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  • Toronto, The Belfast of Canada: The Orange Order and the Shaping of Municipal Culture by William J. Smyth
  • James Hull
Toronto, The Belfast of Canada: The Orange Order and the Shaping of Municipal Culture by William J. Smyth. Toronto, Buffalo, London, University of Toronto Press, 2015. xv, 306 pp. $75.00 (cloth), $29.95 (paper or e-book).

The paucity of historical attention paid to the Orange Order is incommensurate with their importance within Canada. Smyth, a senior Irish scholar and academic administrator, returns to the topic of his earlier work, coauthored with Cecil J. Houston, The Sash Canada Wore (Toronto & Buffalo, 1980), to present here a more focussed study on the Order in Toronto, most especially its role in municipal politics and patronage. [End Page 367]

In many respects the Orange Order was a political machine similar to those in other North American cities. Finding a Toronto mayor before the middle of the twentieth century who was not an Orangeman is difficult; finding one who was Catholic is impossible. Politically dominant, the Order as well offered both sociability and a support network for members, in particular those newly arrived from the UK. During the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century it adapted, changed, and was able to embrace non-Irish Protestants — there was even a Protestant Italian Lodge — while remaining true to its historic Irish roots. For decades its parades, watched by tens of thousands, were centrepieces of the public calendar with municipal employees getting a paid day off for 12 July. While indeed the Order was Loyal by name and loyal by nature Smyth perhaps underplays the extent to which a political culture of loyalty was already well established in English Canada by the end of the War of 1812.

This book above all is about the Orange Order and municipal power with systemic discrimination against Toronto's Catholics. Smyth provides ample statistical data to buttress his claim of Orange dominance of politics and patronage in Toronto. To take only one example, in 1894 sixty percent of City Hall employees were Orangemen while four percent were Roman Catholic. The Order was "the main vehicle for the acquisition and distribution of patronage" in Toronto (118). But this is not surprising nor controversial. The Canadian Orange Order's own historical website cheerfully agrees that such was the case, quoting even the same bit of contemporary doggerel illustrating the situation as does Smyth.

Smyth argues strongly for the appropriateness of the "Belfast of Canada" description used by contemporaries — often, by Catholics, pejoratively. However, Toronto never approached anything like the murderous levels of sectarian violence that have stained the Irish city's history. As Smyth himself notes there was much less residential segregation and much more interfaith marriage in Toronto, both of which were mitigating factors. He sees getting a separate school system a gain for city's Catholics but admits it made the public system de facto Protestant.

The Order peaked in membership in the 1920s. The Great Depression hurt it, testing the Order's ability to find jobs for members, members who often could not pay their dues. Toronto Lodges lost half their members and never recovered. In post-World War II Canada the Order's strident anti-Catholicism was increasingly out of tune and politically less and less attractive. Toronto itself became less British and more Catholic. Catholic political mainstreaming was signified by official reception for Archbishop McGuigan when he returned to Toronto with his red hat in 1946. The beginning of the end though came in 1954 with the election of Nathan Philips, a Mason as well as a Jew, on an anti-corruption, anti-patronage, clean government platform, defeating Orangeman Leslie Saunders. [End Page 368]

Smyth depicts a less proletarian Orange Order than did historian Greg Kealey but the difference is more emphasis and interpretation not fact. Each Lodge had its own character and social make up but most had a diverse range of people with the working class character of some lodges attenuating over time. Leadership was open to all and remarkably democratic and egalitarian. But more importantly, Smyth clearly feels that religion offers a more important analytical category than class, not...


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