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April 31, 2013

The Fenians Invade Canada, June 2, 1866

One of the events that many believe “made Canada” took place on and around June 2, 1866 the year before Confederation and helped create Confederation.  The American Fenians just out of the American Civil War had great antagonism toward Britain for their treatment of Ireland.  With their war experience and time on their hands they organized and attacked “Canada” to express their frustration with Britain. Space does not allow for details.  There are different opinions on the event.  One source says the Fenians  were “a rag-tag band of Irish American Terrorists – whose plan defies logic”. In 2012 Peter Vronsky added to the extensive history of the event in his definitive  2012 book called Ridgeway named after the location of the major confrontation on Lake Erie a few miles west of Fort Erie where the Fenians entered Upper Canada at Buffalo.  They also attacked  other Canadian locations including one 4 years later. 

Cover of the book Ridgeway by Peter Vronsky

Unlike many of the articles I have written I do have a more personal interest in this story because my family genealogy is rooted in Port Colborne and Dunville down the shore of Lake Erie where there was considerable involvement in the event.  I grew up in Port Colborne and had my first teaching job at Sherkston near Ridgeway and I travelled to Buffalo for years completing a Bachelor and Masters degree there while teaching in Port Colborne. 

My great grandfather Henry Mackey came to Canada from Ireland in the potato famine in 1852 and lived near Dunville where he married and worked as a railway station agent  His opinion on the Fenians is unknown. 

The Peter Vronsky book,  mentioned above, tells the fascinating story of the invasion and the after effects. (Google him and also the Fenian Raids on Wikepedia).  He dropped out of the University of Toronto in his second year to become a highly successful film maker, investigative reporter and author for 25 years before going back to the U of T to work on his PHD.  The book is based on his thesis. He now teaches at Ryerson.  I have followed his career and read his books.  My son who teaches film studies at Queens has kept in touch with him after giving Vronsky some early instruction on film making many years ago. 

The Fenian events in June 1866 were significant in that they were the first battles fought on Canadian soil by Canadians with Canadian officers.  The Upper Canadian Troops were poorly prepared and poorly led.  There were several trials after the events criticizing the Canadian effort. 

In Late May 1866 several hundred Fenians crossed into Canada with some openly coming  unarmed on the Buffalo/Fort Erie Ferry.  The numbers involved are vague.  Some went back.  The Canadians were slow to respond and made several mistakes.  Some militia came south along the Welland Canal to Port Colborne and east to Ridgeway by train.  A University of Toronto professor sent some of his students and  a couple were killed. 

The Canadians were doing well, when as the Battle of Ridgeway Wikepedia Google site states “Then something went wrong: it is not clear exactly what”.  Seven Canadians were killed on the field and 2 died later of wounds and there were many wounded, some requiring amputations. 

There was more fighting at Fort Erie until the Americans surrendered to U.S. authorities.  American authorities did not support the Fenians but some were sympathetic thinking it might result in some American gains. 

The Upper Canadian participants due to the shame involved  were not recognized for 25 years.  Fenian medals and land grants were eventually provided.  An annual protest at a monument in Queen’s Park became known as Decoration Day.  On June 2 each year until 1931 soldiers from the Ridgeway battle, the Northwest Rebellion and the South African War were recognized.  In 1931 Remembrance Day was established as November 11th.  The new day did not include any of the 3 groups mentioned above on Decoration Day. 

For Canada’s first modern battle, fought by Canadian troops and led by Canadian officers and with 9 killed in action and the last battle fought in the Province of Ontario against a foreign invasion it is appropriate that the event be remembered.  There is a Museum at Ridgeway , the site has been designated a Canadian National Historical Site and there have been re-enactments. 

There is a general recognition that the Fenian presence in Niagara, New Brunswick and the Red River Region had “an enormous psychological impact” a year later in Confederation in 1967.  As a final personal note it is interesting that my grandfather’s brother was born on July 1st, 1867 and was named Charles Dominion Winn in recognition of the event. An  uncle received one of the Fenian medals. 

For people who enjoy good historical fiction Guy Vanderhaeghe’s 2011 book A Good Man with lots of Fenian reference is a good read and should be available at your local library.

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