On St. David’s Day (Dydd Gwyl Dewi), Toronto’s Welsh community gathers together to sing “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” (“Land of My Fathers”), the Welsh national anthem, and drink a toast to St. David, the 6th-century Welsh monk and patron saint of Wales. The annual event is held on the weekend closest to March 1st. It’s organized by the century-old St. David’s Society and features a formal dinner and a speaker at a downtown hotel. The Dewi Sant Welsh United Church, holds a dinner and a “Noson Lawen” (Merry Evening) at the church.
Wales has been politically united with Britain since 1536, yet the Welsh have retained their distinct culture and language. Welsh sailors joined John Cabot on his 1497 voyage to the coast of Newfoundland over 500 years ago. Other Welsh explorers included Sir Thomas Button, who commanded an expedition in search of the Northwest Passage in 1612, and David Thompson, a trader and explorer with the North West Company.
Among the early pioneers in the city was Welsh-born Elizabeth Gwillim, the wife of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe. A diarist and an artist, she chronicled the events and scenes of Toronto’s settlement in the late 1700s. Another Welsh native was Augustus Jones, the provincial land surveyor and road engineer of Upper Canada, who marked out the site of York and graded Yonge Street from York to Holland River in 1796. Jenkin Williams was the first secretary of the Council of Lower Canada, and lawyer William Dummer Powell became Chief Justice of Upper Canada in 1816.
Three Welsh regiments served in Canada and played a major role in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Rebellion of 1837. Some of these soldiers stayed on after the wars and settled in Canada. In the 1880s and ‘90s, Welsh settlers arrived in Canada from Wales and the United States. Many were Presbyterians who helped establish Protestant churches in Canada. In Toronto, the early community formed its first organization in 1887, when a group of Welshmen gathered at a house for the first elections of the St. David’s Society. Dewi Sant Welsh Church was established 20 years later and Sunday prayer meetings and a bible class were held in a room on Wellington Street.
In 1908, a Welsh Sunday school and choir were formed and the groups moved to Temperance Hall on Bathurst Street. The church rented the Christian Workers’ church building on Clinton Street, and purchased it two years later in 1917. The Dewi Sant Church, located in North Toronto, was built by the congregation in 1969 under the direction of Reverend John Humphreys Jones. Since 1946 all ministers have come from Wales.
From 1900 to 1950, more than 50,000 Welsh came to Canada in four waves of immigration: in 1906, following the First World War, following the Second World War, and in 1957. From the 1960s to the present, few Welsh have moved to Canada. The largest groups of Welsh settlers are located in Ontario, particularly Toronto.
Notable Welsh Canadians include Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, an animated-story writer and member of the Poets of Confederation, who was knighted in 1935; the Most Reverend Derwyn Trevor Owen, the Anglican Primate of Canada and the Archbishop of Toronto; and George Brett, former Chairman of the Philosophy Department at the University of Toronto and author of several books. Leonard Brockington, a speech writer for Prime Minister Mackenzie King, was the first chairman of the CBC. Senator Rupert Davies, former publisher of the Kingston Whig Standard, was given the honourary Welsh title, High Sheriff of the County of Meirioneth, in recognition of his service to Canada. His son, Robertson Davies, became a celebrated author and Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto.
Today, the city’s Welsh express their love of rugby, singing, dancing, and poetry through tournaments and annual festivals. Visiting choirs from Wales often perform concerts at Roy Thomson Hall. Every year, the St. David’s Society presents a goat to the Fort Henry detachment in memory of the mascot of Welsh military regiments stationed in Kingston, Ontario, during the 1800s.
ST. DAVID’S DAY is celebrated on the closest weekend to March 1 in honour of the patron saint of Wales who preached Christianity and comforted the sick and the poor. According to legend, daffodils burst into bloom on this day. Another legend says that the Welsh won a victory over the Saxons by wearing leeks in their hats, which prevented the accidental killing of their own men. Every year on St. David’s Day, the Welsh place leeks in their hats and attend a ball and dinner, followed by a church celebration.
GYMANFA GANU (FESTIVAL OF SACRED SONGS) is held annually, just after Easter, at local, provincial, national, and international levels. The aim of the festival is to promote hymn-singing and Welsh unity. The Welsh church in Toronto holds its own Gymanfa on Good Friday evening with people attending from all over Toronto. Every few years the Gymanfa Ganu of North America is held in Toronto, hosted by the church or the St. David’s Society.
EISTEDDFOD, a national arts festival featuring choral and solo singing, poetry, and crafts, is held in Wales in the winter.
ST. DAVID’S SOCIETY, (Tel. 416-485-7583, 33 Melrose Ave). One of the Loyal Societies, St. David’s is a Welsh cultural club that was started in 1887, with affiliates across Canada. Meets monthly at the Dewi Sant Welsh United Church. President: Myfanwy Bajaj.