Canada Day: The Irish who are now ‘proud Canadians’

As Canada 150 celebrations begin, readers who have made Canada home share their stories

All across Canada this weekend, as fireworks displays, concerts and other events celebrate 150 years since Confederation, Irish people who have made the country home will be swearing allegiance to become citizens of the Great White North.

Canada Day is marked with a public holiday every year on July 1st, but this year’s “sesquicentennial anniversary” has been seven years in the planning. The year-long Canada 150 celebrations – culminating with a free concert for 450,000 people on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Saturday, featuring a guest appearance by Bono and the Edge, a performance by Cirque du Soleil, and the country’s biggest ever fireworks display – will cost the government a whopping 500 million Canadian dollars (€336 million).

Central to the celebrations are 55 special citizenship events being held across the country, where “new Canadians” will be conferred, and others will reaffirm their citizenship by reciting the oath again.

The benefits of citizenship are numerous – ability to come and go from the country as you please on a Canadian passport, the right to vote or run for political office, and even access to some jobs – especially in government – restricted to citizens only.


Swearing allegiance

But even though an estimated 100,000 Irish people have travelled to Canada to work there since 2008, uptake of Canadian citizenship among the Irish has remained very low, with just a few hundred swearing allegiance to the country each year over the past decade. Of the 147,753 people from more than 230 countries who became Canadian citizens last year, just 315 were Irish.

There’s one major sticking point that many Irish people just can’t seem to get past: the requirement to swear to “be faithful and bear true allegiance to Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, her Heirs and Successors”, as part of the citizenship oath.

"I just can't do it," says Carol Acton, a lecturer originally from Co Meath, now living in Kitchener in Ontario, who has been in Canada for 34 years. "It is not so much because of British/Irish issues, but because, having been born in a republic, I do not want to be the subject of a monarch."

In 2013, Michael McAteer, a retired journalist from Dublin who had been living in Canada since 1964, brought a joint constitutional challenge with an Israeli man and Jamaican woman who also objected to the oath. Their case was dismissed after a high-profile legal battle lasting several months, with the judge ruling that they were wrong to take the oath literally. Their appeal to the supreme court, which followed in 2015, was similarly thrown out.

"It comes up a lot," says Cathy Murphy, director of the Irish Canadian Immigration Centre in Toronto. "Not everyone is comfortable swearing allegiance to the Queen. Lots of people say, oh I'll just do it anyway. But it is a blocker for some."

Although Murphy believes most applicants go for citizenship for practical reasons, the emotional draw to “belong” to the country they have made home is strong for others, especially those whose children have been born in Canada.

"Canada has a long, proud history as a peaceful, prosperous country, and becoming a Canadian can be an immensely proud moment," says Ruairi Spillane, a Kerry man who runs the Moving2Canada website and construction recruitment agency Outpost. Spillane became a citizen in 2015, seven years after arriving in Vancouver.

Moving back home

Last week, the department of immigration, refugees and citizenship announced a loosening of the rules around citizenship, which could allow people to apply much sooner after arriving in Canada than they had been able to previously. Based on the number of inquiries her office has received in recent days, Murphy believes this will lead to a significant upswing in the number of applications from Irish residents in Canada, especially those thinking about moving back home to Ireland who want to keep their options open to return in the future.

“It is a contingency plan, a smart one,” she says. “The lovely thing about citizenship is you can go back to Ireland for a few years and then come back here if you wanted to, without having to worry about that habitual residency rule that requires permanent residents to spend a certain amount of time living in Canada in a five-year period.”

Insurance underwriter Brian Sheehy (30), who is originally from west Cork but has been living in Toronto for three years, says he will apply as soon as he is eligible.

“If you are putting down roots here, working here, contributing to society here, have a partner here, you do want the security of knowing you are a citizen with the same rights as everyone else. I’ve never been in trouble with the law my whole life, but I would like the security of knowing that.”

Having got permanent residency in January 2016, under the old rules Sheehy would have had to wait until 2020 to apply. Now, he will be eligible in January next year.

“I will always be Irish, Ireland will always be number one. But the people here are great, it’s a very progressive society, and I would be very proud to become a Canadian citizen if and when I get the opportunity.”

Meet the Irish who have become Canadian citizens

Pat Jordan, Toronto

My wife and I moved to Toronto on New Year’s Day in 2013 with no job, no contacts and no place to live, but we knew we could make a go of things here. Twenty months ago we welcomed our first child into the world, Aoife Rose. Our little Canadian girl has brought a whole new meaning to our lives. It has also heightened my desire to become a citizen of the country of her birth.

Many immigrants struggle with a yearning to return home, to go back to what is familiar. For me, having a child changed all that. Canada is now home. I want to be able to call myself Canadian too.

I want to have a say in how this country is run and help shape the Canada she is going to grow up in. Does it mean that I am less Irish? I don’t believe so. Ireland will always be home and becoming a Canadian citizen will never dampen my Irishness. Canada has afforded me and my family opportunities I don’t think Ireland could ever provide, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful. Becoming a citizen makes me feel like I’m in some part repaying that debt of gratitude.

Sharon Meikle, Ontario

I emigrated from Finglas in Dublin to Canada in 1985 when I was 20, to work as a nanny for a family in Burlington, 30 minutes west of Toronto. I nannied for the same family with their four children for eight years.

At first I was really lonely. In 1988 I started work in the evenings in our local pub, where I met my husband, who was from Scotland. I married in 1990 and the father of the family I still nannied for gave me away at my wedding. He insisted on paying for all of it, and the children were in my wedding party. I have spent 31 Christmas mornings with that wonderful family. Their house feels like home.

In 1991 I had my first child, and that was when I thought I should become a Canadian citizen. I left school in Dublin when I was 12 years old and began to work when I was 13 in a grocery store. I couldn’t see a future for myself there, which is why I emigrated, but I never could have imagined the opportunities that would be in store for me here.

I now own and operate my own pub, The Butcher and Banker Pub in a little town called Beamsville, Ontario, where I am one of the founders of a teenage crisis centre. I am very involved in volunteer work. I’ve been so fortunate here, so I really like to give back.

Canada is truly the land of opportunity, and I am so proud to be a Canadian.

Seán O’Seasnáin, Manitoba

I arrived in Winnipeg, Manitoba, from Dublin on March 23rd, 1974, and became a Canadian citizen 40 years ago in 1977. In 1975 I married my beautiful wife, originally from Trinidad, West Indies, and of Chinese-Creole heritage. “Only in Canada”, as an old advertisement for a certain blend of tea proclaimed, would such a mixed marriage at that time be totally and unquestionably acceptable.

Our daughters – three in number and truly Canadian – grew up in this country’s ethos aptly described by our present prime minister as one of “openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice”.

They are all grown up now, exemplars of the Canadian mosaic. Their partners too: one a true Vancouverite, the second of Guyanese heritage, and the third has Japanese-Hungarian parents. A Canadian kaleidoscope of cultures.

Our almost three-year-old grand-daughter with the Hindu name Aanya – in Irish, Áine – embodies the coincidence of Celt and Hindu both in her name and in her ancestry. She is truly Canadian and a citizen of the world.

Keith Ó Néill, Vancouver

Moving to Canada was an obvious choice for me. Entitled to citizenship through my mother who was born in Saskatchewan in 1963, I signed my name and offered formal allegiance to the British Commonwealth and became a citizen of Canada in June 2015. I didn't really care too much about this formality.

In the age of regularly signing over our personal data online what is the difference if it is the monarchy or Google that we swear our allegiance to? I wasn’t going to get pious about this formal gesture.

What is striking as an Irish-Canadian citizen now is how this 150-year celebration seems to pay minor diligence to the violent establishment of the nation and the horrendous slaughter of indigenous people and their ancient cultures over centuries, which is still ongoing.

Like most people looking in, I have in the past been enamoured by the idea of Canada as a liberal wonderland, often positioned in stark contrast to the US south of its border, especially in relation to attitudes towards healthcare provision, military power and immigration. But as we mark 150 years as “Canadians”, we must acknowledge the colonial reality, which is too often overlooked.

Jackie Fitzsimons, Kelowna, British Columbia

I arrived in Toronto in July 1970 at the age of one from near Delvin, Co Westmeath.  My parents wanted better opportunities for themselves and for me. It wasn’t until I spent the summer of 1978 in Ireland I truly realised how much I loved Canada. I realised I liked sun and snow better than rain. I loved living where there were playgrounds, sports fields, and an indoor pool.  I loved living through four seasons each year.

I remember how proud I felt July 1st, 1979, the day I became a Canadian citizen. I was nine and several kids and families from my school were in the same ceremony with our family. We were already friends and now Canadians together. It was so exciting.

Canada has been a great place for me to call home. I got a great education which lead me to my career in dental hygiene. I have many friends from all over the world who also identify as Canadian now.

After graduating, I decided to travel from Ontario to British Columbia. I have lived in Kelowna, B.C. since 1994, which is known as Napa of the North.  We are surrounded by mountains and lakes. There are dozens of wineries, world-class skiing, and more than 20 golf courses.  Farming and orchards bear all kinds of fruit. We have a great sense of community, cultural diversity, opportunity and a lifestyle second to none in the Okanagan Valley.  We have freedom.

Sandra Corbett, Fort McMurray, Alberta

My husband and three children left Cork city in 1992 when I accepted a position as a consultant psychiatrist in rural Nova Scotia. I couldn’t understand why all the cars had coffee cup holders and all the gas stations sold coffee until I drove to a nearby town for my first clinic, and almost fell asleep at the wheel because I was driving a wide straight highway with nothing to hold my attention but trees.

In 1996 we moved to Alberta.  We used the move as an opportunity to explore, and drove for two weeks across five provinces. We saw the rocky cliffs in Atlantic Canada, the Great Lakes that looked like oceans, and the flat Prairies that went on forever. The magnificent Rocky Mountains, the Canadian Shield in the North and the pacific coast on the West – all different, all beautiful.

What I love most about Canada is its people. When we arrived as new immigrants they took us in and gave us all we needed until our belongings arrived. Last year when Fort McMurray was evacuated because of a wildfire, we were out of our home for a month. People came to meet us with gas for our cars and food and supplies. It became almost embarrassing to say we were from Fort McMurray, as people in shops and restaurants would pay our bills.

Maybe it’s because Canada is still young and most people have come from elsewhere that there is such a strong sense of community.  When we became Canadian citizens in 2000 the judge remarked that of the 60 new citizens being sworn in, there were 42 different nationalities represented. I’m very happy to have made Canada our home.

Celine McCarthy-Beckett, Barrie, Ontario

I came to Canada from Dublin in 1988 on a one-year teaching visa. There were no jobs in Dublin (I had been unemployed for six months after graduation), so when it got renewed for another two years at a Montessori school in Toronto, I decided to stay. I met a fella, a Canadian who is now my hubby of 26 years. All three children have been born here, all with Irish citizenship also. I have Canadian citizenship since 1984. We have travelled almost annually back to Ireland, so the children have strong bonds with Ireland. My last visit home was in 2010 after the death of my parents. My brother still lives in Dublin.

I'm a Montessori teacher here in Barrie, Ontario, about an hour outside of Toronto. I love it here but still miss Ireland. I stay connected with family and friends there through email, Facebook, phone and text. I still love my pint of Guinness and my Tayto crisps, and travel to Toronto to get my fix of imported goodies. As the saying goes, "you can take the girl out of Ireland, but you will never take Ireland out of the girl".

Jim Keating, Toronto

As the plane took off from Shannon, I lit up a cigar. The date was August 16th 1978 and the cigar had been given to me by good friend at a going-away dinner with colleagues the previous evening. Everyone smoked on planes back then.

When we landed in Toronto, the first call my wife Brenda and I made was to the cargo area in the rental car to collect our two dogs Kizzy and Snoopy. We stayed in a motel the first night, and as we settled in on a hot 30C evening the crickets began chirping and the two dogs, not familiar with this new sound, must have thought we were being invaded by aliens as they growled and scratched to defend the inside of our door.

We settled into the Canadian lifestyle quickly and applied for passports to provide easy access when returning from trips to Ireland and overseas. I felt we had really settled when I finally stopped making the currency conversion on the cost of items in shop windows.

I worked for a Canadian company publishing magazines and newspapers, and started my own business in 1993, producing an executive lecture series in Toronto. I have hosted four US presidents including Bill Clinton, and other political leaders from around the world.

What sets Canada apart is its diversity, illustrated by the fact that over 200 languages were reported as a home language in the 2011 census. We have a fabulous Irish community here and it is wonderful seeing the success of so many people from the “old country”, including what we refer to as “the new arrivals”.

Joe McGuinness, Halifax, Nova Scotia

I grew up on the North Circular Road opposite the cattle market in the 1960s.  My first job was clearing tables in Murphy’s Pub, which is now The Cobblestone. This led me to a management trainee job with the Montrose Hotel, and on to study hotel management at the RTC Galway.  During my studies I worked for Sheraton hotels in Frankfurt and Munich, and after graduation, in the Sheraton Baltimore in Maryland, then San Diego, and eventually to Halifax. Nova Scotia.

What a surprise to end up in a province of Canada that has the official welcome of "Cead Mile Failte". I had no idea the province was settled by Scotch and Irish back in the 17th century. Some towns have their street names in Gaelic, and St Mary's University in Halifax teaches the Irish language in their school of Irish Studies.  Some of the best Celtic musicians in the world hail from Nova Scotia.

My wife from India, and I from Dublin found Canada to be a welcoming place to raise a family due to the multi ethnicity of the country, especially Halifax. What was lacking here was a great place to socialise which was not a coffee shop. Canada has pubs, but no one does pubs like the Irish. So in the mid-90s I decided to open an authentic Irish pub. Since then we have been slowly but surely educating the locals about craic at Durty Nelly’s. We take our role as Irish ambassadors very seriously.

As we celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary this week, my family is grateful for the opportunity to live in such a great country, and a community that is even better now because there is an authentic Irish pub.

Angela Elliott, London, Ontario

My mother and her twin sister emigrated to London, Ontario in 1955. Claire and Betty Baldwin were born in 1936 in Turners Cross, Co Cork. Their mother died when they were six and their father ten years later. With guidance and support from their older brothers Jack and Norman, the twins knew Canada offered them a future. With $10 in their pocket they began their new life.

Soon after arriving the twins found good jobs and wonderful husbands. Claire and John Wells, and Betty and Michael Phalen were married in London, Ontario. Claire became a Canadian citizen in 1965.

In January 2017, Claire and John celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. They have four children, five grandchildren, and three great granddaughters. Claire considers herself Canadian more than Irish. Canada gives her more good memories. While in Ireland she experienced much sorrow and pain. She loves all four weather seasons in Canada.

As a family we vacationed in Ireland many times. We often refer to Ireland as our secret garden. Our happiest memories were made in Myrtleville, just outside of Carrigaline. All four of Claire's children and two grandchildren have Irish citizenship.

Kathleen (Reilly) Montgomery, Toronto

I was a young girl of 21 in Clifden in 1978 when I replied to and was accepted as a “mother’s helper” for a one-year term in Toronto. I could not wait to be on my way. I was in love with Toronto at first sight: how new and big and bright the city was compared to the dull, the damp and rain of Ireland. Within that first year I met my husband.  We have been married for almost 37 years, with two sons, Sean (30) and Michael (23).  I am recently retired.

My life here has been one great adventure.  The winter snow was unbelievable. I shovelled with wild abandon that first winter, learning to ski, skate, ice fish and go snowmobiling. The extreme seasonal changes were amazing compared to the moderate Irish climate. The ferocious Rockies are terrifying in their beauty, but nothing like my beloved Twelve Bens of Connemara.

The multicultural pattern of Canadian society is an education for all, especially for someone like me who started life in a remote village in Connemara.  I am privileged to known and have worked with people from all cultures. I am wiser and better for it. I went back to college after marriage and graduated as a legal secretary, which I worked at for 25 years.

I yearned for Ireland for many years, but I am now firmly settled in Canada.  I have no regrets, other than I wasn’t available to help my parents in their twilight years, and missing the camaraderie of my friends and the craic at home. Overall, I am proud of my achievements, most notably my sons who are two fine Canadian men with the proudest Irish mother.

Ruairi Spillane, Vancouver

My Canada dream wasn't planned. I was living in Celtic Tiger Dublin in 2007 and applied for a job in Blackrock with a start-up European office for a Canadian firm. They offered me a role in their HQ in Vancouver instead, so I packed my bags and left Ireland in February 2008.

It was initially a two-year plan, but it was impossible to move on as I fell in love the relaxed lifestyle and the great outdoors. Being from Kerry, I grew up in nature and in Vancouver I get to spend my summers hiking and camping, and then I snowboard through the winter. In 2010, I experienced Vancouver hosting the Winter Olympics and was extremely proud to be living here.

In 2011, I decided I wanted the best of both worlds, so I set up my own business which would allow me to travel between Ireland, Canada, and other locations. Feeling connected with home in Kerry is crucial to me but I also feel equally at home in Canada. I spend a few months in Kerry each year so I can enjoy the beauty of the Kingdom while catching up with friends and family.

My businesses, Moving2Canada and Outpost Recruitment, are focused on helping Irish people thrive in Canada. I'm proud to be an Irish-Canadian helping Irish emigrants as we continue to make a huge contribution to Canada. I admire Canada's diversity and the honesty and the can-do attitude of the Canadian people.

Jackie Gilna, Ottawa

After 20 years in the Netherlands I moved back to Ireland with my family, before we left again for my husband’s homeland of Canada.

We met with summer temperatures in the 30s. As I swatted off the onslaught of black fly and mosquitoes, my thoughts would turn to the 500 Irish who died digging the Rideau Canal between 1827 and1832. Angered by their unmarked graves strewn along the banks of the canal, I prayed for their souls. I learned so much that first year.

We adapted to those first cold winters enjoying the outdoors and beautiful white Christmases. Our eldest son met his wife at the Patrick’s Day Embassy party, and three years later Max was born, the first “Canadian” in our family.

I learned we live on the lands of the Aboriginal peoples and are “come from aways”. Canadians are welcoming, polite and hard working. They are bound by difference and unified in building a safe, tolerant, multi cultural society in this awe-inspiring wonder of nature stretching 5,514km east to west and 4,634 km north to south.

In 2010, I co founded the Ireland Canada Chamber of Commerce Ottawa and sit as president. I participated at the Global Economic Forums and continue to promote the relationship between the two countries.

Canada 150: What’s it celebrating?

On July 1st, 1867, the Constitution Act (then called the British North American Act) was signed uniting Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario into a single self-governing dominion called Canada. The Confederation has expanded since to the Pacific and Arctic oceans to include ten provinces and three territories, now home to 35 million people.

Canada 150 has been dogged by controversy, with indigenous people claiming the celebrations ignore the fact that these lands have been home to native Canadians for at least 10,000 years.

“It is about the wording really – if they had called it Confederation 150 it might have been different, but Canada has been around for a lot longer than 150 years,” says Cathy Murphy of the Irish Canadian Immigration Centre in Toronto.

“I think the Irish in particular have found this debate really interesting, given the colonial past that exists in both countries.”