St. Patrick’s Day, 1858: a bloody day in the history of Toronto. Thomas D'Arcy McGee has come to town. He was once was an Irish revolutionary, but now he's one of Canada's leading politicians. He will go on to become a Father of Confederation and Sir John A. Macdonald's right-hand man. And thanks to his transformation from Irish freedom fighter to a loyal British subject, he's also a deeply controversial figure: on the fault line between Protestants and Irish-Catholics.
McGee has come to Toronto to attend a banquet and give a speech. On the surface, it doesn't seem like a particularly divisive itinerary. But this is a deeply Irish city. More than a third of its residents were born in Ireland — a higher percentage than any other North American city, even Boston or New York. McGee's mere presence is enough to help plunge the city into violence — the riot that is about to rock King Street is just one example of the sectarian battles that will earn Toronto the nickname, "The Belfast of North America".
Many of Toronto's Irish residents are relative newcomers, having arrived just a decade before McGee's fateful speech. During the summer of 1847, nearly 40,000 Irish refugees flooded into Toronto — twice the population of the entire city. They were driven out of Ireland by the Great Famine along with forced evictions by landlords who seized the opportunity to run them off their land.
The vast majority of the new arrivals were Catholic… and they didn’t exactly find themselves welcomed into the city with open arms. Seventy-five percent of Toronto residents were Protestants; many of them were members of the Orange Order, a deeply anti-Catholic organization founded in Northern Ireland during the late 1700s. Orangemen are still a major presence in Belfast to this day; even in the 21st century, their annual parades frequently descend into riots.
The Orange Order basically ran Toronto, keeping a stranglehold on municipal politics for a century. From the 1860s to the 1950s, nearly every Mayor of Toronto was a member of the Order. City councillors, too. And police. And firefighters. Just about all city employees. At the time that all those famine refugees were pouring into the city, there wasn’t a single Catholic who held municipal office in Toronto. For many decades to come, well into the 1900s, Catholics had trouble getting hired for any public job in the city.
Discrimination against Irish-Catholics became a defining feature of life in Toronto. “Irish beggars are to be met everywhere,” the Globe newspaper wrote, “and they are as ignorant and vicious as they are poor. They are lazy, improvident, and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons and are as brutish in their superstition as Hindoos." By 1864, the city’s Catholic bishop was actively discouraging Irish-Catholics from moving to Toronto, warning them off because of the Protestant domination of the city and the terrible discrimination Catholics faced there.
And it wasn’t just Toronto. Orange Lodges spread across Canada from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. At one point, there were more Orange Lodges in Canada than there were in Northern Ireland itself. At the time of Confederation, a third of all Protestant men in Canada were current or former members of the Orange Order — including Sir John A. Macdonald. Three future prime ministers would be, too; one of them, Sir Mackenzie Bowell, had been the Grandmaster of the Canadian lodge. It was said that any time they were in power, the federal Conservatives always reserved three seats in Cabinet for Orange MPs.
But no city in Canada was more Orange than Toronto. And some of the local Orangemen were willing to kill and be killed in order to maintain their grip on power.
In Toronto, just like in Belfast, the riots frequently started with a parade. Every year on the 12th of July, the Orange Order would hold a big march to commemorate the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over Catholics in Ireland in the 1600s. “The Twelfth” was practically an official holiday in Toronto: municipal employees even got the day off so they could attend — with pay. At its height, thousands of Torontonians marched in the annual parade while tens of thousands cheered them on.
Catholics would generally stay indoors that day, and keep their children close. But not all of them. The parades would occasionally erupt into violence between Orangemen and Irish-Catholics, the battles of Belfast being fought in Canadian streets. And it wasn’t just on the Twelfth. Protestant-Catholic riots became an almost annual occurrence: after political meetings and elections, on Guy Fawkes Day, when the Prince of Wales visited... religious processions attacked, St. Michael’s Cathedral under siege, the bishop pelted with stones... Once, the Orange Order even once attacked a circus: the clowns cut in front of some Orange Order firefighters waiting in line outside a brothel.
When an Irish revolutionary came to town to deliver a lecture, Orangemen rioted for two days, smashed the windows of St. Patrick's Hall, destroyed a tavern, and trashed stores on Queen Street.
When Catholics celebrated the Papal Jubilee, stones rained down from above. Shots were fired. Thousands battled in the streets. By the time it was over, a Catholic stable hand lay dead.
That was from the only time a life was lost to the violence between Toronto's Protestants and Irish Catholics. And one of those lives would be lost on St. Patrick's Day, 1858: the day Thomas D'Arcy McGee gave his speech in Toronto. With the controversial politician in town, tensions were high. It was no surprise when the annual St. Patrick's Day parade descended into violence. An Orangeman drove a horse and cart into the procession, trying to disrupt it. Catholics fought back, chasing him into a nearby alley where a violence struggle ended with an Irish-Catholic man murdered: stabbed to death.
The incident would lead Toronto's Irish-Catholics to create a new organization that would eventually evolve into the Fenian Brotherhood: a revolutionary group dedicated to the cause of Irish independence from Britain. A decade later, American Fenians would march across the border to launch an invasion of Canada in the hope that it would help put pressure on the British to leave Ireland. The attack was doomed to fail, but dozens died and even more were wounded. Toronto's very first war memorial was dedicated to the memory of the students from the University of Toronto who died fighting against those Fenian invaders.
By then, even Thomas D'Arcy McGee himself was dead. The Father of Confederation was gunned down in the streets of Ottawa in 1868, assassinated as he returned home from a late night session of parliament. A man suspected of being a Fenian agent, Patrick Whelan, was hanged for the murder (though even today, it's unclear whether he was the real murderer).
Before long, the situation had gotten so out of hand that Toronto decided to take drastic action: beginning in the 1870s, the city's St. Patrick's Day Parade was banned. And it would remain that way for more than 100 years. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the Orange stranglehold on Toronto was broken. After the Second World War, Toronto was becoming more and more multicultural. For the first time in 118 years the city elected a mayor who wasn’t Protestant: the Jewish Nathan Phillips. And the tensions between Protestants and Catholics began to fade away.
And so in the 1980s, Toronto decided it was finally safe enough for another St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The sectarian violence that had once rocked the city on a regular basis was now nothing more than a distant memory of a long-ago time. Today, St. Patrick's Day is a cherished tradition in Toronto, just as it in so many other cities across Canada and the rest of the world. As the streets fill with people wearing their shamrock hats and bars sell gallons of green beer, it feels as if the whole city celebrates the holiday — without a hint of the violence that once spilled blood in its streets.
Want to know more about the assassination of Thomas D'Arcy McGee and the mystery of who shot him? We reopen the country's most notorious cold case in a recent episode of Canadiana:
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Image: The Jubilee Riots of 1876 via Wikimedia Commons