Somewhat missing the point, Ireland Park at the foot of Bathurst was baptized a few weeks back as a tribute to the 38,000 Irish who landed here in 1847, worthy examples of Toronto's welcoming approach to immigrants.
Within sight of sculptures portraying starving people barely able to escape Ireland alive, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said it was great to see the Irish and Canadian flags "flying together in Toronto on this happy occasion."
Around the world, the Irish famine of 1845 to 1852 - the million who died at home of starvation and disease, and the million more who left - is seen as a textbook case of almost every error that can be made when dealing with a great hunger.
Though chronic hunger and periodic famines are usually treated as the product of deep-seated and irresolvable problems, Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize for economics for his studies in famine prevention, argues that "famines are, in fact, so easy to prevent that it is amazing that they are allowed to occur at all."
Ireland did suffer from a fungus that caused potatoes to turn black and disintegrate into slime in 1845, 1846 and 1848 (as did the rest of Europe), but as Irish nationalist John Mitchel put it a few years later, "The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine."
While the Irish were left to die of starvation and the typhus, cholera, scurvy and dysentery that fed on starving bodies, food was relatively plentiful across the British Isles. Irish farms exported 650,000 tons of grain and beef to England, often under protection of English troops.
For at least a decade before the famine, according to Cecil Woodham-Smith's The Great Hunger, three-quarters of Irish labourers faced chronic unemployment. Twenty-four per cent of tenant farmers squeezed a livelihood from less than 2 hectares of land, half the rural population lived in one-room, windowless mud huts, and more than a quarter of the population struggled to survive on a semi-starvation diet. Medical care and clean water were also hard to get.
Such poverty is not just a matter of low incomes. "Famines survive by divide-and-rule," Sen writes. Again, Ireland fits the bill. Scores of coercion and penal laws were imposed by the Protestant majority of England on the Catholic majority of Ireland. These denied rights to Catholic tenants living on Protestant-owned farms, discouraged their fishing on rivers or large ocean-faring vessels and restricted freedom of worship, access to education and the right to vote or run for political office.
Sen also blames famine on ideology. Charles Trevelyan, the founder of the British civil service, who made the main financial decisions about Ireland, believed that the great evil that had to be confronted was "not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent" Irish. "An all-wise and all-merciful Providence" caused the famine as "an effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected," an allusion to the mass evacuation of the Irish from farms. These lands had to be cleared of people to make way for hay and livestock that could turn a profit for landowners in the new world order of free trade and exports of beef to England.
Simple measures such as public works would have provided wages the Irish could have used to buy the food being exported from Ireland, thus preventing most deaths caused by the famine.
The English spent £7 million on relief, mostly for workhouses where famine contagions spread like wildfire, and some for imports of Indian corn from America, chosen because it didn't compete with goods from English farms.
That amount can be compared to the £20 million spent in the 1830s to compensate English slaveholders forced to give up slaves in the West Indies, or to the £70 million spent on the Crimean war of the 1850s. "Compassion fatigue" has long been a problem for the powerful.
Ireland Park's sculptures and landscape capture the humanitarian tragedy of the famine. But learning from Canada's and the world's past requires that the determinants of hunger be named, not sidelined by claptrap about multiculturalism that has nothing to do with the realities of immigration to Canada.
The chapter of world history that 38,000 Irish exiles most belong to is the one on famines, not the one on immigration and multiculturalism. Ireland Park might be rededicated with that in mind.