The People Will Always Be Heard – Luddite Lessons For Today

People affected by change need a way to express their concerns. Even if those concerns are not significantly addressed, they at least need to know they’ve been heard. The results of being ignored can be unpredictable when change beyond their control, led by complex forces outside their comprehension, alters all they once thought was certain. A people scorned by change will bring about even more change.

In 2016, we saw the connection between change and people’s response to being ignored when British voters chose to leave Europe and, in electing Donald Trump, Americans chose to leave the world. Those bringing change about and benefitting from it had become the enemy. The silenced and disparaged, who had been negatively affected by change, reacted in the most positive way they could. We are all now reaping the effects of the great unheard’s determination to be heard. It is not the first time.

English workers in the 18th century felt as mistreated and ignored as did the 21st century American and British working class. They didn’t have the ballot to express their rage against change and so, like people always do, they found another means.

In the Nottinghamshire village of Arnold, a group of framework knitters took pride in their work. The artisans complained to their overseers that their skills were being debased by the company’s use of substandard material and by “colts”, young workers who had not completed the seven-year apprenticeship. Further, the big, loom machines were producing more product but it was of an inferior quality. The machines also meant that because their skills were less important, their wages had been cut. Things had been made worse when the war with France led to the issuing of the Prince Regent’s Orders in Council. It effected jobs and production by cutting textile exports with France and its allies. There had been layoffs and slow downs. Each time the workers raised complaints, they were told to get back to work. On March 11, 1811, the unheard and frustrated workers destroyed their machines.

Workmen take out their anger on the machines

(Image: Look and Learn Picture Library)

This was not the first time that English workers had protested in this way. In fact, in 1727, the British parliament had passed legislation that rendered wrecking the tools of work a capital felony offense. But the old law had been ignored. News of the Nottinghamshire violence spread. It presented other disgruntled workers with a hero. Ned Ludd was applauded as the apprentice who began it all by having snapped his needles in defiance of his strict boss. Those who followed his lead were called Luddites. Ludd was a myth. There was no such man. But it didn’t matter. The Luddite movement was born.

Over the next two months, textile loom-frame machines were smashed in a number of surrounding villages. There were no arrests. How do you arrest a whole village? But there were also no negotiations between mill owners and workers. Violence erupted again in November and the winter saw sporadic attacks on mills and machines in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and Leicestershire. The military was dispatched to a number of towns to help police. Mill owners hired armed guards. The Luddite movement nonetheless spread, first to the cotton-weaving industry in and around Manchester.

In April, a number of protesters turned their violence directly against mill owners and many were beaten up. Grand homes were burned. Elected officials were threatened. Rawfolds Mill owner William Horsfall was murdered. Some Luddite agitators were arrested but the workers stuck together and refused to give up friends who had been responsible for specific acts of sabotage or violence.

In an 1812 speech to the House of Lords regarding the proposed Frame Breaking Act, Lord Byron demonstrated his understanding of the situation. He knew that responsible leaders don’t react to the symptoms of problems but rather, address a problem’s root cause. Bryon said, “had the grievances of these men and their masters (for they also have had their grievances) been fairly weighed and justly examined, I do think that means might have been devised to restore these workmen to their avocations, and tranquility to the country…These men never destroyed their looms till they were become useless, worse than useless; till they were become actual impediments to their exertions in obtaining their daily bread.”

Byron went on to speak of the danger inherent in dismissing the protesters as a mob to be arrested and tamed. The mob, he said, was the people. The people served in the military and mills and made the country work. It is the people, he told the Lords, to whom they were responsible. It is the people being dismissed as a mob who are responsible for Britain’s growing power and wealth. Byron understood that in commodifying people and valuing them less than the machines they ran, the people were in danger of becoming not partners in the country’s progress but its victims, and thus, its enemies. It is a shame that, over the last decade, the United States and Britain did not have more Lord Byrons.

The government and mill owners eventually responded. Wages were raised a little and work conditions were slightly improved. Food was subsidized and prices dropped. Napoleon’s defeat reopened European markets. The machines remained and continued to change how people lived and worked but the workers most directly affected by change had, at least, been heard. By 1816, the Luddite movement had subsided.

The Luddites were never a unified group advocating a package of political reforms or even, as the word has been passed down through the generations, just about resistance to new technology. The movement represented people’s reaction to change. It reflected a new class consciousness among a group that the invention of steam power and the industrial revolution had helped to create. They were the class that the invention of the assembly line would help to build and the invention of robots would help to destroy.

The Luddites offer lessons regarding the importance of seeing the role that technology plays in spurring change but also in looking past immediate economic benefits to acknowledge and manage change’s costs. I’m betting that even Donald Trump knows that technology and not immigrants or Mexicans or Muslims is responsible for today’s job losses and economic dislocation. I’m hoping that responsible leaders will act responsibly to manage current changes for the benefit of the many and not just the few. I hope those leaders understand that one way or another, people affected by change will always be heard. Always.

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Imagine a Man Like John F. Kennedy

Today would be John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday. Those of a certain age remember him for the hope that he inspired. For many, just the idea that he was in the White House meant that things would get better. His horrible, public murder gashed a generation. JFK’s assassination defined the precise moment between then and now, between what could have been and what was. Kennedy visited Canada four times. Let us consider one that helped change our history and helps define the man.

Imagine a Man Like John F. Kennedy

JFK Addressing Canadian Parliament (CBC photo)

In late 1953, Kennedy was the junior Senator from Massachusetts and forced to consider Canada for the first time. After decades of debate regarding whether the United States and Canada should cooperate in the building the St. Lawrence Seaway, Canada had decided to go it alone. The decision put the thirty-six-year-old Kennedy in a tricky spot. During his Senate campaign, he had listened to Boston longshoremen, businessmen, and lobbyists, and opposed the seaway based on the old worry that it would divert significant traffic from New England ports to the St. Lawrence. To support it would jeopardize his re-election and stymie his presidential aspirations. But he had his staff complete a careful study of the matter and had become convinced that to oppose the seaway would hurt the United States. So, would he vote for himself and his constituency or for his country? Was the book he had written, Profiles in Courage, was just a cute title or a definition of his character?

With pressure building, Kennedy accepted an invitation to speak at the Université de Montréal. It was his first trip to Canada. The senator and his wife of three months, the twenty-four-year-old Jacqueline, arrived on a cold December 4, 1953, at Montreal’s Windsor train station. Only two men met them: an American consulate representative and a Canadian Pacific Railway photographer who quickly snapped two pictures and went home. The glamorous young couple were guests of honour that evening at the annual St. Mary’s Ball, where the city’s who’s who mingled, dined, and raised money for the local hospital.

Before donning his tuxedo, Kennedy addressed the students and faculty of the university’s Literary Society. He said that Canada and the United States were fighting communism together. He explained that 20 percent of American exports went to Canada and that America was Canada’s best customer. Kennedy then explained the difficulty the American Congress was having in coming to a decision regarding the seaway. He detailed the American system of checks and balances and quoted Sir John A. Macdonald, albeit somewhat out of context, who once called the American system a “skilful work.” He quoted eighteenth-century Irish nationalist and conservative political philosopher Edmund Burke. Burke had said in his 1774 “Speech to the Electors of Bristol” that political representatives should be free to vote their conscience. Kennedy’s reference to Burke was a strong hint that he was preparing to do just that.

A few weeks later, on January 14, 1954, Kennedy rose in the Senate chamber and delivered a courageous speech. He began by noting his state’s current and long history of opposition to the seaway. His vote, he said, would rest on the answers to two fundamental questions. The first was whether the seaway would be built regardless of American partnership. “I have studied the Act passed by the Canadian parliament authorizing the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway by Canada . . . and the official statements of the Canadian government make it clear that Canada will build the Seaway alone and cooperate on the power project with New York, although the door is left open for American participation if we should so decide at this session of Congress.” A solely Canadian project, Kennedy continued, would inflict enormous costs on America, as Canada could dictate tolls, traffic, and admission of foreign shipping.

The second determining question, he argued, was whether the seaway would make America safer. Kennedy explained the degree to which American participation in the project would be part of the continued development of an integrated North American defence strategy. He concluded: “Both nations now need the St. Lawrence Seaway for security as well as for economic reasons.

He concluded, “I urge the Congress promptly to approve our participation in its construction.”

Finally, after decades of opposition, the Senate approved the daring measure. A number of Boston and Massachusetts papers attacked the young senator. Two months later he was warned by a member of Boston’s city council not to march in the city’s large and boisterous annual St. Patrick’s Day parade lest he be abused by dockworkers angry that the seaway would kill their jobs. Kennedy ignored the advice and marched without incident.

Imagine a politician with the political courage to put country over party and principle over popularity, risking re-election for what is right. Imagine a politician who bases decisions on facts rather than gut reactions, polls, or a blind adherence to ideology. Imagine a politician with an ability to speak that is clear, almost poetic, and that demands that we rise to meet him rather than pandering to the least articulate and educated among us. Imagine. And then take a moment today to celebrate John Kennedy’s life and grieve his loss.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with other. For more on the many ways that Canada was effected by JFK and that we affected him, consider reading Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front. It is available at bookstores and online through Chapters Indigo and Amazon.

Trudeau, Power, & Sir John’s Echo

Canada is a conversation. When confronting troubles visited upon us, or of our own making, Canadians reach not for a gun but a gavel. We talk it out. Every leadership race and election, every new bill, public initiative, or staggering crisis, and every table pounding in the House of Commons or at the local Tim’s is another element of that conversation. And when we’re talking, we’re always talking about power. So, let’s talk.

Political power touches us all. Positively expressed, it offers a vehicle through which we are collectively encouraged and enabled to act for the common good. Power matters and so, it matters who has it.

Our founders understood. In 1864, they met in Charlottetown and Quebec City and talked their way into a country. From Britain, came the ideas of a limited monarchy and parliamentary democracy. From the United States, they took a written constitution and a federal state, one comprised of a central government and provinces. This is where the real talking about power began.

John A. Macdonald led the way in arguing that while the American Constitution was brilliant in its conception, the fact that the United States was, at that moment, butchering itself in Civil War, demonstrated its appalling failure in practice. The Confederation delegates stood the American system on its head. Macdonald explained that Canada would reverse the “primary error” of the United States, “by strengthening the general government and conferring on the provincial bodies only such powers as may be required for local purposes.”

Power and Sir John's Echo

(Photo: Canadian Colour)

The provinces were given only municipal-like areas of responsibility and limited ability to raise revenue. The federal government, on the other hand, was afforded the major powers relating to sovereignty including trade, the military, post office, criminal law, currency, and banking. Unlike the United States where, until 1913, the states appointed Senators, the prime minister would populate our upper chamber. The prime minister would also appoint Lieutenant Governors who approved provincial bills while sending questionable ones to the federal cabinet, which could disallow them. Anything the constitution left out or that came up later, like airports, would go automatically to the federal government.

Throughout Canada’s 150-year conversation, provinces have worked to overturn our founders’ vision and shift power to themselves. An example is the decades-long provincial demand for greater power that sabotaged repeated federal efforts to earn greater independence by gaining control of our constitution. In standing up for what they believed was best for their province, too many premiers betrayed and undermined the very concept of Canada while dividing Canadians against themselves.

This is not to say that premiers are not patriots and provinces don’t matter. Of course they are and of course they do. But it was successive federal governments that fought to maintain our founders’ vision. Provinces were cajoled and dragged along as the federal government led the building of Canada through projects like the trans-continental railway, St. Lawrence Seaway, and the TransCanada Highway. The federal government needled, nudged, and negotiated for Canadians in creating national policies such as pensions and health care. Federal governments rallied our response to emergencies such as global wars, the Great Depression, and the FLQ Crisis. The federal government spoke for Canadian values whether reflected as peacekeepers or climate change leaders.

Ignore whether you like or dislike our current prime minister, or his policies, but grant that Mr. Trudeau’s  tour a few months ago indicated his understanding that Canada is indeed a conversation. He is also demonstrating that he is the personification of Sir John’s vision. He gathered the premiers and then led the revamping of pensions, unemployment insurance, and health care. He told the provinces that we will combat climate change as a nation and that they will step in line. His government organized a national emergency response to the Fort McMurray wildfires.

Hundred Days and Honeymoons

We have been at our best when the power that our founders afforded the federal government was effectively employed. We have gone off the rails when firewall letters, referendums, and power squabbles have attempted to distort that vision. We are better when we consider ourselves not as of a particular province but more broadly, as Canadians first, stronger in the complexity of our citizenship.

Every time you hear our prime minister speak, listen carefully for a hint of a Scottish burr, for you’re hearing Sir John’s echo.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others and perhaps even explore my full argument which is in my latest book, published just two weeks ago, and called, perhaps unsurprisingly, Sir John’s Echo.  It’s available at bookstores, Amazon, and here through Chapters https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/sir-johns-echo-speaking-for/9781459738157-item.html

The Guitar That Reminds Us Who We Are

Sometimes the craziest of ideas can be terrifically inspiring. This one involves a guitar and a nation.

It was 1995 and Canada was coming apart at the seams. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had decided that because Quebec had not signed the constitution when it was finally brought home from Britain in 1981, that he would seduce the signature by transferring a host of federal powers to it and the other provinces. The provinces loved it, of course. Then the whole package, called the Charlottetown Accord, went to the people in a national referendum. That’s when the arguments began. Revolutions had been fought about such things. In the United States, over 700,000 people were butchered in their Civil War deciding whether dominant power should rest with the federal or state governments. But Canadians are different. We reached not for guns but gavels. We debated in public meetings. We argued at kitchen tables, and over backyard fences. It got ugly.

Jowi Taylor reacted differently. The CBC writer and radio host met with luthier George Ritzsanyi and suggested that they make a guitar. They would call it Voyageur. Ritzsany was a first-generation Hungarian immigrant who had worked as an auto worker but had become renowned among guitar lovers for his unique and fine work. But this would not be just any guitar.

Taylor would assemble this guitar from fragments of the nation to which it would be dedicated. David Suzuki, the well-known environmentalist and TV host, was instrumental in pointing Taylor to the Golden Spruce. It was the rare, 300-year-old albino tree on Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) that was sacred to the Haida people. It became a symbol of resistance to broken treaties and land rights encroachments when, in the middle of the night, an angry logging scout chainsawed the sacred tree to the ground. Suzuki introduced Taylor to Haida elders and, after great debate, they agreed that the guitar would be an honoured place for part of the felled tree to live on. Voyageur would be made from a piece of the sacred Golden Spruce.

The tree was an important and inspiring first step but Taylor needed more items to embed in the guitar and money to support their collection. He called his project The Six String Nation. He set up a website and wrote emails and snail mails and made countless phone calls. He traveled. He begged for funding and was disappointed more often than pleased. The Globe and Mail published a front page story about the project but even that brought frustratingly little funding. The CBC offered to make a film but that fell apart.

But Canadians came through. Individual sponsors stepped up and big and small donations were made. Many people logged on and bought guitar straps to help finance the project. (Full disclosure, one of them was me. The black strap holds my Gretsch at every gig I play.)

Taylor’s persistence began paying dividends and more precious objects were collected. There was a piece from Rocket Richard’s Stanley Cup ring, a fragment from Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick and another Paul Henderson’s stick. There was an antler from a moose and another from a mastodon. There was a piece of steel rail from a CPR track, one from Sir John A. Macdonald’s sideboard, and a chunk of copper from the roof of the parliamentary library, Canada’s most beautiful room. There was a chunk of a seat from Massey Hall and another from the old Montreal Forum. There was a piece of Nancy Green’s ski and one from Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle.

Finally, on June 14, 2006, the fragments had been collected and incorporated and the guitar was done. It was beautiful. It played beautifully. A week later it was in Ottawa where preparations were being made for the Canada Day celebration. Renowned bluesman Colin James strummed it for gathered reporters and said it was a fine guitar that he was proud to play. Colin Linden played it at a press event the next day. Then, on the big stage, on July 1, the guitar’s story was told and the enormous crowd thundered its approval with applause that echoed off parliament’s centre block. Stephen Fearing took Voyageur in hand and kicked off his set with the Longest Road. It had indeed been a long road but it was not over.

The Guitar and the Nation

Jowi Taylor and Voyageur (Photo: Doug Nicholson)

The guitar toured the country. Professionals and amateurs held it and played it. As guitarists know, playing a guitar is an intimate act. It is the only instrument the player cradles when playing like a child, like a lover. And Canadians loved the guitar.

Canadians are a nation by choice. We are a nation not of blood but of laws. We build bridges not walls and we extend our hands to those in need whether suffering the aftermath of World War Two, or the Vietnam War, or the Syrian War. We all know, and most of us recall, that we are nearly all from away and at one point we were the aliens on the boats, risking all to seek a better life and contribute to nation worthy of our dreams. Canada, after all, is less an entity than a conversation. Jowi Taylor’s Voyageur guitar has become an important part of that conversation by inviting us to consider the fragments within it that are fragments of ourselves.

Please visit http://www.sixstringnation.com/ where you can scan the guitar and see all the amazing fragments  embedded it in. Please consider sending this column to others.

Canada’s Only Assassination and Last Public Hanging

Patrick Whelan lived his life at the intersection of politics and passion. He was born around 1840, just outside of Dublin, Ireland. When only 14 years of age, Whelan did as most young Irish people did at the time and left school to pursue a trade. He found work as a tailor in Dublin and eventually completed his apprenticeship. Times were tough. They would get tougher.

Ireland was still suffering from a blight on the potato crops that, beginning in 1845, had led to wide-spread famine, dislocations, and nearly two million people leaving the country for Canada and the United States. The decade’s long economic and humanitarian crisis led to political upheaval. A group of Irish nationalists called the Young Irish sought to use peaceful, democratic means to win back Irish independence that had been lost to Great Britain in 1800. By the time Whelan arrived in Dublin, the group had failed to advance their agenda. Those frustrated by a lack of progress created a more radical group called the Fenian Brotherhood. Named after ancient Irish warriors called the Fianna Eirionn, the Fenians sought independence through revolution.

Whelan moved to England and again found work as a tailor. In 1865, the year of a violent but futile Fenian uprising, Whelan followed so many of his countrymen and fled economic hardship and political upheavals for a better life in Canada. He arrived in Quebec City and took up his trade with Mr. Vallin. He enjoyed horses, dancing, and drinking. He contributed to his new city in early 1866 by joining Montreal’s Volunteer Cavalry.

Irish political troubles crossed the Atlantic with the Irish immigrants. The American Civil War (1861-1865) saw a number of Irish-American regiments fight bravely. With the war’s end, Fenian leaders worked to use the military experience of the soldiers to their advantage. Approximately 10,000 men pledged allegiance to the Fenian cause and supported the idea that they would invade and capture the British North American colonies. (British North American at that time consisted of Canada – Ontario and Quebec. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland) Britain would be asked to trade Canada and the Maritime colonies for Irish independence. The 1866 Fenian border crossing in New Brunswick was a minor nuisance but there was a battle in June near Ridgetown, north of Lake Erie, near Niagara Falls. The Fenian Americans quickly withdrew.

Whelan’s cavalry unit was not involved in the Fenian raids but his sympathies were betrayed when he was arrested for trying to persuade a British soldier to join the Fenians. He was released when only the solicited soldier could testify about the conversation. At the time of the Fenian Raids, Whelan was reported to have been in Buffalo, the center of American Fenian activity. He then worked as a tailor in Hamilton before moving to Montreal. It was there that he was married to a woman about thirty years older than himself. He became involved with an Irish nationalist group called the St. Patrick’s Society. In the fall of 1867, he and his wife moved to Ottawa where he worked for tailor Peter Eagleson, a well-known supporter of the Fenian cause.

assassin-whelan

Whelan (Photo: CBC)

An important gentleman opposed to that cause was Thomas D’Arcy McGee. McGee had been born in Ireland, emigrated to Boston at age 17 and was the co-editor of a journal advocating Irish nationalism. Young Ireland leaders asked McGee to return to Ireland and write about the movement. He was among those who, in 1848, tried to spark a revolution to establish an independent Irish republic. The effort’s failure took him back to the United States and then, in 1857, to Montreal. Months later, the journalist, poet, author,  and gifted public speaker was elected to the Canadian legislature.

By 1864, McGee was an influential member of the Canadian cabinet and in the Confederation meetings in Charlottetown and Quebec City that led to Canada’s creation in July 1867. He had also changed his political views and was now writing and speaking against Irish nationalism and the Fenians. By 1868, his close friend Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was considering him a possible successor but many Irish Canadians saw him as a traitor.

On April 7, 1868, McGee’s late evening House of Commons speech about Canada’s promise was met with rousing applause. The House adjourned just after two o’clock in the morning. McGee walked across the Parliament Hill lawn and then the two blocks to his Sparks Street rooming house, enjoying the unusually mild evening illuminated by a stunning full moon. He was reaching for his key when an assassin crept behind him and fired a .32 calibre bullet through the back of his head. He died instantly.

mcgee

McGee (Photo: CBC)

Within an hour, Police Detective Edward O’Neill was on the case. The House of Commons doorkeeper told him to arrest the “sandy whiskered tailor” at Eagleson’s tailor shop. O’Neill knew the Irish community well and so he knew the man in question was Whelan. Whelan’s rooms at Michael Starr’s Hotel were searched and found to contain a great many Irish nationalist and Fenian publications. Police found several copies of the Irish American and several blank membership cards to Irish nationalist groups, which suggested that he was involved in distributing literature and soliciting memberships. Police also found Whelan’s Smith & Wesson, .32-calibre revolver. One bullet had recently been re-loaded and there was fresh powder on the muzzle. Whelan was arrested for the murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

Based on the suspicion that the murder was a Fenian conspiracy, forty others believed to have been involved were also arrested. They included Whelan’s boss, his landlord, a number of his friends, and even prominent Fenians in Toronto and Montreal.

Whelan’s trial began in September. He appeared resplendent in a green suit and white vest. The courthouse was packed with reporters and Prime Minister Macdonald sat at the table with the crown’s lawyers. Testimony revealed that Whelan had been seen outside McGee’s boarding house twice in the days before the murder. He had been seen looking anxious and jittery on Parliament Hill on the night before and, with his pistol in his pocket, in the House of Commons gallery watching McGee’s final speech. It was stated that Whelan had spoken many times about wanting to kill McGee. A man who was incarcerated in the jail cell across from Whelan, testified that Whelan had confessed to feeling remorse about having shot McGee. Another gentleman testified that he had seen the murder take place and, while his testimony was confused in places, he was sure Whelan was the assassin.

The defense poked holes in the eye-witness testimony and much of that presented by others, but the evidence was clearly stacked against the accused. Whelan took the stand on the trial’s final day. Dressed all in black, he said that he was not a Fenian and had great admiration for McGee. He concluded, “Now I am held to be a black assassin. And my blood runs cold. But I am innocent. I never took that man’s blood.”

After several hours of deliberation, the jury found Thomas James Whelan guilty of the murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee. The conviction was appealed to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Ontario but to no avail. It was appealed again and, in January 1869, the Ontario Court of Appeal rejected it again. There was nothing left but for Whelan to face the sentence the court had announced. He would be hanged.

Whelan languished in cell number 4 in Ottawa’s Carleton County Jail for ten months, awaiting the hangman’s noose. On the day before he was scheduled to die, he composed a three-page letter to Sir John A. Macdonald. As he had in court, he claimed to be a loyal British subject, to have never been a Fenian, and that he had not shot McGee. The letter went unanswered.

Whelan enjoyed his last meal on the morning of February 11, 1869. The gallows were ready. Whelan’s hands were lashed behind his back and he was slowly led up the wooden steps. A hushed crowd of 5,000 watched intently. Whelan’s last words, uttered a moment before a hood was lowered over his head: “I am innocent.” It would be Canada’s last public hanging and the only assassination of a Canadian politician.

The pistol that killed McGee is now on display in Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of History. Ottawa’s Carleton County Jail has become a hostel where people spend the night and hear of ghost stories including that of Whalen’s ghost, reportedly seen in his old cell, writing his letter to Macdonald. In August 2002, descendants of Whelan’s family came to the spot near the hostel where Whelan was buried. They proclaimed his innocence. A priest said a short prayer. A mound of earth was scooped into a box and taken to Montreal where it was interred next to Whelan’s widow, at Cote des Neiges cemetery. In the same cemetery, rests the remains of Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

 

This column is the second that I have been invited to contribute to the Canadian Encyclopdia. If you enjoyed it, please share it with others.

 

 

The Courage that Changed Nations

Courage changes lives. We are surrounded by a million acts of personal courage but nearly all are unseen and unsung. There is the courage of the shy boy raising his hand in the classroom and the timid girl clenching her jaw and walking on to the playground when, for many girls, it is a battlefield. There is the courage of the single Mom somehow managing another morning of scurrying kids to school and herself to work while wondering if there will be more month than money. Courage is not the absence of fear but the presence of determination. Courage is the world’s greatest agent of change.

Courage changes also nations.

In 1990, secret meetings between Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and provincial and territorial leaders led to the Meech Lake Accord. The short document detailed a series of constitutional changes that shifted significant power from the federal government. It was designed to seduce Quebec into doing what it had refused to do nine years before and sign Canada’s new Constitution with its embedded Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One by one, provincial and territorial governments ratified the Meech Lake deal before its looming June 23 deadline. No one expected what happened next.

The speaker of Manitoba’s legislature asked for unanimous consent to waive a two-day waiting period and immediately begin the ratification debate. Alone among his colleagues, with an eagle feather in hand, Elijah Harper said no. Harper was an Ojibwa-Cree and former Chief of the Red Sucker Lake Community. His bold action in the House that day reflected the anger of many Aboriginal people who were upset that they had been left out of the process that created the Meech Lake Accord and that its constitutional changes ignored their concerns. Their historic concerns and pleas for respect had not been dismissed by those who designed the constitutional accord. Worse. Their concerns and pleas had not even crossed their minds. Harper’s no paralyzed the legislature. It stunned the country.

The legitimate concerns of Aboriginal nations had not been dismissed by those who designed the constitutional accord. Worse. The concerns had not even crossed their minds. Then Harper’s no paralyzed the legislature. It stunned the country.

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(Photo: Rabble.ca)

The next day, the speaker again asked for unanimous consent. Again, Mr. Harper said no. Eight times he said no until the clock ran out. The debate never happened. Newfoundland’s premier then refused to bring his legislature to a vote. Meech Lake was dead.

Prime Minister Mulroney was enraged, thought Harper was stupid, but understood the magnitude of what had just changed. He set to work constructing a new series of constitutional amendments that would become the Charlottetown Accord. This time, though, Mulroney sought a broader consensus. He ensured that Aboriginal people were part of the consultation and decision-making process.

Native nations spoke with many voices and all were heard. The Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, the Native Council of Canada, and the Métis National Council all participated in consultations and helped shape the final document.

The accord presented to the Canadian people in a 2009 referendum stated that, after a three-year waiting period, Aboriginal peoples would be granted self-government. Treaty rights would be entrenched in the Constitution. This time, however, for reasons that had little to do with Native participation or promises made, it was the Canadian peoples’ turn to say no.  The Charlottetown Accord was tossed on history’s scrap heap atop Meech Lake.

But a change had happened. Harper’s lesson was learned. The Charlottetown consultations had brought Aboriginal issues to the forefront of Canada’s civic conversation. Afterward, a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples allowed a national airing of history’s insults, crimes, and atrocities. It led to a federal law that met Charlottetown’s promise: the recognition of the inherent right of Aboriginal self-government and a constitutional recognition of treaty rights. Parliament issued an apology for the unforgivable horrors of the government and church-run residential schools.

Aboriginal nations were now in the halls of power with more of their concerns recognized and better understood. But where laws and hearts must walk in tandem, change is slow. Many infuriatingly complex problems still face Aboriginal peoples and shape their place within Canada. Problems three hundred years in the making are not being quickly solved. But they are no longer ignored, and, despite occasional setbacks, there is steady, often begrudging, but determined progress.

A year after his brave stand in the Manitoba legislature, Elijah Harper received the prestigious Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award. It was the same award given by the Canadian parliament to Nelson Mandela for the courage he showed in helping to end South Africa’s apartheid. Harper accepted the award with the same quiet, humility with which he had sat with his eagle feather and said no. Courage, after all, is neither brash nor boastful. Courage acknowledges doubt and fear but refuses to be cowed by them. It is the humility of the shy boy, timid girl, and single Mom who summon quiet courage to change and shape their lives. It is the courage of Mr. Harper who changed the Canadian nation and Aboriginal nations by placing them on the road to where they should always have been.

Redemption’s road is long and rocky but we must all summon the courage to travel it and to do so together. Let the drinking water be cleaned, let the children be educated, let the murdered and missing women be investigated, recognized, and mourned, let the treaties be obeyed, the land respected, and respect ensured. As the courageous Mr. Harper knew, it’s been too long, but it’s not too late.

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The Syrians, Irish, and Our Tree Fort

Canadians and Americans are at war with themselves. A battle in that war involves President Trump’s attempt to close the border to those from seven troubled countries. Another is revealed through one of Canada’s Conservative Party leadership candidates who once touted a hotline for Canadians to rat on their neighbours and now wants mindreading to shape immigration policy. As soldiers in the war for our soul, we must consider who we are. We must decide whether we wish to swap our values for a false sense of security and lives of fear or, rather, share our bounty with those whose homelands are in crisis. As always, the past contextualizes the present. So, let’s draw lessons from our response to a catastrophe that struck another people in peril.

In the early 1800s, rich English families owned 95% of Irish farms. The absentee landlords had middle-men subdivide them into smaller and smaller plots while charging higher rents. About half of rural Irish families suffered crushing poverty. Potatoes were the staple crop with most folks and farm animals living on little else. At the same time, English factories were stealing work from pre-industrial Irish towns. About 2.4 million of about 8 million Irish were unemployed.

A bad situation turned to crisis when, in 1845, potato plants turned black. Potatoes shrivelled and became inedible. British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel ordered a commission to investigate but found neither cause nor cure. To address the ironic crisis of farmers without food, Peel ended Corn Law tariffs to lower food prices. It had little effect. Poor Law revisions split Ireland into 130 parts, called unions, and each was assigned a workhouse. Desperate urban poor traded prison-like conditions for housing and food while famine ravaged the countryside.

Starving tenant farmers were evicted from their homes for non-payment of rents. Soldiers marched the families away as landlords had houses knocked down to avoid taxes and keep the desolate from returning. Between 1849 and 1854, 250,000 people were swept from the land. Sixteen middlemen were shot by farmers resisting the mass evictions. London sent more soldiers.

The English gentry and business elite felt Peel was spending too much money and time on Ireland and voted his party from office. The new prime minister, Lord John Russell, cancelled food shipments to Ireland and ended Irish relief. The man in charge of the crisis, Assistant Secretary of the British Treasury Sir Charles Trevelyan, said the Irish needed to self-fund future relief programs and allow the market place to right everything. Linked to the British government’s belief in laissez-fair economics was its faith in providentialism. Trevelyan made the idea clear when he explained the Irish crisis as, “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence, one which laid bare the deep and inveterate root of social evil.”

While the English blamed victims and debated ideology, hunger’s effects caused dysentery, fevers, and dropsy. Typhus, called Black Fever by those it was killing, turned a sufferers’ skin thin, brittle, and black. The Russell government created soup kitchens but, because they had to be paid for by dwindling Irish taxes, they were too few and most too far from rural areas. An increasingly common sight was entire families who had set out to find food and work – blackened skeletons in rags – laying side-by-side in ditches where they had died.

Landlords began hauling delinquent tenants to the docks. The first waves left for Canada. The hellish journeys lasted 40 – 90 days with cramped passengers suffering pots for communal toilets, thin and often rancid gruel, and all the while robbed of sleep by screaming hungry, babies and the incessant coughing of the sick and dying. Approximately 5,000 families carried loved one’s bodies from the fetid below-decks to ships’ rails where, after a few words of scripture, they were tossed into the roiling Atlantic. The vessels were dubbed Coffin Ships.

The emigration peak came in 1847 when 100,000 starving Irish migrants arrived in Quebec City. At one point in June, 40 Coffin Ships bobbed in a two-mile line waiting to be processed. Makeshift hospitals on Grosse Île helped emaciated people trying to survive their fifteen-day quarantine. But mass graves betrayed the growing tragedy. When Coffin Ships kept coming, some were waved through to Montreal and some further on to Kingston. Churches and charities did what they could to help the sick and settle the rest. Within weeks of arriving in Canada,     11, 543 died.

Desperate Irish families were also arriving in America. Unlike in Canada, where the majority were Protestant, most of those arriving in the United States were Catholic. This fact caused consternation among the predominantly Protestant public and public officials and spurred harsh immigration restrictions. Captains had to somehow guarantee that no passengers would ever become wards of the state. Passenger fares rocketed to three times that of ships heading to Canada and regulations restricted the number of people that could be aboard each ship. But the ships kept coming and the numbers swamped the rules. New York became home to more Irish people than Dublin.

As Irish immigrants moved into more American cities, anti-Irish, anti-Catholic prejudice and discrimination grew. This was nothing new. George Washington had spoken out against anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiments as far back as 1776. But in the 1840s, anti-Catholic street riots in New York and Philadelphia had raged for days. A sign appeared on store windows and factory gates: “No Irish Need Apply.”

Anti-Irish xenophobia played a significant role in creating a new political party called the Know-Nothings. Later renamed the American Party, it demanded a closing of borders to all immigrants, a 21-year waiting period for citizenship, and that foreign-born Americans be permanently banned from voting and holding public office. In 1855, the American party won 43 seats in the House of Representatives. American Party member and Massachusetts Governor Henry J. Gardiner attacked Irish and other immigrants as, “aliens born, aliens unnaturalized, and aliens entirely ignorant of our institutions.”

Irish migrants faced similar problems in Canada. The resentment and reaction were seen in Toronto. Between June and October 1847, 38,000 Irish economic refugees overwhelmed the city that had a population at the time of only 30,000. Many Irish families moved quickly through Toronto to join established Irish communities in places like Peterborough County, but that didn’t stem anger regarding the city’s changing demographic. George Brown was the influential owner and editor of the Globe and future Father of Confederation. He spoke for many when he observed, “Irish beggars are to be met everywhere, and they are ignorant and vicious as they are poor…They are lazy, improvident and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons.”

Barred from integration, Toronto’s Irish congregated in Cabbagetown and in nearby Corktown, named after the county from which many had come. Many businesses refused to hire Irish people with the powerful anti-Catholic Orange Lodge bolstering anti-Irish feelings. To defend themselves, the Irish created the Hibernian Benevolent Society. Toronto witnessed 29 riots involving Orange Lodge members and Irish migrants. Orange Day parades and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations always sparked violence.

syrians-irish-and-our-tree-fort

Irish Potato Famine Monument in Toronto (Photo: Toronto Star)

The potato famine reduced Ireland’s population from 8.4 million in 1844 to just 6.6 million six years later. About one million died of starvation and related diseases. Between 1845 and 1860, 360,000 Irish migrants settled in Canada and 1.7 million in the United States. It took a couple of generations, but the prejudice and discrimination directed at them slowly faded as they became contributing members of society and, in America, soldiers in the Civil War. The xenophobic hatred they endured remained but its cruellest wrath was refocused on newer newcomers.

So here we are again. Some want to help and others are eager to direct fear and hatred at the latest group of ‘others’ to arrive in search of better lives. Syrians and others from countries torn by war, political corruption, and economic catastrophes are the new Irish. Muslims are the new Catholics. They are gazing up at us in our fort, constructed years ago, without permission, in an Aboriginal tree. Mr. Trump and some seeking Canada’s Conservative Party leadership are urging us to push down the ladder. It’s up to us.

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