Last night I found myself across the city at Fort York National Historic Site to attend a session in their “Parler Fort Speaker Series” (a delightful twist of words, I have to say.) This is my first time attending and I’m glad I did — and devastated I’ve missed so many. For those who know me, the combination of books and history is enough to get a girl giddy.
Last night’s session featured Christopher Moore, author of 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal (M & S) in conversation with David A. Wilson, University of Toronto professor and author of the biography Thomas D’Arcy McGee (McGill-Queen’s University Press, volume 1: 2008, volume 2: 2011) and Peter Vronsky, author of Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle that Made Canada (Penguin, 2011), the newest volume in Allen Lane’s History of Canada series.
My remembrances of the Fenian invasion and threat came largely from my Grade 10 History class and a 2nd year general Canadian history course at Queen’s. I knew the basics and I’ll lay them out here for you now. Between 1866 and 1871, groups of Irish-Americans (The Fenian Brotherhood, and quite a number of Civil War veterans) launched attacks on parts of Upper Canada, New Brunswick and Canada West. I remember them mostly being small, but taught as a factor in a little dally in fear-mongering for Confederation.
David Wilson started us off with quite a staggering bit of statistics. There are 17,000 letters in the Sir John A Collection – how many do you think mentioned the Fenians?
“Zero,” was one answer. “Five,” another. The answer? 5,000. The threat was more real than we think of it now.
Wilson talked more specifically about Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s opposition to the Fenians, particularly that it was both impractical and immoral. Impractical because “the earthen pot (of Ireland) could not break the (British) pot of iron.” Immoral because of its effect on Irish-Catholics throughout Canada and the potential backlash they would face, especially after open Canadian support for the Irish with famine aid. He felt the Fenians were functioning under “the pretended authority of the Irish people,” and were “not enemies of England, but enemies of Ireland.” Of course, to find out more about McGee’s views you’ll have to read the book (spoiler alert: he’s assassinated.)
Peter Vronsky was up next and took us through the Fenian invasion at Ridgeway. Very few people know about it, but he aptly said “If 1,000 insurgents crossed the border to attack Canada today, it’d be a pretty big deal, wouldn’t it?” Yes. And Vronsky’s main point that he drove home was that, for quite some time, Ridgeway was a pretty big deal for Canadians too.
Beginning in 1890, Canada’s “Decoration Day” was held on June 2 – the date of the Battle of Ridgeway. This day was meant to honour not only the veterans of Ridgeway, but of all Canadian battles – including the Northwest Rebellion, Boer Wars and the First World War. It wasn’t until 1931 that Armistice Day celebrations became our country-wide Remembrance Day. Until then, it had been the anniversary of Ridgeway. And we know that “In Flanders Fields” was written by a Canadian in the First World War, but how many of us knew that “The Maple Leaf Forever” was written only a year after the raids by a veteran of the battle of Ridgeway?
While many support the idea that Canada was forged in Confederation, the First World War, or Vimy Ridge (among others), Vronsky strongly argues in favour of Ridgeway. “Confederation is Canada on paper,” he said, “but Ridgeway was Canada in their hearts.” And while both Wilson and Vronsky agreed that the Fenian invasion Ridgeway happened too late to have any signficant effect on the Confederation process, Vronsky believes that Confederation was really a “chemical process,” and Ridgeway was a key part in getting the Canadian public emotionally connected to the idea of Canada.
It was a great evening, and right up my dorky historical alley.