Canadian Geographic
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Primary Production

The nature of Canada’s geography underpinned the structure of its economic organization. Not only did the ecosystems of the Atlantic fisheries, eastern forests, and northern tundra contribute an array of commodities, but they also did much to regulate seasonal rhythms of activity and modes of exploitation.

Agriculture dominated Canada’s economic activity in the latter part of the 19th century, providing somewhere around 30% of its Gross National Product (GNP). The manufacturing and service sectors vied with one another for second place; both grew in their share of the GNP through the period, virtually matching agriculture by 1890. A large part of both the manufacturing and service sectors, however, continued to rely heavily upon the processing of primary resources. In 1870, for example, grist milling accounted for 18% and the wood-products industries for at least 14% of all manufacturing. When all forest products including square timber (pine and hardwoods), sawlogs for deals, planks and boards, and firewood are considered, forest resources and their processing may have accounted for up to 20% of the total economy. The fishery and the fur trade, despite their continued presence over large areas, their importance in the export market, and their distinctive life ways, made only minor contributions to total Canadian production.

By the 1920s the primary sector no longer played a dominant role in Canada’s economy. Already by 1891 primary production amounted to less than 30% of the national output and by 1926 it had declined to 23%. Agriculture remained most important but its relative position had diminished in spite of the settlement of the western plains in the 1891-1926 period. The value of agricultural production grew on average only 2.6% per annum, more slowly than the economy as a whole with an average annual growth rate of 3.8% between 1891 and 1926. Forestry, which had provided Canada’s leading export for most of the 19th century, was on the wane. Although pulpwood production increasingly rose to offset the slower growth of lumber output, and rapid developments in the forest industry in British Columbia to some extent offset decline in eastern Canada, the growth in the forest industry was on average only 3.3% per annum. Fishing was the slowest-growing primary activity with an average annual growth rate of 1.2% in the 35-year period.

Mining with an average annual growth rate of 4.5% gave the most impressive performance of the primary industries. Around the turn of the century the output of gold rose dramatically with the Klondike rush and then during the First World War the mining of both coal and non-ferrous metals increased greatly. The largest increase in the value of mining output occurred in the mid-1920s with new discoveries of complex mineral deposits that included precious metals in combination with base metals.


This slideshow contains 9 archival photos, images and watercolours depicting aspects of logging and handling of timber in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.


On the next page:

Organized Labour

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Quiz :

Which industry replaced lumbering as New Brunswick's leading generator of manufacturing employment?

Housing construction
Pulp and paper