Journey to This Land

A sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely

Unitarian Church of Edmonton, March 17th, 2019

Every one of us is from immigrant stock.  Even First Nations ancestors trekked here from somewhere else at least 12,000 years ago.  The one thing that connects all of our forbearers, and in some cases, ourselves, if we are new Canadians, is the idea of journey.  Everyone of us has someone to thank for finding their way to this most multicultural nation in the world.

Sometimes the ancestral stories began in hopeful anticipation of starting a new adventure.  Far more came fleeing starvation, lack of opportunity, terror, persecution, and war.  So many who came here were literally running for their lives.

Our first people migrated following the large mammals  across the ancient Beringia land bridge, though some scientists now think others arrived by boat from Polynesia. 

French settlers would follow several thousand years later landing in the Maritimes, Quebec and Montreal.  After 1760 it became English, Scottish and Irish immigrants following the same path to east and west coast.  Many were British soldiers who were cashiered here after their  military service. And we must remember those Loyalists who came north from the American colonies.

As many as 30,000 escaped African slaves made it to Canada starting during the Revolutionary war and then at a much higher pace during the American Civil War travelling on the famed Underground Railroad.

Chinese immigrants began arriving during the gold rush.  Their numbers swelled with the building of the national railroad, however the population was mostly male with the racist head tax making it all but impossible to bring wives.  From 1885-1923 Chinese immigration was banned altogether.  Once the law  was repealed, immigrant numbers swelled with people seeking better lives.

The Ukrainians began to arrive in the 1890’s fleeing serfdom in the Austro-Hungarian and later Russian empires.  Despite a dark period of forced internment during the First World War, waves would keep coming once that conflict ended and they fled from Stalinist oppression.

Between 1928 and 1971, one million people would begin their Canadian story at Pier 21 in Halifax, now a marvellous museum tribute to the immigrant journey. 

On the west coast, a few thousand mostly Sikh immigrants arrived despite severe restrictions early in the 20th century.  These prejudicial limits were strengthened virtually cutting off immigration from India until the mid 1960’s when in a new and progressive climate of multiculturalism, restrictions were relaxed. Indo-Canadian numbers exploded with some 30,000 now becoming citizens each year.

And in the last 40 years we have seen influxes from the Caribbean, South and Central America, Viet Nam, Bosnia and Serbia, Syria, Somalia and other African nations, most arriving as war or economic refugees.

When I see the hateful attacks on mosques and other targeted immigrant communities by deranged shooters I am appalled. So often they claim that somehow these newcomers are interlopers into their land.  How dare they?? How can these lunatics and the hate groups that feed them have forgotten our national history…even their own family histories?  Canada is a land of immigrants.  It’s just that some made the journey earlier than others. 

Yes, there are substantial periods or hateful racist immigration policies that hang like shadows on our Canadian history.  And it is undeniably true that each new immigrant group has been met with suspicion and often hostility but those already here.  And yes there is the disgraceful treatment the colonizers afforded the First Nations people who, after all, got here first.  I don’t deny any of the negative side of our history. I am ashamed of it.

But here we are.  The people who committed to the immigrant journey faced and mostly beat the odds and they stayed, and a good many thrived over the generations.  This country with its many nations, exists because brave and often desperate people left everything behind to try to build a new life here. And each new group has contributed to this land.  

Here’s my favourite example: what qualifies as Canadian cuisine?  Bannock, maple syrup, Saskatoon berry jam, bacon, pirogies (however you spell it) and cabbage rolls, poutine, roast beef and lamb, ginger beef, salmon, pemmican, bison burgers, German sausage and schnitzel, Italian pasta and pizza, Vietnamese pho soup, butter chicken, kebabs, humous and pita, Bloody Caesars … and Irish Stew.

My roots are Irish, completely and totally.  And that’s why I’m talking about the immigrant journey on March 17th.  Well, to be fair, I do have one great grandmother who was an American citizen, but she, too, had been born in Ireland.  Such a pure heritage makes me pretty unique these days.

Not surprisingly, the story of the Irish is one I know best.  Like many Chinese we were brought over to build railroads, only in Eastern Canada.  My own family’s journeys span a century.

My great, great grandfather Daniel Kiely left County Tipperary  as a young man about 1832 landing in Quebec City.  He was one of the early arrivals 15 years ahead of the Great Famine.  We have no record of why he came, but we can know that his family very likely threw a wake for him before he left for the ship docked in the city of Cork.  They did that in Ireland, they mourned for the ones who were leaving for the new world.  You see, they new that few returned.  In an age when many peasants couldn’t write, the last farewell might be the last time they ever heard from their loved one.

How many of us living here today can imagine what that separation must have been like, how many tears, how many quiet pats on the shoulder, how much self doubt there must have been in the one leaving, how difficult it was for the ones left behind.  Maybe the decisions to go provoked anger and feelings of betrayal.  I think we can only surmise that it was seldom a decision lightly taken. The family disruption must often have been a terrible thing. Whatever the hopes for life in an unknown land might have been, however necessary that act of leaving taking might have been, immigrating must have been a sombre thing indeed.

We really don’t know much about Daniel, except that he landed in Quebec and eventually found work walking the horses that towed the cargo laden bateaux up the St. Lawrence River to Montreal and back.

In time his son, Martin would form a partnership with another immigrant named Timothy Martin.  They started a small cartage company in the Irish slums of Montreal down by the docks and the Lachine Canal.  Mart’s son would marry Tim’s daughter.  They were my grandparents.

My mother, by contrast,  was an immigrant in her own right nearly a century later arriving in 1923 at the age of 12.  She was a religious refugee, fleeing persecution.

Her dad , Thomas Gibbons, a Catholic, was a Master Baker at the Rock Road bakery in Londonderry, now in Northern Ireland.  After the failed Easter Uprising by Catholics in 1916 there was a furious pushback from the Protestant Orange Order.  It was most intense in the north where the Protestants dominated.  By 1920 the Order discovered that my grandpa was a Catholic.  His place as a manager in the bakery could not be tolerated.  With deep regret, his bosses fired him.

With no prospects, Thomas and Agnes decided immigration was the only route.  But there was not enough money to transport their large family – Agnes had nine daughters!  Thomas sailed alone.  As he began his Canadian adventure, Agnes and the girls remained in their homes down by the river.  In a scene reminiscent from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Agnes put firm locks on the attic room door and moved all the girls beds up there. Then she opened her house to dock-working boarders for two yearsMeanwhile the slight of stature Thomas worked repairing railroad track on the Grand Truck.  Finally he found a place with Pom Bakeries in Montreal.  In another year he had worked up to a managerial position and finally sent for his family.  And so the rest of my ancestors arrived.

Those family stories are precious to me, but not unique in any way.  I am sure that during the community question, many of you shared bits of the stories of how your family became Canadian.  Some were likely more benign and some likely far more harrowing.

I suppose the point of this sermon, beyond an Irishman telling stories on St. Patrick’s Day, is to offer a gentle reminder that we all came from somewhere else.  No one really owns this country.  No one group gets to decide who can come and who must stay out.  Perhaps it wasn’t this generation, but we came from somewhere else.  This claiming of pride of place because we have been here longer than some others is pure silliness.

And a good many of you who know your family stories know that immigrating to this land was not easy.  The leaving might have been hard, because of those left behind, or perhaps for the struggle to get on board ship or plane before starving or being killed in war.

And your story also probably includes how hard the new beginning was.  Elaine Reynard’s poster tells of how her forbearers came with a promise of 70 randomly chosen acres in Ontario and a wagon load of basic farm implements.  From then they had a year, including months of winter that was unlike anything they had experienced before, to clear land, build a home and start cultivation.  Can we even visualize how hard it must have been to maintain hope in that first year?  Many didn’t.

And then there were those who had it worse, journeying for how long and arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs, disappearing into urban ghettos, suffering from prejudice and hatred, often exploited by their own ethnic group, just struggling to just survive.

And yet, here we are.  Here we are.  It seems to me that we have gained the benefits of this land, benefits hard won by our ancestors.  The question every Canadian faces today is: do we continue the bullying, racism and group hatred that our ancestors faced and sometimes practiced?  Or do we say, no.  That’s enough.  It stops with me.  

I will not hate the newcomer.

In fact, I will make an effort to welcome the newcomer, to learn about them and their needs.

I will respect their worth and dignity and their culture as much as I can, and I will treat them with compassion and generosity.

Because that’s what we want ‘being Canadian’ to mean.  We are the most multicultural country in the world, and I for one, see that as a distinct point of pride.

To repeat the abuse our forbearers faced is to continue a sad pattern of bullying.  It is that pattern that causes shootings in mosques and defacing of other religious institutions.  It’s that kind of territorial privilege that dismisses the rights of the original immigrants, our First Nations peoples.  It’s pure ignorant greed.  We can do better than that.  We can be better than that.  We ARE better than that.

Instead of thanking this land for it’s bounty and sharing it as it has been shared with us, it’s graspingly claiming that this is all mine and you can’t have any.  Are we that childish?  That selfish?

Each of us owes a debt to those who risked the journey to this land.  We who have so benefitted from their courage and their struggle need to thank them by extending a welcome to those who are still making the journey.