Parallel to the gradual establishment of Confederation, Canada’s domestic market was expanding. Its increasing manufacturing capacity dispensed with the necessity of importing certain types of merchandise.
Thanks to a channel dug in the St. Lawrence River between Québec and Montréal, ocean liners could now reach the port. The Grand Trunk Railway system crisscrossed southern Québec and Ontario, while the Canadian Pacific Railway crossed the country all the way to Vancouver. Montréal banks proliferated, opening numerous branches.
A manufacturing industry began to emerge. Light industry employed an abundant, mainly unskilled work force, primarily composed of French Canadians. Heavy industry hired more qualified, better-paid workers, largely of British origin.
The area surrounding the Lachine Canal reflected this new industrial landscape. The Grand Trunk’s rail yards were established in this zone, alongside machine works, textile mills and a sugar refinery. Factory workers lived on neighbouring streets. A similar concentration began to take shape in the East end, with shoe factories, Molson Brewery, the Hudon textile factory and the Canadian Pacific’s rail yard. The clothing industry would develop later, north of downtown Montréal.
Working hours were long, and conditions, harsh. Salaries were extremely low, especially for unskilled workers, whose children also joined the labour force. Mothers had to take in piecework or rent out rooms to boarders.
Seasonal unemployment was the norm for dockworkers, transportation and construction workers. Highly-qualified workers supported the trade unions, but improvements in working conditions remained modest. The average working family lived in a climate of insecurity. Disease was rampant, and the infant mortality rate was extremely high.