Chapter 10. Societies of British North America to 1860

10.8 Race and Racism

Ethnicity became a common dividing line in British North American society in the mid-19th century. This was associated most acutely with the Irish immigrants, who were viewed by established settlers as competing for jobs, compromised by cholera, heavily addicted to alcohol, inclined to brawling, and mostly Catholic. Take out the specifics and one has the outlines of nativist responses to newcomers for generations: economic threat, health threat, moral threat, physical threat, and spiritual threat. Nativists — that is, British North Americans whose claim to precedence might go back generations or only a matter of years — repeatedly stirred up panic about new immigrants, most of whom were unskilled and badly connected to the local society.

Of course the living conditions and hygiene were poor (although hardly different from the rest of the working population), but all of these prejudices combined to keep newcomers in generations of poverty. In Saint John, New Brunswick, in the late 1840s, this situation provoked violence when Catholic Irish descended on the town, fleeing poverty during the Great Famine. The Orange Order, a local branch of an international organization that fought Catholicism in Europe (but especially in the largely Protestant counties of northern Ireland), spoke for nativist interests by trying to drive out Irish immigrants.[1]

Similar confrontations occurred along the Ottawa Valley, where the Irish Catholics turned on the host society. In a running battle that lasted from 1835 to 1845, Irish Catholic logging camp workers were incited by one employer, Peter Aylen (1799-1868), to attack Canadien loggers and logging operations. Using violence as a tactic to gain advantage, Aylen and the Irish asserted their authority over the whole of Bytown in what was known as the Shiners’ War. The reign of terror lasted only two years, but the violence took another eight years to end.[2]

Ethnic bias could be found in other circumstances, too. Certainly Canadiens often found themselves at the sharp end of prejudice in English Canada. This played out in any number of venues, not the least of which was the legislature of the united colony of Canada after 1841. Acadians, too, faced anglophone hostility in the Atlantic colonies. The Jewish population of Lower Canada faced a kind of double discrimination as British law forbade their entering political life unless they took an oath to the Christian god, and the Catholic church was actively hostile. Ezekial Hart’s case illustrates the situation. A seigneur at Trois-Rivieres, Hart and his family were active in the fur trade and local life for many years before he was elected to the Lower Canada assembly in 1807. He was repeatedly blocked in his attempt to take his seat because of the aforementioned oath. Among those opposed to his presence in the assembly was a young Louis-Joseph Papineau. Hart left politics but embarrassed his opponents by serving as a lieutenant at the Battle of Chateauguay in 1813. Twenty years later Papineau, as Speaker of the Assembly, would demonstrate a change of attitude toward Hart and championed an Emancipation Act (1832), the first of its kind in the British Empire. This Act expanded Jewish rights significantly, though it did not by any means put an end to anti-Semitism.

There is a line between ethnic, sectarian, and racial division that is often unclear. Were Franco-Catholics targeted by Anglo-Protestants because of language, culture, or creed?[3] Or a combination of all three? Certainly Lord Durham claimed that he found “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state,” a phrase that has long outlived the man but which complicated the discussion by juxtaposing “nation” and “state.” For people like Durham, nation equated with race and state with an administrative unit. “Nations,” in Durham’s time were identifiable peoples with distinctive cultural qualities and beliefs and inclinations, not a great leap from the essentials of “race.” Durham’s use of the terms “nation” and “state” reflects the rise in his lifetime of the idea of the “nation state,” a political and geographic unit that supersedes the old absolutist arrangements that might have Bourbon monarchs ruling over disparate parts of Europe.

The values associated with these terms changed dramatically in the next century. Between 1800 and Confederation, attitudes about the inferiority of certain “races” became popular, even among scholars.  What became known as scientific racism postulated measurable differences in intelligence, barbarity, and morality (although spirituality had by this time slipped off the agenda). It also argued that the more numerous and less valuable “races” needed managing by superior peoples, lest their near-subhuman characteristics spread across continents and undermine civilization itself. In this respect, “racism” is not merely a set of discriminatory attitudes or a belief in the inferiority of certain identifiable groups of humans: it is a call to action, to resist at every turn the possibility of inferior people destroying the accomplishments of superior people.

This attitude prevailed at the time for a number reasons. First, it was the age of Britain’s Second Empire. Expansion into Africa and Asia was helped along by a theory of the human race that legitimized conquest and subjugation. Just as Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries were armed with their Christian beliefs to strengthen their assault on people in the Americas, the British, French, German, Belgian, Dutch, and American expeditions abroad in the 19th century used racism. Second, the Darwinian theory of natural selection that explained the diversity of species within a population was misapplied to humans — using skin pigment, physique, and place of origin to establish a hierarchy of humanity among human races. Dislike of foreigners — xenophobia — was given a scientific veneer, whether that was Darwin’s intention or not. And, of course Darwin was not the only celebrity scientist of his age whose ideas were brought to bear on the issue.

While racism was used in New Brunswick and elsewhere to lend legitimacy to attacks on Irish immigrants, it flourished most fully on the West Coast. In retrospect, the era of the HBC monopoly looks like an age of tolerance and mutual respect (although geographers like Cole Harris have characterized it as one of brutality and efforts at subjugation of employees and Aboriginal peoples alike by HBC traders).[4] Beginning in the 1840s and the start of colonization, White attitudes toward other peoples in the region started to shift. At first the prejudices that emerged had much more to do with religion and spiritual issues. Missionaries who arrived in those years were quick to point out the heathen state of the locals, but they were also in conflict with one another. Oblate (Catholic) missions were among the earliest, arriving from the Oregon Territory at mid-century and extending to the central coast and the Cariboo Plateau before 1870. The Anglicans were an established presence under the HBC and the Crown colony regime. Other Protestant denominations showed up along with the gold rush, so that by 1860 in Victoria there were Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. The plurality of sects had the effect of sapping any one faith of sufficient adherents to become the leading church in the new colonies. By the 1860s this situation produced a political compromise in which secularism and non-denominationalism in education and other activities guided the thinking of government officials.

The gold rush itself, however, produced a distinctive human landscape. The arrival of many Chinese miners, along with smaller numbers of people from other parts of Asia, significant numbers of African-Americans, Mexicans, and others elevated the issue of race locally. Arriving in the colonies from San Francisco, the original Chinese were followed by immigrants from Guangzhou (a.k.a. Canton) and Taishan counties. Initially Vancouver Island and British Columbia (united in 1866) were inclusive in their democratic institutions. By the 1870s, however, almost all non-Whites had lost the right to vote. As well, Chinese settlers were discouraged from owning property or residing outside of demarcated quarters known as Chinatown.

The Chinese immigrants were overwhelmingly male and motivated to make money in a hurry and return to China. Discrimination and hostility impeded some of their efforts, although Chinese miners left a distinctive mark on the gold rush landscape. Thoroughly washing off every rock they lifted from the gold-bearing streams, they stacked them in huge piles along the riverbanks; evidence of this practice may be seen in many old gold rush towns. The Chinese needed to be meticulous because they were regularly challenged over their claims. Numbers came to matter in the goldfield, however, and roughly half of the population of Barkerville at its height was Chinese. Some of this population, particularly the Taishan immigrants, would make their way to Nanaimo and Wellington on Vancouver Island where they would later find work in the coal mines.

Racism was articulated within the context of a discourse tied to evolutionary theory, but it had a longer pedigree. African slavery did not require 19th century science to produce laws and behaviours that spoke to ideas like superiority and inferiority. Imperialism had, for more than two centuries, reinforced those ideas as was clear from the marginalization of African Nova Scotians on poorer land or in underserviced urban enclaves.[5] However, the mid-19th century iteration of racism was different in that it became a generalized way of looking at the world. The age of steam power had something to do with this: more peoples were crossing paths with one another than had been the case in the past. Asia, too, was breaking out of its long, self-imposed isolation. The distinctions were sometimes subtle.

There were important contradictions here as in all social relations. At the very moment that racism was on the rise, the anti-slavery movement was as well. At the same instant that British North American middle classes were agitated over the future of the British “race,” they were condemning slavery in the United States, backing the Underground Railroad, and in some cases publicly endorsing African-Canadian involvement in the body politic. The career of Mary Ann Shadd (1823-1893) offers an example. She and her brother fled the United States after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law (1850), taking up residence in Windsor, Canada West. There she published The Provincial Freeman and built a base of support for racial integration and the exodus of African-Americans to Canada and Vancouver Island. In the West Coast colony, some of these immigrants formed the all-Black Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps, and one of their number (Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, 1823-1915) became a highly influential merchant and political broker in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Gibbs’s counting house, however, was only a few metres away from Victoria’s Chinatown and a stone’s throw from the Songhees reserve, neither of whose occupants were invited to participate in the new democratic civilization.

One place in British North America where the nuances and contradictions of racism could be seen — and mattered greatly  — was in Aboriginal relations with the expanding settler communities. This theme is pursued in Chapters 11 and Chapter 13.

Key Points

  • Ethnic and sectarian intolerance divided many communities in Upper Canada and the Maritimes following the arrival of Irish immigrants.
  • Religious intolerance was widespread.
  • British North Americans invoked the language of race to disadvantage minority groups and Aboriginal peoples.
  • The diversity of the immigrant community continued to expand through the 19th century provoking further instances of systemic and formalized racism.
  • At the same time, there were strange contradictions, the most outstanding being White British North American attitudes toward African-Americans, which were generally much more tolerant than for any other group.

  1. Scott W. See, "The Orange Order and Social Violence in Mid-Nineteenth Century Saint John," Acadiensis 13, issue 1 (Autumn 1983): 68-92.
  2. David Lee, Lumber Kings & Shantymen: Logging and Lumbering in the Ottawa Valley (Toronto: James Lorimer & Co., 2006), 157-196.
  3. This was never a one-way street. In 1853 Catholic crowds in Montréal responded to the visit of a prominent anti-Catholic speaker with violent protest. See Dan Horner, “'Shame upon you as men!': Contesting Authority in the Aftermath of Montreal’s Gavazzi Riot,” histoire sociale/Social History, vol. 44, no.1 (2011): 29-52.
  4. Cole Harris, The Resettlement of British Columbia: Essays on Colonialism and Geographical Change (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997), 31-67.
  5. John Zucchi, A History of Ethnic Enclaves in Canada (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association Booklet no. 31, 2007), 3.


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Canadian History: Pre-Confederation Copyright © 2015 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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