Manitoba History: Review: Cecil J. Houston and William J. Smyth, The Sash Canada Wore: A Historical Geography of the Orange Order in Canada

by Graham A. MacDonald
Parks Canada, Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 5, Spring 1983

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Those who enjoyed Louis Brooker Wright’s books dealing with “culture on the moving frontier” of America and who share his curiosity about the role played by the Scots-Irish personality in the settling of the continent, will wish to read The Sash Canada Wore. The authors have prepared a fascinating case study of one aspect of Protestant Irish influence north of the American border.

First Orange Parade in Souris, 1890
Source: Archives of Manitoba

As historical geography, the study employs a combination of approaches, including historiographic review, narrative history, map analyses of the spatial distribution and spread of Orangeism, and interpretation of the character and role of the Orange Order in British North American and Canadian society. The authors have been judicious and seldom stray from levels of generalization appropriate to their task. Some tantalizing questions and observations are tossed out along the way.

The context is established by tracing the Loyal Orange Order from its inception in County Armagh, Ireland in 1795 down to its virtual demise in the 1960s in Canada. Born within a tradition of local self-defence societies in which Protestant pitted himself against Roman Catholic, the Order quickly transformed itself into self-help immigrant societies in the industralizing sections of western England and Scotland. At home or abroad, the base was never restricted to agricultural or industrial labourers, but always enjoyed the sanction and participation of all classes. Following the disestablishment of the Irish Church in 1870 and the consolidation of British Imperial industrial strength, a middle class and Presbyterian tone could be discerned within the order, but this does not mean that other major elements of society were excluded. The main modes of transfer to Canada were of two types: military and civilian lodges. A military lodge may have operated in Halifax by 1799 while the Order was established in Montreal by 1800.

The central thesis developed is that the Loyal Orange Lodge (L.O.L.) reflected two fundamental ideological tenets held very broadly by British North Americans in the nineteenth century, excluding most French Canadians, Métis and Native peoples: a commitment to British constitutional Monarchy and a conviction that the Protestant way was the correct way. A second line of argument asserts that the Order was not so much a vehicle for anti-Catholic sentiment as it was a friendly and mutual support agency serving those of broadly similar outlook on the frontiers of British North America. The Order peaked in the 1850s when 550 lodges were established in eastern Canada. Subsequent periodic flourishing of the Order is convincingly correlated with the opening up of new frontiers. On the prairies, the first warrant was issued in 1870 in Winnipeg. In 1871 this Lodge reported to the Grand Lodge in Toronto that 110 members were enrolled. This from a settlement of little more than 500!

Scott Memorial Orange Hall, Winnipeg
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The authors contend that the Orange Order in England and Scotland was but a “pale reflection of its counterpart in Canada.” Why was this so? Houston and Smyth argue that the message of Orangeism in the last five years of the eighteenth century was “already old” in terms of Anglo-Irish political culture, but that it was capable of filling an ideological gap in Canada: “the garrison mentality of Protestant Ireland was transferred to Canada where it flourished in colonies perceived to be threatened by French Canadian Catholicism and American Republicanism.” But Orangeism was not merely the vehicle of paranoia. It was a somewhat formalized expression of that certitude which existed in the mental make-up of so many British North Americans in the nineteenth century. “In colonial Canada, the philosophy of Orangeism was the comfortable adjunct of a pervasive mood.” That mood was of course one that understood the appropriateness of a British expansion across the northwest. When Orangemen squatted on Métis lands in south-central Manitoba and were confirmed in their squatting by the judicial powers of the day, they renamed the Riviere aux Isles de Bois—the Boyne. The authors point out that Orange-ism was not the important factor here, only the symbolic one, for in the 1870s “squatting on French and Métis land was a characteristic feature of the protestant domination of Manitoba.”

The arguments are based on extensive field work across Canada and on an inspection of the official records of the L.O.L. Previous scholarship has tended to stress the political and religious ideals of the movement, and the authors of the present work question certain past conclusions. In 1870, for instance, the situation “does little to sustain a view held by some that the ‘essential elements for success of the Orange Order in a community were religious tensions and balance.’ Rather, “Canada was home to an organization which, by definition, was the embodiment of outmoded tradition, and the success of the order there raises questions not only about Orangeism, but also about the communities and the nation into which it was inserted.”

This is a handsomely prepared book. The map work is excellent and greatly aids the reader in his appreciation of the main arguments.

Page revised: 11 January 2016