In my home country of Canada, we are a divided population in many ways: politically, geographically, culturally and linguistically.
It’s such a vast country, and as it was colonised, similar cultures tended to settle in particular regions.
One which sticks out quite obviously is the province of Québec, which is a French-speaking nation-within-a-nation. In the mid-1990s, Québec had a referendum (something which occurs quite often in Ireland but is a rarity in Canada) which very nearly broke Canada in half.
The Québécois had to decide whether they would remain as a part of the country, or break away as their own sovereign state.
They very narrowly decided to remain – much to the relief of those of us located on the east coast (we already feel cut off by the rest of the country, even without a physical border!).
Québec is comprised of many different cultures; notably the First Nations people who have always called the region home, and also those descended from original French settlers. There is also a smaller English-speaking population, a growing population of newer immigrants from other French-speaking countries and – wait for it – the Irlando-Québécois (Irish Québécois).
Why such an Irish influence in a French-speaking province?
In the 2016 census, 446,215 people living in Québec identified themselves as having partial or exclusive Irish ancestry. These Irish Québécois live within both the English and French-speaking populations of the province, but many call the city of Montréal home (incidentally, Montréal also hosts the oldest St Patrick’s Day parade in Canada, which started in 1824).
Why such an Irish influence in a French-speaking province? There are a few different reasons, but having a shared religion definitely has something to do with it. In the past, France and Britain were constantly at war over territory in the “New World” and, of course, the Irish were involved. Some Irish soldiers defected from the British army to instead serve for France, while other Irish settlers moved to Québec from New England as they felt they could practise their religion more freely there.
The saddest addition of Irish influence in Québec has to come from the Famine Orphans. In Canada, the television equivalent to RTÉ is the CBC. During the 1990s (and continuing today), Heritage Moments – brief re-enactments of Canadian history – are televised on the CBC. One of these heritage moments concerns the Famine Orphans.
The surviving children of these Irish immigrants were put up for adoption; mainly through the Catholic Church
In the mid-1800s, many Irish immigrants attempted to escape the famine and come to Canada. Being weak from hunger and other health issues, many died en route or while in quarantine after arriving in Québec. The surviving children of these Irish immigrants were put up for adoption; mainly through the Catholic Church.
The nice side of history
In the Heritage Moment, we are shown three orphans about to be adopted by a Québécois couple – the parish priest is introducing the children to their “new family” saying they will now have a “proud new name.”
“No! We have to keep our Irish names,” one of the girls says to the priest. “We have to… pour le memoire de mon patri [in memory of my homeland].” The adoptive parents agree and everyone walks away happy. The heritage moment states that, to this day, many Québécois still carry these Irish names.
In reality, these orphans weren’t always adopted by well-meaning families. In an article (published by RTÉ) entitled Helpless little wanderers: the famine orphans of Quebec, Dr Mark McGowan, who lectures at the University of Toronto, wrote that this famine migration produced “at least 1700 orphans.”
He also says that, while many of the adoptive families were coming from a charitable place in opening their homes, the “feel-good” rendition on which I grew up doesn’t tell the whole story.
The Protestant orphans were placed by Québec’s Anglican bishop
He writes that there was no uniform experience for these children – some were adopted into French-speaking Catholic families, others onto the farms and businesses of other Irish Catholic settlers. The Protestant orphans were placed by Québec’s Anglican bishop.
Many children, as opposed to being cherished members of their adoptive families, were considered on-farm workers or home help. This more realistic side to what they went through shows how Canadian history, as it was presented to Canadians, gave us a happy, but false, impression of events (it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened, in fairness).
Still, the Irish remain an important cultural group within Québec’s distinctive borders – and spending St Patrick’s Day in Montréal is a lot of fun, if you’re ever in the position to visit.
*Janine is not an historian and has recalled events as she remembers from her own research and lived experience