PO Box 523, Station B,
Ottawa, ON, K1P 5P6

PO Box 523, Station B, Ottawa, ON, K1P 5P6
Tuesday, 09 April 2024 19:12

How Immigration Has Shaped Ottawa’s Cultural Mosaic - Part I

On the 6 th of April, 2024, the Historical Society of Ottawa in conjunction with the Sunnyside Branch of the Ottawa Public Library was pleased to present the first of a three part lecture series by noted historian, author, columnist and musician, Phil Jenkins. This is the third such series that Phil has given and this one is focussed on four immigrant communities that settled in and helped to build Ottawa. This session covered the contributions of the Irish community along with an introduction to Jewish settlement in the area. Part two will complete the Jewish community and introduce the Chinese community, while the final session will complete the discussion of the role of the Chinese community and then focus on the Italian immigrant community.

Prior to Phil’s session, Ben Weiss of the Historical Society did a Land Acknowledgement, which he used to remind the audience of over 50 attendees that apart from our Indigenous peoples, the rest of us are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. As such, though HSO has had a Speaker Series session on Algonquin Grand Chief Pinesi and that many of our speakers have dealt with the immigrant experience. In February 2024, for example, the Caribbean community was the subject of our presentation Ottawa's Caribbean Community , while in 2021, Indochinese refugees and Project 4000 was discussed.

Phil told us that the Irish emigrated for the same reasons that all choose to leave their homeland, to escape hardship and find a better life. The spur to Irish immigration in the mid 1800 was the famine that struck the island. Canada was a favoured destination, not only because passage was cheap, but because there was a heavy demand in England for lumber, required to build ships for the Napoleonic War, thus there were many ships from Canada that had delivered lumber and were now looking for any cargo for the return trip. The Irish were an available cargo. The trip was hazardous, not only because some 20% failed to reach port, but also because many ships became infected with “Ship’s Fever”, Typhus. In Ottawa, Elisabeth Bruyère and the Grey Nuns treated the sick. HSO held a session on this in 2023 Élisabeth Bruyère in Ottawa-Bytown .

It was the young who risked the voyage and Phil related the story of how grandmothers would hold a skein of wool at the dockside in Liverpool while her grandchild boarded the ship holding onto one end. As the ship sailed away and the wool unspooled, it would be reeled in by the departing family member and eventually made into a scarf. This being the last gift they would ever receive from their family.

Phil went through some of the contributions of some of the early Irish immigrants, such as the navvies, who built the Rideau Canal under the direction of Lieutenant-Colonel John By, himself an Irishman. Perhaps as many as 1,000 workers and members of their families would die primarily due to malaria, the survivors going on to work in the logging industry. Phil highlighted many specific individuals including:

Nicholas Sparks, who became very prosperous through the purchase, sale and sometimes resale of land, as well as by providing loans and then collecting the debts.

Henry Friel, who started the Ottawa police force and was an early owner of “The Packet”, the newspaper that would become The Ottawa Citizen.

Thomas Ahearn was one of Ottawa’s earliest electrical entrepreneurs. He brought the electric streetcar and the first automobile to Ottawa. He is also credited for preparing the first meal fully cooked by electricity in his demonstration at the Windsor Hotel.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a noted orator and parliamentarian who was assassinated on Sparks Street. He was allegedly shot by another Irishman, Patrick Whelan, who was later executed for the crime.

Samuel Bingham, who held logging rights on the Gatineau River and drowned in it after clearing a logjam. He is also noted as opening the first city playground for boys.

Many of these individuals served on Council or as Mayor. The impact of the Irish in the late 1800s can be easily seen by the population statistics of the time: 35% Irish, 34% French, 18% English, 11% Scottish and 2% Others.

Phil reminded us that the contributions of the Irish continue to enrich our community, making special note of local author Brian Doyle, whose works were familiar to many in the audience.

Phil concluded his section on the Irish with his guitar and a wonderful rendition of “Cockles and Mussels” (aka “Molly Malone”).

Phil then went on to start his talk about Jewish immigration to Ottawa. Like others, they sought a better life, but in this case many were fleeing political persecution, especially in Russia and the Ukraine. Many settled and opened businesses in the Byward Market. These included small grocery stores, shoe stores, and, in the case of Max Cohen, a Kosher butchery. Four of Max’s sons continued in the meat business, but two decided to go into used furniture and demolition, Cohen & Cohen, becoming famous across the city.

Perhaps Ottawa’s most successful and best known merchant was A. J. Freiman, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, who owned and operated Ottawa’s premier department store on the north side of Rideau Street, which is now the site of The Bay. Caplan’s, another Jewish-owned department store, operated for many years just a bit further east on Rideau Street.

Phil commented that most of the “Rag and Bone” men in the city were Jewish immigrants. The rags they collected going into the manufacture of paper, while the bones went to produce glue.

Phil highlighted the contributions of two particular families. Moses Bilsky ran a jewelry store and pawn shop beside the old Union Station. He was a key community organizer, welcoming new Jewish immigrants, finding them lodging and employment. He even donated and personally delivered a 100-pound sack of potatoes to each new family to ensure they had something to get them started. He also brought the first Torah scroll to Ottawa.

The Greenberg family settled outside of Ottawa on the Billings estate, south of the Rideau River where they grew vegetables for the community and eventually opened a feed store. They were also key in welcoming Jewish immigrants, providing employment and supporting Jewish education. Later, one of their number, Lorry Greenberg, would become the first Jewish mayor of Ottawa serving from 1975 to 1978.

We all look forward to next Saturday, April 13, 2024, when Phil will complete his story of the Jewish immigrants and begin his tale of the origins of our Chinese community.