A Brief Discussion On Class Systems In Canada


Class is commonly defined as the comparison between people in a society based on their income. The concept of rich vs. poor was one of the most discussed themes in the novel, In The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje. Toronto at the turn of the century really had only three categories of social class and they were the upper, working and lower class. There was no such category as middle class, it evolved from the working class later in the century after a long period of industrial development and there was also no huge difference between those in the working class or those in the lower class. Ondaatje in his novel focuses on the comparison between the working class and the upper class, so that will also be the main focus for this study but instead of focusing just on Toronto, other parts of Canada and North America will be considered.

The working class at the turn of the century in Toronto and other parts of Canada were usually made up of immigrants and  few native citizens and due to the fact that most of these men did not understand english and really needed the job to survive, their working conditions were usually bad, starting from their wages to their health condition, none was properly taken cared of. Most of the jobs they did include, construction work, factory work, lumbering, etc. At that time in the U. S., it took a minimum income of $600 to live comfortably for a year but an average worker made between $400 and $500 annually (“Working Conditions in Factories (Issue)”, n.d.). Ondaatje illustrates such bad conditions of work through his characters, Patrick Lewis and Nicholas Temelcloff. Both men did life threatening jobs, even the death of Patrick’s father, Henry Lewis was due to the kind of job that he did. Jobs that involved dynamite, serious explosions and heavy material and equipments that could injure people at any given time were what the working class did to survive. A good life depiction of working conditions for those in the working class is the Canadian Transcontinental Railroad, the government wanted a railway that could aid in easy and fast transportation of people, goods and other services that were possible through train from one side of the country to another and labourers were needed. Most of the construction workers who executed this job were Chinese immigrants and their working conditions were the same as depicted in the book by Ondaatje. Although the Chinese workers played a key role in building the western part of the railway, they earned between $1 and $2.50 per day (The University of British Columbia, n.d.). Earning that amount meant that they were earning between $365 and $912.5 annually, which was quite a good income for a member of the working class considering the minimum amount needed to survive in a year but some conditions made this impossible. The Chinese had to pay for their own food, clothing, transportation, mail, medical care and they still had to send money back to their homes, so this made it difficult for them to live comfortably on the salary they got (The University of British Columbia, n.d.). These Chinese workers did the most dangerous works on the camp so as to get more money and a numerous amount of them died due to that, it was just like the case of Nicholas Temelcloff in Ondaatje’s novel. He executed the most dangerous job on the construction site and got the best pay among the workers, also the same situation for the dyers in Ondaatje’s story, they got the highest pay because their work was very dangerous for their health. Berton Pierre in his book titled The Great Railway narrates the misfortune of some Chinese workers, in one occasion written in the article, a foreman named Miller forgot to give his gang warning of a coming explosion, the blast blew a Chinese worker’s head right off leaving the others to run for shelter (Berton, 1974, p. 296 – 298). Today it is said that for every foot of the railway a Chinese worker died. This was how bad the working condition was for people of the work class, although it might have been more sever for foreigners, the natives also had it as bad as they did.

images-1workers during the construction of the Bloor Viaduct

imagesChinese workers during the construction of the transcontinental railroad 

In a working class family every member had to work, both male and female including children. The minimum amount needed for survival that was mentioned earlier was based on one individual not on an entire family. An old study by Michael J. Piva claimed that an average family needed $31.83 per week and $1,6555.29 per year to rise above the poverty line, now the adult male worker earned only 75.6% of the amount mentioned and it reduced as the year went by to 63.5% (The Canadian Journal of Economics, Vol 13. 1980, p. 521).  Therefore for the working family to live comfortably, everyone member had to get involved. Normally women at that time would work in wool factories or work as maids for an upper class family, etc. The men usually did the heavy jobs similar to those that have been mentioned in the previous paragraph. The children usually did some odd jobs. In most cases, children were used for jobs that adults could not do, a good example was mining, where they has to crawl through small tunnels that could not be accessed by a huge individuals. This particular issue of child labour was not common in North America but it shows the risks which the members of the working class had to go through to survive. Most women while working in the wool industries would suffer serious health complications like loosing their hearing, cutting their finger, etc. and it was all due to the poor condition of the machines used in the factories. They were still paid really little, had to work long hours and were hardly compensated in the case of loss.

Unknownimage of tunnel children had to crawl through

Members of the working class also had very poor living condition both on site or their own personal homes. Their homes were usually cheap single rooms which were constantly damp. The environment around their homes were usually noisy and dirty, there could be up to 10 houses sharing one toilet. The houses were compacted causing lack of fresh air or water, constant outbreak of diseases and little access to sunlight. Most of the members of the working class that were immigrants had left their comfortable life in cottages as farmers and moved to a more industrialized city hoping for a better standard of living but it was not want they got. In an article by Hobsbawm in which he analyzes various arguments for the standard of living during the industrial revolution, an argument stated that the standard of living in cottages was far better than that of factory workers because the environment was more secure and psychologically satisfactory although development was stagnant (Hobsbawm, 1963, p.128). This argument shows that even on the sites where people worked, their living conditioned was nothing compared to the country lifestyle. Ondaatje also depicted the  living conditions through Alice’s room in his novel.

imagesworking class living environment 

Little or nothing needs to be described about the upper class, they were the wealthy members of the community. The were the innovators of the community, the had ideas to develop the city of Toronto and the people who did all the hard labour for the ideas to become real were the working class. Michael Ondaatje gives two real examples of such people in his novel,namely:  Rowland C. Harris and Ambrose Small. In page 43 of the novel In The Skin Of A Lion, Nicholas Temelcloff says that Harris’ expensive tweed coat cost more than the combined week’s salaries of five bridge workers. This very statement shows the vast difference between the rich and the poor  (i.e. upper class member vs. working class members) in Toronto at the turn of the century.




Berton, P. (1974). The Great Railway. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Inc.


Hobsbawm, E. J. (1963). The Standard of Living during the Industrial Revolution: A Discussion. Economic History Review, 16 (1), 119-134. Doi: 10.2307/2592521


Michael J. Piva. The Condition of the Working Class in Toronto-1900-1921, Review by Almost Tassonyi. The Canadian Journal of Economics, Vol. 13. No. 3. (August, 1980), p. 520-522. Doi: 10.2307/134718


University of British Columbia library. “Work: Railways”, The Chinese Experience in B.C. 1850-1950. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.library.ubc.ca/chineseinbc/railways.html


Working Conditions in Factories (Issue). (n.d.). In Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. 2000. Retrieved from http://www.encylcopedia.com/doc/1G2-3406401046.html