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A work in progress: new book explores Canada's working history up to COVID-19

Last Updated Mar 28, 2021 at 10:38 am PDT

Canada: A Working History cover (Courtesy: Dundurn Press)

Why are some vocations considered more valuable than others? This question and more posed in 'Canada: A Working History'

This week on #1130Bookshelf historian Jason Russell talks about his new book

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — It’s the story of our country as seen through the lens of labour. Canada: A Working History has a lot to say about where we’ve been, but also about where we’re going.

Historian and author Jason Russell looks at the evolution of work in Canada, from pre-industrial times to the present day, including the impacts of COVID-19. The material from the year 2000 onwards is particularly illuminating to our current era.

LISTEN: Canada: A Working History

This is Russell’s fourth book.

“I have written other books that are more academic in nature. And the idea here was to come up with something that was going to appeal more to an everyday reader, not just to a strictly academic reading audience.”

Canada: A Working History explores a number of important questions in a conversational, easy-to-read manner.

“How do we value work? Why is men’s work valued more than women’s work? Why do people from certain backgrounds end up being put into lower-paying jobs or more precarious jobs? It’s those sorts of things. It’s a more personal thing than just statistical analysis and I think that’s what people might initially think they would be getting.”

RELATED: On the Line: an illustrated history of B.C.’s labour movement

Russell says while it’s tempting to think COVID-19 will transform the world of work permanently, he feels we shouldn’t overstate its effects either.

“There’s a lot of prognostication about the idea that everybody’s going to be working from home [but] the reality of it is that most jobs cannot be done remotely. It’s like 35 to 40 per cent of jobs can be done entirely by remote but the vast majority of them require an on-site presence meaning in a workplace.”

“People like you and I, we can work from home if we need to, right? But somebody that’s working in a hospital can’t, somebody that’s working in food services can’t, cops can’t arrest people from their homes, things like this,” he explains. “For people whose jobs are able to work from home, I think you’ll see that continue in a lot of instances. But for most people, they’re still going to be going on the job every day.”

Of course, not all work is paid, it is often unpaid as well. Russell says COVID-19 has shown women especially are bearing the brunt of that distinction more than men.

“Unpaid work has become so essential, especially with people trying to work from home and do their paid work while also doing their domestic work and, most importantly, trying to look after kids at the same time as they’re doing all these other things, and most importantly, it’s women who are normally doing this,” he says.

“So, there’s been talk over the past year about the so called she-cession, not just the recession, but this she-cession. But this has always gone on. Family economies have undergirded the official money-making economy since Europeans showed up here hundreds of years ago, and that’s going to likely continue that way,” Russell explains. “The challenge is how do we think about putting an actual value, a monetary value, on all of this important unpaid work that we’ve always relied on.”

Canada: A Working History is available from Dundurn Press.