More than Taverns and Brothels: French Canadian, Irish and Jewish Struggles Against Oppression in Lowertown

This tour goes beyond the tourist industry’s focus on taverns and brothels in the Byward Market to examine Lowertown’s origins as home to French and Irish canal workers and timber men, and its subsequent evolution into a place of refuge for Jewish immigrants. You’ll hear about key moments of solidarity and division as these three groups, each with their own prior historical experience of oppression, fought the domination by Ottawa’s self-appointed British rulers. You will also learn about the institutions and organizations the French, Irish and Jews built to better their lives, and the demonstrations, strikes, riots, occupations, and other actions they initiated to defend themselves.

Few Ottawa residents know about the rich traditions of solidarity and struggle that are part of Lowertown’s working class history before World War II. Fewer still can identify the lessons of that experience for building solidarity between oppressed groups today. This tour will assist you to better understand the divide and rule tactics of the 1% and their system of rule.

The 3 hour tour includes discussion of the following topics:

  • The British plan to build the Rideau Canal and solidify the loyalty of Eastern Ontario was undermined by their reliance on the labour of Irish Catholic navies and French Canadian timber men;
  • Timber merchants exploited labour market competition and national divisions between Irish and French timber workers to advance their own interests during the ‘Shiners’ Wars’;
  • The frequent nationalist riots between anti-colonial Irish Catholics and pro-imperial Orangemen;
  • The famous 1849 Stoney Monday riot that pitted Lowertown Reformers against the Uppertown Tory elite;
  • The strategies used by Lowertown businessmen to exploit the timbermen who gathered there at the beginning and end of each timber season;
  • The support of some of Lowertown’s Irish residents for nationalism, Fenianism (including the assassination of Darcy McGee), and the subsequent assimilation of the Irish into the Canadian mainstream;
  • The contribution of Lowertown workers to the creation of Canada’s early labour movement, and their embrace of a class solidarity that would transcend national, religious and linguistic divisions, when faced with recession and mass unemployment;
  • The direct actions by Lowertown’s French Canadian residents against the Ontario Government’s notorious Regulation 17 (suppressing French language education) during the World War I era, that helped crystalize Franco-Ontarian identity; and
  • Fascist activity in Ottawa during the 1930s (like the campaign to boycott Jewish owned stores) and some of the organizations involved in anti-fascist activity.

To learn more about some of the topics covered during this tour, consult the following sources:

  • Lower Town Ottawa, volumes 1 & 2, Michael Newton, National Capital Commission, 1979
  • Ottawa: An Illustrated History, John H. Taylor, Lorimer, 1986
  • Lumber Kings and Shantymen: Logging and Lumbering in the Ottawa Valley, David Lee, Lorimer, 2006
  • Jack in Port: Sailortowns of Eastern Canada Judith Finegard, University of Toronto Press, 1988
  • Beyond Brutal Passions: Prostitution in Early Nineteenth-Century Montreal, Mary-Anne Poutanen, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015
  • Planted by Flowing Water: The Diocese of Ottawa, 1847-1997, edited by Pierre Savard, Mark McGowan & Pierre Hurtubise, Novalis Press, 1998
  • Language, Schooling and Cultural Conflict, Chad Gaffield, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1987
  • Thomas D’arcy McGee, volume 2, David A. Wilson, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011
  • Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada, from the Fenians to Fortress America, Greg Kealey & Reg Whittaker, University of Toronto Press, 2012
  • Dreaming of What Might Be: The Knights of Labour in Ontario, 1880-1900, Greg Kealey & Bryan Palmer, Cambridge University Press, 19
  • “The Hardest Lines of the Sternest School: Working Class Ottawa in the Depression of the 1870s”, Debi Wells, MA Thesis, Carleton University 1982
  • “The Rag Tag and Bobtail: The Rise and Fall of Ottawa’s early Working Class, 1860-1880”, Ken Clavette in In Ottawa: Making a Capital, ed. Jeff Keshen and Nicole St-Onge, University of Ottawa press, 2001
  • A Future Without Hate or Need: The Promise of the Jewish Left in Canada, Ester Reiter, Between the Lines, 2016
  • A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life In Canada , Irving Abella, Key Porter Books, 1990
  • A Common Thread: A History of the Jews of Ottawa, Valerie Knowles et al, General Store Publishing, 2009
  • Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish radicalism, Alain Brossat & Sylvie Koingberg, Verso, 2017
  • None is too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948, Irving Abella & Harold Troper, University of Toronto Press, 2017
  • Spying on Canadians: The RCMP Security Service and the Origins of the Long Cold War, Gregory Kealey, University of Toronto Press, 2017
  • Canada’s Jews, Gerald Tulchinsky, University of Toronto Press, 2008

Book Byward Market tour

  • All tours are $25 (cash) payable at the end of the tour.
  • Tours must be booked at least 24 hours in advance. (You will receive confirmation of your booking.)
  • The tour starts from the top end of the staircase that runs from Sussex Drive to Mackenzie Street, at the south end of the American embassy.

Book Byward Market Tour