That Time We Were All United Empire Loyalists

As noted elsewhere, I spent far too many hours this weekend reading issues of the Cape Breton Post from December 1984, in which I found very little of relevance to my ongoing series on our failure, that year, to bury the power lines on Charlotte Street, but a great deal in relation to another subject: Sydney’s upcoming Bicentennial.

A patient reporter would sock all this material away for 2024 and do a 40th anniversary of Sydney’s 200th birthday piece, but I am not patient—and my publishing schedule does not extend that far into the future—so I’m going to write about this now, while it’s all fresh in my mind.

December was Bicentennial Eve and while the City hadn’t got its act together in time to unveil a signature Bicentennial project—it didn’t buy the Vogue Theatre and turn it into a civic auditorium, it didn’t add a fountain and a “digital” town clock to the Civic Centre Plaza and its actual Bicentennial project, Centre 200, wouldn’t open until 1987—council did find time to be fitted for period costumes. Such was their excitement over the finery, they were wearing them a month before the actual celebrations began. And like the Tall Ships before them, councilors in period costume were catnip for Post photographers who, as early as December 7, were capturing them on film:

Sydney City Council in period costume, December 1984 (Post photo)

 

I get that it’s dangerous to judge history by modern standards, so this piece is not intended to criticize people who celebrated Sydney’s Bicentennial by dressing up as  Loyalists—people loyal to the British Crown during the American War of Independence—an activity that was clearly not viewed as particularly problematic at the time. But it is interesting to think about the ways in which things might be different, were we to celebrate Sydney’s 240th birthday in 2025 (which I don’t imagine we will, given that Sydney celebrated its 210th birthday by amalgamating with seven other municipalities). Let’s start with the most obvious question: would we even celebrate the founding of Sydney as a British colonial capital?

In a world that pays at least lip service to the understanding that Sydney was established on the “ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People” who have been here for at least 10,000 years, it seems unlikely we’d devote an entire year to glorifying a group of settlers who arrived in 1784 and, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, set about “alter[ing]” the “nation-to-nation relationship that once existed between the Crown and First Nations.”

The Mi’kmaq (who had been largely allied with the French during the period when England and France were kicking us around like a football) signed a series of treaties—known as The Peace and Friendship Treaties—between 1726 and 1779, guaranteeing their right to hunt, fish, farm and earn a reasonable living without British interference.

The 30,000 Loyalists who arrived in what would become the Maritime provinces in 1783 and 1784, about 16,000 of whom came to Cape Breton, were “less inclined” to honor those treaties:

Loyalist migrations and the provincial government’s creation of reserves in the 19th century pushed Indigenous peoples onto lots of land that were much smaller than their traditional territories.

Photo of Bicentennial Committee, Sydney, NS, 1984, in period costume

In fact, it was during Sydney’s Bicentennial year that the Mi’kmaq would have their Treaty rights confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in a case called Simon v the Queen (Simon, a member of the Sipekneꞌkatik First Nation, was charged under the Lands and Forests Act with the illegal possession of a rifle and cartridges. He argued that his right to possess a gun was guaranteed by the Treaty of 1752 which gave him “free liberty of Hunting & Fishing as usual,” and the Supreme Court agreed with him, although two lower courts had ruled against him.) 

All to say that any birthday celebration these days would be a much more nuanced affair—and would surely feature more participation by First Nations. Granted, I haven’t started reading the 1985 editions of the paper, which will cover the Bicentennial Year proper, but I’ve seen a lot of coverage in this lead-up year and none of it involved the Mi’kmaq, unless you consider an invitation to dress in “ethnic” costume at the Mayor’s Bicentennial Levee a reference to the city’s first inhabitants:

Add for 1985 Bicentennial Levee, Sydney, NS

 

 

Sydney Aldermen John Nardocchio and Archie MacRury in period dress, Cape Breton Post, December 1984

Aldermen John Nardocchio and Archie MacRury in period dress, Cape Breton Post, December 1984.

I should have prefaced this article with the admission that my own knowledge of this period of Cape Breton history is woefully inadequate, because I learned most of it in Nova Scotian public schools in the 1970s and ’80s and my textbooks had very little to say about the people who were here before the arrival of the Europeans. (For the record, I doubt I would have learned any more had I gone to Nova Scotian private schools and actually suspect I might have learned even less.)

But I discovered, as I was researching this article, that my understanding of the Loyalists was equally flawed. For instance, I was getting ready to make hay out of the notion that aldermen like John Nardocchio and Frank Starzomski and Archie MacCrury would deck themselves out as Loyalists—one being of Italian, one of Polish and the third of Scottish descent—but it turns out this wasn’t entirely historically inaccurate.

I don’t mean there were Loyalists of Italian and Polish descent—besides the fact that there was no Italy in 1784, the great wave of European migration that would bring millions of Italians and Poles to America was still a century away, but there were actually recent immigrants to America from Germany and the Netherlands among the Loyalists.

I can’t even make fun of all the Scots—MacDonald, MacNeil, MacRury, MacLean, MacLeod—in Loyalist garb because, as Hamish MacPherson explained in a 2016 article for The National:

Many Scots have the curious idea that Scotland massively welcomed the American Revolution, all Scots fought to gain freedom from the Crown and “we” were all on the side of rebels. That just isn’t true.

Yes, there was Scottish influence on philosophy and events, and yes, soldiers like Hugh Mercer fought and died under George Washington, but it is a fact that possibly the majority of the Scots in America in the 1770s either sided with the Crown or moved away – some to Canada, some home to Scotland – or stayed out of the conflict and waited to see who would win.

One thing I did know was that there were Black Loyalists, so the presence of Alderman Eddie Parris in period dress didn’t give me pause, although I think more would be made of it today—as in, we might take it as an opportunity to consider the particular experience of Black Loyalists and why a Black man in Sydney in 1784 would be unlikely to be in a position of power.

 

My other misconception about the Loyalists that they were wealthy although, I now discover, entire books have been written to dispel this myth. Here’s Christopher Moore in the preface to The Loyalists: Revolution, Exile, Settlement (a book—which I haven’t read—published in 1984):

Two hundred years after their arrival in Canada, every statement about the loyalists seems to begin with the announcement that they were “not just” wealthy and aristocratic Harvard graduates driven from Boston as tory tyrants.

And a review of another book about the Loyalists I haven’t read, The Unfriendly Soil: The Loyalist Experience in Nova Scotia, 1738-1791, published by Neil MacKinnon in 1986, states:

The Loyalists have been narrowly defined as those Americans who remained true to the British crown and, having lost their cause, were forced to emigrate to the colonies or return to England. MacKinnon prefers a broader definition, and sees the Loyalists as refugees who, in characteristics, background, and motivation, were a mixed multitude. The refugees included those who had not found war a hardship and profited by it, and those who lost everything; British regulars disbanded in Nova Scotia, foreign troops, and provincials with their dependents; Blacks (slave and free); and those among the lower classes who regarded provisions and land in Nova Scotia as better than their lot in New York. MacKinnon certainly puts paid to any notion that the Loyalists were all Tory gentlefolk. The Loyalists were, in fact, a varied and divergent group of people who had little in common with each other apart from their abrupt presence in Nova Scotia, and their fragile bond of loyalty to the British Crown.

Both books seem to have taken aim at the “romanticized” version of the Loyalists propagated by artists like Henry Sandham in his painting, “The Coming of the Loyalists”:

"The Coming of the Loyalists," Henry Sandham, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Coming of the Loyalists,” Henry Sandham (1842-1910), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To their credit (or perhaps simply because the budget didn’t stretch to it) the Mayor and Aldermen don’t seem to have opted for high-end 18th century men’s fashion (look at all that gold braid). As for the women on council…just kidding, one way in which 1984 Sydney was indistinguishable from 1784 Sydney was the absence of women from positions of power.

 

I remember, as a university student in 1984, being baffled by the enthusiasm evinced by our all-male city council for Bicentennial fancy dress but in retrospect, I think I was just being sexist. Men’s clothing is really boring, it was probably great fun for them to wear something other than standard issue suits and ties. (Whether having “great fun” should be a council priority is another question entirely, of course.)

What didn’t baffle me—and should have—was the decision to focus the celebrations on a time when white, male landowners reigned supreme. That looks strange from the perspective of 2022 but it should have looked equally strange from the perspective of 1984 and I have to admit that, to me anyway, it didn’t. Which I think is why I wrote this piece. Thanks for listening.