Welsh Canadians

The principality of Wales (incorporated into England by the Act of Union of 1536) has always been overshadowed by England, Ireland and Scotland.

Welsh Patagonians leaving England for Canada on the SS Numidian of the Allan Line, June 12, 1902

The principality of Wales (incorporated into England by the Act of Union of 1536) has always been overshadowed by England, Ireland and Scotland. One historian has commented that the Welsh, "apart from their language, lacked practically every attribute of a nation except for the perverse and persistent belief that they were one." Wales's population (less than 3 million in 1997) has turned to emigration as a means of advancement.

If one ignores the improbable voyage of Madoc (the quasi-historical Welsh prince who supposedly discovered North America circa 1170) but accepts the probability that Welshmen sailed with John Cabot from Bristol on his epic voyage of 1497, a 500-year-old Welsh connection with Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island can be accepted. Another unsubstantiated view claims that Welsh seafarer John Lloyd (John the Skilful) reached Hudson Bay as early as 1475. In 1612 Sir Thomas Button, a Welsh naval officer in command of HMS Resolution, searched unsuccessfully for the Northwest Passage and for Henry Hudson. A Welsh settlement was established on the southern Avalon Peninsula in 1617 by Sir William Vaughan, an ardent supporter of colonial expansion. Despite the failure of the venture, Vaughan wrote 2 books promoting Newfoundland, and thereby provided 2 of the earliest works about English North America. In 1759, at the siege of Québec, a Major Gwillim served under General James Wolfe. His daughter (Elizabeth Simcoe) later married the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada. Explorer David Thompson, although English-born, was of Welsh descent. In the early 18th century, eastern coastal waters were plagued by the puritanical Welsh pirate and slaver Bartholomew Roberts, and the volatile Acadian population of Nova Scotia experienced British rule under the sincere and practical Governor Richard Philipps.

Migration and Settlement

Welshmen serving in the British forces in British North America during the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Rebellions of 1837 stayed on. There was a specific area of Welsh settlement along Lake Erie that absorbed the immigrants of the 18th and 19th centuries. A second wave of immigration was precipitated by the Cariboo gold rush in BC in 1862. Welsh immigration figures for the 20th century are more detailed and, just as for their English, Irish and Scots cousins, reflect the ebb and flow of economic depressions and world tensions. After David Lloyd George's visit in 1899, the Canadian West was endorsed as a good prospect for immigrants. In 1902 a third wave of immigrants - the "Patagonian Welsh," so named for their 35-year sojourn as a Welsh colony in Argentina - were relocated in Saskatchewan, and around the same time a few Welsh-American farmers settled at Wood River, Alberta. The all-time high for Welsh immigration was in 1906, when 5018 settlers arrived. Immigration increased following World War I, and again from 1926 to 1929. Immigration was also high in 1946 (1294) and after the Suez Crisis in 1957 (2629). Overall, from 1900 to 1950, more than 50 000 Welsh came to Canada.

Since 1960, Welsh immigration has been slight but steady, representing a small percentage of British immigration. In the 1961 census, 143 942 people claimed Welsh descent. In the 1971 census, this figure was reduced to 74 415 (perhaps because many of Welsh descent were recorded as being English). By 1981, only 46 620 people (0.2%) claimed Welsh descent; the Welsh were not counted separately in the 1986 census but showed 28 190 people in the 1991 census (single response). The 2006 census showed 27 115 people (single response) with an additional 413 855 people with some Welsh origin (multiple response).The largest population of Welsh is located in Ontario (182 825), followed by BC (104 275), Alberta (76 115), Manitoba (16 945), Saskatchewan (16 640), Nova Scotia (16 970), Québec (9815), New Brunswick (9970), Newfoundland (3385), PEI (2250), the Yukon (925), the Northwest Territories (735) and Nunavut (110). If at all, they have tended to consolidate in the mining areas of Ontario, BC, Alberta and the Maritimes. Their presence is evident in such place-names as Newport and Pontypool (Ontario), Cardiff (Alberta), Bangor (Saskatchewan), Lake St David (Manitoba), Cape Prince of Wales (Québec), Cardigan (PEI), Welshpool (New Brunswick) and St Brides (Newfoundland).

Religion and Language

Religion (Methodism, Presbyterianism) and language were important to early Welsh settlers. Some communities developed around a Welsh-speaking nucleus and a Welsh-speaking preacher; however, these characteristics rarely survived the next generation. Most Welsh cultural activities are carried out at the local community level. There has never been a national society for the preservation of Welsh culture. However, they do maintain some of their cultural organizations and historic festivals. Most major Canadian cities have a St David's society - named after the patron saint of Wales - and some have Welsh choirs (for example, in Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto and Edmonton). St David's Day, March 1, is celebrated by Welsh Canadians, and there are also traditional Welsh festivals of Gymanfa Ganu and the eisteddfods, which celebrate music, song and poetry.

The contribution of Wales to the development of Canada is impressive. Welsh and Welsh Canadians who have left their imprint on Canada from both past and present include missionaries Peter Jones and James Evans; artist Robert Harris; scientists Stanley J. Hughes and George L. Pickard; philosopher George S. Brett; writers Sir Charles G.D. Roberts and Robertson Davies; administrator Leonard W. Brockington; athlete Diane Jones Konihowski; and cartoonist Yardley Jones.

Further Reading

  • Association of Family History Societies of Wales, Welsh Family History: A Guide to Research (1993); Calgary Welsh Society, Welsh Heritage in Calgary, 1906-1983 (1983); C. Bennett, In Search of the Red Dragon: The Welsh in Canada (1985); P. Thomas, Strangers from a Secret Land (1986).

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