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10.2: Demographics

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  • Detailed records pertaining to population characteristics and behaviour were kept under the ancien régime, but it was during the 19th century that the bureaucratic machinery necessary to running a regular census appeared. Aggregate totals generated in these years (as today) reflect the ability and competence  of the census takers and the registration machinery. Births and deaths were often registered only at the parish level, census takers had to do their work on foot and were not always welcomed by local residents (for fear that being surveyed meant being taxed), and people sometimes just lied.

    Broadly speaking, however, we know that between the 1820s and the early 1850s the population of every colony except those on the West Coast rose significantly. Newfoundland’s and Lower Canada’s doubled; Nova Scotia’s did slightly better than that. New Brunswick and PEI posted a trebling and Upper Canada (Canada West) grew sixfold. Within each of these colonies there were more men than women living in areas of resource extraction, but otherwise the sex ratio was relatively even. (This was not the case in British Columbia from 1858 on, when the gold rush transformed demographics.) See Table 10.1 for details of the earliest census counts, by region.

    Table 10.1 Census counts, by region, 1820s-1850s.[1]
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    *Figures for Assiniboia (a.k.a. Northwest Territories) reflect only the settler populations. There were at least another 30,000 Aboriginal people on the northern Plains and in Rupert’s Land in the first half of the century.
    **Of this number, perhaps 4,000 were non-Aboriginals.
    Region First Census Second Census Third Census Fourth Census
    Upper Canada 150,066 (1824) 213,156 (1830) 432,159 (1840) 952,004 (1851)
    Lower Canada 427,465 (1822) 553,134 (1831) 650,000 (1841) 890,261 (1851)
    New Brunswick 74,176 (1824) 119,457 (1834) 156,162 (1841) 193,800 (1851)
    Nova Scotia 123,630 (1827) 199,906 (1837) not available 276,854 (1851)
    Prince Edward Island 24,600 (1824) 32,292 (1833) 47,042 (1841) 71,490 (1855)
    Newfoundland 55,719 (1825) 73,705 (1836) 96,295 (1845) 101,600 (1851)
    Assiniboia* not available 3,356 (1834) 4,871 (1846) 6,691 (1856)
    BC and Vancouver Island  not available 55,000 (1851)**

    Details from the early part of the 19th century are difficult to access and assess, but we know that 1851 British North America was dominated by those under 19 years of age (56%). In the absence of more precise numbers, we can only guess the distribution of the young population itself, but it is entirely reasonable to imagine that three-quarters were under the age of 15, which means that the dependent population (which includes the 2.7% over the age of 65 years) made up about 45% of the total.[2]  (Keep these figures in mind when considering the ubiquity of child labour in these years, as discussed in Chapter 12.)


    Fertility, migration, and mortality are the three elements that govern population growth or shrinkage. Beginning in the early 19th century, mortality rates around the North Atlantic began a long-term decline. This was not immediately evident in British North America where the crude death rate (CDR) moved downward only irregularly. This contrary trend was likely because it was a period of urbanization, and mortality rates are generally higher in cities. The evidence suggests that rural Lower Canada, for example, was experiencing an improvement in life expectancy while Montreal’s numbers distorted the pattern for the colony as a whole. In 1821-30 the CDR for Lower Canada was 25.86 per thousand; for Montreal it was 44.30. Twenty years later the figures were 22.99 and 51.1 respectively. Matters improved somewhat in the 1850s, but the CDR rebounded in the first decade after Confederation.[3]

    Mortality rates in the 19th century owed much to the difficulty of surviving infancy. The first five years of life were perilous. In places where the water supply was inconsistently safe — which is to say, in most towns and cities — infants were vulnerable to catching the various bugs in circulation and to suffer (often mortally) from diarrhoea. For a child born in 1851, life expectancy at birth was 43 years (that is, roughly half of what it is today). But if he or she could make it to 15 years of age, there was greater likelihood of living longer.

    The risks associated with childbirth also affected female mortality rates. Two-thirds of girls born in 1801 reached adulthood but fewer than half of the original cohort made it to 45 years and the greatest risk they faced in those intervening 25 years was pregnancy.[4]

    There were several mortality spikes in the 19th century arising from highly infectious and contagious disease epidemics. Of these the foremost was cholera. The Canadas experienced epidemics in 1832, 1834, 1849, 1851, and 1854. Each of these began in Quebec City, where immigrant ships carrying cholera first put into port; most of the epidemics made their way upriver and into the Great Lakes. The worst year — 1832 — witnessed about 2,000 deaths in Montreal, a city of roughly 32,000 individuals at the time. That is to say, one out of every 16 Montrealers succumbed to cholera.

    The numbers are horrifying enough, but the disease itself was far more so. Michael Bliss, a historian of disease epidemics in Canada, describes the disease:

    When the cholera struck a community, nightmarish events occurred. Apparently normal and healthy people would start vomiting and defecating uncontrollably, sometimes at work or in the street. Putrid liquids poured from bodies racked by spasms and cramps. Dehydration caused eyes to sink into their sockets, skin to wrinkle and wizen, the voice to become low and husky. The body turned black and blue as capillaries ruptured. For more than half the victims death came in one or two days, sometimes in only a few hours. Sometimes bodies spurted poisons, aged, withered, and died, seemingly in minutes, the way they do in horror movies today.[5]