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French Canadians and the Irish Question

Posted: Friday, June 12, 2020

An excerpt from Canada and Ireland: A Political and Diplomatic History

Written by Philip J. Currie

Thomas D'Arcy McGee

Thomas D'Arcy McGee, an Irish-Canadian journalist, politician, and one of the Fathers of Confederation. (Learn more in Canada and Ireland).

From the beginning of the home rule campaign, Irish Canadians were resolved to bring the weight of the Irish vote to bear on Canadian polit­icians. It was no coincidence that the first parliamentary resolution in support of Irish home rule in 1882 was introduced by the Tories, the party with which most Irish Canadian members were associated. And it was no surprise that an Irish Canadian, John Costigan, had initiated the resolu­tion. Costigan wrote to the prime minister, John A. Macdonald, informing him that, in response to the expressed wishes of several influential Irish citizens of the dominion, “I intend at an early day, moving in the House of Commons for an address to Her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen in relation to the Irish Question,” and requested his support. The weight of the Irish vote was such that, though Macdonald and several members of both parties were opposed to the notion, the resolution passed. Macdonald, opposed to the idea of interfering in the United Kingdom’s affairs, had advised Costigan to reconsider his initiative. Having failed in this endeavour, Macdonald reluctantly supported Costigan’s initiative, knowing that if he did not proceed with the Irish issue a member of the Liberal opposition would do so. And the Irish Canadian was on record as threatening retribu­tion to any member of Parliament who opposed the resolutions: “To those who may obstruct or defeat the resolutions we say beware! If the govern­ment is a party to such a crime, let us Irishmen everywhere in Canada rise as one man to strike them at the polls.” With a federal election only two months away, it was a serious threat. Most MPs did not rely on the Irish Catholic vote, but enough did to cause concern. A few seats, after all, could cost the election. By keeping the initiative within the party, moreover, Macdonald was able to persuade Costigan and the Irish caucus to tone down the rhetoric, making the resolution as unobtrusive as possible.

Four years later, in 1886, the year of the introduction of the home rule bill in the British House of Commons, the electoral clout of Canada’s Irish was again apparent. This was evident in that Macdonald was highly reluctant to partake in any new home rule resolution. With the denial of self-government to the Métis, and a secessionist movement in Nova Scotia, home rule for Ireland had embarrassing implications for the Canadian government. Macdonald’s increasing reliance upon the Orange ballot, moreover, was cause for concern, especially now that Ulster’s Protestants were beckoning to Canadian lodges for support in opposition to home rule. Costigan, therefore, was persuaded to settle for sending a personal tele­gram of support to Parnell reaffirming the support of the Irish members of the House of Commons for a measure of Irish devolution. The Irish Canadian, however, accused the Conservative Party of failing Ireland in its moment of need and expressed the hope that, when called on, Edward Blake, leader of the Liberal opposition, would not also fail it. And, as discussed in Chapter 1, he did not. On the day following the announce­ment of Costigan’s telegram to Parnell, Blake rose in the House to move a resolution in support of home rule. When his resolution was put to the vote, it easily passed. Despite strident opposition from individual members on both benches, few felt capable of voting against it. The following year witnessed yet again the effect of the Irish ballot when the House passed another resolution against the British government’s heavy-handed policy of subduing unrest in the Irish countryside.

The pattern governing parliamentary resolutions was identical in Que­bec City. As in Ottawa, the resolutions of 1886 and 1887 were initiated by Irish Catholic members of Parliament. In 1886, the initiative was taken by Félix Carbray, member for Quebec West; the following year it was initi­ated by another Irish member. The tone and language of the resolutions were similar to those moved in Ottawa. The 1886 resolution stated “be it Resolved, that this House, always sensible to everything tending to the greater welfare, progress and happiness of every nation of the Empire, desires to award its warm appreciation and great pleasure on the initiation in the Imperial Parliament, of legislation of a character to give a local government to Ireland.” The following year, after protesting the introduction of coercive measures in Ireland, the legislature again called for the granting of an Irish parliament in Dublin. That the initiatives, not to mention the wording of the resolutions, originated from Irish members is clear. Few French Canadians ever expressed such concern for other nations of the British Empire or revelled in pan-imperial sentiment. That was the world of English Canadian thought and, to a lesser extent, Irish Canadian thought. That Quebec politicians were as pragmatic as their English Canadian counterparts is a certainty. And it is little surprise that, in the wake of the Irish community’s disarray after 1887, no new resolu­tion was passed by Canadian legislatures at any level. There was simply no pressure to do so. Once the threat of Irish retribution at the ballot box passed, so did home rule initiatives in the country’s legislatures.

This is not to say that there were no Quebec politicians who genuinely favoured home rule for Ireland; there certainly were. However, as else­where in Canada, without Irish backing the issue would not have been introduced in the Quebec legislature. French Canadians, after all, were first and foremost North Americans. The affairs of France were of little interest to them. Why express such concern about Ireland? Quebeckers were constantly striving to convince English Canadians that their emo­tional home should be firmly set in North America and that it was time to let go of Britannia’s apron strings. If Canada was to work, it was impera­tive that Anglo-Canada direct its vision inward. It would not do to have their bodies in one place and their hearts elsewhere. This might have been an unfair evaluation of English Canadian imperialism, but it was how many francophones thought. It is unlikely, therefore, that such per­sons would have shown the level of interest in Ireland’s affairs as the legislative resolutions suggested. There was also the deterrent factor that Canada’s Irish Catholics, despite their common faith with the Quebec majority, were viewed as anglophones. And, for considerable numbers of Quebeckers, the French language was the key to their identity in North America. Their Catholicism was shared with other ethnic groups, but the French language was theirs. And few were unaware that Canada’s Irish outside Quebec had proven themselves less than enthusiastic advocates of French-language rights. When push came to shove over language, Irish Catholics quickly fell in line with the rest of English-speaking Canada. Simply put, the common cause implied by Quebec support for Irish home rule was as much myth as reality. Nevertheless, for those who did embrace the Irish cause, that affinity was strong. For others, advocating Ireland’s national rights served well as a stick with which to beat English Canada.

But what motivated many other French Canadian advocates of Irish home rule, and invigorated those who genuinely admired the faith of the Irish, were the parallels that seemingly existed between the Quebec and Irish situations. The most vocal challenger of Ireland’s national aspirations was the Orange Lodge, the same body that obstructed the proliferation of French-language rights in Canada. An ultra-Protestant body, it had also been at the forefront of anti-Catholic agitation across the dominion. At least French Canadians had their provincial autonomy to fall back on to defend their cultural and confessional interests. The Irish did not even have their language. Large numbers of Irish, moreover, had settled in Protestant Ontario only to face the same organization that had obstructed their national aspirations at home. And Quebeckers were aware that nowhere did Orangeism flourish outside the province of Ulster as in the province of Ontario. As early as 1844, six of ten aldermen of Toronto belonged to an Orange Lodge, and in the following year the city elected its first Orange mayor. Between that year and the end of the century, all but three of Toronto’s twenty-three mayors would belong to an Orange Lodge. More often than not, the city treasurer, deputy treasurer, solicitor, and commissioner were also Orangemen. The post office, the customs house at the federal level, and the police and fire departments, waterworks, and gasworks at the corporate level were likewise Orange reserves. Such was the influence of the Orange Order in Ontario’s capital city, notes Gregory Kealey, that politicians “built or demolished their careers in pro­portion to lodge support.” And although the Orange Order quickly took on a Canadian tone and character after its arrival in Canada in the early 1800s, it never successfully distanced itself from its Irish origins. One of the social highlights of the calendar year was the “Glorious Twelfth” when Orangemen walked to commemorate the victory of William III and Irish Protestantism at the Boyne. Colourful marchers, and banners depicting both an Irish heritage and a Canadian heritage, and common struggles against Rome, lined the streets of the city. It was inevitable, therefore, that a certain amount of respect and empathy would have gone out to the Irish community. It was also inevitable that, despite their linguistic quarrels, a certain common cause bound the two communities together.

Posted by Megan M.
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