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Harry Wilson, Irish immigrant

By David Wilson

In 1919, a 25-year-old man named William Henry Wilson stepped off a steamship and onto Canadian soil at Quebec City. “Harry,” as everyone called him, was one of roughly 110,000 people who immigrated to Canada that year.

Harry Wilson was my paternal grandfather. I have no recollection of him — he died in 1957, when I was three. But I found myself thinking about him as we assembled this month’s cover package. We’re marking Canada’s 150th birthday by interviewing people who chose to make new lives for themselves in this country and in the United Church (see “From far and wide,” page 17). Their stories — and the stories of the 17 million other souls who have immigrated here since Confederation — are indelibly part of the Canadian narrative.

My grandfather’s story began in 1894, in what is now Northern Ireland. As his Canadian-born son — my father — told it, Harry Wilson mourned his beloved Ireland from the day he left until the day he died, inspiring my father to quip, “There’s nothing so patriotic as an expatriate Irishman.”

His words were tinged with irony. Harry Wilson’s Ireland was anything but utopian. A chronically depressed economy grew worse as civil unrest spread after the First World War. Prospects for young people were bleak. My grandfather was still a boy when he began a five-year apprenticeship as a weaver. Eventually, he decided the long hours, low pay and grim working conditions weren’t for him. He left home to look for something better in Scotland, England and eventually back in Ireland. When he didn’t find it, he decided to follow millions of his compatriots and emigrate.

He arrived in Quebec City with enough money in his pocket to buy a train ticket to Galt (now Cambridge), Ont., where there was a large Irish immigrant population. In his self-published memoir, my father paints a forlorn picture of Harry Wilson standing alone and penniless on the empty platform of the Galt train station, save for a sympathetic station master who directed him to a boarding house that took in new arrivals. Thanks to a fellow boarder, he soon found work.

By the mid-1920s, Harry Wilson was firmly established in Canada, with a spouse, a steady job in a textile mill and two young children. But he longed terribly for Ireland, sinking into periods of deep gloom, especially at Christmastime. As the years passed, his depression worsened to the point that a doctor prescribed a trip back home. So in the summer of 1936, he went, leaving his family to scrape by on disability insurance benefits. He returned improved but not cured; Ireland would always claim a piece of his heart.

Canada celebrated the 90th anniversary of Confederation the year Harry Wilson died of undiagnosed pancreatic cancer. I wonder what went through his mind in his final days. Memories of playing in the ruins of the ancient castle near his childhood home? The misery of a third-class steamship passage to a strange new land? Seeing his children accept Canada in a way he couldn’t? Imagining what might become of the generations that followed?

Anniversaries like this summer’s sesquicentennial are occasions for celebrating, but also for sober reflection. Canada’s mistreatment of Indigenous people from colonial times forward will rightly temper the celebrations: we all own some of the responsibility for this shameful legacy. So, too, do we own the sacrifice and struggle that shape the stories of immigrants past and present, who came here not because Canada is perfect but because it holds out the promise of something better. As Canadians today, we have an obligation to embrace the totality of the national narrative. If we do so, this milestone year will be the better for it, and so will the country. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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