Working while parenting isn’t new, most of us are just out of practice

By Krista Cooke

A black-and-white photograph of two women seated on benches in a log cabin. They are working at a large weaving frame while a small child rocks a baby in a cradle nearby.

Two women work at a weaving frame while a nearby child amuses the baby, Cap à l’Aigle, Quebec, ca. 1910 (a040744)

“Pandemic parenting” has been causing stress for families around the globe, above and beyond the strain of living in a global health crisis. This period has been tough, even for those lucky enough to be able to take a leave of absence or access emergency funding sources. For emergency workers, single parents, those living in tight spaces, those in poverty, or families dealing with domestic violence or mental health issues, the stress of pandemic parenting is acute. For others, like me, having both parents working at home with young children to care for, home-school, clean up after, feed and entertain, the past few months have not been easy either.

By turns hilarious and tragic, the blogosphere is filled to bursting with home videos and personal reflections about parenting during COVID-19. As a mother, I have been learning from other parents: creating new routines, being grateful for our family’s good fortune, and taking one day at a time. As a historian, I have been looking to the past for insights, studying the women captured in photographs from Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) collections. How did families do this in the past? How did we get here? What will happen next? Employment numbers early in the pandemic showed Canadian women losing jobs twice as fast as men, and more recently Statistics Canada recorded job numbers bouncing back much more quickly for men than for women. Online speculation is running rampant about how this epidemic will impact women in the workplaces of the future. How can we “Lean In” (as influential American author Sheryl Sandberg advocated) without child care, when many of us are spending our days with a laptop in one hand and a handful of colouring sheets in the other?

Generations of Canadian women have been intimately acquainted with the work/child care balancing act. Before the age of industrialization, most women juggled child-rearing responsibilities with home-based work (both paid and unpaid), contributing as they could to the family economy. Indigenous communities cared for children collectively while young mothers worked at clothing or food production. Early settler women earned money from home by taking farm products or handicrafts to market, sewing for pay, or taking in laundry. Fathers worked long hours on the land, in growing urban centres, or away from home in seasonal jobs while mothers managed as best they could with children at their heels. Early marriage and large families were the norm (according to Statistics Canada surveys, in the mid-1800s, the average Canadian family had six children). Children were expected to contribute early by helping with farm and housework, by taking care of younger siblings, and often by leaving school at a young age to help pay the bills.

A black-and-white photograph of a factory interior with four women working in a production line on a fish-canning machine. Two of the women have babies strapped to their back with wraps. There is a young child in a stroller behind the women.

Japanese women work in a fish cannery with their Japanese-Canadian babies strapped to their backs, Steveston, B.C., 1913 (Vancouver Public Library 2071)

Industrialization brought mass manufacturing and new opportunities for women to earn wages. Urban working-class women joined the male factory workforce, mainly in jobs related to textiles and food processing. The number of women workers grew through the 1800s; by 1901, they accounted for 13 percent of the Canadian workforce. Some women, whose families could afford it, worked only before they married or after their children had grown, reverting to home-based work like needlework to earn money while their children were young. For women who needed to keep their factory jobs, child care fell to the extended family. Many mothers left small children behind while they worked, in the care of elderly family members or older siblings. Some women brought their children with them when they did not have other options. The Japanese women shown above, part of the first generation of immigrants from Japan, would not have had grandmothers or elderly aunts in Canada to provide child care.

A black-and-white photograph of a mother waving goodbye to her two small children. The children are holding the hands of a daycare worker. The day nursery appears to be in a fenced yard in a residential neighbourhood. There is a swing set in the background.

Mrs. Jack Wright, a munitions worker, waves goodbye to her children at a day nursery, Toronto, 1943 (e000761764)

The two world wars (1914–1918 and 1939–1945) ensured new visibility for women in the workforce, as middle-class women joined working-class women in previously male-dominated fields. The fight for women’s right to vote and the opening of Canadian universities to women in the early part of the century had gradually increased the presence of women in the workforce, a trend that accelerated during the war years. Teaching, nursing and secretarial jobs were soon staffed mainly by young or unmarried women, and small numbers of women broke into other fields such as journalism, medicine and science. The Second World War created a massive need for labour, as men joined the military and the economy geared up for wartime. Women were urgently needed to fill jobs, so employers and governments were forced to address the issue of child care, in order to free mothers to join the wartime workforce in large numbers. Between 1939 and 1942, the number of women in the workforce doubled, with women accounting for one third of Canadian workers. The Canadian government responded by establishing a wartime day nursery program to help working mothers, in eight industrial cities across the country. A 1943 film, Before They Are Six, held in the collections at LAC and available online through the National Film Board’s website, promoted the day nursery program. Historian Lisa Pasolli found that these nurseries cared for just over 4,000 children between 1942 and 1946, mainly in Ontario and Quebec where most heavy industry was located. Another 2,500 children were part of the hot lunch and after-school care programs. Mrs. Jack Wright, pictured above, has become Canada’s most famous wartime working mother, featured in a series of Wartime Information Board images held at LAC. In the photos, Wright balances her war work with the responsibilities of feeding her family and raising her children with the help of the day nursery program. Most Canadian women, however, did not have access to day nurseries, and they continued to juggle informal child-care arrangements or paid work from home.

The end of the Second World War brought an end to the day nursery program. Newspaper and magazine articles urged middle-class working mothers back into their homes to make way for men returning from military service. The unusual wartime circumstances that had made child care a federal priority had ended, and widespread availability of government-sponsored daycares would not come again for decades. Throughout the 1950s, child care split regionally, often along class lines. Historian Larry Prochner’s research on child care found that professionally educated nursery school teachers cared for the children of wealthier households, while many child-care centres followed older patterns, providing crèche services as a stopgap solution for lower-income families. The 1966 Canada Assistance Plan again brought some federal attention and consistency to daycares, with government recognition of the rapidly growing number of working women.

A father spoons food into the mouth of his child, who is seated in a high chair in the kitchen. The father’s mouth is open, as he mimics his baby.

Magazine photo featuring a father overseeing a baby’s mealtime, Star Weekly, 1960 (e010692838)

The women’s movements of the 1960s (what some have dubbed the “Second Wave” of feminism) saw women increasingly taking their place in the workforce, with numbers of working women growing to match wartime levels. As the number of working mothers has grown, household duties and child care have become a shared responsibility. Fathers, once expected to “man” the barbecue and lawnmower on weekends, are increasingly involved in child rearing, cooking and cleaning. The man in the Star Weekly magazine spread above may have been newsworthy in 1960, but most modern fathers are fully versed in the joys of baby mush. Although Canadian men spend less time on housework than women (according to Statistics Canada, 1.5 hours less per day on average), today’s fathers are much more likely than Baby Boomer dads to take charge of parenting. The 1950s-style nuclear family with a working husband and stay-at-home mother is in the minority. According to the same Statistics Canada report, almost 60 percent of Canadian families have two income earners, up from under 40 percent in 1976, and single-parent households have almost doubled during the same period. Double-income households, single parenting, co-parenting and other family models hinge on reliable child care. With most Canadian families consisting of two full-time wage earners, daycares, schools, summer camps and after-school programs have become essential to the smooth running of most households. Department of Manpower and Immigration photographs at LAC include dozens of images of daycares and nursery schools and show the increasing importance of early childhood education. The conversation about their importance to the Canadian economy is also likely to increase in the eventual wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A colour photograph of the backs of two small children seated at a table in a cluttered room. The children are pretending to work on handmade cardboard computers while talking on plastic telephones.

Two small children “work from home,” Gatineau, Quebec, March 2020

Families facing a long summer without day camps and worrying about a new school year filled with uncertainty are asking questions about how long “pandemic parenting” is sustainable. Only time will tell if the gap between female and male employment will continue grow as the pandemic wears on and families are forced to choose which wage earner will stay home with children. A recent survey by Statistics Canada looks at how families are coping during the pandemic, in order to identify how to help those most in need. As with so many things during COVID-19, child-care solutions seem to be as individual as a family’s circumstances. I myself have no answers, except to reflect that this constant juggling of family and work responsibilities is not new. Communal child rearing, the rapid mobilization of wartime day nurseries to meet the needs of a nation in crisis, increasing parenting responsibilities for fathers, employers’ openness to flextime, and the availability of new technologies like telework are all possible models to take with us into this summer and beyond.


Krista Cooke is a curator in the Exhibitions team at Library and Archives Canada.

The liberation of the Netherlands (1944–1945)

By Sarah Bellefleur Bondu

This year, 2020, is the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The cruel conflict lasted for six long years; it included battles, military offensives, restrictions and rationing for Europeans and North Americans alike, not to mention the heartbreak suffered by families who lost loved ones at the front. The war, from 1939 to 1945, also featured co-operation, goodwill and solidarity between the Allied forces and civilians who were enduring harsh conditions. The vital contribution of the Canadian Forces to the liberation of the Netherlands in 1944–1945 is a shining example of this spirit of caring.

On May 10, 1940, Germany attacked the Netherlands. A few days later, Her Majesty Queen Wilhelmina and members of the Dutch government fled the country, which soon fell to the Nazi forces. The Netherlands remained under oppressive occupation for four years.

Flooded village with rooftops and a church steeple protruding from the waters.

The dikes blown up by the Germans flooded a large part of the northern Netherlands. This photograph, taken from an aircraft on May 31, 1945, shows a small flooded village where a church steeple and rooftops provide refuge for seagulls. (a175772)

Launch of operations in the Netherlands

In September 1944, several weeks after their invasion of Normandy, the Allies launched operations against the German forces still holding the line in northwestern Europe. Many key positions, including a number of bridges that crossed major Dutch waterways, were taken by the Allied forces during Operation Market Garden. However, German troops still held the banks of the Scheldt River, which crosses the Netherlands and connects the port city of Antwerp in Belgium to the North Sea. This canal was vital for the Allies to access key seaports and resupply their troops.

The Battle of the Scheldt

In October 1944, Allied forces seized first the northern and then the southern banks of the Scheldt. On November 8, they successfully stormed the German stronghold on Walcheren Island.

n the winter of 1944–1945, the Allies carefully planned their next campaign, which could potentially end the war in Europe. However, the Dutch had almost run out of resources under German occupation; this was the tragic Hunger Winter. With food reserves depleted in the Netherlands, thousands of civilians died.

Operation Veritable was launched on February 8, 1945. Its objective was to help Allied troops continue their advance, cross Germany’s borders, push the enemy back across the Rhine and breach the famous Siegfried Line.

The campaign in northwestern Europe: final phase

As they gradually advanced through the Netherlands, the Allied forces liberated occupied towns one after the other. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was responsible for ending the Nazi occupation of the northeastern Netherlands, including the cities of Almelo (April 5), Zutphen (April 8), Deventer (April 12), Arnhem (April 12–16) and Groningen (April 16), as well as the German coast. Elsewhere in the country, the 1st Canadian Army Corps pushed the remaining Germans out of the western Netherlands, north of the Meuse, and liberated the city of Apeldoorn (April 17).

During these operations, the Allies were concerned that the Germans would destroy the dikes and that the high waters of the spring would flood Dutch cities. They were also aware that civilians faced starvation because of supply problems. On April 28, they entered into negotiations with the Germans, who accepted their proposal two days later. As a result, thousands of tons of food and coal were transported by plane, ship and truck to the Dutch people.

Several people unload food crates from the back of a military truck. Many crates are stacked in the foreground.

Dutch civilians load a truck with Canadian-supplied food following an agreement between the Germans, the Dutch and the Allies on providing food to the Dutch people, May 3, 1945. (a134417)

On May 5, 1945, the German forces occupying the Netherlands surrendered; the whole country was officially liberated. After enduring years of hardship, the Dutch people gave the warmest welcome possible to the Canadians when they arrived. The Dutch celebrated across the country as the occupation ended. Two days after the liberation of the Netherlands, the Second World War in Europe was officially over.

Crowd of Dutch civilians celebrating the liberation of Utrecht by the Canadian Army, May 7, 1945. (a134376)

Since then, many of the Canadian soldiers who helped to liberate the Netherlands returned to attend commemorative ceremonies and maintained close ties with the Dutch people they had met. Library and Archives Canada holds an extensive collection of archival material documenting the events of 1945 and the relationship between Canada and the Netherlands to the present day.

Several children standing in front of headstones, holding bouquets of daffodils.

Young children preparing to place flowers on the headstones of graves of Canadian soldiers in the Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery, 1957. (e011176651)

Other resources


Sarah Bellefleur Bondu is an archivist in the Reference Services Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Red tape in the archives

By Leah Sander

Nearly 20 years ago, as a young archivist, I had the privilege of working for a year at the National Archives of Scotland (now the National Records of Scotland) in Edinburgh. Archival practices in Scotland are generally similar to those in Canada. One important difference, of course, is that Scotland has a much longer paper recordkeeping history than Canada, and the holdings of the Scottish national archives reflect this.

Another difference that I noted at the time was in terminology. To keep records of the same origin together in a way that would not damage the records, staff at the National Archives of Scotland used a natural-coloured woven ribbon that to my surprise was called “archival tape.” It was clearly different from the adhesive substance that I associated with the word “tape.” This ribbon was not adhesive in any way, was simply used to tie things, and was made of archivally safe material.

After learning about the use of the word “tape” for this particular material, I came across original documents tied with a dark pink ribbon, which would have been used by the original recordkeepers. A Scottish colleague pointed out that this was the origin of the expression “red tape”—the red or pink ribbon used to keep related bundles of records together was literally red tape, before the term had any figurative meaning.

 A colour photograph of a register with pink ribbon wrapped around it.

Original pink ribbon (red tape) around a register, before conservation treatment, at the Library and Archives Canada storage facility in Renfrew, Ontario. Photo credit: Elise Rowsome, LAC

It was not an exclusively Scottish practice to use red tape in recordkeeping. Many European countries used this material for binding records in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, exporting it to the colonies that later became the countries of Canada and the United States of America. My first job after working at the National Archives of Scotland was at the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) Archives in Winnipeg. I quickly became aware that the HBC, whose headquarters until 1970 were in London, England, also used red tape.

A colour photograph of rolled maps tied with undyed ribbon.

For preservation purposes, pink ribbon was removed from these rolled maps and replaced with undyed ribbon at the Library and Archives Canada storage facility in Renfrew, Ontario. Photo credit: Cory Dunfield, LAC

Because many Western bureaucratic organizations and governments frequently used red tape in their recordkeeping, particularly during the 18th and 19th centuries, the term became synonymous in the English language with the excessive procedures and delays of administration that were common among modern bureaucracies. Many archives that hold records from this time period, including Library and Archives Canada, therefore also retain examples of real “red tape” in their collections.


Leah Sander is the Lead Archivist for Description in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

100 Years of the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada

By Michael Dufresne

From partisanship to professionalism

2020 is the 100th anniversary of Elections Canada and its founding legislation, the Dominion Elections Act (DEA). The DEA contained significant changes that brought lasting and positive impacts to the Canadian electoral system. Since 1867, according to the dean of electoral studies, political scientist John C. Courtney, our system has developed “from partisanship to professionalism.” It has experienced multiple changes over the years, but Courtney says, “without doubt the greatest single improvement in the administration of elections in Canada came with the establishment of the offices of our various chief electoral officers.”

As of July 1, 1920, the DEA centralized the administration of federal elections and created the new role of General Electoral Officer, now called the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO). Not only did the Act drastically change the administration of federal elections, but Parliament also used the DEA as a springboard to enact more reforms. To militate against the partisan manipulation of elections, the CEO became an Officer of Parliament, with an independent role; the incumbent could not be removed from office by the government without just cause.

“That Canada be not disgraced”: the 1917 Military Voters Act and War-time Elections Act

The DEA followed two earlier Acts of Parliament that were part of a rather obvious two-pronged electoral strategy to ensure the re-election of Prime Minister Robert Borden and his Unionist government. Borden had become prime minister in 1911 and was not defeated until the end of the First World War.

Visiting the Western Front, Borden was reportedly “shaken” by the magnitude of the loss of life; he was convinced that conscription was the only way to contribute more soldiers. “Our first duty is to win at any cost,” Borden confided to his diary, “so that we may continue to do our part in winning the war and that Canada be not disgraced.”

Passed in September 1917, in time for its application in the December federal election, the Military Voters Act (MVA) enfranchised British subjects in the Canadian Armed Forces, regardless of active or retired status, age, ethnicity, or gender, as well as British subjects ordinarily resident in Canada on active duty in Europe in an allied army. The MVA also empowered the party of the military voter’s choice to apply that vote to any riding if the voter had not selected a riding. These votes, overwhelmingly in favour of the government, were assigned 31 days after the election to ridings where they helped government candidates win.

Black-and-white photograph of a soldier in uniform standing and reading a propaganda poster that reads, “A vote against the Government means: You are here for life. A vote for the Government means: Another man is coming to take your place.”

Propaganda for the Dominion elections of Canada, posted on a salvage company dumpster in France, 1917 (a008158)

The War-time Elections Act (WEA) was the MVA’s civilian counterpart. Also passed in the fall of 1917, the WEA enfranchised women who were spouses, widows, mothers, sisters or daughters of anyone, male or female, living or dead, in the Canadian military, as long as these female voters met certain requirements, including age, nationality and residency. The WEA also disenfranchised conscientious objectors and others. These included British subjects born in countries with whom Canada was at war who were naturalized after March 31, 1902, as well as those naturalized after that date whose first language was that of an enemy country.

Broadening the franchise

In the wake of the 1917 federal election, the opposition Liberals largely supported the 1920 legislation that saw the enfranchisement of most women. The bill was criticized, though, for not removing an old instrument of partisan politics: patronage appointments. The government did not forgo the power to appoint revision officers, now called returning officers. This kept the ability to hand out “possibly the greatest instrument of political patronage at the local level” in the hands of the government of the day, says Courtney. This oft-criticized feature of Canadian federal election law remained on the books until 2006, when the Federal Accountability Act ended the practice. Another significant issue, gerrymandering, was also left untouched by the DEA; this is where the boundaries of a riding are manipulated to favour one candidate over another. The means to end the practice, the use of non-partisan electoral boundary commissions, did not become a regular part of the political landscape until the 1960s.

The enfranchisement of women and the elimination of property restrictions effectively doubled the size of the electorate in one stroke. But problems remained. As Courtney maintains, “The most serious deficiencies” involved the “exclusion from the franchise of specific groups for racial, religious or economic reasons.”

The DEA did, however, grant women the right to become candidates in federal elections. The first woman to become a Member of Parliament was elected to the House of Commons in the December 1921 election: Agnes Macphail, a teacher who ran for the Progressives in the rural Ontario riding of Grey South East. Not everyone agreed with this broadening of the federal franchise. MP J.J. Denis, for example, held that a women’s place was “not amid the strife of the political arena, but in her home.” Henri Bourassa, an early advocate of a new nationality of Canadians embracing both French and English, voiced a position that probably echoed that of others in the province of Quebec. He predicted that granting the vote to women would “reduce the birth rate, undermine parental authority, and eventually destroy the family as an institution.”

If the fears of its opponents were never realized, the impact of the broadening of the franchise did not always meet the expectations of its proponents. Some expected the enfranchisement of women to have a significant impact on the composition of Parliament and the kinds of laws and programs that would result. There was little of this impact in evidence.

Also, the possibility that women would vote as a bloc overestimated the significance of their identity as women in the voting booth. “Instead of voting en bloc, as feminists had urged and as politicians had feared, women divided their votes among Conservative, Liberal, Progressive, and Labour candidates in almost the same proportions men did. Rather than voting according to sex, women voted as members of a class, region, or ethnic group,” Courtney writes.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman placing her vote in a box, while smiling at the camera and holding her dog’s leash. In the background are other women waiting to vote and checking the list of voters.

A woman votes during the 1953 federal election (e011200969)

An ongoing conversation

A significant benefit from the 1920 DEA is the provision obliging the CEO to prepare a post-election report for Parliament. As a result, the CEO takes a critical look at the most recent election, identifies its problems and challenges, and proposes remedies for the next one. This encourages an ongoing conversation about our electoral system. Following the 1921 federal election, the first CEO, Oliver Mowat Biggar, reported that those entitled to vote had trouble doing so because their names were left off the list of voters. Others, he said, were not able to vote because of the day on which the election was held. Biggar recommended that more revision officers be used when compiling the voters list to ensure its accuracy; to make it more convenient to vote, he also recommended that more advanced polls be established. Both of these solutions were accepted by Parliament.

Even today, from a worldwide perspective, “the creation of Elections Canada is heralded as a key contribution to the development of neutral electoral practices,” writes Courtney, one that “distanced the general supervision of the electoral process from the government of the day.” The 1920 DEA (renamed the Canada Elections Act in 1951) was less of a beginning and more of an important development in an ongoing conversation about the nature, character and limits of Canadian parliamentary democracy. To be sure, the advent of an independent office administering a mechanism so crucial to the legitimate exercise of power is a significant and noteworthy event in Canadian electoral history.

For images of elections from our collection, visit the Flickr album.

Additional sources

David J. Bercuson and J.L. Granatstein, Dictionary of Canadian Military History, Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1992

John C. Courtney, Elections, UBC Press, Vancouver, 2004

Dominion Elections Act, from the Canadian Museum of History’s online Chronicle: a spotlight on 1920–1997

The Electoral System of Canada, 4th edition

A History of the Vote in Canada (2007)

Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (also referred to as the Lortie Commission)

John Herd Thompson and Allen Seager, Canada, 1922–1939: Decades of Discord, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1985


Michael Dufresne was the archivist responsible for Elections Canada and is now an access archivist in the ATIP division at Library and Archives Canada.