SHARING MEMORIES, WEEK TWENTY-ONE

Let it snow!

I wonder how the first immigrants to this area said that in Gaelic?  Gaelic was the language of choice when they arrived in 1816 and well into the mid-50’s, but by the mid-1880’s only a handful of people would be speaking Gaelic in this area. English became the language of choice.  Below is an article dealing with the origins of the Ottawa Valley Twang (which we call the Lanark County Twang), and the ethnic diversity of the Ottawa area, by Gavin Taylor from centretownnewsonline.ca.  Centretown News is produced in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, which has been studying this in their linguistics department.

I wonder if anyone in the Carleton Place-Beckwith-Mississippi Mills area has any handwritten correspondence in Gaelic from the 1800’s?  Now that would be a memory to share!

History has sewn a colourful ethnic quilt

By Gavin Taylor from centretownnewsonline.ca

If you ever find yourself in a small Ottawa Valley town, don’t be surprised if you hear echoes of Ireland in the voices of old folks.

“Let’s give’er a go,” they might tell you in a brogue as thick as corn soup.

“Let’s go up the line by shank’s mare; I think this way is better n’r that one.”

The distinctive Ottawa Valley twang, with its twisted vowels and idiosyncratic expressions, is a reminder that the culture of the region was shaped by several waves of immigrants who settled in the valley during the 19th century.

More than half the people who lived in the Ottawa Valley in the mid-1800s were immigrants

By comparison, only 18 per cent of Canadians were born abroad in 2001 — the highest proportion of immigrants since the 1930s, but small potatoes compared with the massive immigration levels of 150 years ago.

Since the 1970s, researchers at Carleton University have been recording the varieties of English spoken in the valley.

The researchers have so far identified several old-world dialects rooted in Scottish, as well as traces of American English, German, Scots Gaelic, and a Polish dialect known as Kashubian.

But the most important source of valley speech is Ireland.

“In rural areas, there was a sea of Irish-influenced English, with little islands of other groups,” says Ian Pringle, a Carleton University linguistics professor who helped lead the project.

From the 1820s to the 1880s, English-speaking migrants to the valley were overwhelmingly Irish: in some townships, as much as 90 per cent of the residents traced their ancestry to Ireland.

The first census after Confederation showed that the Irish were the largest ethnic group in Ottawa, representing almost 39 per cent of the total population. By comparison, the proportion of Irish in cities such as Boston, New York and Montreal hovered around 25 per cent for most of the nineteenth century.

Bruce Elliott, a Carleton professor who heads the university’s Centre for the History of Migration, says that most English-speaking migrations to Ontario during this period came from the Celtic fringe of the British Isles.

“In some rural areas of the valley, English were as rare as hens’ teeth,” he says.Before 1815, most of the migrants to the valley were Scottish. By the 1820s, Irish families — typically “poor-to-middling farmers” who crossed the Atlantic in search of land — had become the largest immigrant group in the region.

There was also a steady migration of French-Canadians to the valley in the 19th century, chiefly from parishes west of Montreal. Elliott says French migrants typically worked in lumber camps in the winter and cultivated garden plots along the riverside during the summer.

Philemon Wright, the entrepreneur who oversaw the construction of the Rideau Canal in Hull, hired French-Canadian labourers instead of the Irish because he thought they were more “docile” workers, Elliot says.

French and Irish Catholics in Ottawa were clustered in Lowertown in the late 19th century — early Irish immigrants to the region were largely Protestant, but the number of Catholic migrants grew steadily over the course of the century.

A handful of smaller ethnic groups also settled in the city in the late nineteenth century, most of them finding a niche in Ottawa’s retail trades.

Several families from southern Italy found a home in the Preston Street area — then a suburb — and one Greek person in Ottawa was recorded in the 1871 census. A number of African-Canadians worked as street vendors at the turn of the century. Moses Bilsky, the first Jewish resident of Ottawa, arrived in 1857, and the first synagogue in the city was built in 1892.

Migration to the Ottawa region tended to be “ethnically and religiously biased” at this time, says John Taylor, a Carleton University history professor, who has written extensively about Ottawa history.

Immigrants tended to be clustered into ethnically and religiously homogeneous groups that were fleeing economic or political hardship in Europe. But in the early 20th century, Taylor says, the character of immigration began to change.

The lumber industry — the magnet that drew migrants to Ottawa in its early years — fell into a slow and steady decline after the First World War. At the same time, the public service expanded rapidly: the number of government workers in Ottawa grew from about 1,000 in 1900 to over 30,000 by the end of the Second World War.

The public service tended to attract educated professionals from other parts of Canada.

“They were professional people moving toward economic opportunity, not away from political hardship,” Taylor says.

One of the consequences of this migration was that the ethnic character of Ottawa became increasingly similar to the rest of the country — by the 1940s, Irish-Canadians represented less than one-sixth of the city’s population.

The “Valley twang” that inflected rural speech in nearby areas virtually disappeared in the city, as public service workers increasingly spoke a standard version of Canadian English.

While some government workers remained clustered in ethnically and religiously homogeneous neighbourhoods, high-ranking public servants tended to move to Sandy Hill regardless of their ethnic background, Taylor says.

The growth of the civil service has slowed since the 1970s, but the high-tech sector has continued to draw educated professionals to the city. Like civil servants, computer engineers are migrants who come to the city for economic reasons and who tend not to cluster in ethnic neighbourhoods.

But since the 1970s, Taylor says, a new wave of immigration has been patterned along ethnic lines.

As Canada’s immigration and refugee laws were liberalized, families fleeing ethnic or political strife came to Ottawa in increasing numbers. Thousands of Lebanese have migrated to Ottawa since 1975, when a bloody civil war began in their country. Since then, Vietnamese, Sri Lankans, Somalis, and other groups escaping persecution and war have made their homes in Ottawa.

The result, Taylor says, is that Ottawa is more ethnically diverse than ever before: English remains the most commonly spoken language in the city, but allophones outnumbered francophones in the 2001 census.

The history of these successive migrations—Irish migrants in search of lands, public servants in search of a career, and Asians and Africans in search of freedom—has made Ottawa a patchwork of distinctive neighbourhoods, some based on social class and others on ethnic identity.

“We really do have a community of communities here, more than in other places,” Taylor says.

Thanks to centretownnewsonline.ca

Centretown News is produced in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

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