by Ellen Scheinberg, historian
Two primary concerns confronted the government: to locate sufficient domestic servants to satisfy the needs of Canadians, and to ensure that the women brought over were both virtuous and of good character. The first goal appeared to be impossible to meet. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, public complaints about shortages in domestic labour -- whether from upper-class families in Toronto or from farmers in Manitoba -- were prevalent. In 1898, O.L. Fowler, the superintendent of immigration, expressed his concern: "The demand for girls on farms alone is so great," he wrote. "During the past year I have had to write 150 letters to farmers stating that I could not supply them with help."
Since the servants had to sign a year-long contract, there was some assurance that they would remain in service for that period of time. Of course, many disgruntled servants broke their agreements, and found other jobs that were more lucrative or more satisfying. Even those who completed their contracts often searched soon after for other job opportunities. At that time, domestic work was viewed by many as among the least appealing prospects for a woman, due to the long hours, the low pay, the isolation and the potential for abuse by someone in the household. Another option was marriage, which offered a promising escape from service.
The government and the Canadian public closely scrutinized the issue of finding virtuous women of good character. Candidates went through a rigorous selection process in Europe before being admitted to Canada. And once in Canada, they were expected to be docile and obedient servants. Those who did not conform were labeled uncontrollable or deviant and could be fired from their jobs, incarcerated, institutionalized or deported.
Health issues weighed heavily on domestic servants' minds. Women who became pregnant during their contract, either by their employers or their boyfriends, were fired. As well, they faced the threat of deportation, even if their pregnancy resulted from rape. In turn, women who developed chronic or long-term health problems -- including those whose health problems arose because of their work on the job -- were subject to the same fate.