United Empire Loyalists: Canada’s first refugees
Are the United Empire Loyalists still relevant today?
Let’s answer with another question. Or two. Is there a refugee crisis in the world right now? Is the absorption of diversity into existing populations an ongoing relevant theme of public policy?
In other words, yes. Relevant; very much so. Huh? What have United Empire Loyalists got to do with refugees?
When I sit down with Pat Blackburn, UE, and Fred Hayward, UE, to talk about how Loyalists are marking Canada 150, their appearance conforms to my stereotypes but their words don’t.
“The Loyalists were Canada’s first refugees,” Pat tells me. She’s president, Hamilton branch, United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada. I’d never thought of it that way but of course they were, driven from their home by war and its aftermath.
Pat and Fred go on to politely explode several other myths about these early settlers, for instance, that they were homogeneous and traditionalist. There were black Loyalists, native Loyalists, even Dutch UE Loyalists (it’s true)! And there was diversity in the ranks of what are thought of as the more “conventional” Loyalists.
Yes, the examples of diversity were slivers in the larger exodus across the border, of people who wished to remain subjects of the British Crown even as their triumphant erstwhile compatriots didn’t. Still, they reflect our national experience.
“Canada (what would become Canada) always welcomed the persecuted,” says Fred Hayward, member of the Hamilton Branch, UELAC, and author of “Loyally Yours,” published on the 100th anniversary (2014) of the UELAC.
And, indeed, Loyalists were being persecuted. “It was a very hard struggle,” says Pat. “That’s where the values come in. Some were wealthy” but they had to leave everything.
Some people of diversity, too, like Joseph Brant, were committed enough to the life they had with the British, and committed enough “against” an uncertain republican future, to make sacrifices for the sake of loyalty and were rewarded with land grants here — and so did the groundwork get laid, in Brant’s case, for Six Nations territory.
“Free blacks, escaping slaves,” says Fred. “The main theme of our Canada 150 (at Hamilton branch) is that the Loyalists were and are not just ‘British’ people. There’s a multicultural aspect. There were Dutch and German loyalists.”
Of course, now the Loyalists and their descendants are far-flung and more diverse than ever.
While the focus of the Canada 150 here in Hamilton is partly on parallels with the present, UEs can’t help but share their own personal branch work into the past, regardless of ethnicity.
Pat traces her roots back to Swiss Palatines who immigrated to England and then the Hudson Valley. After the Revolutionary War, they settled in the Bay of Quinte area — it and Kingston being hubs of UEL settlement, along with Niagara, Essex, parts of Quebec and the Atlantic provinces, but not so much Hamilton aside from Six Nations territory, though we did get drift from the original push (plus, we’ve got the great UEL sculpture).
While Fred’s people settled in the Eastern Townships, his wife’s family has roots in the Butler’s Rangers, Frederick Schmidt and Sgt. Robert Campbell (Campbell’s Cross), who had a land grant near present-day Brock University.
Their ancestors continue to make the past real, for all of us. They helped form, as Fred and Pat put it, the “spine of the nation.” If not for them, who knows, our president now might be trying to jockey us into a nuclear war with North Korea. Just saying. To learn more, check out uelac.org and uel-hamilton.com, or better yet, sign up for the branch’s gala Canada 150 Loyalist Day (June 19 is Ontario’s Loyalist Day) Dinner.
Fred Hayward and Pat Blackburn dressed as United Empire Loyalists.