Canadian furniture originated with the first settlers and consisted of simple, handmade, utilitarian products. Later, local carpenters made furniture for others. The first Canadian furniture company was established in Berlin [Kitchener], Ontario, in 1830; the next, in Toronto in 1834. The industry developed considerably in the last half of the 19th century, mainly in Ontario. There were a few factories in Québec before 1900, but the industry, particularly in the medium to low price ranges, developed there primarily after WWII.
Furniture is considered, in economic terms, an "elastic commodity," and is very sensitive to economic changes. This sensitivity was obvious in the 1930s, when production fell by two-thirds between 1930 and 1933. It is an export-oriented industry, with 53 percent of production being shipped outside of Canada, and 95% of exports going to the US.
Canada is the 5th largest exporter of furniture in the world. The Canadian furniture industry furniture industry comprises household furniture, including mattresses (38.5 percent), office and institutional furniture (40.8 percent), wood kitchen cabinets and counter tops, (17.9 percent) and blinds and shades (2.8 percent). The industry operates at 3 levels (manufacturers, distributors, retailers). Manufacturers transform raw materials into finished products. Distributors are agents or sales representatives who sell the finished product to the retailer. Because few manufacturers have large enough sales volumes in a region to justify full-time sales staff, sales representatives are usually free-lance agents representing several product lines. Retailers sell furniture to consumers. The industry is largely unionized. Canada's entire furniture industry is represented by 3 associations: The Quebec Furniture Manufacturers' Association, The Ontario Furniture Manufacturers' Association and Furniture West. These trade associations have formed the Canadian Council of Furniture Manufacturers to represent the interests of the industry nationally.
The Modern Industry
The Canadian furniture industry is 97% Canadian owned and consists mainly of small or medium-sized family-owned and -operated firms. It is an important contributor to the Canadian economy, employing more than 100 000 people in total across all levels. Automation strongly affected the industry in the early 1970s and was partly responsible for the decline in employment at that time. A small percentage of the industry's production remains at the "craftsman" stage.
There are 8410 manufacturing establishments, directly employing roughly 50 000 people, according to the AKTRIN Furniture Information Center, which monitors the industry worldwide. Annual sales exceed $11 billion. Québec accounts for almost 50% of case- goods (wooden) production; Ontario produces much upholstered and office furniture. Nearly 50% of the major manufacturers are located in rural areas. Raw materials used include wood in all forms (over 30% of materials used in furniture manufacturing), furniture frames, rubber and plastics, textiles, plastified fabrics, steel and metal, paints, lacquers, sealers and varnishes, and miscellaneous materials (eg, mirrors, packaging, hardware).
The industry is affected by federal pollution-control legislation. Air pollution from paint and lacquer fumes is the most frequently cited environmental problem. Safety-related legislation has been passed on mattress flammability, light fixtures and children's furniture (eg, lead content in paint, sharp edges).
The industry has received federal and provincial aid (eg, for expansion programs, development of microprocessor data, industrial renewal, energy conservation, market development), but none of these measures are specific to the furniture industry. As a result of the FREE TRADE agreement signed between Canada and the US in Oct 1987, total tariff reductions on furniture spanned a 5-year period, commencing 1 Jan 1989.
In 2002, with changes wrought by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the furniture industry became classified according to the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) as the Household and Institutional Furniture Manufacturing industry, in the Household and Institutional Furniture and Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturing industry group. It comprises these national industries: Upholstered Household Furniture Manufacturing; Other Wood Household Furniture Manufacturing; Household Furniture (except Wood and Upholstered) Manufacturing; and Institutional Furniture Manufacturing.
The Canadian furniture industry often finds it difficult to compete with other countries. Labour costs are much higher than in most competing countries - particularly the US, the source of most furniture imports. Canadian companies also have high transportation costs. Finally, Canada's mostly small- and medium-sized companies have difficulty competing with American firms that have a much larger production capacity and thus can achieve economies of scale.
Two colleges offer courses on furniture production: l'École québécoise du meuble et de l'ébénisterie in Victoriaville and Montréal, and Conestoga College in Ontario, Algonquin College in Ontario, Kwantlen University College in British Columbia and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT). Several colleges and universities offer courses or programs in INDUSTRIAL DESIGN and some in woodworking.