Irish Heritage Month: 3 Irish transplants on making Canada home

Mar 14 2022, 4:00 pm

Written for Daily Hive for Irish Heritage Month by Meadhbh Monahan, a freelance journalist based in Vancouver.

I know what you’re thinking: “How on earth do I pronounce Meadhbh?”

In workspaces across Canada, the conundrum of Irish names grows as emigration from the emerald isle continues – a trend that began back in the 1800s and reignited after the 2008 global financial crisis.

Irish immigrants can be found leading in many walks of Canadian life — e.g. science, trade, tech, media, politics, education, and construction. Such is the contribution of the Irish to Canada, March has been designated Irish Heritage Month.

Canada’s diaspora creates trade and diplomatic links

Mairead Lavery is president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Export Development Canada (EDC), Canada’s export credit agency. Under her direction, EDC has pursued ambitious objectives, achieving strong growth, and helping more Canadian companies do business in 200 markets around the world while generating over $100 billion in trade and investment annually. 

From Lurgan in Northern Ireland, Lavery came to Canada in 2014 to pursue a work opportunity. After two years she decided to stay permanently because she had found “a base with no prejudices or assumptions.”

“I had really strong personal and professional reasons for wanting to stay in Canada,” said Lavery in a telephone interview with Daily Hive. She was charmed by the “vibrance” of Montreal (where she lives) and the multicultural feel to Canada — a far cry from Northern Ireland, where the trauma from the bloody 30-year “Troubles” conflict is “omnipresent,” particularly in the segregated school system which means Catholic and Protestant children often do not have the opportunity to mix in a meaningful way until they arrive at university, aged 18.

“Canada’s diaspora is very important [because] it creates links that can be used for trade and diplomacy,” said Lavery. “This opens up channels that don’t necessarily exist in a society that is more singular or closed. Canada has free trade agreements with different countries around the world, opening up access to 1.5 billion consumers, and these agreements are based on historical immigration patterns.”

As a female leader, Lavery is conscious that women can be more memorable in male-dominated spaces, but adds: “This puts bigger expectations on you to deliver something different.”

She is the first woman to occupy EDC’s chief executive role in its 75-plus-year history, an achievement that was tarnished somewhat by the spotlight being put on her gender.

“Everybody wanted to talk to me about what it’s like to be the first woman CEO and I said: ‘No. I’m the CEO of EDC and I’m a woman,’” Lavery said. “It takes a lot of confidence for female leaders to go in and assert themselves and not be afraid to be different to a male CEO and to celebrate being a woman.”

Lavery looks forward to the return of in-person events organized by the various Irish societies in Ottawa and Montreal and a trip home to see her parents for the first time in over two years.

Ireland “resonates” with Canada

Vancouver Green Party Councillor, Pete Fry was born in Dublin to a white, English father and a Black, Trinidadian mother (Hedy Fry, Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre). The family emigrated to Canada in the late 1960s as the Troubles escalated in Northern Ireland and tensions caused unease across the island of Ireland.

Despite being a toddler when he moved to Canada, Fry’s early childhood influences were all Irish. His parents’ best friends emigrated from Ireland at the same time, therefore his best friend growing up was a fellow Irish immigrant. His Godmother was Irish and his favourite book was on Irish fairy tales.

“My Irish heritage is something that has woven a thread through my life experience,” Fry said. “Because we didn’t have roots in Canada, we lived the immigrant experience. As a result, Ireland played a significant role in how I self-identified. I was super into Thin Lizzy because I felt that Phil Lynnott represented Ireland in a way that resonated with me.”

When his mother remarried, it was to a Vancouverite with strong Irish homesteader roots, so the Irish link continued.

Living in Strathcona makes Fry very aware of the many families suffering from various forms of disadvantage in the city and he advocates on their behalf. His top priorities are tackling homelessness and the opioid crisis in Vancouver.

He has noticed more Irish accents on the streets of Vancouver in recent years, a trend which he says is “fantastic.”

“There’s a real place for Irish people to make their home here,” he said.

Fry lives close to The Irish Heather and can often be found having a pint of Guinness and an Irish breakfast at the weekends!

Companies “anxious to hire Irish”

Joan Sheehan arrived in Vancouver in 1993 and took a position at STEMCELL Technologies Inc., a small startup that was producing a single product line of cell culture media for growing hematopoietic cells out of a dedicated clean room at the Terry Fox Laboratories. Recently immigrated and unemployed at the time, she was just excited to have a job.

Over the next decade, Sheehan played a key role in driving STEMCELL’s annual growth of 15-30% through her various roles in technical support, education, marketing, customer service, and distribution and logistics. She took on her current title as Executive VP, Sales in 2004. Today, STEMCELL employs 1800 people, sells more than 3,000 products globally, maintains offices in several countries, and has never seen an unprofitable year.

“When I arrived in 1993 there were very few Irish people — mostly doctors. Then in 2009-10 after the financial crisis, when the young Irish graduates couldn’t get jobs, they started coming and they’ve continued since then,” she commented.

“There are 80 Irish people working at STEMCELL now,” said Sheehan. “Professionally, the Irish are very highly regarded. Ireland has a very strong biopharmaceutical industry with strong process development. This is an area we have found it difficult to hire people but we’ve hired a lot of Irish who have studied biopharmaceuticals in Irish universities. The Irish education system is highly regarded — another reason people are anxious to hire Irish.”

Sheehan says when you go to a new country, you can reinvent yourself.

“Canada provides a very open, tolerant, and global society — it’s an easy environment to live in.”

Guest AuthorGuest Author

+ News
+ Venture