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What kind of Canada did the stores help to create? Essay (Book Review)

The book, ‘Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada’ retrospectively views the transformation of Canada from the era (1890 to 1940) during which time monopolized department stores such as Eaton’s committed themselves to strengthening the Canadian nation. Department stores are a symbol of modern nationalism, which was far-fetched from the nation which they sought to define.

The white, consumerist, middle-class was originally more limited, and contested, compared with the nostalgic portraits at the moment, depicting early department store. The book shows the transformation in consumerism of the people from simplistic retailing to modernized merchandising where large unprecedented profits were involved. The book is presented in seven chapters with various ideas, concepts and arguments.

The ideas presented are those of indirect capitalism in the eyes of consumerism, paternalism, male-dominance, commodification, political economy, and racism and segregation. Arguments against department stores have especially been brought out in the last chapter, where opinions of co-operators, social reformers, labour leaders and small retailers are presented. The author has also used criticisms from well renowned authors to refute the role played by the department stores.

The cover page of the book presents a sight to behold, which would make the reader to believe that Canada is made up of such stores hence making the modern Canada. The notion one gets when he or she glances at the title of the book is a historical series of events that shows how Canada was born from department stores. However, reading through the details of the book, it is apparent that this is not the case.

Evidently, the department stores transformed the outlook of Canada from that which consisted of small scale retailer shops to that which was defined by large stores, giving it a new modern look.

The stores used com-modification to lure their clients and since the prices were relatively affordable, this led to establishing a nation. Despite the fact that consumerism is perceived to be capitalized, the stores helped to establish a nation that was predominantly of middle class thereby, as any economist would think, helping to minimize the lower social class.

The author has tried to show how the department stores took up a complex approach to consumerism by even using Joy Parr and Cynthia Wright ideas but still, the general picture derived from the facts presented is a scenario where the consumer is duped. The author has supported her ideas using sources that seem credible such as resources by Joy Parr, Cynthia Wright and Theodor Adorno.

She has even backed up her book with figures at the figures list to give a more defined picture of what she talks about. She has used ideas from critics of department stores to show how the Canadian department stores led to the creation of a nation characterized by class and racism. In addition, the stores were crafty enough to maintain a consistent wave of high demand through consumerism so that their commodities would be bought (Belisle 109-120).

Is the work tainted by a clear bias that ignores or understates evidence, thus favour one perspective?

Belisle does not try to favour either side in as far as department stores are concerned. She is an objective author, who has presented her ideas while factoring in the advantages and disadvantages of the department stores. She has used a comprehensive approach by presenting ideas from other authors in support and against the department stores. It is left to the reader to make his or her own subjective judgement about the stores.

Her presentation of ideas is very professional. To some extent aims at appreciating the department stores as gateways for modernization, but this has not been fully achieved since the limitations associated with the department stores are more. She is not even fully certain of the effects that capitalized consumerism would yield.

Contribution to the field

The book contributes much to the subject of Canadian studies because it gives a historical account of Canadian commerce world. These accounts are important because they help the reader to understand the transformation of the Canadian society in a better way. This book is of great input to Canadian studies because it gives the historical process from which contemporary Canada was born.

This understanding of Canadian historical transformation with regard to consumerism is an important aspect to learn about Canada. However, this book would be better placed in social and gender studies. This is because it has mainly concentrated on presenting the social and gender roles employed to run the department stores.

The author intended to give credit to the stores for giving rise to the radiant nation that spurred due to innovations that aimed to meet the demands of the people. On the other hand, there is so much criticism on the capitalized retail shops, and uncertainty of the effects of such capitalism.

Belisle however does not support the strategies used by these department stores to run the business since segregation was evident: females against the males, and whites against non-white.

She has shown the injustices towards the inferior groups and classes of people such as the women, and Asians and Africans. Even though the author has shown how department stores played a major role in the growth of modern Canada, questions of how consumers actually got to buy the commodities arise. There are also the issues of racism and male dominance.

Presentation of Ideas, Concepts and Arguments

The title is somewhat ironical because a reader would expect to see how the department stores led to economic growth of the country yet this is not the case. On the contrary, the book shows a nation dominated by the department stores. It has shown the effects of the monopolized Canadian department stores, which have received a lot of criticisms. The stores are perceived to be a threat to the society in terms of the purity and wholesomeness of white women, and sustainability of small, local businesses (Belisle 195-197).

Belisle has presented her ideas cohesively since she begins by introducing the reader to the role of department stores in Canadian consumer development. She further shows how these Canadian department stores differed with other stores like the British, and how the Canadian department stores played an influential role in defining the Canadian nation.

She shows the different paternalistic and exploitative relations that were eminent in the sphere of Canadian department stores during the early-twentieth century. Belisle shows the importance of Canadian department stores in comparison with British ones. The peculiarity of Canadian encounters is traced to the post-1896 geographic and demographic evolution of Canadian settlement during and after the Sifton era.

Consumer demand where gender roles are part and parcel greatly attributed to the tremendous growth and expansion of Canadian department stores. Belisle shows the essence of consumerism in establishing a nation, and this is viable because the economic activities in a country play a major role in defining the nation.

Capturing and satisfying the demands of consumers while using the growing size of success made them harbingers of modern consumerism irrespective of the fact that they did not employ unprecedented modern retailing techniques.

Belisle takes up an objective approach towards consumerism without depicting the consumer as duped, or active. On the contrary, she paints a complex web of Canadian consumerism of the early twentieth century characterized by state, consumer interests, and business. Belisle compares her ideas with those of other authors such as Joy Parr and Cynthia Wright to reinforce her ideas. Belisle has touched on dominating masculinity, showing how women are limited to domestic roles and rarely are they assigned managerial roles.

Women are believed to be home home-makers and their inferiority role complex subjected them to domestic roles within the department stores. She presented usage of promotional materials that communicate segregation messages implying that first nation’s people were pre-modern, Africans and Asians were labourers and whites were consumers without giving her subjective views (Belisle 69).

Despite the fact that mass merchandising was associated with modern European civilization, it was highly oppressive. The author has used extensive research to reinforce these statements.

Despite being a critic of department stores, Belisle has given details about the events that transpired in constructing the colossal enterprises in Canada. The stores are the reason why segregation occurred in Canada. This is due to the fact that commodities were presented in racialized, nationalist, classed and gendered forms.

The consumers, who largely defined the nation, were the middle-class white. In a male dominated society, paternalism was used to govern the stores. In any typical business, the client is highly valued unlike the workers work break their backs off, yet are rarely appreciated. The scenario of the department stores is a typical representation of the events that unfolded during slavery where the labourers were the inferior class of people and the Lords enjoyed the benefits accruing from the hard work in the farm.

Understanding Canada after Reading the Book

Canada originated from merchandising, and in most cases, merchants can be very cunning in as far as business is concerned. The white person is highly regarded since he or she is perceived to be the most important individual, targeted by the stores. Department stores were very instrumental in developing modern Canada as the title of the book suggests.

I would, therefore, imagine Canada as a place dominated with department stores, and with a vibrant economy due to the predominantly middle class society that makes up the Canadian nation. Canada is not, however, different from other countries where male dominance and racism are evident. In the book, ‘Retail Nation: Department stores and making of modern Canada’, Belisle does not critic or favour the role played by departmental stores in as far as consumerism is concerned.

She has used ideas of renowned authors, such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1944), to show that department stores were faulty in running their businesses. Employee com-modification was used as a tool of mass deception by the retailers to consolidate their reigns.

The author uses arguments from critics of department stores to explain the spur of department stores, suggesting that she is also a critic of department stores in Canada and views the consumer as duped. This is because as Joy Parr puts it, production, distribution, and consumption come together as one, and, therefore, once goods are produced, they have to be consumed. Advertising activities are used to lure consumers, and in most cases, they do not use commodities as intended by the retailers.

Contrary to Canadian department stores, London stores are indicative of consumerism as active since it takes up the approach of shopping for pleasure. This way, a consumer is able to actively select the product which is appealing to her or him, without being influenced by external factors such as advertisers. Department stores in London Britain generally were an economic activity that did not significantly influence the development of the nation.

An ethical approach to consumerism of department stores in Canada would question the com-modification of employees as a means to lure consumers. The use of their bodies, gestures and speech to attract consumers is the main reason why consumerism is said to be duped (Belisle 110-115).


This book is a manifestation of the role played by the department stores in shaping the contemporary Canadian society. The author has remarkably tried to show the great input of the stores towards meeting changing consumers’ interests and preferences. On the other hand, she has showed the social injustices within the stores, which stir mixed reactions from different parties.

Despite the fact that she has tried to show the complex web defining consumerism by the department stores, luring consumers has been attributed to be behind the reason why the stores experience such massive retailing.

An ironical facet of it is that the department stores are said to establish the modern Canadian nation, yet to some extent it is a menace to the small retailer stores. Whereas the large department stores swim in profits and have progressively transformed and defined the Canadian nation, the existence of smaller stores is threatened.

Works Cited

Belisle, Donica. Retail Nation: Department Stores and Making of Modern Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011. Print.

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"What kind of Canada did the stores help to create?" IvyPanda, 21 May 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/what-kind-of-canada-did-the-stores-help-to-create-book-review/.

1. IvyPanda. "What kind of Canada did the stores help to create?" May 21, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/what-kind-of-canada-did-the-stores-help-to-create-book-review/.


IvyPanda. "What kind of Canada did the stores help to create?" May 21, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/what-kind-of-canada-did-the-stores-help-to-create-book-review/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "What kind of Canada did the stores help to create?" May 21, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/what-kind-of-canada-did-the-stores-help-to-create-book-review/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'What kind of Canada did the stores help to create'. 21 May.

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