In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Childhood in Canada

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Bibliography
  • Methodological and Theoretical Considerations
  • Edited Collections
  • Child Saving and Child Welfare
  • Child Migration
  • Family Matters
  • Schools and Schooling
  • Indigenous Children
  • Children, Class, and Labor
  • Settler Colonialism and Race
  • Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
  • Adoption and Fostering
  • Children and Wartime
  • Leisure and Youth Organizations
  • Sexuality and Bodies
  • Bodies, Health, and Safety
  • Disability and Childhood
  • Postwar Childhoods and Youth Cultures
  • Visual Cultures of Childhood
  • Media
  • Children’s Rights

Childhood Studies History of Childhood in Canada
Mona Gleason, Tamara Myers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0071


The history of childhood and youth in the Canadian context emerged in the 1970s under the rubric of the new social history. The field was first animated by scholars seeking to historicize the colonial state’s, along with civil society’s, various interventions into the lives of young people. Foundational works focused on the progressive reform impulse to expand the state’s responsibility for children and improve children’s status within the settler colonial nation. This first wave of scholarship, which came out of the history of the family and the history of education, emphasized the history of adult attitudes toward childhood, colonial state policies, and the growth of the welfare state, and it helped to establish young people’s presence within broader themes in social history, particularly family, education, welfare, and delinquency studies. Much of this work offered a critique of the colonial state and its myriad actors for class, race, and gender biases inherent in late-19th- and early-20th-century child-centered initiatives and child rescue. Complementing studies of turn-of-the-19th-century reform projects undertaken to save children and childhood, critical studies of the Canadian colonial project have exposed how residential schooling for Indigenous youth was central to white supremacist colonial state formation and, ironically, connected to the ambition of rescuing children from poverty and dissipation. A second wave of historical work has been more concerned with teasing out how children and youth contributed to, and responded to, change over time. Contributory works put children into immigration history by focusing on juvenile migration schemes; into labor history with child workers; and into the realm of political and ethnic history by identifying youthful student strikers. This burst of activity in the 1980s and 1990s demonstrated how age as a category of analysis could reveal historical agency on the part of young people and contribute to a deeper understanding of childhood as experience. Books and articles included in this bibliography from this era were the result of extensive archival research, particularly with textual sources produced by adults. Building on the contributory works, scholars then began to emphasize children’s experience and perspectives as significant in their own right, which required different sources and methodologies. To get at experience and perspective, historians have read archival materials such as court records “against the grain,” interviewed adults about their childhoods, used memoirs, popular media, and material culture, and interpreted actions of children to deepen our understanding of them as historical actors. The historiography in the Canadian context continues to widen and deepen with new articles, monographs, and essay collections published each year. Scholars continue to tackle the many opportunities for further research in several areas, including more regional representation, and more attention to children’s engagement with popular culture, and the perspective of children from nondominant groups, including Indigenous, Black, working-class, immigrant, and refugee children, apart from the professionals who intervened into their lives.

General Overviews and Bibliography

A truly comprehensive historiographic analysis of the field has yet to be written, although the Gleason and Myers 2017 collection of readings offers a useful essay in this regard. Only one comprehensive bibliography of the field has been undertaken: Barman, et al. 1992 is a helpful survey of both printed primary and secondary source materials for an earlier period. Several major subsequent works help to sketch out the major contours of the history of children and youth in modern Canada, written primarily in the 1990s and 2000s. These works provide insight into the nature of Canadian childhood across the country, while privileging perspectives of white settler children from central and western Canada. All emphasize the constructed nature of childhood and adolescence and provide detail about the meaning of these categories over the twentieth century. A groundbreaking book on the turn-of-the-century reform impulse to improve the state and status of the nation’s children, Sutherland 1976 is a comprehensive study that exemplifies the foundational works in the field coming from the history of the family and of education. Sutherland 1997 complements this earlier work by utilizing oral history and memoirs of childhood to analyze white settler children’s experience across Canada in the first half of the twentieth century. White settler teenagehood as social construction and lived experience is surveyed in Comacchio 2005. Strong-Boag 1988 and Owram 1996 use a life-cycle approach to examine growing up in the post–World War II and interwar periods, respectively. Alexander 2016 offers an important historiographical overview of how settler perspectives dominated the scholarly literature on Canadian childhoods, particularly in the period following Confederation.

  • Alexander, Kristine. “Childhood and Colonialism in Canadian History.” History Compass 14.9 (2016): 397–406.

    DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12331

    Alexander’s essay argues that most historical work on Canadian childhood from the 1970s to the 2000s, save a few important exceptions, reflected colonized and colonizer perspectives, and ignored Indigenous experiences. Alexander argues that scholarship revealing the extent of the Residential School system written in the later period rendered the continued exclusion of Indigenous perspectives and experiences untenable. Paralleling broader efforts to dismantle settler colonialism in Canada, Alexander explores how Canadian historians of children and childhood have responded to decolonizing their histories.

  • Barman, Jean, Linda Hale, and Neil Sutherland, comps. History of Canadian Childhood and Youth: A Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992.

    This bibliography emerged from the Canadian Childhood History Project, headed by Sutherland, and provides coverage of the English-language literature on children and youth. It covers a broad range of written sources, including professional, journalistic, academic, and governmental, and covers an extensive range of topics of interest to historians.

  • Comacchio, Cynthia. The Dominion of Youth: Adolescence and the Making of Modern Canada, 1920–1950. Waterloo, ON: University of Waterloo Press, 2005.

    The first comprehensive study of the emergence of adolescence in Canada. Focuses on both the problems posed by young people and their experiences of adolescence. Youth culture and spaces—particularly those pertaining to the pursuit of leisure and identity, consumption, dating, work, and, increasingly, high school—form the bases for this exploration of the construction and experience of primarily settler youth.

  • Gleason, Mona and Tamara Myers, eds. Bringing Children and Youth into Canadian History: The Difference Kids Make. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    Collection of essays showcasing contributions of young people to the history of Canada. Themes explored include working children, political children, gender, Indigenous childhood, disability, masculinity and violence, children and war, popular culture, sexuality, education, and citizenship. See also Edited Collections.

  • Owram, Doug. Born at the Right Time: A History of the Baby Boom Generation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

    An overview of the white settler generation born in the early postwar period, from the domestic and suburban 1950s through youth’s heady days of optimism, rock and roll, and despair in the 1960s. Draws on demographic, cultural, and political contexts to explain a generation’s development. A familiar, North American story is retold here, with some attention to Canadian distinctiveness, including the rise of anti-Americanism.

  • Strong-Boag, Veronica. The New Day Recalled: Lives of Girls and Women in English Canada, 1919–1939. Toronto: Copp Clark Pittman, 1988.

    An overview of women’s interwar history, employing a life-course approach, with chapters on girlhood, “working for pay,” and courting. Overturns the trope that the federal suffrage victory led to a better future for girls as patriarchy continued to structure their lives and circumscribe opportunities. Generalized assertions about girls’ experiences are set against the importance of class, ethnicity, and region.

  • Sutherland, Neil. Children in English-Canadian Society: Framing the Twentieth Century Consensus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781487575038

    The first major study of white settler children’s role in shaping the Canadian welfare state in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The focus is on adult reformers who wrote laws, argued for policies and procedures, and established institutions that played a major regulatory role in the lives of children in English Canada. Reprinted by Wilfrid Laurier Press in 2000.

  • Sutherland, Neil. Growing Up: Childhood in English Canada from the Great War to the Age of Television. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442675520

    Sutherland’s second major monograph makes extensive use of oral histories of both urban and rural white settler children who grew up between 1915 and 1950. He employs the framework of “childhood scripts,” or commonly held and recurring experiences in childhood, to explore the culture of childhood as distinct from the adult world.

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