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Toronto researchers help uncover Ontario First Nations' donations to Irish Famine relief fund

Mark McGowan is a professor of history and Celtic studies at the University of Toronto. He says the donations from Indigenous communities to the Irish migrants who were fleeing the 1847 famine have gone virtually unnoticed in Canadian history. (Talia Ricci/CBC - image credit)
Mark McGowan is a professor of history and Celtic studies at the University of Toronto. He says the donations from Indigenous communities to the Irish migrants who were fleeing the 1847 famine have gone virtually unnoticed in Canadian history. (Talia Ricci/CBC - image credit)

Researchers say newly discovered archival records reveal an important connection between Ontario First Nations and Irish famine victims.

The Irish Potato Famine was a period of starvation and disease in Ireland, and one of the most traumatic events in modern Irish history. Year after year, the country's potato crop failed. By the time the worst was over, one million people had died of disease and starvation. Survivors were forced to emigrate. In the summer of 1847, Toronto gave refuge to 38,000 Irish famine victims — at a time when Toronto's population was only 20,000.

The part of this history that is virtually unknown is the contribution to the relief fund from Indigenous communities in Canada.

"At least 15 bands answered the call and requested that donations be deducted from their government annuities, added to the fund, and then sent to 'our suffering fellow subjects and Christian brethren in Ireland and Scotland,'' according to Mark McGowan's research. McGowan is a professor of history at the University of Toronto and has spent time going through the archival documents.

"We really don't know how this story was lost," he said.

McGowan says the documents show Mohawks, Haudenosaunee of the Six Nations, Chippewa, Delaware, Wyandotte, and Mississauga peoples had donated £115, an amount equivalent to $12,426 today.

With further donations from the Saugeen, Ojibwa of Lake Huron, and Moravian Ojibwa, the total Indigenous gift to the relief fund was £165, or $17,978 in today's Canadian currency. Some of these contributions came from Indigenous communities in Quebec.

Talia Ricci/CBC
Talia Ricci/CBC

"We hadn't known all that much until a colleague and I stumbled upon an actual letter that petitioned these Indigenous peoples in the province of Ontario to help support their 'white brethren' who are starving and dying in Ireland and Scotland," said McGowan, adding that the task of going through these letters fell to him.

McGowan says some of the letters even state how distressing it was for these Indigenous communities to see the Irish famine victims suffering.

'All of our relations are human,' says elder Duke Redbird

Duke Redbird, an elder from the Saugeen Ojibway Nation says his own community donated to the fund.

"They were as generous as they could be even though our people were in a pretty desperate situation themselves," he said.

"But it was an act of kindness, and it was an act of honouring the treaties with our white brethren who were suffering in Ireland at the time."

Redbird says while there may not be documentation of this, there have been oral stories shared of Indigenous communities adopting Irish children who lost their parents during the famine.

"I think this is all evidence of reconciliation," he said. "All of our relations are human, wherever we happen to be from."

Submitted by Mark McGowan
Submitted by Mark McGowan

Eamonn McKee, the Ambassador of Ireland to Canada, says there was documentation showing donations from the Choctaw Nation in the United States to the Irish relief fund — and there is even a large monument, highlighted by a massive circle of eagle feathers, honouring the gift in Cork, Ireland.

"But this story is simply unknown," McKee said.

"This is about people responding to a situation not of their making, and the Indigenous nations that contributed were in bad circumstances themselves but they felt the compassionate impulse to help."

Mckee calls the archival letters a major discovery and says it's important to continue sharing this piece of history and honouring these contributions. McGowan agrees.

"I think this is an enormously important story that puts Indigenous honouring of treaties at the forefront, at a time when we now recognize that settler colonial Canadians did not honour those treaties and in fact went contrary to those treaties in the way they carved out this country," he said.

"In a small way it's a corrective on the Irish story, to show the kind of empathy and generosity that was extended to them."