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
  • Class, Race, and Children
  • Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
  • Adoption and Fostering
  • Children and Wartime
  • Leisure and Youth Organizations
  • Postwar Children and Youth
  • Sexuality and Bodies
  • Bodies, Health, and Safety
  • Disability and Childhood
  • Visual Cultures of Childhood

Childhood Studies History of Childhood in Canada
Mona Gleason, Tamara Myers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • 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 state’s, along with civil society’s, concern for 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 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, state policies, and the growth of the welfare state, and it helped to establish the presence of young people within broader themes in social history, particularly family, education, welfare, and delinquency studies. Much of this work offered a critique of the state and its myriad actors for class, race, and gender biases inherent in child-centered initiatives and child rescue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Complementing studies of Progressive Era 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 state formation and, ironically, connected to the ambition of rescuing childhood 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. The many books and articles included in this article were the result of extensive archival research, mainly with textual sources produced by adults. Building on the contributory works, scholars then began to emphasize children’s experience and perspectives, which required different 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, and interpreted actions of children to deepen our understanding of children as historical actors. The historiography in the Canadian context continues to widen and deepen with new monographs and essay collections published each year. Scholars continue to tackle the many opportunities for further research in a number of areas, including more regional representation, and more attention to children from non-dominant groups, including indigenous, 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 Gleason and Myers 2017 offers a useful essay in this regard in this collection of readings. 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. Several major works help to sketch out the major contours of the history of children and youth in modern Canada. These works serve to provide insight into the nature of Canadian childhood across the country, while privileging central and western Canada. All emphasize the constructed nature of childhood and adolescence and provide good detail about the meaning of these categories over the 20th century. A groundbreaking book on the Progressive 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 children’s experience across Canada in the first half of the 20th century. Canadian teenagehood as social construction and lived experience is surveyed in Comacchio 2006. 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.

  • 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 includes 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: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006.

    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 youth.

  • Gleason, Mona, and Tamara Myers, eds. Bringing Children and Youth into Canadian History: The Difference Kids Make. Don Mills, ON: 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, 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 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.

    The first major study of children’s role in shaping the Canadian welfare state in the 19th and early 20th 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.

    Sutherland’s second major monograph makes extensive use of oral histories of both urban and rural 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.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.