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
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
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.