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Law and Order

Law, Order and the Irish in Mid Nineteenth-Century Canada

David A. Wilson
University of St. Michael's College, University of Toronto, Ontario

Les Irlandais au Canada, by David A. Wilson (1989)

One of the most striking things about the Irish-Canadian relationship with law and order is the wide gap between image and actuality. In the popular imagination, Irish Canadians were frequently associated with lawlessness and disorder, and acquired a reputation for hard drinking and hard fighting. This view was applied primarily to Irish Catholics, but could also be extended to Irish Protestants. Alexander MacKenzie, for example, believed that Irish "Protestants and Papists" were as bad as each other. Many of the "Orange Irish," he wrote, "would prefer the Pope as soon as anyone else, if he would supply them with plenty of Whiskey," while Irish Catholics, in his view, were feckless, lazy and violent.

Such stereotypes were based on a highly selective reading of reality. To make the case that the Irish constituted a disproportionate threat to law and order, one could point to four categories of behaviour -- social violence, political violence, ethno-religious conflict, and what is described in contemporary Irish usage as "ordinary decent crime."

The Political Standing of Irish Catholics in Canada, by J.L.P. O'Hanly (1872)

When it comes to social violence, one the most graphic examples is the so-called Shiners' War of 1835-37, when Irish lumbermen used their collective power to break their French-Canadian competitors, and terrorized the inhabitants of Bytown (now Ottawa).

For political violence, one could point to the way in which the followers of Ogle Gowan, the founder of the Orange Order in British North America, broke the heads of their rivals during the election of 1836.

Ethno-religious violence flared repeatedly during the mid nineteenth century, with the St. Patrick's Day parades and Orange July 12th parades functioning as frequent flashpoints; in Saint John, for example, Orange-Green violence in 1849 left a dozen people dead.

As far as petty crime was concerned, Irish Catholics in urban centres were over-represented in the prisons and the courts -- to the extent that the Catholic Bishop of Toronto, John Lynch, advised his Irish countrymen not to come to Canada.

John J. Lynch (1816-1888), Catholic Bishop of Toronto

There was, then, some basis for the popular image; stereotypes do not, after all, spring from nowhere. But the problem with this perspective is that it treats episodes of exceptional violence as being typical, and forgets that the Irish did not have a monopoly on violent behaviour in Canada. And while the crime statistics were relatively high in urban areas, the vast majority of Irish immigrants actually lived in the countryside, and quickly became acculturated to Canadian norms. To generalize from the cities is to present a deeply distorted picture of Irish-Canadian experiences and behaviour.

Moreover, the popular image ignores the extent to which Ireland and the Irish contributed to the establishment of law and order in Canada. The Royal Irish Constabulary provided John A. Macdonald with an organizational model for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; the structure of law enforcement in the Northwest Territories was based on Irish precedents. Within the various nineteenth-century municipal police forces, Irish immigrants and former Royal Irish Constabulary officers played a large role. This did not always lead to impartial policing.

In Toronto, for example, the predominantly Orange police force developed a case of collective amnesia after an Orange crowd attacked a St. Patrick's Day dinner at the National Hotel in 1858; the magistrate who investigated the case, himself an Orangeman, publicly condemned those officers who put their fraternal loyalties above the law. Irish-Canadian Catholics, it should also be noted, were generally under-represented within the police and the magistracy, and their leaders frequently complained of Orange discrimination in the justice system. There were, however, important regional variations; Irish Catholics in Canada East (now Québec) generally seem to have had a more prominent position in the police and magistracy than they did elsewhere in British North America.

David A. Wilson is a Professor of Celtic Studies and History at the University of Toronto. He has written and edited six books, including United Irishmen, United States and Ulster Presbyterians in the Atlantic World, and is currently in the middle of a mega-biography of Thomas D'Arcy McGee.