The “Cultural Compatibility” of “Old-Stock Canadians”

Two men walk into a bar.

Both are cynical, though one is certainly more flamboyant than the other. They order single malt whisky and begin to break down the problems of the world; in particular, they discuss the merits (or lack thereof) involved in bringing a paramilitary leader to meet the president at the White House.

“When did it become policy of the United States to negotiate with terrorists?”

The debate turns lofty. There is an attempt to out-do one another with remembered quotations – something akin to Bobby Kennedy and Richard Burton’s duel of sonnets, or Quint and Hooper’s comparison of scars on the Orca. The two men battle out their positions through the words of dead Irish writers:

“It was Kipling who warned to expect ‘the hate of those ye better and the blame of those ye guard’.”

            “Wasn’t it James Joyce who said that ‘history is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake’?”

            “Yes – but it was your own great Irish master, Eugene O’Neill, who said ‘There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.’”

            “You’re saying we should butt out of Ireland until we know what we’re doing?”

            “I’m saying Brendan McGann cannot come to the White House.”

            “Say, speaking of dead Irish writers…”

            “Yes, another drink.”

Quibbling aside that Rudyard Kipling hardly counts as an Irish writer (although his son did fight in the Irish Guards at the Battle of Loos), Aaron Sorkin picked a bevy of quotations about history for this scene from Season 3 of The West Wing. But it’s the final one of O’Neill’s from A Moon for the Misbegotten that, I feel, best encapsulates the twisted ironies of one of my current projects: how the Irish have been treated over the generations by various Canadian governments, and how that fits into the Syrian question in the headlines. We think we’ve come a long way into the future over the years, but, really, it’s just the past happening over and over again. Racialized interpretations of Irishness throughout the past two centuries in the country have created quite an unsettling picture about who has mattered most in Canadian society, and who continues to “count”.

Admittedly, it can be hard to discern the present from the past. When migrants or refugees or exiles flock to the borders of a new country, no one wants them. The xenophobic, nativist reactions in times of crisis bear striking similarities to one another.

Take, for example, The Times report that, “The lamentable increase…can no longer be concealed or disregarded. The authorities of this city were willing to avoid exciting further the already dangerously nervous state of the public mind on this topic, but the facts have at length borne down all the problematical benefits of silence, and concealment is no longer thought of.”[1] While one woman dies in the streets, rejected by those around her who might have offered aid, offshore another woman and her child perish on board a ship while it lay in the harbour. Emigration is rampant.[2]

A high-ranking government official writes to the Canadian immigration minister that he feels “very anxious” to oversee arrangements so that emigrants could be conveyed “in less time than at present, and with less exposure.” Such arrangements, he argued, were absolutely necessary “when we consider how much sickness has been increased by the long exposure of the emigrants in open barges during [their] passage.”[3] However, a former immigration minister swiftly denounced interventionist measures, arguing that the government could only focus on the “most vulnerable” and local charitable groups were key in any accelerated bureaucratic process.[4]

For politicians opposing the current policies, security concerns and fear-mongering are not to be used as excuses for refusing more refugees.[5] “The landscapes of emigration, migration, exile and return are complex ones of loss, enrichment, suffering and enduring hope,” wrote an Irish playwright. “If we lose sight of our shared values and parallel historical experience in this…human catastrophe, then we lose part of ourselves and the core instinct of constructive empathy that has long defined some of the best qualities of [our] people.”[6]

It’s hard to tell who is talking when, isn’t it? Parallel historical experiences, indeed. The above paragraph is a mash-up of government reactions to Irish migrants heading for Canada during the cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1834, as well as official government reports from the Great Irish Hunger of 1847; these stand alongside various reactions to the Syrian emergency in the Irish press and from Canadian political leaders currently vying for control of the state in the 2015 federal election.

The Syrian Refugee Crisis has garnered global attention in recent months, particularly after photos of the dead body of three year-old Alan Kurdi went viral. Numerous pundits and journalists on either side of the Atlantic have noted how this human tragedy echoes those of the past, especially the worst period of the Great Irish Hunger: Black ’47. The wave of Irish migrants in 1847 has been referenced in national newspapers and on the Canadian campaign trail, with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau linking the ghosts of Irish famine victims to the Syrian crisis while speaking at Toronto’s Ireland Park and in the leaders’ debate on foreign affairs. His call for greater Canadian involvement in assisting the Syrian refugees has been countered by Conservative candidates, notably Jason Kenney, the former Minister for Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism, and current Minister of National Defence. Mr Kenney appeared on a national news show, CTV’s Race to the Hill, to emphasise the Harper government’s previous record in helping refugees from the Middle East; he also encouraged local communities to use private charities and existing sponsorship groups in order to assist Syrian families.[7]

The private charity angle was used to combat the Irish Famine, too, back in 1847, to little effect. That summer, nearly 170 years ago, over 100,000 Irish refugees crossed the Atlantic and flowed up the St Lawrence River, seeking shelter, succour, and hope. The Canadas barely knew what to do with themselves. Fifteen years earlier, they had faced massive numbers of Irish refugees fleeing from the cholera epidemics of the 1830s. City populations had swelled with sick newcomers and thousands had died.

The cholera epidemic had sorely tested the Canadian immigration system; the Irish Famine practically destroyed it.

Some, like the Chief Emigration Agent for Upper Canada, A. B. Hawke, tried to put humanitarian concerns at the centre of government involvement, but with mixed results. Fresh pine-built fever sheds quickly turned foul from the physical press of tens of thousands of suffering people; the colonial government needed to be reassured that its long-term financial gain from helping healthy migrants would outweigh any short-term inconvenience or cost. As Hawke wrote to A. C. Buchanan, his one-time counterpart in Lower Canada, separating the healthy from the sick and using steamboats to accelerate the passage of more than 1,000 migrants a week made economic sense: “the Government would save money by entering into such an arrangement, to say nothing of the three days extra food and the saving of time which, as the season advances, becomes most important.”[8]

After naming Syrians the “Famine Irish of the 21st century,” Canadian journalist Terry Glavin was less forgiving of government inaction in 2015: “[W]hat we are all doing – Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats, Americans, Canadians, and all the dominant elites of the United Nations and the NATO countries that cleave to that sophisticated indifference known in polite company as anti-interventionism – is a very straightforward thing. We are watching Syria die. We are allowing it to happen.”[9]

Conservative leader, Stephen Harper, did little to help this image of ‘us versus them’ when he invoked the image of ‘old-stock Canadians’ a few weeks ago.

Mr Harper has been the prime minister of Canada for the past decade, a period during which he has often used a traditional interpretation of the nation’s history in order to refashion the state into a Tory’s ideal image. He has politicized events like the War of 1812 and the discovery of Franklin’s lost ships in the Arctic, while simultaneously silencing national librarians and archivists from voicing any criticism of the government as it slashed heritage budgets and destroyed the long-form census. He has used incidents of international and domestic terrorism to pass radical reinterpretations of Canadian citizenship and has ratcheted up the national garrison mentality to new heights.

During the federal leaders’ debate on September 17th, 2015, Mr Harper denied his government had taken away health benefits from legitimate refugees and immigrants, saying that those who had been refused were bogus claimants. “We do not offer them a better health-care plan than the ordinary Canadian can receive,” he said. “I think that’s something that new and existing and old-stock Canadians can agree with.”

Old-stock Canadians? Just what is an ‘old-stock Canadian’?

Cutting through the twitter feeds and punditry that immediately swarmed over the quote, it is fairly clear that Mr Harper’s definition of an ‘old-stock Canadian’ centres on what the government has termed as ‘the original founding peoples’. Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s guide, Welcome to Canada: What you should know (2013), defines the three founding nations as being Aboriginal, French, and British. This latter term is quickly deconstructed to show that ‘English Canadians’ are descendants of the “hundreds of thousands of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish settlers, soldiers, and migrants who came to Canada from the 17th to the 20th century.” The guide continues that “most Canadians today” trace their lineage back to the “original founding peoples” and that, until the 1970s, most immigrants came from Europe. The closing line in the text reads “Immigrants like you are a valued part of Canada’s multicultural society.” [10] This neatly implies that newly-arriving immigrants are not from a European (read: Caucasian) background.  While they might be valued, they are also most definitely being ‘othered’ by the government’s chosen vocabulary.

This division of ethnicities has been a standard Tory practice during the Harper government’s tenure.  To be fair, it’s been a standard practice for many Canadian governments, going back well into the pre-Confederation period.  Most notably for the contemporary Irish connection, the former Minister for Immigration, Jason Kenney, went on the RTÉ’s Late, Late Show in 2012 in order to make a pitch for more Irish youth to come to Canada. His appearance on the Irish national television network was the most overt declaration yet by the Harper government that the Irish were, unlike some immigrants, a highly desirable commodity on this side of the Atlantic.

During his time with host Ryan Tubridy, Kenney emphasised Ireland’s historical links with Canada and the various opportunities available, particularly in urban centres and the Canadian west. He noted the increase in the number of visas available to Irish workers, the popularity of choosing Canada over other destinations – especially Australia – and, most importantly, the Irish people’s ‘cultural compatibility’ with Canada.

The actual exchange went as follows:

Tubridy: Why Ireland? Why Irish people?

Kenney: Well, the employers in Canada are increasingly identifying Ireland as a great source of talent, hard-working, highly-educated folks who are culturally compatible – they can walk in and get to work the day they arrive, and so I think it’s just a natural choice for employers.

While Tubridy made no follow-up to Kenney’s comments, the Canadian opposition parties did… eventually. Nearly two years later, in 2014, Liberal immigration critic John McCallum queried Kenney’s meaning, stating that the choice of words ‘stands out’ and reflected a ‘dated attitude’ about immigration. “If the Irish are culturally compatible,” he asked, “who is culturally incompatible?”[11]

Minister Kenney’s spokesperson, Alexandra Fortier, countered that Irish ‘compatibility’ referred to “English language fluency, similar education and vocational training systems, compatibility of professional and trade qualifications, similar common law legal systems, broadly similar liberal democratic political cultures, and the fact that Irish culture has long been a historic element of Canada’s cultural mosaic.” She further remarked that any suggestion that his comment had “anything to do with race is ridiculous and offensive.”[12]

Of course, it wasn’t so ridiculous not too long ago. Despite our national pride today in being a quilt of many colours, Canada has a long history of being one of the more racist countries in the world. Our national heritage includes innumerable incidents of sectarian violence between Irish Catholics, Orangemen, and French Canadians in the nineteenth century, the Chinese head tax, the Komagata Maru incident, the Ukranian and Japanese internment camps during the World Wars, the residential school system, and the infamous policy of Mackenzie King’s government that ‘None is too many’ when contemplating asylum for Jews from Nazi Germany.

We have a horrible history of mistreating immigrants and refugees.  The treatment of the Irish in pre-Confederation Canada makes for an unhappy book-end with today’s headlines about the Syrian Crisis.  Canada’s one-time global image as a tolerant nation of peace-keepers and polite Mounties with universal healthcare benefits is a relatively recent phenomenon of the past fifty years with direct links to the ideas of Lester Pearson, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Tommy Douglas and other liberally-minded national leaders.  It is something of a blip on the radar compared to a longer-standing tradition of indifference, indecision, and ignorance.

While Jason Kenney’s comment of Irish ‘cultural compatibility’ with modern Canada in 2012 did not carry negative racial connotations, it did invoke subtle echoes of racialized interpretations of Irishness and other ethnicities in Canada’s past. The appearance of cultural compatibility has been paramount in determining who has succeeded in the transatlantic migration process for centuries.  We can see this in the publications Canadian governments have issued since migration first became a major national theme in the wake of the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Emigrant guides and recruitment material – from whatever century – are quirky at best. The 2013 Welcome to Canada and 2012 Discover Canada manuals each insist on making Magna Carta Canadian, co-opt the Dublin-born Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon as the genesis of Ottawa, and insist that the War of 1812 “laid the groundwork for an independent country.”[13] In terms of outdated gender politics, the 1820 Emigrants’ Guide to the Canadas noted that, “For a small society like that of Canada, the number of unfaithful wives, kept mistresses, and girls of easy virtue, exceed in proportion those of the old country, and it is supposed that in the towns more children are born illegitimately than in wedlock.”[14] Our contemporary guides certainly reflect greater gender equality, though there are pointed references in both Welcome to Canada and Discover Canada that forbid forced marriage, honour killings, female genital mutilation and other “barbaric cultural practices.” Given the recent publication of these manuals, one can assume that events like the Shafia family murders in 2009 directly influenced government policy and the language of the guides; however, with the current election issues of admitting possible security risks along with legitimate Syrian refugees, the “barbaric cultural practices” hotline, and the tempest in a teapot over Muslim women wearing the niqab at citizenship oath ceremonies, things can be seen in a more complicated light.

While criminal and oppressive practices are, obviously, never compatible with Canadian values, when juxtaposed with the Harper government’s obvious desire for Irish immigrants at the same time as the manuals’ publication and heightened national debates about immigration, one could read Jason Kenney’s ‘cultural compatibility’ remark about the Irish and Stephen Harper’s ‘old-stock Canadians’ label as having definite ethnic and moral undertones, if not overtly racial ones.

In terms of ‘othering’ different elements of Canadian society, the Irish were often at the receiving end of social prejudice and stereotypes. One of the most telling comparisons over the centuries has been the type of employment made available to Irish workers after arriving in British North America/The Canadas/Canada. There is an age-old association between the Irish and hard labour, stemming back to a belief in the innate bellicosity of the Irish. These presumptions facilitated the belief that Irish migrants in the early nineteenth century were perfect candidates for the most physically dangerous and exhausting jobs: canal-building, ship-building, building railroads, soldiering, and working as stevedores or lumberjacks along the Ottawa and St Lawrence Rivers.

The 1832 Advice to Emigrants guidebook Copyright: Collections Canada

The 1820 Emigrant Guide held that the trades most likely to flourish were those of shipwright, block and mast maker, blacksmith, carpenter, joiner, boat-builder, saddler, baker, tailor, tanner, hair-dresser, and whitesmith. No matter what the employment, “skill and industry will make their way every where.” The 1832 version of the Emigrants’ Handbook, written under the aegis of Chief Emigration Agent and Ulsterman A. C. Buchanan, noted that, “Mechanics of all denominations, and farming Labourers, if sober and industrious, may be sure of doing well. Blacksmiths, particularly those acquainted with steam engine work, also good Mill-wrights, Masons and Sawyers, by machinery, are much wanted.

When asked in 2012 what positions were available to the Irish, Jason Kenney replied, “a lot of them are in construction trades and engineering, things of that nature.” Labrador-based Iron Ore Company advertised over 200 skilled trades positions at the 2012 Dublin Job Fair – including electricians, “heavy duty mechanics” and millwrights, feeling “convinced that Ireland can supply them.” The company’s director of external relations, Heather Bruce-Veitch, noted that Newfoundland and Labrador have “really strong Irish roots and a very strong Irish cultural heritage, so we believe that would be a really great fit.”[15] On the other side of the country, the Alberta oil sands have been a notable draw for Irish workers thorugh the Temporary Foreign Workers Program; Fort McMurray has become such a hub for Irish ex-pats over the years that it has its own GAA team, an Academy of Irish Dance, and direct cheap flights to Dublin c/o WestJet.

Even with the more socialist leanings of the new NDP Alberta Government under Rachel Notley and with the Saskatchewan economy possibly entering a period of “Saskabust” instead of “Saskaboom”, things are not entirely hopeless. Irish visas to Canada are still being snatched up by young workers at record rates, even when the Irish Canadian Immigration Centre has had to warn in a recent 2015 publication that new arrivals may have to take a “joe-job” upon their arrival here, before landing a career position.[16]

Of course, Irish migration to Canada has slowed down before; at some point, the post-Celtic Tiger boom will taper off, too. What I find very interesting, however, is how so very little has changed in government approaches the issue of migration to Canada. Even two centuries after the Irish first faced prejudicial treatment upon their arrival, race can still be a key factor in how the Irish — and other nationalities — are accommodated by prevailing Canadian bureaucracies. There are still lists of things to bring from the old country, from favourite foods to sufficient funds and warm winter clothing – the difference is now these are on social media instead of in private letters. Smart networking and personal connections are still the most powerful factors on the job market and in the assimilation process, reflecting the primacy of chain migration across the centuries. Emigration agencies established in major urban centres still reach out to new Irish arrivals in order to smooth the migratory process; the difference today is that Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary have supplanted Montreal and Québec as the first port of call. The lure of the Canadian west is as much of a draw now as it was a century ago, and hard labour skills are still a key component in being thought of as ‘desirable’.

Two hundred years ago, the Irish came to Upper and Lower Canada in large numbers because of economic need – their own, and that of the colonies. In many cases, they were on the verge of starvation, haunted by memories of the place they had left behind, and subject to the endemic disregard of their new host society – at least until they could make themselves part of the majority instead of the minority element.

Today, the Irish are no longer the unknown and shadowy ‘other’ – now they have pride of place as one of Canada’s founding nations; other newcomers now feel the brunt of nativism and xenophobia that Irish migrants once faced.  The Irish are Western in culture, democratic in politics, and not likely to be racially profiled as terrorists in this country. No one in the Harper government was thinking of Irish paramilitaries when they wrote Bill C-51. They believe the Irish are trustworthy: “old-stock” to the core.

In being “culturally compatible,” the Irish in Canada today are seen by governments and employers as essential; however, in an immigration process defined by ‘big business’ econmics and the politics of fear, that doesn’t mean that they’re still not being ‘essentialized’.
Creative Commons Licence
Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

[1] The Times, 19 August 1834, 3.

[2] The Times, 28 April 1832, 7.

[3] Archives of Ontario (AO), RG 11-1-0-3, Chief Emigrant Agent’s Letterbooks, A. B. Hawke to A. C. Buchanan, 20 July 1847.

[4] CTV News Channel, Race to the Hill with Mercedes Stephenson, Interview with Jason Kenney, 9 September 2015.

[5] Bruce Campion-Smith, The Toronto Star, 9 September 2015, “Trudeau turns to history to prove Harper wrong on refugees,” available online at (accessed 20 September 2015).

[6] Vincent Woods, Irish Times, 1 August 2015, “It’s not such a long way from Calais to the Irish coffin ships,” available online at (accessed 20 September 2015).

[7] CTV News Channel, Race to the Hill with Mercedes Stephenson, Interview with Jason Kenney, 9September 2015.

[8] AO, RG 11-1-0-3, Chief Emigration Agent’s Letterbooks, A. B. Hawke to A. C. Buchanan, 20 July 1847.

[9] Terry Glavin, The National Post, “Canada is watching Syria die,” 2 September 2015, available online at (accessed 20 September 2015).

[10] Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Welcome to Canada: What you should know (Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, 2013), 21.

[11] Michael Bolen and Althia Raj, “Liberals attack Kenney for calling Irish Immigrants ‘Culturally Compatible’ in 2012” at, 6 May, 2014.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Welcome to Canada, 23; Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship (Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, 2012), 17.

[14] The Emigrant’s Guide, n.p., 1820

[15] Heather Bruce-Veitch quoted in Richard J. Brennan, “Canada woos Irish immigrants in search of jobs,” Toronto Star, 7 October 2015.

[16] The Irish Canadian Immigration Centre, “Come to Canada: Expectations and Realities,” available online at

About midatlanticmusings

Historian of the Irish Diaspora and masculinities, wife, mother, lover of good books, red wine, fine whiskies, pop culture aficionado, and Star Wars wonk.
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