Colonial Canada: Canadian history in the early modern era

Module 7: Immigration and Reform in British North America


The twenty years after the War of 1812 saw both a consolidation of Loyalist-Conservative rule and a deepening of the popular discontent against that rule. The major issue was political: that the constitutional arrangements established in 1791 allowed a democratically elected assembly, but centralized much of the power in the appointed legislative council. Thus, much of the politics of the 1820s and 30s was directed at shifting power downward, away from the Council and toward the Assembly. In many ways, these criticisms mirrored republican sentiments to the south - notions of popular rule and the will of the people - and thus the Loyalist elite painted such demands as American and therefore disloyal, effectively forestalling substantial debate on the issues.

But by the 1840s and 1850s, thousands of immigrants were pouring into the country, changing the very nature of the people whose government these debates were contesting. Many of these immigrants were English and Scottish Protestants, culturally very much like  the settlers already in place. Or at least in Upper Canada and Nova Scotia. In Lower Canada, very few settlers were French and the on-going inundation of protestant anglophones was a cause of concern; many French Canadians feared that Britain was attempted to demographically overrun them in their own nation.

But many of the immigrants, especially in the 1840s and 50s, were viewed as alien in both colonies. Irish immigrants, in particular, were viewed by many as an alien people, more a burden than a contribution, and ultimately unassimilable. Ireland had been conquered by the English and colonized over the past three hundred years. Numerous failed rebellions had attempted to free Ireland from the yoke of English rule, and relationships between the two peoples was always highly antagonistic. Adding to this cultural gulf between Catholic Ireland and Protestant England the colonial relationship meant that most Irish people were poor, and politically subordinate to their more powerful neighbours. 

Ireland faced tremendous existential issues in the 1840s. The population of the country had doubled in the first half of the 19th-century, in many ways owing to the success of the potato in expanding the food supply in a country where food shortages had been common in the past. A crisis emerged in 1845 when a fungal blight destroyed much of the country's potato crop, resulting in widespread mass starvation. Between 1845 and 1852, almost one million people died or starvation and diseases related to poor nutrition. Another million people emigrated from Ireland, with most going to the United States, Australia, and Canada. Over 600,000 Irish people came to Canada in this period. At the height of the famine, in 1849-50, they came at the impossibly large rate of over 30,000 per year. How could such a small country absorb so many poor, cultural different people?

The effect was dramatic. Not only were these extraordinarily high numbers, but the fact that they were poor, Irish, and Catholic - savages in many Anglo-American eyes - turned this into a major crisis of demographic, economic, and cultural crisis, the like of which Canadians had never encountered before. Coping with these large numbers of refugees, in many places very much unwanted refugees, placed great demands on the colonial governments. Finding land, work, health care, and often food for these people strained budgets and heightened ethnic hostility.

The rebellions and these immigration crises were not directly related stories; indeed, they took place over a decade apart. But certainly in many people's eyes, the issue of mass immigration of poor people heightened the importance of the proper form a government should take to manage such large population change well, and not succumb (as many conservatives feared) to mob rule. And yet the two issues were still more closely connected in that the story of Irish immigration offers modern Canadians a clear example of not only accommodating and integrating large numbers of culturally different peoples, but also of democratic forms of government being perfectly adept at managing such complex social situations. Today, as we face similar concerns over refugees coming from countries that are culturally quite different than our own, the case of the Irish shows our country's capacity to integrate difference effectively. At a time, when many people say such people are assimilable, we can see that that's exactly what people said about the Irish. Many of the new democratic nations of Europe founded their democracies on assumptions of ethnic and national homogeneity. Italians would rule Italy; Germans Germany; and so on. Canada would be different. The example of the Irish demonstrated clearly that democratic government and cultural integration were completely compatible.

Democratic Reform and the Rebellions 

In Belsahw, read chapter 11.. 


Read chapter 6, "Immigrants and Immigration" in Visions. 

Our readings this week explore the place of Irish immigrants in the Canadas in the 1840s and 50s. As you'll see, there are four readings that take us to two stories. Much of the debate among historians revolves around how these Irish immigrants integrated into Canadian society. The stereotypes of the Irish suggested that the Irish stuck to themselves, lived in the cities, and remained a distinct social group in Canada, and one that would continue to be plagued by social and economic issues. There's no doubt that most of the famine immigrants were poor and faced incredible obstacles, and may have in some people's minds confirmed the stereotype. Some of these historians seem to draw on that view; other firmly reject it. We'll also have cause to visit Irish immigrants in Canada's two largest cities and we'll see that the different cultural make-ups of those cities meant that the experiences were quite distinct.

An introduction to Immigrant and Immigration: The Case of the Irish

A Discussion About Irish Immigration


These readings all deal with the place and character of Irish immigrants in Canada in the middle of the nineteenth century.  

After reading the chapter,

1. Formulate a general question that deals with all four readings.

2. In your own notes, outline how each historian tackles that question.

3. In your post, write only about TWO - combine Pentland with Akenson, OR Trigger and Clarke.  

4. Outline how ONE of the primary documents is reflected in the secondary readings you discussed.

5. If others have already posted, try to differentiate your approach - tackle different essays, a different primary source - say something different about an essay or primary source. If you disagree with how someone interpreted something in their post, say so! It's not bad to disagree. So long as we're respectful of each others, it's how we reason together.


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