A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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General History


Kit Coleman left her own legacy to this country as our first newspaperwoman as well as travel writer, adventurer, and social reformer. However, the sheer numbers of Irish immigrants who came to Canada, mostly before Kit, meant that the Irish became not only the largest immigrant group to Canada, but also the major non-French ethnic group in British North America. Their presence was registered in the pre-Confederation census data, which demonstrate that before the Famine the Irish had already become the largest foreign-born group in Ontario and Quebec and that they occupied a similar position in New Brunswick and Newfoundland by at least the late 1850s. The Irish almost equaled the Scots in Prince Edward Island; only in Nova Scotia, where Scottish immigration clearly predominated, were the Irish considerably under-represented. The Irish were almost certainly the single largest ethnic group in English Canada from the 1830s to the late 1880s. The first Dominion of Canada census of 1871 showed that 24.3 per cent of all Canadians were of Irish ethnicity, in comparison to the English with 20.3 per cent and the Scottish with 15.8 per cent. English speaking Canada had a significant Irish accent! 9

From comprising almost a quarter of the population in 1871, the Irish dropped to slightly under a tenth in 1961. One reason for this was that more and more Irish immigrants chose to settle in the U.S. instead of Canada. In addition, the total number of people immigrating from Ireland diminished after World War II, particularly in comparison to the number leaving other European countries and Third World nations who chose Canada as their home. 10

It is sometimes assumed that the Irish adapted poorly to Canadian life because we read so much about hard-living, hard-fighting and hard-drinking Irishmen trapped in urban ghettoes, working as unskilled labourers, unable to succeed. And yet, statistical evidence showing place of residence, patterns of occupation and occupational success, shows a very different picture. Stereotypes of the poor, wild Irish are generally a distortion of reality.

The Irish quickly adapted to Canadian norms. During the 19th century they followed the national pattern of predominantly rural settlement. In the mid-19th century, and particularly in the immediate post-Famine period, many first-generation Irish Canadians crowded into places like Halifax, Hamilton, Kingston and London. But their experiences were not typical of the Irish as a whole. In 1871, just seven years before Kit Coleman arrived in Montreal, three out of every four Irishmen lived in the countryside. Farming was the single most important means of supporting 19th century Irish households, both Catholic and Protestant. Generally, though, the proportion of farmers was higher among Irish Protestants than Irish Catholics. In 1871, 53.8 per cent of the Irish Protestants were farmers, compared with 44.3 percent of the Catholics. In contrast, Irish Catholics in Canada were twice as likely as Irish Protestants to be semi-skilled workers and labourers. 11

In 1871, the percentage of Irish Protestants and Catholics who were merchants, manufacturers, professionals, white collar workers and artisans was virtually identical to that of the population at large. Other such statistics show that again, by 1871, the Irish were acculturated to Canadian norms as far as place or residence, occupation and occupational success. Considering that so many had been deeply affected and set back in their lives by the trauma of the Great Famine, this achievement appears all the more impressive. 12

Yet the Irish did more than adapt to Canadian patterns; in a very real sense they actually helped to define and shape those patterns Unlike more recent ethnic groups, the Irish in the 19th century were not a small minority of the total population. Rather, they arrived in such large numbers, and were such a significant economic, social and political force, that in many ways Canadian society had to adapt to them. The Irish who arrived In Canada during the 19th century, in common with the English and Scottish, did not encounter a fully developed or articulated society. In the half-century before Confederation, English Canada was a highly malleable cultural entity, within which the Irish, English and Scottish shared the basic assumptions that English was the language of everyday life and that some form of the British tradition of representative government was desirable. Operating under these premises, the Irish, English and Scottish worked out a kind of mutual cultural accommodation. They helped establish the larger society to which the later immigrant groups would themselves have to acculturate during the 20th century. 13

The Irish in Canada and Ireland itself supplied models of social control that were adopted in British North America. For example, the dominant form of law enforcement in Canada followed Irish precedents. In 1870 when John A. Macdonald looked for a way to establish order in the Northwest Territories, he specifically requested information on the organization of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and this was the model used when the RCMP was formed in 1873. 14

One of the most striking things about the Irish in Canada is their high degree of political activism. This was not confined to an elite; it spread through the entire ethnic group, whether rich or poor, rural or urban, Catholic or Protestant. Such political awareness and engagement stemmed directly from Ireland. When the Irish in Canada began asserting themselves politically in the 1830s, it was not simply through their sheer weight of numbers, but also because they had a widespread knowledge of how to organize collectively to achieve political ends.

The Irish political and social institution that made the deepest impression on Canada was undoubtedly the Orange Order. In a country with a deeply conservative, loyal and Protestant tradition, the Orange Order found ideal conditions to flourish. Towards the end of the 19th century, Orangeism contributed to the English Canadian imperialist vision of a strong Canada playing an active and dynamic role in the British Empire. Orangemen called for Canadian unity under one flag, one language and one school system. With its prohibition of Catholics as members, its anti-Catholic oaths, toasts and jests and its evocative damnation of the Great Whore of Rome (the Pope), the Orange Order also brought severe sectarian prejudices into Canada. 15

For their part, Irish Catholics seem to have been equally prejudiced against Protestants (though, because they were in a minority in most communities, they were hardly as loud-spoken about it). Anti-Protestant feeling took its most explicit form when Catholics campaigned against their children being taught in the same schools as Protestants. Adopting tactics that had been employed successfully in Ireland, the Catholic authorities in most parts of Canada eventually won government agreement for some degree of support for a Catholic school system, and achieved educational segregation, still active today. 16

The Irish system of education became enormously influential in British North America. In Ontario, the content of the school curriculum was imported directly from Ireland. When the educational reformer Egerton Ryerson took control of the Ontario school system in the 1840s, he introduced Irish texts schools. By the time of Confederation in 1867, virtually all young people of English, Scottish and Irish ethnicity in Ontario had acquired their ideas of political loyalty and were taught moral values through a curriculum that had been designed specifically for Ireland! 17

In addition to its curriculum, Ontario's educational structure was also taken from Ireland. Ryerson adopted the Irish system of a strong central authority that controlled what was taught in schools, that operated a "normal school" to train teachers, and that attempted to improve teacher qualifications. At the same time, Ontario followed Irish patterns of giving local school boards day-to-day control of the schools and of teacher employment policy. This Irish-based system was then transferred to British Columbia, and later to the Northwest Territories and Manitoba. 18

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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