Economic development: What can we learn from the history of occupations in the Okanagan?

Occupations Project_Penticton Museum Archives PMA8011

Photo courtesy of Penticton Museum & Archives, photo number PMA8011: the first passenger train into Penticton, May 30 1915, photographer Hudson.

What makes a region with a largely unexamined past an important place to study economic history? On the surface, the Okanagan might appear to be an agricultural settlement, but there’s much more to it than that.

The Okanagan is currently ranked the #1 entrepreneurial region in Canada and is still growing. Its principal city, Kelowna, is the fifth fastest growing city in Canada, yet in 1891 the city did not exist. Relatively little is known about the region’s economic history.

Roger Sugden (UBC) and Keith Sugden (University of Cambridge, UK) are writing a book to help to fill this gap. Putting the region in the context of British Columbia and Canada, they are able to better understand the Okanagan’s growth. A greater aim of their work is to draw on the region’s economic history to help its citizens imagine the future.

Known for its sunny climate, fruit orchards and wine industry, in the last century the Okanagan was often referred to as a “Garden of Eden”. But it wasn’t quite that simple. Part of the Okanagan (Syilx) First Nations Territory, it was first settled by Europeans. The region was used as a trail for fur trappers and as a supply centre providing cattle and grain to miners in the north. The Okanagan quickly urbanized and there was actually a lot more going on than merely agriculture.

Petty’s law (William Petty, 1690) says that as agriculture declines, it is replaced by manufacturing. Once manufacturing declines, service sectors rise. The data about Canada, British Columbia and the Okanagan challenges this theory and calls the economic principle into doubt. When people first settled here, agriculture was important, and the region had little manufacturing, other than construction. A noticeable feature was the almost immediate rise of the service industry. Without services and without urbanization, the Okanagan would not have developed as it did.

Censuses, which took place every ten years, provide key insights on what people did from settlement to the modern day, although they are not perfect They record the address, occupation and wage of those people in gainful employment. The censuses are useful to track change for men and single women, but are of less value for others.

Married women are normally described as wife in the censuses at the start of the last century, a time when women’s work in the home, keeping the family in food and clothing, was an essential contributor to family income. The book will address the oversight of the economic contribution made by married women by using data on, for example, the wages paid to domestics and housekeepers.

Another problem with the censuses is that the Syilx People of the Okanagan Nation are poorly represented. Yet, they are integral to understanding the region. The history of First Nations is passed on through oral traditions. It relies on comprehension and interpretation of memory, as well as the understanding and unpacking of particular words. Thinking about oral traditions, and language, is also making us question what census data means. For example, when a census records an occupation as “farmer,” what does that tell you about what people did?

The Okanagan has come a long way, but the region still has a lot of developing to do. Many unanswered questions remain. All the more reason to imagine the future destination now, and to think about how we’re going to get there.

The edited book, “The Occupational Structure of the Okanagan, British Columbia, and Canada, 1881-1941” is due to be published by UBC Press in 2020. It will have introductions by Tony Wrigley and Leigh Shaw Taylor from the University of Cambridge (UK).

Read more about the research by Roger Sugden and Keith Sugden in BC Studies, no. 194 Summer 2017.


Roger Sugden (PhD and MA Economics, BA Law) is Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Management at UBC’s Okanagan campus. A scholar with international experience in management and economics education, Sugden’s research focuses on economic organization, the interests of publics and regional socio-economic development. He is currently contributing to projects on the recent history of occupational structure and economic strategy in the Okanagan, and on organizing knowledge to support BC’s wine industry. In April 2018, Sugden will be a Visiting Scholar at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge (UK).

Keith Sugden (PhD History, MSc Applied Chemistry) is an Affiliated Researcher at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, University of Cambridge (UK). After a career in research and development in a worldwide consumer goods company, he changed paths to study economic history, particularly as it relates to occupations. He is interested in what people did, why they did it, and what the outcomes were. He aims to throw light on the English textile industry during the industrial revolution, circa 1700-1851, and to understand the economic development of the Okanagan, British Columbia, 1881 to present day.