St. Patrick’s Day is a time to reflect on the good that can happen when Canadians open their hearts to those seeking refuge, a Liberal MP says.
It’s a message that Seamus O’Regan believes some Irish Canadians have forgotten.
O’Regan, the MP for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, rose in the House of Commons last week with a moving tribute to those who immigrated to Canada from Ireland in 1847, crossing the Atlantic ocean in fever-ridden “coffin ships,” only to be met with blatant prejudice by some.
Seamus O'Regan speaks in the House of Commons on March 10, 2017. (Photo: Parlvu screengrab)
One-hundred thousand destitute Irish immigrants, “leaving a devastating famine behind them, fleeing terror and persecution,” arrived at a time when the Dominion of Canada numbered just 1.5 million, O’Regan noted.
“In 1847, the Irish were treated with the same contempt and vitriol that is levied at other immigrants today,” he said, pointing to newspapers of the day describing the newcomers as “ignorant,” “lazy,” as “vicious as they are poor.” As Fenians and Papists set to impose their own religious laws.
“Political parties were formed and fuelled for fear of them, for fear of us,” O’Regan said. “Some Irish forget that. I don't.”
"In 1847, the Irish were treated with the same contempt and vitriol that is levied at other immigrants today."
Some 38,000 starving Irish landed in Toronto, then just a city of 20,000, in that year alone.
“And that’s what I’ll remember this St. Patrick’s Day,” O’Regan said.
“I'll remember that in 1847, there were enough, just enough Canadians who rose above the frank, blatant, decades-long discrimination of the day, and gave those immigrants a chance to become Canadians themselves.”
Toronto has long been a 'sanctuary city': MP
Trinity-Spadina MP Adam Vaughan also rose with a member’s statement last Friday marking the influx of Irish immigrants that turned Toronto into a “sanctuary city,” welcoming desperate souls that temporarily doubled the city’s population without notice.
A public health system “sprung to life almost overnight,” Vaughan said, but many doctors and nurses gave their lives trying to save refugees from disease. Typhus, for example, was common among the newcomers.
Ireland Park is built at Toronto's waterfront in memory of first Irish immigrants who arrived to Toronto. (Photo: Boris Spremo/CP)
The compassionate response is memorialized at Ireland Park, along the shores of Lake Ontario. A second park will be opened this fall, Vaughan said, to honour those health workers who died so others could prosper.
“This St. Patrick’s Day, be sure to raise a glass, but also remember the brave and compassionate response of Toronto to refugees,” Vaughan said.
Watch O’Regan’s full speech above.