In 1847, Toronto was Canada’s largest city, boasting a population of 20,000, largely English and Scottish Protestant. Between May and October of that year, more than 38,000 economic migrants fleeing the potato famine in Ireland, many of them typhus-infected, disembarked at Toronto. Although the majority of immigrants moved on to other cities, Toronto would remember the year as “Black ‘47”. The city’s antipathy to the Irish migrants was understandable. The “human ballast” of the coffin ships bore scant resemblance to the prosperous Torontonians. Worse still, the filthy and sick refugees disgorged at Reese’s Wharf on Lake Ontario would become the definition of “Irish” character for Toronto citizens.

Of the 38,000 migrants, perhaps a thousand managed to remain in Toronto. Unskilled labourers ill-suited to urban life, the Irish were confined to horse and wagon occupations of cartage and policing. The expression “paddy wagon” is thought to have originated from this time of heavily Irish-populated police forces. A decade later, editor George Brown wrote with impunity in The Globe:

Irish beggars are to be met everywhere, and they are as ignorant and vicious as they are poor. They are lazy, improvident and unthankful; they fill our poor houses and our prisons, and are as brutish in their superstition as Hindoos.

Religious bigotry, anti-(Irish) Catholicism in particular, would continue to rule Toronto for over a century. The 195th Annual Toronto Orange Parade marched on July 3rd of this year. The controversial parade celebrating Protestant King William’s victory over Catholic King James II in the Battle of the Boyne of 1690 has its own Facebook page. To this day no Catholic has ever been mayor of Toronto while New York, a city that experienced the same migrant crisis, elected its first Irish Catholic mayor in 1880. Boston, another migrant destination,  followed suit in 1885. My parents, although Toronto-born, were descendants of migrants and recalled hearing of the “No Irish Need Apply” job postings. I remember at least one winter, head down, trudging to grade school, being pelted with snowballs with shouts of “dirty Catholic”.

And yet the story has a happy ending. In 2011 the National House Survey revealed that 1 out of 5 people in Canada is foreign-born. No big deal. Canada is a huge country. We have space for millions of people. However, the numbers show that immigrants are choosing to settle in cities, especially Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Statistics Canada announced in 2014 that more than six million people live in the Toronto Census Metropolitan area. According to the NHS, people born outside Canada account for 46% of Toronto’s total population. That’s almost half of the city’s population.

Migration continues to make Toronto an amazing place to live, work and play. For all.

Image Credit:  Old City Hall, Toronto 1939