I expected Canada to be everything Northern Ireland wasn’t. Now I’m not so sure

Patrick McKenna fled the Troubles in the 1970s, but found Canada has its own divisions

I left Belfast in the bloody mid-1970s, certain that Canada would be everything that my dysfunctional Northern Ireland wasn't.

Now, almost a half century later, I’m not so sure. The Land of the Maple has fault lines disconcertingly similar to those back home.

Only too aware that my views may surprise, shock even, you should know they are influenced by my living, mostly in in the turbulent French “Nation once again Province” of Quebec.

Before I emigrated I had witnessed, during my mid to late teens, civil rights marches morphing into riots and bus burnings. In my early twenties I lived through the first and most bloody years of the troubles.


My atypical emigration surely coloured my views too. I arrived on my owney-O, on a 30-degrees January evening in a small, rabidly Anglophone town in rural Ontario where French wasn’t exactly welcome. Two French Canadian colleagues were told “it’d be better” if they didn’t speak to each other, in French, in the workplace.

To me, that “it’d be better” sounded pretty Belfast.

Then I discovered, tucked away behind the Holy Ground of language was another - only too familiar - Holy Ground. In the first sentence of Hugh MacLennan’s quintessential Canadian novel, Two Solitudes, he writes of “Protestant Ontario and Catholic Quebec”. I was gobsmacked.

MacLennan wasn't far off the mark about Protestant Ontario, where the Orange Order kept the Saint Patrick's Day parade banned in Toronto from 1878 until 1988, some 110 years. The so-called The Lord's Day Act, which was only repealed in 1985, kept Toronto Sundays, just like Sundays in Belfast safe from children playing on swings or - god forbid - tobogganing in winter. Chained up children's swings. So nothing like Belfast then?

After three years I moved to Montreal, which was love at first sight. It still is. However, despite my love for Montreal, my hard won French fluency and affection for Quebec, as an Anglo I’m as second class here as I was as a “catho” back home.

Now, is that Karma or what?

Before I arrived Quebec, had had its brush with political violence: the FLQ (Front de libération du Québec) - never as deadly as the IRA or UVF - still managed to bomb the province into its 1970 October Crisis. This led Pierre Trudeau (Justin's dad) to invoke the War Measures Act, deploy troops in Montreal and detain, 400 Quebecers without trial.

You do see the parallels here with my old life?

Internment breathed life into the province’s separatist movement and led to two Quebexit referenda. Although the first, in 1980, was defeated 60/40, the second in 1995 came within a whisker - 50,000 votes - of breaking up Canada.

In my mid forties, if Canada had come apart I’m not sure what I would have done.

By the way, separation didn’t begin in Quebec; it began in Western Canada whose unlovely battle cry was “let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark”.

In 1980, after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s one finger salute to Western protesters, they struck back with bumper stickers emblazoned with, you guessed it, “Let the eastern bastards ...” On a call-in radio program, one Albertan resident said this: “If my voice is trembling it’s because I am terribly angry, to the point where I would be happy to fight for our freedom and I literally mean fight with a rifle.”

Forty years later, in January 2022, the "Freedom Convoy" - in large part from Western Canada - came to Ottawa where protesters and their trucks occupied the downtown core for a month. Other protesters blocked bridges and border crossings to the US. At one of border protest sites, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) found an arms cache, which I found worrisome.

Guns had come out before, not far from where I live. In July 1990 a firefight broke out between Quebec police and Mohawk Warriors from the Kahnawake community. A police officer died, and Canadian troops were deployed to restore peace.

That August a convoy evacuating Mohawk women, children and elders from Kahnawake was ambushed and stoned by white Quebecers in a display of public savagery as bad as anything I'd seen back home. Watch the National Film Board documentary Rocks at Whiskey Trench .

Finally, until 9/11, the world's worst terrorist act was the June 23rd, 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182 ; perpetrated by Canadians, most of its 329 victims were Canadians.

Some Corkonians know more about this tragedy than most Canadians. A commemorative event is held annually at a memorial garden near Ahakista in west Cork. Bereaved families have formed lasting friendships with local people who opened their homes and hearts to them in 1985.

Of course thankfully, Canada’s fault lines never led to the scale of violence I knew back home. However, they are there, and they show no sign of going away.

If you settle here I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience, but please be aware that, like my native Norn Iron, Canada is also a society divided.

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