Beneath the "Sentimental Veil": Families and Family History in Canada

Cynthia R. Comacchio, Bettina Bradbury, Bettina Bradbury
1994 Labour (Halifax)  
Bettina Bradbury, éd., Canadian Family History: Selected Readings (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman 1992). Bettina Bradbury, Working Families: Age, Gender and Daily Survival in Industrializing Montreal (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart 1993). THE FAMILY" has come under critical scrutiny of the most devastating at times of social anomie. Limiting our historical gaze to the past hundred years, we see this commentary intensifying at certain identifiable conjunctures: the late 19th century, with its
more » ... rial adjustments and fin-de-siècle angst; the tumultuous period of reconstruction immediately after the two world wars; the harrowing Depression decades; the disruptive, clanging, clashing 1960s; and during the past decade or so of our post-industrial, post-modem malaise. Belying the very definition of the word, the "crisis" in the family is an on-going process. Beneath the family crisis debates, historical and contemporary, is a notion of family that is itself a multifaceted myth, with the symbolic force of mythology that mere historical fact can hardly counter. When "the family" is spoken of, it carries the weight of countless meanings, subjective, cultural, spiritual, scientific, materialistic, political, and above all, ideological. Regardless of the instrument of scrutiny, or the source under examination, family transcends the category to which it is assigned. Family, in the end, is used unquestioningly in normative ways when it is a prescriptive term that is only very narrowly descriptive at any given historical moment. The history of the family was one of the earliest, and most logical, offshoots of what was once the "new social history." Their shared purpose was to introduce the lives of ordinary people into historical research, to "open windows to levels of historical experience long overshadowed" by traditional historical interests and Cynthia R. Comacchio, "Beneath the 'Sentimental Veil': Families and Family History in Canada," Labour/U Travail, 33 (Spring 1994), 279-302. LABOUR/LE TRAVAIL analyses. 1 Unlike social critics of any period, historians aspire to understand families, in their various configurations, and not "the family." In their attempts toward this end, they inevitably touch upon the differences that have always existed, and that persist, between what family means and what family is. Two recent publications in the field will allow students of Canadian family history the opportunity to see this historical importance of the family as an institution, its diversity of form and function, and the differential experience of family in accordance with class, gender, age, region, and time. We now have for our use and enjoyment both a collection of essays, Canadian Family History: Selected Readings, edited by Bettina Bradbury, and the first in-depth study of families in Canada that is informed by both class and gender analysis, Bradbury's own Working Families: Age, Gender and Daily Survival in Industrializing Montreal. The collection encompasses seventeen essays ranging over a considerable timespan, from the period of initial contact between Europeans and native peoples through the immediate post-World War II years. Bettina Bradbury has achieved a fairly representative selection, in terms of topic, period, approach and method. The essays cover a broad spectrum of family history, as interpreted by many of its leading Canadian practitioners: included are discussions on native peoples, New France, rural and fishing families, industrializing towns and cities, the sexual division of labour, gender and ethnicity, marriage law, marriage rituals, moral regulation, and state intervention. While some of these essays are already familiar, this is a useful and convenient package. In particular, those essays that were previously unpublished, or at least not readily accessible, make this collection worthwhile for reference and classroom use. Even in a compendium of this heft, as the editor acknowledges, there are inevitably some areas left untouched, especially since there are a great many themes and issues that could fit under the family history rubric where research remains preliminary and largely unpublished. 2 Québécois historians have contributed greatly to our understanding of the meaning of "family" at various points in Canadian history, and especially in the history of New France. Two of the most imaginative essays in this text are easily 'Tamara Hare van, "Family History at the Crossroads," Journal of Family History, 12(1987), ix-xxiii. 2 The exciting new work currently going on in graduate history departments in areas such as sexuality, domestic violence, masculinity, health and medicine, and state policy will easily fill a second volume when their findings come to the light of publication. For example: at the Canadian Historical Association sessions at the Learned Societies Conference, Carleton University, Ottawa, June 1993, papers were presented by Nancy Forestell on gender in a northern mining community; Steven Maynard on homosexuality; Adam Givertz on moral regulation; Michael Smith on physical recreation as an aspect of "womanhood"; and there were doubtless many others that I did not personally attend. As an example of recent work on the relationship between family and state, see Annalee Golz, "Family Matters: The Canadian Family and the State in the Postwar Period," left history 1 (Fall 1993), 9-50. BENEATH THE "SENTIMENTAL VEIL" 281 those by Yves Landry and Marie-Aimee Cliche. Landry's study, on the "filles du roi," previously unavailable in translation, is worthy of inclusion for that reason alone to those still struggling to teach Canadian history to determinedly unilingual students. 3 More important, Landry's analysis is significant for what it reveals of the gendered understanding of marriage within the particular context of an underpopulated, and largely male, colony where an "atmosphere of urgency and haste" characterized marital matters. (IS) Piecing together the fragmentary evidence, Landry reveals that most (at least 80 per cent) did as expected of them and married within six months of arrival. But his examination of legal records indicates that they did not rush with desperation and without due consideration into whatever marriage prospect first presented itself. The average wait was five months. In addition to the ritual verbal promise of betrothal, most future spouses also went to notaries "in a gesture that betokened both social conformity and good will." Contracts were drawn up for about 82 per cent of first marriages, and about 62 per cent of second marriages. Landry's conclusion from this evidence, is plausible: the first figure (82 per cent) is definitely high and, like the betrothal ceremony, could reflect "a desire to create a bond between two people who hardly knew each other and to confirm a decision that the vagaries of time and chance might alter." ( 19) Since the two parties "hardly knew each other," I would lean toward the latter view. It is more likely that they hardly trusted each other to uphold their respective ends of the deal. Most people turn to legal means to safeguard their personal interests rather than to establish emotional bonds where none previously existed. This is, in fact, borne out by Landry's evidence: he shows convincingly that the filles du roi took advantage of the ephemeral power bestowed by the serious gender imbalance in the colony to ensure that they got the deal that would best meet their needs, both at that moment and in the future. Their strategies were long-term, and the legal aspects of their betrothals and subsequent marriages suggest more rational than romantic calculation on their part. Landry's study demonstrates that these women were not simply royal pawns acquiescing to imperialistic demands, even if that was their intended destiny. Marie-Aimee Cliche's look at the plight of unwed mothers during the French regime, also available here for the first time in translation, is largely reliant on legal records as well. 4 Her judicial sources, "which contain a wealth of information, although they deal only with extreme cases," certainly illuminate what little we have garnered about gender relations in this period. But Cliche herself tends to forget the latter caveat. She points out that women who attempted to effect legal redress "usually explained pregnancy by arguing that their lovers had promised to
doi:10.2307/25143797 fatcat:yabd5lwghrcqzarnabudhjciim