Every Saturday morning, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Photo of Orange Parade at Queen’s Park in 1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1388.
Nowadays, the Orange Order is thought of as a quaint anachronism, a benevolent society that marches every twelfth of July to commemorate the victory of William III at the Battle of the Boyne. But the Protestant fraternal organization once had a stranglehold on power in Toronto, and its subjugation of Irish Catholics gave the parade on every “Glorious Twelfth” an ominous undercurrent of potential violence. While Toronto’s municipal affairs were never as corrupt as elsewhere, the Orange Order operated as a de facto political machine throughout the nineteenth century. Between 1845 and 1900, all but three of Toronto’s twenty-three mayors and countless city councillors were members of an Orange Lodge. Protestant principles and moral order, as espoused by the Order, were synonymous with good governance and permeated the city’s culture. Moreover, the city council’s control over patronage ensured that fellow lodge members filled the civic administration, municipal utilities, and even, for a time, the police and fire departments. So wide was the Order’s influence at city hall, that on the occasion of the “Glorious Twelfth” in 1893, the Evening Telegram wrote in jest:
Like the temple of old Egypt
Empty as a noxious mine
Stood the City Hall deserted
For “the byes” were all in line.
Drawing of Orangemen by C.W. Jefferys.
The first Grand Lodge was established in Toronto in 1830, and it expanded steadily so that (according to historian Greg Kealey) there were over 20 lodges in 1860, 31 in 1880, and 56 by 1895. Nevertheless, Kealey concludes that “the political and social importance of the order always transcended its official membership.” Even at the Order’s height in 1892 there were only about 2,500 or 4,000 paid members. In addition, there were scores of socially prominent citizens who were granted honorary membership but did not actually participate in official lodge business. Surprisingly, given the prestige of the institution in city life, lodge membership was predominantly drawn from the ranks of labourers, street railway workers, teamsters, and other elements of the working class. Besides sentimental patriotic or imperialist motivations, many Orangemen joined because the benefits of mutual aid, security, and health supports made it easier to survive the difficulties of working class life. Middle class members, such as professionals, small-shop owners, and tavern-keepers, saw membership in terms of commercial gain through the steady attraction of lodge members as clientele. The Order’s secrecy, solemn oaths, and masonic-type rituals bonded men together as part of a greater whole, and dressing in the order’s distinctive sash and regalia for the Twelfth of July parade let members show off their status and achievements to the greater community.
The deep Protestant flavour to city life made “The Belfast of Canada,” as Toronto was nicknamed, anything but hospitable to the great influx of Irish Catholic immigrants who arrived in the wake of the Great Famine. Despite their population growing from about 2,000 in the 1840s to 12,135 (or over 27% of the total population) in the 1860s, Irish Catholics could find only unskilled factory work that offered little opportunity to escape the appalling conditions of the slum neighbourhoods of Corktown and Cabbagetown. As local historian Bruce Bell described it: “To be Irish and Catholic at the height of Victorian Toronto meant menial work with no promise of advancement.”
Photo of Parade Marshall on horseback in 1932. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 2072.
In addition to this economic discrimination and political domination, Orangemen also used their Twelfth of July parades to intentionally challenge Irish Catholic, or Green, territory. In addition to St. Patrick’s Day and Guy Fawkes Night, Orangemen marching en masse through Green neighbourhoods each July was one of the most common causes for riots in nineteenth century Toronto. In the twenty-five years between 1867 and 1892, Orangemen and Irish Catholics clashed twenty-two times. For the most part, the ritualized violence was limited to fisticuffs, arrests, and broken windows. On two occasions, however, brawling escalated to full-scale sectarian violence.
In the Jubilee Riots of September 26, 1875, armed Orangemen took exception to a Catholic procession. A raucous crowd of 6,000-8,000 rocked the entire city core for a number of hours. Deployed to defend the Catholic right to parade, the Toronto Police were commended for keeping cool heads in the face of the violence. One history of the department recalled:
Revolver shots were fired by the mob with startling frequency, while stones and other missiles fell among the Police and processionists like hail. Many were seriously injured; and although fully armed not a single man so far forgot himself as to return the fire, but throughout all behaved with remarkable coolness and with a degree of forbearance that was certainly very creditable.
Three years later, on St. Patrick’s Day, another serious incident followed an incendiary speech by O’Donovan Rossa, a leading Fenian. A crowd of thousands gathered outside the hall—local historian Bruce Bell somewhat incredulously claims 30,000 took part in the riot—screaming for Rossa’s blood. It’s said that in order to escape, Rossa had to dress as a woman and flee down a back staircase while mob violence exploded outside. Once again, the police were called out to quell the Orangemen, but accounts differ as to the diligence with which they protected the Irish Catholics from being attacked.
The very fact that the the predominantly Protestant police force was deployed to restore order on both occasions demonstrates an interesting quirk of Orange power in the city. Toronto politicians, as Kealey puts it, “built or demolished their careers in proportion to lodge support.” They needed Orange support at election time, but were always caught between the Orangeman’s love of tradition and ritual—and the potential for subsequent violence—and the burgeoning city’s need for social order. Under increasing political pressure, religious riots ended by the late 1880s, and Twelfth of July parades became less focused on antagonistic anti-Catholic behaviour and remained popular well into the twentieth century.
Photo of Mayor Thomas Foster in an Twelfth of July Parade in 1927. City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub-Series 41, Item 172.
Over the city’s history, the decline of lodge influence was declared prematurely numerous times. In 1893, newspapers heralded Mayor Robert John Fleming for breaking the “secret society influence at City Hall.” In 1928, Mayor Samuel McBride’s landslide victory was credited to his campaign literature, which stressed that he was “not dominated by any set or clique.” The Orange Order, however, remained an important force in partisan politics well into the twentieth century. The old-boy networks of provided by lodge member offered candidates a basis of electoral support for launching a campaign. But elections were fought on issues of taxation and public ownership of utilities, not on a polarization of Protestant and Catholic sentiment. Politicians had to reach far beyond the dwindling number of Orangemen for voter support. Once elected to city council, Orangemen did not vote as a single bloc, but as individual office-holders representing diverse interests. Policy continued to reflect an Orange influence because civic ambitions remained closely aligned to the Order’s tenets.
In the end, it was the growing cosmopolitanism and changing demographics of the booming city that finally put an end to Orange political influence. In the 1950s, Mayor Leslie Howard Saunders, a leading Orangeman, set off a firestorm of sectarian controversy when his letter on official city stationery celebrating the Twelfth of July was criticized by the press and fellow Orangemen alike as being intolerant of religious minorities. Saunders’s fervent anti-Catholic rhetoric—as well as some nefarious uses of public funds—pushed voters towards Nathan Phillips. Of Jewish descent, Phillips became the first non-Protestant, non-Orangeman mayor of the twentieth century. When he was branded as “the mayor of all the people,” it was a direct repudiation of a hundred and fifty years of Orange Lodge influence in municipal politics.