Manufacturing traces its history in Canada back to the 17th century, long before Confederation. French and English colonists at the time built grist mills to process grain into flour. Later, the need for armaments, stoves, and household utensils saw the growth of iron smelting in the fledgeling nation. By the 1800s, there were over 400 grist mills and many smelting plants in Upper and Lower Canada.
With Confederation in 1867 came geographic expansion westward, fuelling the growth of new manufacturing industries in Canada. Factories to process domestic goods such as lumber and animal products became prominent in the 1870s and 1880s. Once electricity was discovered, Canada harnessed its ample rivers to produce low-cost hydroelectricity, giving manufacturers another boost.
Manufacturing in Canada reached a turning point during the Great War. With industry hampered in Europe and a growing demand for ships, steel, and pulp/paper, Canada’s manufacturing industries stepped up to fill the gaps. By 1920, manufacturing directly employed 600,000 Canadian workers.
While production slowed during the Great Depression, the Second World War gave it a needed shot in the arm. Heavy industries, like vehicles and aircraft, flourished. Over a million Canadians worked in manufacturing in the 1940s. These industries would continue to play a significant role in the manufacturing sector in Canada for decades to come.
The latter half of the 20th century brought winds of change. New trade policies and practices had a big impact on manufacturing, and Canada benefitted from greater production and productivity, along with lower prices to Canadian consumers. However, it also saw increased competition from Japan and Europe (which had rebuilt from the war by the 1960s) as global industrial powers. China, once a lesser player, also emerged as a manufacturing powerhouse. Sectors like clothing, textiles, footwear, and consumer electronics in Canada suffered a near-fatal blow.