), and with the population characteristics related to those components, such as marriage, socioeconomic status, and the configuration of families.

While this sounds a massive and complex subject, it really can be boiled done to the study of how our communities were moulded in the past and how they will continue to grow into the future. In this series, I shall limit my examination to southern Ontario, with my primary focus being communities in York Region.

Beginning in the early 19th century, historical demographers made use of data collected by governments, including censuses and vital statistics. Historical demographers also relied heavily on ecclesiastical records of baptisms, marriages, and burials, as well as hearth and poll tax records.

From the perspective of population size, sources may also include the size of cities and towns, the size and density of smaller settlements, the presence or absence of agriculture, and inferences from historical records. For population health and life expectancy, paleodemography based on the study of skeletal remains is another important approach for those populations that precede the modern era, as is the study of ages of death recorded on funerary monuments (tombstones).

I shall look at our population growth patterns, changes in our birth and mortality rates, and most importantly, the vital impact that immigration has played.

Traditionally, Canada has sought to increase its population through immigration, to expand the workforce and our domestic markets. Immigrants today make up about one-sixth of Canada’s total population. Statistics tell us that immigration peaked in 1913, when more than 400,000 people arrived. During the Great Depression, immigration was discouraged.

However, after the Second World War, tens of thousands of displaced persons from Europe were admitted, and in the 1970s and '80s, large numbers of refugees from Europe, Asia, and Latin America were welcomed to Canada. Family reunification was a driving force in our local population growth. National trends are reflected in our own local immigration records.

Ontario has consistently received far more people since the 1940s than the other provinces. Most of this growth has been attributed to immigration rather than inter-provincial migrations, although movement from other provinces continues to be a factor. The GTA has attracted both migrants and immigrants.

During the 20th century, natural increase rather than immigration was the major factor in our population growth. However, our rate of natural increase became much lower than the world average. Canada has an aging population. Whereas fewer than one in 10 Canadians were age 65 or older in the 1970s, by the start of the 21st century, the figure stood at nearly one in six. Life expectancy in Canada, which averages about 80 years, is among the world’s highest.

I have written several articles on the migration of several thousand immigrants to Ontario, many of which found their way to our area from the New England colonies, Pennsylvania and Vermont both before and after the American Revolution, with an African-American community establishing itself along the border and in the Barrie area. You will remember we had an active community of African Americans just east of Sharon, as I documented in my earlier article.

My ancestors, the Friends or Quakers, made their way to our area thanks primarily to the efforts of Timothy Rogers. In this new colony of British North America, it is estimated that between the years 1811-1861, the population grew from 511,000 persons to 3,175,000 persons. Eighty-four per cent of this population growth can be attributed to a natural increase, making natural growth more important than immigration.

These sources of growth were countered by significant mortality rates. Infant mortality levels differed based on urban-rural residence with the infant mortality rate for Ontario being 115 per thousand during this period.

Although our fertility was relatively high in the mid-19th century, it began to fall during the last third of the century. Married couples began to limit their childbearing; in Ontario, declining marital fertility has been linked to urban development and land availability. By 1901, the total fertility rate, or average number of children a woman would bear, with all married or unmarried women included in the research, was 9.2 for Catholics (French and Irish) and 3.9 for Protestants.

Statistics point to an earlier age of marriage for Catholic women that may account for this ethnic differential. The percentage of women aged 20 to 24 who were married during the 1890s was 43 per cent for French Catholics, 32 per cent for Irish Catholics, and 27 per cent for Protestants. This analysis would seem to portray a set of distinct ethno-religious demographic regime.

Before we finish for today, let us go over the key points:
    •    Population growth was principally driven by natural growth (that is, high marital fertility).
    •    Following a rush of immigration to Upper Canada and our area, childbearing resumed its position as the leading source of growth.
    •    Mortality rates were high in pre-Confederation Canada, especially infants.
    •    Canada began the process of a demographic transition to lower fertility around the time of Confederation.
    •    By the early 20th century, immigration, and urbanization changed the character and distribution of our population.

Next in the series, we will take a closer look at the figures and focus on the growth of our area. Please do not forget to send me your family’s story so I can feature it in this series.

Sources: Historical Demography of Canada by Lisa Dillon, Département de démographie, Université de Montréal; Population and demography statistics from Stats Canada; InfoGuide: Historical resources from Stats Canada; Readings in Canadian History by R. Douglas Francis and Donald B. Smith

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews. You can reach him at [email protected]