The St. Andrew’s Society of Toronto is celebrating its 185th anniversary in 2021. The organization has been promoting Scottish culture and supporting local charities since 1836. Canada would not become a country until 1867 which makes the Society older than the country it calls home.
Scots have been leaving their homeland for many generations in search of adventure and economic opportunities. As a result, over 50 million people around the globe have Scottish ancestry including 4.8 million Canadians. These numbers are especially remarkable when we consider that the current population of Scotland is only 5.5 million.
A cultural society often followed whenever a number of Scots ended up in one place. Saint Andrew, as patron saint of Scotland, was a common symbol to rally around. By extension, St. Andrew’s Day (November 30) became the annual date to gather and dine on traditional fare. After the meal, which would almost always include haggis, there would be a series of toasts, songs and music.
Scottish immigrants and their descendants worked diligently to keep their traditions alive. As a result, St. Andrew’s Societies were set up in dozens of cities on six continents. This was especially true in Toronto where Scottish immigrants were involved in every aspect of the city’s development.
The first meeting of the St. Andrew’s Society of Toronto was in 1836. It was a time of new beginnings as the city had changed its name from York to Toronto only two years earlier. Excitement filled the air as a constant influx of new arrivals pushed the population past 10,000 for the first time. While many immigrants found success in their new home, others failed to find their footing and became trapped in lives of despair.
Modern day Toronto has multiple institutions focused on helping people overcome poverty. But since few of these programs existed in the 1830s, it often fell to cultural groups to look after their own. Several of Toronto’s most prominent Scots got together and agreed to form a committee to assist their compatriots who had fallen on hard times. It was determined that the focus would be on those who were newly arrived.
Officers were elected and managers assigned to assist those in need. They focused on finding people work and a place to live. They also made sure that families didn’t go hungry. Although many lives were improved, times were hard, and death lurked around every corner. Whether it was poverty, illness, or misfortune, many would never see the shores of Scotland again.
The Society purchased a large burial plot in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in November of 1886. The intent was that Scots who died in Toronto without resources would be buried in “a small piece of Scotland.” An official dedication came in 1891 along with a cairn. Society members in good standing can still apply to be buried at Mount Pleasant.
The connection between The St. Andrew’s Society and the 48th Highlanders of Canada dates back to the late 1800s. A group of local Scottish cultural organizations came together to raise funds and lobby the government to form the province’s first kilted regiment. Despite being rebuffed on their initial requests, the group persevered and achieved their goal.
The regiment’s motto is ‘Dileas Gu Brath’ which is Gaelic for Faithful Forever. Since its inception, the regiment has lived up to those words both at home and abroad. The 48th has earned 50 battle honours in conflicts around the globe including Afghanistan, the Boer War and both World Wars.
The 48th Highlanders have a longstanding tradition of contributing to Toronto. Whenever the city needs help or people need protecting, the battalion have answered the call. This includes the recent COVID-19 pandemic where soldiers worked to support senior citizens in retirement communities.
The relationship between the Society and the 48th has remained close since the battalion’s inception in 1891. The organizations have co-hosted the St. Andrew’s Charity Ball for decades with the regiment’s Pipes & Drums a focus of the evening’s entertainment.
Canadians of Scottish heritage will continue to play a key role in the future of Toronto. According to the 2016 national census, 256,255 Torontonians claimed Scottish ancestry. This equated to roughly 9% of the city’s 2.7 million inhabitants. Among the city’s ethnic origin populations, only the Chinese (332,825), English (331,895) and Irish (262,965) registered larger numbers.
The connections to Scotland are dim for many in the Toronto area as their families have been here for generations. The Society encourages these people to remember where they came from and to learn about their heritage. New recruits can pay tribute to their ancestors throughout the year via Scottish music, fashion, cuisine, and sport. A Learn to Curl Social is one of the Society’s most popular annual events. Attendees include many recent Scottish immigrants who are eager to learn a game that was born in Scotland and beloved in Canada.
The modern Society has remained true to the benevolent goals of its founders. Funds are raised for local charities through memberships, donations and events that showcase Scottish-Canadian culture. These experiences range from dance lessons to pub nights and formal affairs like the St. Andrew’s Charity Ball. Everyone is welcome to attend events or become a member. It doesn’t matter whether they were born in Scotland, have Scottish ancestors or are just looking to meet some great people!
There are now two entities under the St. Andrew’s banner, the Society and the Charitable Foundation. The Foundation has maintained the benevolent spirit of our founders by delivering grants that focus on families in crisis, homelessness and food insecurity. Over $1 million has been donated to worthy causes in the past 15 years. The focus is on smaller charities that don’t always receive the exposure extended to larger organizations.
The Charitable Foundation has expanded its good works to help all those in need, regardless of country of origin. And although Scottish immigration has slowed from previous generations, the Society still extends the hand of friendship to newly arrived Scots. They are invited to events over the course of the year and introduced to great winter pastimes like skating and hockey.
Every December and January, members sign up to support the Society for another year. As a thank-you for their support, members receive discounts on events. These fees help the Society sponsor Highland Dance troupes, Celtic musicians and others working to keep Scottish-Canadian culture alive. The funds also support bursaries for a Speaker Series and post-secondary students focused on Scottish studies.
The St. Andrew’s Society of Toronto is still going strong after 185 years. Those interested in getting involved can find out more on the Society’s website at www.standrewstoronto.ca
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