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  • Toronto, the Belfast of Canada: The Orange Order and the Shaping of Municipal Culture by William J. Smyth
  • Daniel Panneton
William J. Smyth. Toronto, the Belfast of Canada: The Orange Order and the Shaping of Municipal Culture. University of Toronto Press. xvi, 312. $29.95

To most post-boomer Torontonians, the Orange Order, if they recognize the name at all, is the archaic, ritualistic club that their vaguely prejudiced grandfather belonged to. The organization, which once had a stranglehold over Toronto's municipal culture and institutions, is a skeleton of what it once was, kept alive by a small cadre of traditionalists and immigrants. In one of the most multicultural cities in the world, memory of Toronto's past as a haven of Protestant supremacy is long forgotten.

In Toronto, the Belfast of Canada: The Orange Order and the Shaping of Municipal Culture, William Smyth explores the formal and informal power structures that operated within Toronto between 1850 and 1950 to create a distinctive political and social atmosphere. One of the city's nicknames during this period, "The Belfast of Canada," is used as an explanatory tool in Smyth's analysis of local power structures. Used by some as an epithet, Smyth contends that the name was a metaphor for the transplanting of political and social culture from Ulster to Toronto that occurred in the nineteenth century. Throughout his book, Smyth fruitfully compares Toronto to Belfast, a city also characterized by Orange dominance and exclusivity. What emerges is a nuanced, contextualized portrait of institutional power in action that adds much to the somewhat sparse body of literature on the Orange Order in Canada.

Smyth's book charts the trajectory of the Orange Order in Toronto chronologically. From the organization's humble beginnings, the Orange Order quickly became one of the most powerful political machines in Canada. It has been said that, to get a job with the Toronto Corporation, one had to be either an Orangeman or a Mason. The scrappy brotherhood had attained respectability by the twentieth century, when it acted as an enforcer of "Toronto the Good's" conservative values. During the years following the Second World War, however, the Order's star had fallen, and it ceased to be a major player in Toronto's public life. Demographic shifts, official multiculturalism, and the rise of a new Canadian nationalism undermined Orangeism's once-solid base in the city. Their lack of political potency demonstrated itself in the 1960s during debates over the national anthem and flag. The Order's fragmented and disreputable character in the early nineteenth century, their status as the city's main powerbroker in the early twentieth century, and their death-rattle following the war illustrate both the development of Toronto specifically and the rise of fall of voluntary life in North America generally.

Many histories of Orangeism in Canada fall into two camps: those who wish to explore the political and benevolent functions of the organization, as in the case of much of Hereward Senior's work, and those who [End Page 263] delight in characterizing the Orange Order as a violent, nativist organization, an interpretation forcefully articulated by Scott See. In Toronto, the Belfast of Canada, Smyth successfully traverses this chasm, taking time to explore the positive (for some) functions of the Order, while also taking care not to let the Orangemen off the hook for their rowdiness and intolerance.

Smyth utilizes a data-driven approach to reconstructing the class and ethnic composition of the Orangemen and the demographic trends that characterized municipal employment. Toronto, the Belfast of Canada explores how the Order functioned in a single locality. What is needed now are more case studies and comparative works about the Orange Order in other regions. The book establishes a solid foundation for future research into the topic, making available Smyth's extensive research into Toronto, and republishing useful tables from several landmark works in the field. There's still plenty of juice left in these oranges.

Daniel Panneton
City of Toronto Museums


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pp. 263-264
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