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What was life like for Canadian kids 150 years ago?



It's that time of year again — back to school! And what a year, right? It seems like it's been more of a challenge than ever with social distancing, staying home with your family and digital learning.

And now it's a whole new adventure with finding out what school will be like with all the new social distancing rules. So many challenges!

Let's take a trip back in time and learn about what life was like for kids back way back in the 1800s. What kind of challenges did those kids have? Would you have wanted to be a kid 150 years ago? 

Where did Canadians come from?

Aboriginal children from St. Maurice River in Quebec from 1900

"Aboriginal children from St. Maurice River, Quebec, about 1900." (Wikimedia/public domain)

Today, Canada is a truly multicultural country with kids from all over the world. Canada in the 1800s was a much smaller place with a population that was only a bit larger than Toronto's population today.

There weren’t as many immigrants making the journey across the ocean as there are today, so most kids were born right here in Canada to Indigenous, Métis, British, French, English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish families.

What was school like in the 1800s?

red brick one room schoolhouse in Elgin, Ontario

Red Brick School House in Elgin, Ontario (Wikimedia/Cameron Salsbury/CC BY-SA 3.0)

You might be used to going to a school where each grade has its own classroom and there’s one teacher for each grade level. But back in the 1800s, there weren’t as many kids going to school, so things were very different. 

The schoolhouses were much smaller and it wasn’t uncommon to see all the students from the different grades sitting in one room with just one teacher at the front teaching all the different levels.

And you didn’t take a bus to school back then — there weren’t any! Kids walked to school year round, sometimes travelling several kilometres each day.

Going back to school is very different today. Kids have to learn about and deal with Covid-19, make sure to properly wash their hands, wear a mask and social distance to keep safe.  

What did Canadians eat back then?

a bison

Wikimedia/Ansgar Walk/CC BY-SA 2.5  

Today, your parents to go to the grocery store and pick up all sorts of ingredients to make all sorts of food for dinner, or you can even get ready-made take-out in a pinch.

Back in the 1800s, most of the Canadian diet was made of up food that could be hunted, fished, gathered or grown. Typical meals could be animals like bison, caribou and dried salmon as well as vegetables they could grow from seeds like corn, beans and squash.

What kind of jobs did people have in 1867?

An illustration of an old lumber mill

Canadian lumber mill, 1884 (Wikimedia/Internet Book Archive)

Today, most people have jobs based on their interests like science, math or art, and they work all over the country. Back in the 1800s, where you lived pretty much decided what kind of work you would do.

People in the Western provinces were mostly farmers, with kids helping out their folks out with the crops. In Central Canada, people worked in the lumber industry. And in Eastern Canada, most people worked in fishing. If you were a kid in a big city, chances are you worked in a factory — they didn't yet have any laws against young children working!

What did they do for fun way back then?

The Kahnawake Lacrosse Club, Montreal, 1867

The Kahnawake Lacrosse Club, Montreal, 1867 (Wikimedia/public domain)

We have so many things we can do for fun today — tablets, comics, books, video games, amusement parks, going outside with our friends… The major pastime for kids in in the 1800s was sports!

In the winter they would be out on the ice curling or playing hockey. Summers had lacrosse games, as well as hunting and fishing. If you were lucky enough to live near a city, you might have the circus come by or got to go to the theatre or a live musical performance.