Men wielding oak clubs? Ladies of ill repute? Drunken disorder? Social chaos masterminded by one kingpin? It’s the stuff that Hollywood movies are made of — but it happened in Canada. As a matter of fact, this Wild West was playing out in Bytown when my Irish ancestors arrived in 1831. When they left the area eight years later, could they have been trying to escape the lawlessness of these events known as the Shiner’s War?
Peter Aylen was an emerging timber baron with a plan to gain control of water travel on The Grand River, now known as the Ottawa River. Access to this water route key to timber trade success. He aligned himself with the Irish Catholic immigrants of Corktown who, up until that time, had endured shoddy treatment, low wages and the disrespect of their employers. Most of these people worked on the construction of the military’s Rideau Canal. In 1932, the canal was completed, and the Irish immigrants of Bytown (today’s Ottawa) were employed.
In a time when 70% of lumber camp jobs were filled by French Canadians, Aylen employed only Irish men. This despite the fact that Irish were mostly manual labourers whose expertise in the timber industry did not match those of the French.
Aylen plied his followers with women and liquor to secure their loyalty, then he convinced them of the need to drive the French Canadians out of the valley and away from Irish jobs. He promised to use whatever means necessary to accomplish this so the poor Irish Catholics of Corktown could takeover the timber jobs for their own.
This motley crew became known as the “Shiners“, a name that may have been derived from the French word, cheneur, meaning oak man.
The Shiners were all too willing to endorse Aylen’s violent tactics. The businesses and homes of those who spoke out against Aylen and the Shiners were burned to the ground. Opponents were humiliated, bullied and sometimes murdered. Timber rafts were pirated and their crews hunted down and beaten. “The whole state of things is made worse by a number of lawless Characters, settled squatters… introducing liquor in large quantities on the River, which they sell without any licence so to do,” claimed George Hamilton, a Hawksberry mill in June of 1835.
In 1835, following the close of the winter lumber season, Peter Aylen led a band of 200 Irishmen to Bytown. The absence of a strong policing agency allowed the Shiners to terrorize the town for the next two years without fear of reprisal. When the local constabulary did arrest Peter Aylen for assault, the Shiners responded by vandalizing the town and burning a steamer on the Rideau Canal. A prominent Bytown merchant, James Johnston, contacted the lieutenant governor, explaining that Peter Aylen was untouchable and the Shiners were out of control.
When Peter Aylen tried to have Johnston murdered, in March of 1837, the tide turned. The violence peaked as the annual Irish immigration rates hit their highest numbers. The magistrates and Bytown’s citizens unified to organize armed night patrols and the hire of additional constables. The French rallied around their new leader, Joseph Montferrand — they could only be pushed so far. His calculated retributions subdued Aylen. The combined efforts of the Protestants and other conservative citizens of Bytown brought the law back to the Ottawa Valley.
This story fascinates me. It is the backdrop to my family’s history. I imagine how frightening it must have been them to live surrounded by conflict initiated by their countrymen. I wonder what discrimination they endured by virtue of being Irish. It is documented through census records that my ancestors were Protestant, a fact that does not, I suppose, preclude them from being Shiners.
I’ve written a short story based on what I’ve learned about my Irish forefathers in Bytown. As a writer, this glimpse into history stokes delicious ideas for new adventures and character conflict in the lives of my lumberjack ancestors. What began as the tale of Mariah, a head strong Irish girl, is growing in my mind by leaps and bounds. This short story won’t be short for long. What a novel idea!
Lead photo: Booth lumber camp Aylen Lake Ontario 1895 Source: Library and Archives Canada/ C-075266
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