Construction Industry | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Construction Industry

Construction is one of Canada’s largest and most important industries. From houses to skyscrapers, schools, hospitals, factories and shopping centres, construction also involves a wide variety of engineering projects including highways, nuclear power stations, dams, dredging, petrochemical plants and pipelines.

Construction is one of Canada’s largest and most important industries. From houses to skyscrapers, schools, hospitals, factories and shopping centres, construction also involves a wide variety of engineering projects including highways, nuclear power stations, dams, dredging, petrochemical plants and pipelines. Members of the construction industry put in place most of the capital investment of all other industries, governments, business and individual citizens. As a result, construction is both a production industry, providing the physical means for shelter and industrial development, and a service industry, with most work being carried out in response to orders and investment decisions of others.


The construction process involves many different functions from concept to completion. In most cases, property owners initiate construction projects, acquire necessary sites and arrange for project financing. A design team typically consists of an architect, consulting engineer and specialist sub-consultants who prepare detailed specifications and drawings for a project's design.

General or prime contractors assume responsibility for the co-ordination of construction activities and project completion. Trades or specialty contractors perform work related to the various trades, for example, mechanical, electrical and carpentry. Manufacturers and suppliers include importers, wholesalers and retailers engaged in the production and merchandising of construction goods.

The Modern Industry

Following a decrease in construction activity during the Great Depression, the Second World War brought about a substantial resurgence in activity in Canada. Achievements during this period included the construction of a rubber products plant at Sarnia, ON and of numerous British Commonwealth Air Training Plan aerodromes. This rapid increase in wartime construction, and the ability of the industry to execute projects quickly and efficiently, marked the establishment of Canada's modern construction industry. (See History of Construction Industry)

Construction continued to expand throughout the postwar period, with a striking increase in the size and complexity of many individual projects. For example, the postwar housing boom gave rise to "project housing," including hundreds of units of high-rise apartment buildings and complexes.

A new construction market developed in northern Canada with the building of early-warning radar defence installations, mining, and other resource developments and transportation facilities. In southern Canada, the Trans-Canada Highway and the St Lawrence Seaway represent significant construction projects.

Canada has long been famous for its large-scale hydroelectric power projects (e.g., Churchill Falls; James Bay Project). Hydroelectricity projects were augmented by thermal and nuclear energy power plants (see Electric-Power Generation).

Following the Second World War, the regional breakdown of total construction activity by province included one-third in Ontario, one-quarter in Québec and one-tenth in British Columbia. Toronto and Montréal were the main centres of construction activity, accounting for approximately 25 per cent of the total. During this period, total construction output included 30 per cent for residential construction, 40 per cent for engineering infrastructure projects (such as hospitals, energy plants, transportation, water systems, etc.) and 30 per cent for other building construction.

In the 1970s, significant shifts occurred favouring the development of construction activity in western Canada with the discovery of vast energy reserves in this region. By 1981, the value of Alberta's construction equalled that of Ontario (both 25 per cent).

The construction industry boomed during the 1990s, with a total construction activity valued at an unprecedented $100 billion in 1990. Due to a prolonged recession, this value was not matched again until 1996.

By the end of the 20th century, due to nation-wide public sector cutbacks only one-fifth of the country's construction was directly financed by government departments or agencies at the federal, provincial or municipal level. As a result, in addition to the domestic market, Canadian developers, designers and contractors have developed a substantial export market, especially in the US. Softwood lumber, gypsum board and manufactured housing are among the principal products the construction industry exports.

The 21st century started out strong for the sector, with a high demand for both residential and commercial building projects. While major centres such as Toronto continued to grow, Alberta’s oil and gas industry greatly increased the construction of both commercial and non-commercial buildings in Edmonton and Calgary. The number of residential building permits in the province, for example, grew 116 per cent between 1994 and 2004, from 18,000 to just under 39,000.

The construction industry continued to grow up until 2008, when the recession prompted a significant decline. Following 2009, however, the industry rebounded, falling back into a pattern of expansion.


The construction industry's voluntary organizations are structured according to type of trade, product, project, service or interest. Employers' associations, professional societies and labour unions are organized and operate on the national, regional or provincial and local levels.

The principal employers' group is the Canadian Construction Association, which has maintained its head office in Ottawa since its incorporation in 1919. The CCA represents general building and engineering contractors, trade contractors, industrial contractors, manufacturers and suppliers of construction materials and equipment, and professional and service firms.

Virtually every major component of the industry has its own national body to deal with its special interests. The residential construction sector is represented by the Canadian Home Builders' Association, the Urban Development Institute and the Canadian Institute of Public Real Estate Companies. Groups representing contractors include the Canadian Institute of Steel Construction, the Pipe Line Contractors Association of Canada, the Mechanical Contractors Association of Canada and the Canadian Electrical Contractors Association. Among the product associations are the Canadian Portland Cement Association, the Canadian Wood Council, the Society of Plastics Industry of Canada and the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada. The Canadian Construction Documents Committee, representing five major national bodies, develops standard forms for a wide range of construction contracts and related tendering and administrative guides.


The traditional nature of many of the building trades and familiarity with the European guild system featuring structured apprenticeships led to the early establishment of labour unions in the Canadian construction industry. With certain notable exceptions, the building trades unions were organized along craft lines and were affiliated with unions operating in the US or in Great Britain.

Local construction-employees' groups now operate mainly under charters received from international unions with head offices in the US. They are affiliated with the Building and Construction Trades Department of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). The Department has a Canadian executive board and maintains an office in Canada. Building trades councils, representing these international construction trade unions, operate on district and provincial levels throughout the country.

In Québec, the international unions belong to le Conseil provincial du Québec des métiers de la construction. Other Québec construction labour groups include the Conféderation des syndicats nationaux (CSN-Construction) and the Centrale des syndicats démocratiques. The syndicates represent the various construction trades. The Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) represents a number of local construction labour groups in Ontario and western Canada.

Training and Education

Organized vocational training for construction careers in Canada is carried out under the apprenticeship system. Trades instruction is also available at technical schools and through correspondence courses. Construction-technician courses are commonly given at institutes of technology and special courses are available for supervisory personnel.

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