The Role of the Crown Lands in the Development of Canadian Capitalism

According to official lore, the Crown lands are held in trust by the Canadian state for the benefit of the public. This is misleading. As I show here, the Crown lands were instrumental in creating a working class in Canada and the conditions for its exploitation. By carefully restricting access to the land, the Canadian state forced would-be farmers into a system of wage labour for the benefit of the capitalist class.

The colonial theorist E.G. Wakefield understood that profit induces capitalist investment and that the availability of labour-power is “an absolute condition of a high rate of profit anywhere” (p. 52). “If all the political impediments to colonization were removed,” he wrote, the scarcity of labour-power “would still be sufficient to prevent the emigration of capitalists or capital on any great scale” (p. 96). In addition to the scarcity of labour-power in the colonies, Wakefield pointed to the problems of the “combination” and the “consistency” of labour-power, respectively referring to 1) the ease with which capitalists can bring labourers under one roof and 2) the certainty of having a supply workers ready to hand. These were the preconditions for investing large outlays of capital, which would lie idle if the supply of labour-power were to dry up. “It is not worthwhile,” wrote Wakefield, “to make a commencement without the certainty of being able to carry them on for several years. A large portion of the capital employed in them is fixed, inconvertible, durable. If anything happens to stop the operation, all this capital is lost” (Ibid, p. 53). In the absence of a sizeable pool of labour-power — a developed labour market — large outlays of capital would not be forthcoming, and this would hamper capitalist development in the colonies.

To ensure that the colonies met the above requirements, Wakefield appealed to the authorities to artificially limit “the quantity of land, as to give the cheapest land a market value that would have the effect of compelling labourers to work some considerable time for wages before they could become landowners” (Wakefield, p. 89). The price of land would need to be “sufficient” enough to keep it out of the hands of labourers. The state would thereby preclude the possibility of immediate ownership of land for the promise of an independent farmer’s life in the future — the agrarian ideal. In the meantime, workers would be expected to pay their dues under the watchful eye of a capitalist. In this way, a working class could be created and, absent an alternative means of subsistence, would be compelled by the threat of unemployment and hunger to work for the capitalist class.

Wakefield’s ideas had an “overpowering influence” on colonial policy in England and the Province of Canada (Morrison, p. 392). They became codified in The Land Act of 1841, assented to by the Legislative Council and Assembly of the Province of Canada (Provincial Statutes, Vol. 1, pp. 131-38). “An Act for the disposal of Public Lands,” as it was called, stated that “no free grant of Public Land shall be made to any person or persons whomsoever” and recommitted to a system of land sales to replace the system of land grants that had existed previously (Ibid, p. 131).

The act was introduced to the British Commons by Mr. C. Buller who worked closely with Wakefield in Canada.1 In promoting the document to the Commons, he confirmed the spirit of Wakefield’s theory expressed in it: “We must tempt the capitalist to embark his money in the improvement of Canada, by ensuring him labour for the cultivation of his property, and we must invite the labourer thither by holding out to him the certainty of being employed by others, until he shall have accumulated sufficient means for becoming a thriving proprietor. This we can only do by applying to Canada the principles on which our colonization should be conducted elsewhere. There, as elsewhere, the placing a sufficient price on waste lands must furnish the means of colonization, while it would serve the yet more important purpose of concentrating the population, which your former system seemed devised with a view of scattering as widely as possible” (Buller, 1843).

Thus, the Crown lands played an important role in the creation of a labour market in Canada, one whose essential structure was finally established circa 1850 (Pentland, 1959). Far from holding Crown lands in trust for the public, the Canadian state restricts access to optimize the conditions for capitalist development, ensuring business has access to cheap and abundant labour-power.

1C. Buller also helped author the famous Durham Report.

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