Immigrant Workers

Strangers in a Strange Land: Immigrant Workers

Immigrants in Guelph

The Canada we know today was built through the efforts of immigrants.  From its early beginnings, each wave of newcomers added their character. They brought their culture, their hopes and their prejudices. Each wave was greeted with uneasiness by the group that came before them and was faced with opposition from established organizations, including government officials and labour groups.

Irish and Blacks

Guelph, mirroring the national picture, was no different in its acceptance or rejection. Over its periods of growth and decline, it saw the arrival of many nationalities including Irish,  Scots, English,  Germans,  American Blacks, Poles, Austrians, Chinese Japanese and Italians. All these distinct cultures and ethnicities combined to create a multicultural society. 

Among these diverse cultural entities, the Irish were most commonly listed as labourers or servants. An anti-Irish policy did not openly exist in Guelph homes or factories. There were no ads stating “No Irish Need Apply” as there were in other cities, but Irish Catholics did not have a high economic standing within the community. Sarah Matthews, Margate Plunkett and Bridget Digney were three of the many Irish females who found employment as maidservants among Guelph’s wealthier families in 1861. In 1871, Mary Devlin, Winnifred Fennon, and Elizabeth Hays continued the tradition of female Irish Catholics being “in service.” Their male counterparts were sometimes servants such as Matthew Groggins and John Mara in 1871, but were more frequently cited in Census, Assessment and Directory records as labourers. James Hanlon, age 32, John Bermingham, age 40, John Bulger, age 28, Garret Doyle, age 63, and Martin Fitzgerald at 86 were all Irish Catholic males listed as labourers.

 In addition to the Irish, some blacks arrived during the American Civil War. Many were hired to work in low-paying jobs while others carved out a position for themselves in the community. This pattern was the same across the board including when the Chinese and Italians arrived in the early 20th century. The former set up restaurants and laundries; the latter generally became labourers in construction and low-paid factory workers.

Italians and Chinese

The Italians also tended to be greeted with amusement, and suspicion. They were mocked over their temperament and, like the Irish and Italians, relegated to low-paying jobs. The GTLC was in a bind. In 1908, the city was accused of favouring the Italians in their hiring practices. While the GTLC made it clear to the City that it supported the Italians’ rights to equal pay, it also stressed that it would prefer the City to hire Northern European or British workers. The GTLC had little to say about the Chinese workers at this time. It simply said it wanted union men to send their laundry to union shops.

Prejudice and the Law

The Italians, unlike the Chinese, did organize. They formed the Guelph Italian Federal Labour Union in 1909 to protect their interests. Yet, like the Chinese and other minority groups, they found themselves the brunt of prejudice, and citizens saw their interpretation of Italian behaviour verified in print. It was not unusual for the Guelph Mercury to mock what seemed to be overly dramatic emotional displays, whether it be over the reuniting of a lost child and its mother, or at the Railroad Station, expressing an emotional greeting or farewell to family members.

 Yet, while prejudice on various levels did exist, Guelph did attempt to apply the law with equal weight. For example, in 1908, a Guelph officer made several College boys go back and pay their bill at a Chinese restaurant after they had skipped out, and in 1916, after a Chinese man was beaten up and generally abused by two Guelph men (Joe Dodds and George Goge), Constable McElroy had no difficulty in arresting them. When they appeared before Magistrate Watt, they were fined $5 and costs each. They were also required to pay the doctor’s bill incurred by their victim.

 A more confrontational approach was visible when, in 1905, several boys threw stones at some Italians as they worked on the grounds at Homewood Sanitorium. The boys were hauled up before the court and one was fined, but some were released because the judge gave them the benefit of the doubt. One thing in Guelph was certain. The race or ethnicity of the victim did not seem to factor into the decision to arrest or charge the culprit of a crime.