Toronto, the home of the Blue Jays and a city that flies the red maple leaf as proudly as any in Canada, saw a brief flash of the color orange on Saturday, July 12, the traditional Protestant marching holiday.
About 10 Orange bands and marchers made their way up Bay Street to the tune of loyalist favorites such as “Derry’s Walls” and “The Green Grassy Slopes of the Boyne.”
To an onlooker who’s seen a July 12 march in the North, the sight was as familiar as it was incongruous: marching six abreast, uniformed band members and men in suits and sashes paraded up the wide avenue with loyal banners fluttering in a light breeze.
In many a town in Down, Derry, Antrim, Fermanagh, Tyrone or Armagh, the appearance of an Orange march on July 12 is customary if not always welcomed by everyone. But here, the backdrop was not hedgerows and fields but, rather, downtown Toronto’s office blocks and the C.N. Tower, the world’s tallest freestanding tower, and stepping out in martial dress were the assembled members of the Toronto area’s Orange Association.
In contrast to Drumcree, about 10 police officers on Harley Davidson motorcycles puttered around, stopping traffic briefly and allowing the marchers to pass through.
And unlike Northern Ireland, the sidewalks on Bay Street were empty save for a few passersby and puzzled tourists who snapped photographs and emitted the occasional “wow.”
“We’re here every year because we’re proud, proud of our roots in Ulster and in Scotland, proud of our Canadian heritage,” said one marcher, a middle-aged woman who gave her name as Shelley.
“And we’re proud to be Protestants,” added her friend. Both wore orange bannerettes and carried Union Jack flags.
New York may host the world’s largest and oldest St. Patrick’s Day parade every year, but here Irishness is more likely to be of the Ulster-Scots variety. Indeed, Toronto has had an Orange parade every year since 1820.
At the same time, Toronto hosts a much larger St. Patrick’s Day parade every year and an Irish organization put the local Irish-born and Irish-descended population in greater Toronto in 2002 at about 500,000.
Besides, Toronto today is a truly world city. Like New York it has immigrants from around the globe. Most recently the city was in the news because of a SARS outbreak linked to the flow of people to and from its Chinatown, said to be the world’s largest.
In response to SARS, the spirited city council welcomed the Indy 500 this weekend and local news trumpeted the latest arrangements for a rock concert, which is expected to attract 500,000 people, fronted by the Rolling Stones and U2.
Toronto took a hit with its SARS outbreak, but is bouncing back.
For the Orange Association, it is a different story.
“All we’re trying to do is survive,” admitted Orange lodge member Lynn Jones, who is associated with the Niagara Falls Orange lodge. Numbers have been falling in recent years and lodges, according to Jones, are failing to attract new members because “no one is interested in what we stand for anymore. No one knows or cares for the word Protestant here in Ontario anymore. People have no time for religion. Those that do care, there’s very few of us in number.”
Asked if the Canadian Orange lodges had close ties to those in Northern Ireland, he said no, but that most lodges would have occasional visitors from Scotland or Northern Ireland, or even sometimes a new member who had emigrated from the old country.
“The Masonics, the Odd Fellows, we’re all having the same trouble getting new members,” he said.
When the Orange lodges were set up in the 1790s after the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, they were generally modeled after the Free Masons. Whereas Irish Catholics generally immigrated to the U.S., Protestants headed for Canada in such numbers that the largest single immigrant group in 19th century Canada was Irish Protestant. They used the Orange Order they had left behind to establish their own mutual self-help and support system. The Grand Orange Lodge of North America was founded in 1830 and by World War II the Orange Order in Canada had become a mass movement.
Orangism itself dates from the late-17th Century struggle between Protestant King William and Catholic King James, who fought it out across Ireland, ending in the defeat of James at the battle of the Boyne on July 12, 1690.
Thus members of the Orange lodge always defined themselves struggling for religious and political liberty — liberty against a perceived oppressive Catholic foe.
In the context of Northern Ireland, this translated into what are seen as paranoid and triumphalist parades designed to intimidate Catholics. But Orange members insist that their beliefs are in keeping with democracy and liberty.
Three Canadian prime ministers were Orangemen: Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Mackenzie Bowell, a past grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of British America, and John Diefenbaker. Premier Joseph Smallwood, who brought Newfoundland into the Canadian Confederation in 1949, was also an Orangeman.
And in Ontario, Orangism developed a charitable and benevolent side. In 1881, the Orange Association in Canada introduced an insurance program for its members known today as “Orange Insurance.”
The association has also operated benevolent projects, including children’s homes, senior citizen’s homes, a research institute and clinic, disabled person’s hostel, children’s foundation and disaster fund as well as raising funds for causes such as cancer research, the heart foundation, muscular dystrophy and crippled children.
But as the small but respectable parade made its way up Bay Street, ending ultimately at the Moss Park Armory for refreshments, it was hard not to ask if there were close links between these orange lodges marching peacefully and largely ignored by early morning onlookers, and the bigotry and sectarianism associated with the Loyal Orange Order in Northern Ireland.
Sid Hatcher is most worshipful master of the Orange Association of Nova Scotia.
“Nobody knows what we do,” Hatcher said. “If you ask 100 people in Canada if they remember the three little Catholic boys burned to death in Ulster, they’ll all remember them,” he said referring to the murder of the three Quinn boys by loyalists in Antrim in July 1998. “But if you ask the same 100 people if they recall that the Orange Order was cleared of all wrongdoing on that occasion, 99 percent will not know that.”
Said Lynn Jones: “I keep up with what’s going on in Ulster, but my honest opinion is I’m not concerned with that. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’m concerned about us here and our falling numbers.”
Hatcher said that he will soon propose to the Orange Association in Canada that its constitution be rewritten.
“It’s 400 years old,” he said. “We can’t be living according to something so old.”