The Ulster Unionist Tour of Canada, 1886

1000px-flag_of_canada_28pantone29-svgCanada’s 150th birthday is coming up in a few days! As part of my doctoral work at the University of Edinburgh, I looked at visits across the Atlantic by Ulster unionists who aimed to publicize their cause and to counter Irish nationalism during the Home Rule era. One of the more interesting stories involving Canadian history that I came across involved two of these Ulster unionists, who toured North America in 1886.

1200px-flag_of_ulster-svgReverend Dr. Richard Rutledge Kane and barrister George Hill Smith were commissioned by the Ulster Loyalist Anti-Repeal Union shortly after the defeat of the first Home Rule Bill to present the unionist cause to the North American public which they believed were blinded by a pro-nationalist press.

Kane was a fairly notorious figure within Belfast society as the rector of Christ Church, the Grand Master of Belfast’s Orange Order, and a prominent unionist speaker; he was accused of inciting the Belfast riots in 1886.  Smith was a barrister from Armagh who spoke throughout England and Scotland on behalf of the Ulster Loyalist Anti-Repeal Union and other Irish unionist organizations.

Kane and Smith’s tour first took them to Canada and then to the United States.  Speaking at gatherings of Irish immigrants and their descendants, and to Orangemen, they promoted the cause of Irish unionism and attempted to discredit Irish nationalists. But there was one particularly remarkable incident that stood out both to me and to Smith, who considered it one of the most extraordinary things to happen in his long speaking career.

As Smith described in his Rambling Reminiscences, while speaking at an Orange meeting in Hamilton, Ontario, Kane compared the “diabolical deeds” of Irish nationalists to those of “savage Indians.”  A First Nations man responded to his comments by stating, “It seemed as if their Irish visitors had but a very poor notion of what Indians really were.”  He challenged Kane and Smith to “go with him to an Indian Reserve Settlement and address a meeting there,” which would certainly test Kane and Smith’s views of First Nations peoples as “wild, savage, or uncivilized.”

A week later, the delegates found themselves at a reserve about twenty-five miles outside of London, Ontario.  First Nations representatives, through a translator, expressed their devotion to the Queen and Empire.

Both Kane and Smith were taken with the events of the meeting.  Smith enthused, “Certainly we had traveled a long distance, and broken in on one of our off nights to hold this meeting, but we would not have missed it for all the tour.”

As part of his report on the trip once back in Belfast, Kane remarked, “Even the loyal and educated Indians seemed anxious to surpass all others in extending to us assurances of their devotion to the glorious empire of which they were proud to call themselves citizens.  We had an opportunity of addressing a large meeting at an Indian reservation, at which a resolution was passed in their own language similar in terms to those passed at our other meetings; and I cannot soon forget the courtesy and hospitality with which our red brethren received and entertained us.”

The expression of loyalty from the First Nations people was used as a symbol of international appeal of the unionist cause.

This incident stands out to me for several reasons.  What drew the First Nations man to the Orange meeting in the first place?  What reservation did they go to? How did these expressions of loyalty and clear outward projection of aligning themselves with white “civilization” fit in with the greater history of indigenous peoples in Canada and the reserve system? I also can’t help but feel that this incident was used to reinforce Kane and Smith’s preconceived hierarchy, which had strong racial overtones, that even the “savage Indians” were better citizens of the empire than the Irish nationalists.

5 thoughts on “The Ulster Unionist Tour of Canada, 1886

  1. Very interesting. (We say Canadian usage is still “reserve”, rather than the American “reservation”, by the way. )


    • Thanks! I definitely want to use the right terminology. You can see in the primary sources they used both “reserve” and “reservation” in 1886, but the Ulster visitors might have been influenced by the American terminology as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of June 25, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

  3. Hello. My name is Jo Flack and I have been researching my great great grandfather, George Hill Smith KC, mentioned in your post above. I have actually been trying to get hold of a copy of his book Rambling Reminiscences but I think there are only a few a copies still available and they seem to be in university libraries. If you have any further information or sources, I would be very grateful. Thank you. Jo Flack


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