A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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General History
OBSTACLES

Like Kit Coleman, most 19th century Irish immigrants who came to Canada had a strong desire to improve their material conditions. Kit, as the sole support of two children, (in a world without daycares or social assistance!) was facing a plight that has plagued single mothers throughout history. She, like many other women, took a series of low-paying jobs at first. And like many mothers today, she tried working at home, writing magazine articles between household chores. Though Kit was urban and eventually used her writing skills and concern about social issues to hurl herself into the world of newspapers, she had the same grit and determination as many rural immigrants who were looking for better land and advantages that eluded them at home. These rural poor moved from a system in Ireland where land was scarce and labour was plentiful to one where labour was scarce and land was plentiful. Canada! The price was a greater degree of isolation than rural life offered in Ireland, but it was one that most were willing to pay.

The Irish experience in 19th century Canada was very different from that of 20th century ethnic minorities. In many ways, a familiarity with Britain helped the Irish settle here. In contrast to many recent immigrant groups, the Irish spoke English, were familiar with British political, social and cultural traditions, and formed a substantial proportion of the population. As we know, Kit Coleman struggled when she arrived in Canada, yet her ability to speak the language (and use it so well!), allowed her to move fairly quickly from the margins of society. Compared to ethnic groups from India and the Pacific Rim, the Irish like Kit followed a faster road to the Canadian mainstream; indeed, they played a significant role in shaping the mainstream.

However, rabid anti-Irish sentiments were hurled at the immigrants in 19th Century Canada, and many Irish Protestants looked down on Irish Catholics (and vise versa) as inferior beings. Irish Protestants had a social advantage in the early years of settlement, sharing an affinity with the predominant Church of England. Irish Catholics were feared and ostracized for decades by Canadians haunted by images of Famine Irish limping off fever ships, contaminated by disease and poverty. Nasty clashes and riots between Irish Protestants and Catholics continued in major Canadian cities until the turn of the 20th century. And the Irish themselves - both Protestant and Catholic - were as capable as other white ethnic groups in Canada of harbouring racial prejudice and of attempting to keep non-white immigrants out of the country. 6

Unlike some 20th century immigrants who came to Canada with a view to making money and returning home, the 19th century Irish generally stayed in North America, although large numbers who arrived in Canada went on to the United States. Interestingly, it appears that Irish immigration to Canada contained a much higher proportion of women that that in more recent ethnic groups. 7

From the early 1830s, a significant majority of the Irish in Canada settled in Ontario, like Kit. Shortly after Confederation, two thirds of Irish Canadians lived in the province. Quebec, was a far second and New Brunswick a close third. 8

Endnotes
1 - 18 Wilson, David, The Irish in Canada, Canada's Ethnic Groups, Canadian Historical Society, 1989
The Canadian Encyclopedia 2000 McClelland and Stewart

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