________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 12. . . .November 20, 2009


Heavy Burdens on Small Shoulders: The Labour of Pioneer Children on the Canadian Prairies.

Sandra Rollings-Magnusson.
Edmonton, AB: The University of Alberta Press, 2009.
177 pp., pbk., $34.95.
ISBN 978-0-88864-509-8.

Subject Headings:
Pioneer children-Employment-Prairie Provinces.
Pioneer children-Prairie Provinces-Social conditions.
Rural families-Prairie Provinces-Social conditions.
Child labour-Prairie Provinces-History.
Farm life-Prairie Provinces.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Thomas F. Chambers.

***˝ /4



Based on the foregoing, I argue in this book that although farm children (those between four and sixteen) did not receive payment or documented recognition for their economic contributions, boys and girls expected, and were expected, to work and did in fact perform essential duties and necessary tasks that contributed to the success of farms and family survival. In this way, children were in a position similar to that of women in that they worked hard to assist in achieving success, but were treated as economically invisible labour on the farm.

Sandra Rollings-Magnusson, author of Heavy Burdens teaches Sociology at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton. In Heavy Burdens, she shows that children, of both sexes, were essential to the success of farms at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries in Western Canada. Large families were, therefore, more likely to succeed than small ones. The labour could be quite light, such as caring for livestock, or very heavy, such as helping to clear the land.

     While today, much of what prairie children were expected to do would be frowned upon, at the time it was considered essential for a proper upbringing. Farm work, in fact, was thought to be more beneficial than a classroom education.

     Heavy Burdens is a well-researched and documented study which illuminates an important aspect of pioneer life on the prairies. In many books of this nature, children are rarely, if ever, mentioned. In this book, their contribution to the establishment and survival of farming is the story. Pioneers, given land grants for moving to Canada, were expected to have their farms up and running in three years. Without the help of children, this would have been impossible.

     The book is divided into seven sections. These deal with the division of labour, attitudes toward child labour, productive labour, entrepreneurial labour, subsistence labour and domestic labour. The seventh section sums up the author’s conclusion.

     Some of the details in Heavy Burdens are fascinating. One example concerns the construction of sod homes, essential for survival where no trees existed. Without the protection such homes provided, however rudimentary, life in winter in Western Canada was impossible. The process of building sod homes was, however, very difficult and required the help of everyone, except very young children.

     The experiences of some of the children included in Heavy Burdens could form the basis of scenes in plays. Many, while ordinary in the normal scheme of things, become quite dramatic in the telling. Details from the memoirs of Mary Hiemstra, for example, about caring for her younger siblings and making tea for her mother who was digging potatoes half a mile away are very funny indeed. Mary was only six at the time but managed to start a fire in the wood stove and boil water in a heavy iron pot to make tea for her mother only to forget to add the tea. Her mother, relieved that house had not burned down; “drank three cups of weak tea” without letting on what Mary had forgotten to do.

     There are a number of helpful teaching aids in Heavy Burdens, which make it useful for independent study. These include an index, data sources, a bibliography, and extensive notes. In addition, there are a number of quite dramatic black and white photographs placed throughout the book. There are also a number of useful tables illustrating the activities of farm children. “Entrepreneurial Labour,” for example, details the contributions of boys and girls in this area by age and occupation. Such labour included raising animals for sale and selling fruit. The money earned from these activities was treated as a valued contribution to families’ well being.

Highly Recommended.

Thomas F. Chambers, a retired college teacher, lives in North Bay, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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