Life in the Colonies
Home Radio Television Curio.ca
CAPH banner left CAPH banner centre CAPH banner right
Pre-Confederation British North America
Life in the Colonies
Header 3 Header 4 Header 5
History Home
Life in the Colonies

By 1860, about four million people lived in British North America. They were scattered across the northern half of the continent although most Europeans lived along the East Coast or in Upper and Lower Canada (now Ontario and Quebec.)
Amelia Harris' diary provided a record of social and political events in Upper Canada in the mid-1800s. (As portrayed by Patricia Hamilton in Canada: A People's History)
Amelia Harris' diary provided a record of social and political events in Upper Canada in the mid-1800s. (As portrayed by Patricia Hamilton in Canada: A People's History)

On the prairies, Indian nations lived alongside fur traders and Métis - the offspring of traders and their Indian wives. The first nations also lived, hunted and fished on their traditional land on the east coast; the Inuit lived in the far north.

The keepers of statistics in the colonies were not much interested in the native population but they kept careful notes about the lives of white colonists. About half were Catholic and half Protestant. French-speakers made up almost a third of the population and the rest were mostly English speaking.

Most people in the colonies married in their twenties. Women had no more legal rights than their children. The average couple had six to eight children and most families lost one or more children to disease.

Amelia Harris lived a comfortable existence in London, Canada West, before Confederation. In 1857, she began a diary that offers a glimpse into daily life at the time.
British Colonies
British Colonies

When her daughter gave birth to a stillborn child, Harris wrote, "Mr. Griffin brought the baby to me on a pillow, it looked so pretty and so sweet and its little cold face but there was nothing there to make a mother's heart glad. It had come and gone."

Harris wrote about how the son of a local member of parliament was shot in the head in a brothel, "Poor miserable boy - how wretched his father must feel."

She also recorded the hardships surrounding her, "Distress in the country is very great," Harris wrote during an economic slump in 1859. "The first soup kitchen that has been in London (Ontario) has been established here within the past week and it gives relief to 70 poor families."

While Harris offered a glimpse of daily life in the colonies, she also offered her views on the politicians of the day. In 1860, prominent politician John A. Macdonald and other members of the Canadian legislature visited London and a public dinner was held in their honour.

"The dinner is called a success, a great many people were there," wrote Harris. "(Macdonald and the other politicians) stayed until very late and were very tipsy ... They knocked each other's hats off, tore each other's coats and did several equally clever things. They were not by themselves, there were a number of their entertainers joined in their drunken sport."

In the next few years, Harris would observe Macdonald in a much larger political show. The man with a taste for alcohol and a brilliant political mind would help shape the British colonies of North America into one nation.

top of page


Last Topic:
British North America

Current Topic:
Life in the Colonies

Next Topic:
Underground Railroad
British North America
British North America
read more ...

Underground Railroad
Underground Railroad
read more ...

Irish Immigration
Irish Immigration
read more ...

Montreal-City of Wealth and Death
Montreal-City of Wealth and Death
read more ...

The Railway
The Railway
read more ...

American Civil War
American Civil War
read more ...

history home | explore the episodes | biographies | teacher resources | bibliography | games and puzzles | sitemap | contact us
cbc home | tv episode summaries | merchandise | press releases | behind the scenes | audio/video

copyright � 2001 CBC