Unrest, Violence, and the Search for Social Order in British North America and Canada, 1749-1876

Elizabeth Mancke

From the mid-eighteenth century to the early Confederation era, British North Americans and then Canadians confronted a wide range of phenomena that could engender disorder: imperial wars, rebellions, the arrival of immigrants, epidemics, political unrest, and relations with First Nations. All, directly or indirectly, presented challenges to maintaining social and political order. In response, British North Americans and then Canadians engaged in protracted discussions about the definition of order and experimented with strategies to confront and limit disorder when it broke out. These discussions and processes reinforced the pervasive belief, held by both Canadians and outsiders, that Canada developed historically distinct relations shaped by notions of “peace, order, and good government,” or, in the terms of this project, themes such as unrest, violence, and the search for order. Processes of negotiating order and disorder, however, varied dramatically across British North America. But despite distinct political, social, and cultural dynamics, the colonies shared enough practices and temperaments that something recognizably Canadian emerged as part of the national identity. Yet very little inter-colonial analysis has been done to comprehend what British North Americans understood by “peace, order, and good government.” Rather, scholars who study incidents of unrest and violence in Canadian history more often employ comparisons to events in Europe or the United States, often with the effect of highlighting the distinctiveness of British North American developments.

A group of approximately 25 historians is undertaking a SSHRC-funded project to re-examine “Unrest, Violence, and the Search for Social Order in British North America and Canada, 1749-1876.” Explicitly designed to encourage inter-colonial comparisons, this project attempts to analyze how unrest varied across colonial societies, and how provincial leaders sought accommodations to maintain or regain control when discord threatened. In this endeavour, we have set ourselves a challenge: to think critically about the ways in which political and social order were defined and refined in British North America and into the early years of Confederation. The provinces were not monolithic in ethnic, religious, or social composition, and British North Americans disagreed on what constituted political and social order. The current understanding of those processes has been overwhelmingly couched in evolutionist values of a positive and logical progression to achieve superior forms of political and social order. The positivist and nationalistic ideals that have dominated the historical scholarship of this period – often expressed as “colony-to-nation” – merit re-examination.

Last June, the project collaborators convened in Fredericton, New Brunswick, for an intensive two-day meeting. We each contributed 10-15 page think-pieces on themes ranged from “The Language of Disorder and Violence in BNA,” to “Space, Race, and Violence in the Canadian Indian Department,” to “Managing Migration.” In the lively discussions that ensued, we identified a number of shared ideas and phrasings that provide the conceptual ligaments for connecting the shared cultural legacies of British North Americans and Canadians. Some are quite specific to Canada – e.g., the relationship of loyalism and loyalty to conceptions of social order and the place of unrest and violence in society – but most could be generalized to other times and places. Early in our discussions, we acknowledged that all societies have incidents of unrest and violence, but that a critical difference among societies is how violence is discouraged or encouraged, contained or fanned, punished or legitimized. Similarly, all societies value order, but some aspire to a particular vision of order that make them willing to tolerate disorder – often violent – to achieve that vision. Significantly, many if not most British North Americans eschewed violent disorder for effecting a new vision of social order, while other societies tolerate greater disorder. Canada did, however, use laws, legal codes, the justice system, and punishment to shape a new social order, as well as deter and discipline disorder. And like many colonial societies, disputes over issues concerning sovereignty, such as control of territory, could engender intercultural unrest, if not violence. With all of these broad concepts, we also questioned how answers might vary based on gender, class, large-scale state and imperial warfare, and inter-ethnic tensions.

Over the next year, different collaborators in this project will be submitting short reflection pieces to Borealia to engage a broader discussion of these issues. The group will meet again next June at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax to discuss papers intended for a volume of published essays. “Unrest, violence, and the search for social order” is both a major re-examination of pre-Confederation and early post-Confederation Canada history, and a contribution to our understanding of the emergence of modernity and the disruptions and social and political transformations associated with it.

Elizabeth Mancke is Canada Research Chair in Atlantic Canada Studies at the University of New Brunswick. She has found that the study of Atlantic Canada provides unusually rich points of analytic purchase on major issues in the modern world. Dr. Mancke is working on a book entitled Imperium Unbound: European Expansion and the Making of Modern Geopolitics.

Image: Benjamin Sulte, Histoire de Jos. Montferrand, L’athlète de Canadien (Montreal: Beauchemin et Fils), 73; detail (Public Domain).

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