Emigration & Immigration

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Maximum Canada

Maximum Canada

Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough
also available: Hardcover
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City of Omens

Science, Survival, and an Epidemic of Violence in the Borderlands
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A Family Matter

A Family Matter

Citizenship, Conjugal Relationships, and Canadian Immigration Policy
also available: eBook Hardcover
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Ontario and Quebec’s Irish Pioneers

Ontario and Quebec’s Irish Pioneers

Farmers, Labourers, and Lumberjacks
also available: Paperback
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Chapter 1

Mid-Canada’s Appeal to the Irish

“The Kirkpatrick boys has got a situation six days after they landed and like this place very much.… There is nothing got here but by sore industry, but you will get in for the earning here. People lives a great deal more comfortable here than they do at home.”

Having arrived safely in Montreal, Charlotte Bacon writes to her father in Londonderry telling him that she will pay back the money lent to her by her grandmother for her sea crossing, and she also encloses money given to her by another Montreal immigrant, which is to be handed to his family in Ireland. Charlotte makes two very important points. First, Irish immigrants must work hard in the New World if they are to succeed, and second, she identifies herself as one of the many Irish people who acted as go-betweens in funding passages. Her father will give the money, entrusted to his safekeeping, to a Londonderry family, who will use it to finance their passage to Quebec. As the Irish politician John Maguire pointed out, “emigration will never cease with Irish families as long as any portion of them remain at each side of the Atlantic.”

Most nineteenth-century Irish immigration was financed by so-called remittances — funds that were sent from North America to Ireland. In their 1848 report, the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners noted how in that year “a considerable part of the expense of emigration from Ireland is defrayed by money remitted to Ireland from North America by parties who have previously emigrated.” That had been typical of most years. No other immigrant group adopted this practice to such an extent. In 1868, John Maguire estimated that colossal sums had crossed the Atlantic eastward as Irish settlements continued to grow in North America. “In the history of the world there is nothing to match this.” A top priority for a new arrival was to save money to send back to a loved one in Ireland so that he or she might follow. Charlotte Bacon and her father played their part, and countless others did as well.

Many of the Irish who came to Canada were labourers, finding employment as canal diggers, lumberjacks, and general servants. Labourers, being much in demand, could command far higher pay than was the case in Ireland. Moreover, they could enjoy the freedom and benefits of a more egalitarian society while gaining materially. Those with a farming background hoped to acquire land more or less immediately and were at a great advantage over the general labourers, who had to learn their farming skills the hard way.

Henry Johnson, having left County Antrim in 1848 to live in Niagara, said that he felt a kind of independence “you can never have in the Old Country.” However, when William Graves visited Upper Canada nearly thirty years earlier to assess its farming opportunities, he was advised by Dr. William Baldwin, a prominent politician, to remain at home. Baldwin told him that “it often grieved him to find some, whom he knew left comfort-able homes with a view of bettering their circumstances, and are now sadly disappointed.” Someone of Graves’s high social rank and affluence would almost certainly join the ranks of the disappointed; but most immigrants, being of more modest means, would hope to benefit from the New World. Johnston Neilson, an Armagh teacher, was so desperate to join his father and brother in Upper Canada that he asked the Colonial Office to lend him £20 to £30 to pay for his passage and onward travel. He wanted his elderly mother, who still lived with him in County Armagh, to share in the benefits of the New World. A great many people felt the way he did. Yet, so often this Irish immigration saga has been shrouded in negative imagery.

Although Irish people had strong positive motives for relocating to Canada, their story has been hijacked by doom-mongers who would have us believe that they were all victims of one dreadful happening. The immigration that took place during the Great Irish Famine of the mid-1840s, when many thousands of Irish people died, has become the story. Scenes have been conjured up of distraught people forced to leave Ireland by cruel landlords, while a sinister role is painted of the British government’s alleged role in forcing this upon them. This claptrap may well suit supporters of the Irish republican cause, but it has nothing to do with the truth. Very few Irish people were compelled by force or famine to leave Ireland. In any case, most of mid-Canada’s Irish population began arriving in the early 1800s — long before the famine struck. The sudden surge in numbers during the famine period occurred at the tail end of the influx, not its beginning. Most Irish chose of their own free will to relocate to Canada and it is easy to see why this was the case.

With its rapidly growing population and the increasing subdivision of its landholdings, Ireland’s agricultural system had become unsustainable. The land tenure system was chaotic, there was no security of tenure, and landlords had no contractual obligations toward their tenants. People were stuck with the age-old problems of unproductive land and overpopulation.

Conditions were also desperate for Ulster’s textile workers. Because hand-weaving was a cottage-based, labour-intensive industry, workers were vulnerable to the structural changes taking place in the early nineteenth century as a result of increasing mechanization. Thousands of Ulster linen weavers were thrown out of work or had to survive on pitiable rates of pay, thus creating another great stimulus for emigration.

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