From Pemmican to Poutine: Eating in Canada

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Introduction MP-0000.597.214 MP-1993.6.2.27 MP-0000.25.540 MP-1976.24.87 MP-0000.25.1102 MP-0000.121 MP-1979.111.123 VIEW-1785


Pauline Morel, under the supervision of Nathalie Cooke, McGill University. 2008

Canada has a unique and fascinating food history. It begins with the First Nations and the riches of the land: bison, caribou, dried salmon and "the three sisters" -- corn, beans and squash. Aboriginal peoples offer survival lessons to newcomers, introducing pemmican and bannock as staples of camp meals that fuel traders, railway crews, survey parties, lumbermen and miners. With each wave of immigration, newcomers attracted to the "breadbasket of the world" bring their own foods, some of which are dismissed as "exotic" or "unfamiliar," while others, such as smoked meat, chop suey and bagels, are rapidly adopted.

Pioneers and labourers adapt early kitchens -- chuck wagons, camp kitchens and outdoor ovens -- to the landscape. In contrast, the upper and middle classes continue to pursue Victorian ideals of leisure and domesticity. Transportation technology opens up the wilderness for recreational use, and large groups enjoy food at picnics.

Concern about nutrition assumes a central role at the start of the 20th century. Adelaide Hoodless (1857-1910), a prominent social reformer, leads a campaign for the pasteurization of milk and the education of women in "domestic science." Milk stations, known as Gouttes de lait, are set up in 1911 in Montreal to provide families with supplies of sterilized milk, advice on child care and access to medical services. Women's Institutes (1897), or the Cercles des fermières (1915) in Québec, are established to improve home economics and gain public recognition. Significant technological advances in the early 1900s -- the introduction of gas and electric stoves, electric refrigerators and packaged goods -- also raise expectations of the home food producer and ironically seem to increase rather than diminish her burden.

How are Canada's current foodways being transformed within a global economy? What are the long-term consequences of eating habits increasingly geared toward cheap, processed, fast food in the second half of the 20th century and the start of the 21st? Food choices that were unavailable to Canada's first inhabitants are proving to be a challenge as well as a benefit to today's Canadians.