The Orange Order was born in the charged sectarian climate of northern Ireland in the late 1700s to defend the interests of Protestant settlers against the native Irish Catholics. Taking its name and inspiration from Prince William of Orange, who secured Protestant ascendancy in Britain and Ireland, Orange principles involved an uncompromising defense of the British Crown, and Protestant hegemony in Ireland. When Protestants began to emigrate from Ireland in large numbers after 1815, Orangeism was part of the cultural baggage they brought to their new homes. The British North American provinces proved to be extremely fertile grounds for its expansion, and throughout the Maritimes and Ontario Orange Lodges became central to the social life of many communities. They frequently served as school, church and town hall, offered opportunities for socializing, and afforded numerous practical benefits for early settlers. Also, the Orange Order flourished in Canada because of its religious and ideological compatibility with the British Protestant ethos of the Loyalists and other English-speaking Canadians.
As Canadians migrated westwards after Confederation, Orangemen, with their longstanding tradition as Queen’s Frontiersmen, were in the vanguard. The first lodge west of Ontario was established in Red River in 1870, and membership grew rapidly. By the early 1930s, when the Order reached the peak of its popularity in Saskatchewan, with a membership of approximately 68,000, belonging to 274 lodges. In its composition, the Order appealed primarily to Canadians of Irish and British origin and to Protestant immigrants from Scandinavia, Holland, and Germany. As had happened originally in Ireland and then in eastern Canada, the Orange Order in Saskatchewan evolved into a multifaceted institution which offered a variety of services to its members and to the larger society. It was a social and recreational club, a mutual assistance network, an educational and moral improvement society, a social welfare organization, a vehicle for the expression of religious and cultural values, and an ideological and political pressure group.
As was to be expected given its roots, the Orange Order in Saskatchewan evinced continuing interest in Irish affairs. Of more immediate importance, however, were local and national issues, and the question of education was of particular interest to Orangemen because of their desire to see a non-denominational public school system assert the primacy of the English language and assimilate all immigrants to Anglo-Canadian cultural norms. The Orange Order was thus often at loggerheads with Roman Catholics, French Canadians, and non-British immigrants who espoused a more pluralistic vision of Saskatchewan society.
The popularity and political influence of the Orange Order in Saskatchewan peaked in the early 1930s. Although it continued to be a presence in rural Saskatchewan until the 1960s, the years after 1932 witnessed a steady decline: rural depopulation and mass media drained its membership base; and as the pioneering generations passed on, the original need for the support that the Order provided ceased to exist. The cultural values which the Order espoused also diminished in appeal after World War II, as notions of diversity and multiculturalism gained favour. Nevertheless, the fact that Saskatchewan today is a predominately English-speaking community with a relatively high degree of cultural homogeneity among its non-Aboriginal population is one of the enduring legacies of the Orange Order.