Confederation’s Martyr

Ahead of his time, D’Arcy McGee died for the values prized by Canadians today

Sadly, we know how it ends: on a street in Ottawa in 1868, a bullet to his head, his skull so damaged that a traditional death mask was not possible. (A cast of his hand was made instead.) The eloquent voice of Thomas D’Arcy McGee was silenced. While admirers tried to keep his story and words alive, his legacy was contentious for some people and then he faded from attention.

We are the real losers in this because McGee’s contribution to the shaping of Canadian values is fundamental to the identity of this country. David Wilson recognizes this and his recent scholarship provides us a brilliant opportunity to renew our knowledge of McGee.

In 2008, Wilson published the first volume of a biography, D’Arcy McGee: Passion, Reason and Politics, 1825–1857. It explored the evolution of McGee’s early ideas as he moved between Ireland, Britain and America. These Atlantic crossings were also intellectual journeys as he shifted from secular Irish revolutionary politics to more moderate views, still a militant activist but closer to his Catholic roots.

Well known as an Irish leader in America, McGee was also invited to speak to audiences in Montreal and Toronto. He felt comfortable in Canada, saying that the rights enjoyed here by Catholics were greater than their freedoms in America. McGee’s reputation won him the offer of a job in Montreal. He arrived in 1857, soon joined by his wife, mother-in-law and daughters. The city’s large Irish community, strong Catholic presence and dynamic politics offered fertile ground for McGee’s energy. His timing could not have been better.

During the 1850s, the far-flung British North American colonies were facing deep uncertainties. The United Province of Canada (today’s Ontario and Quebec) had become politically unmanageable, deeply split over issues of language, inter-community relations and religions. The four British maritime colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland were inherently weak, isolated by geography and limited economies. The vast lands in the North West and the small Pacific Coast colonies were hardly accessible to large-scale immigration or growth opportunities.

By contrast, the United States continued to thrive. Its transportation infrastructure, growing population and military capacity could sustain expansion into more territories. This had already happened with the annexation of Mexican borderlands and it was entirely plausible that American settlers would someday move north into “unoccupied” British regions.

Faced with these internal and external challenges, the British North American colonies finally agreed to create the new Dominion of Canada. The process of achieving this involved negotiations, political standoffs, arm twisting and fears—together with a dose of idealism. D’Arcy McGee was the voice of that idealism, the eloquent visionary of “a new northern nationality.” As a defender of minority rights and tolerance, McGee was also a tireless opponent of extremism, whether from Catholics and Protestants, or from Irish, Scots, English or French.

David Wilson’s new volume, The Extreme Moderate, 1857–1868, follows McGee through an incredibly intense decade. Wilson draws his primary materials from McGee’s large record of newspaper articles, speeches and related correspondence. From these sources he describes McGee’s views and actions, telling the story in a clear, succinct style that allows the drama to unfold.

McGee began quickly. He manoeuvred to get elected to the legislature
in 1857, just months after his arrival in Montreal. This helped position him as the dominant political voice of Irish Catholics in Canada East (Quebec). He also tried to bridge regional divisions and be seen as the leader of Irish Catholics in Canada West (Ontario). There he was only partly successful as he was often criticized by the church hierarchy in Toronto and London.

Political history from the 1850s can suffocate readers in a confusion of local details, arcane voting rules and shifting alliances. Wilson avoids the minutiae of this period, focusing instead on McGee’s wider goals and activities. He divides his narrative into three distinct phases.

The first, from mid 1857 to 1863, was the period of the Reform Alliance. McGee broke with earlier patterns of Catholic politics by reaching out to George Brown, the Scots Protestant leader and editor of the Globe. Brown was a leading critic of Catholic political goals, but McGee sought to bridge the gulf separating the two men. He turned on his charm, initiating and persuading, praising Brown where others had only voiced anger. McGee also papered over differences on details of policy and for this he was attacked by some of his co-religionists, notably the bishop of London, who criticized “an unnatural alliance with Brown & Co … thanks to the great Orator McGee.”

While these efforts helped broaden support for Catholic schools and some other policies, they did not lead to immediate changes. But the results were outstanding in other dimensions. Brown became a lifelong admirer of McGee, even when they disagreed. The two men collaborated on ideas for constitutional reform and on resisting ethnic and religious extremism. Brown learned the ways of compromise and coalition. The lesson was also learned by John A. Macdonald and other politicians when, in 1864, the Great Coalition cabinet was formed (with Brown) to end Canada’s political impasse and create a new constitutional arrangement.

The second phase in McGee’s political career that Wilson describes, from 1863 to 1865, was marked by the initiatives of many colonial leaders to conceive and conclude a Confederation deal. McGee was at the height of his persuasive powers, an eloquent proponent of a new type of federation. He was not alone in supporting the idea of a federation, but he was the man who thumped the loudest. In particular, he travelled many times to the Maritimes to introduce the concept of uniting with Canada, lecturing to large audiences and speaking with leading personalities.

McGee even helped bring a delegation of
100 prominent Canadians to meet, share ideas and enjoy the hospitality of their Maritime counterparts.

“During the early 1860s,” Wilson observes, “no Canadian politician knew more about the Maritimes, and knew more Maritime politicians, than D’Arcy McGee.” In that part of the country, the idea of Confederation was synonymous with his name.

And then there was McGee at the conferences in Charlottetown and Quebec. He was not a key negotiator, but he played the role of convivial host, sustaining friendships, overcoming suspicions and mutual ignorance. Wilson describes him as “among many other things, the social convener of Confederation.”

The negotiations in Charlottetown and Quebec combined formal exchanges and social events, with opportunities for speeches to larger audiences. McGee was especially prominent and popular, and he might be called upon to deliver a closing speech. McGee’s rhetoric on these occasions expressed grand emotions, voicing a vision of a new British North American nationality.

If we look at the historic photo of the Charlottetown Conference where delegates are gathered in front of the Legislature, we can see McGee standing near Macdonald and just behind George-Étienne Cartier. He is close to the centre, and his swarthy complexion and direct gaze make him stand out from the crowd. (“D’Arky McGee” some opponents jeered, in an era where racial taunts were part of life.)

The third aspect of McGee’s career played out from 1864 until his murder. This was the hardest period because now he was fighting within his own community. McGee argued that the extremism of the Fenians would be the greatest threat to Canada’s spirit of collaboration, stability and acceptance of Catholics. In return, he was accused of the worst of all sins: being a traitor to Ireland and the Irish people. Wilson recounts that he was denounced as “the Goula of Griffintown” to evoke the image of “a notorious Irish informer … at the heart of McGee’s Montreal constituency.”

The Fenians were the precursors to the Irish Republican Army of modern times, and they were determined to make war against British interests wherever possible. With so many Irish immigrants in the United States and Canada, including many who were veterans from the American Civil War, the threat of Fenian paramilitary action against Britain’s colonies was very real.

Wilson points out that some Canadian historians have mistakenly downplayed the Fenian threat. Things certainly looked serious to local people at the time. In New Brunswick, when there were skirmishes along the American border in 1866, the strong British military response also led to much more support for union with Canada. Later, when Fenians attacked along the Niagara Peninsula and militia volunteers were killed at Ridgeway, public reaction again led to more support for Confederation.

McGee’s opposition to Fenianism was loud and consistent but, as in the United States, Fenian views gained strength in Irish social clubs and among community leaders, notably in the Hibernian and the St. Patrick’s Societies. McGee foresaw that this would lead to an expansion of Protestant extremism around the Orange Order. He dedicated himself to this new battle with single-minded intensity, at a real cost to his career.

When Macdonald formed a transitional cabinet on the eve of Confederation, D’Arcy McGee was not included as a minister. He had agreed to step aside to make way for an Irish Catholic from Nova Scotia, thereby solving a problem of regional and ethnic balance. But this was also a signal that McGee’s public position, linked to his heavy drinking, was in decline, although he was far from finished.

Canada’s first national elections, in September 1867, saw McGee win his Montreal seat despite a powerful campaign against him. His opponent received covert Fenian money and support. There were threats of violence against McGee supporters and the Irish community was divided. McGee had been ill during part of the campaign, but had recovered somewhat through rest and total abstinence from alcohol.

Although there was no question of his becoming a minister, McGee returned to Parliament as a solid government supporter and an equally strong opponent of Fenian extremism. Wilson’s observation on this period is stark. “There was no other Irish Catholic politician anywhere in the world who was detested as much by the Fenians and their sympathizers as McGee.” Still, he remained an outspoken advocate of Canadian culture, unity and tolerance, honoured by colleagues and the wider public, both Protestants and Catholics. His last speech in the House of Commons, on April 6, 1868, was a powerful plea to Nova Scotians to remain true to the spirit of Confederation. Hours later, he was dead.

Chronology is an essential part of biography as it clarifies episodes in a person’s life. Equally important is an understanding of the ideas, goals and values that define a personality. Wilson notes how McGee combined ideas from many experiences: his radicalism in Ireland, his activism in America and his political work in Canada. McGee knit these ideas into a coherent, substantive program. His genius lay in his ability to communicate this program and its underlying values with eloquence, energy and a readiness to face opponents.

So what were McGee’s central goals?

First, he sought legal recognition for Catholic education rights in Canada West. He wanted a Catholic separate school system comparable to the established rights of Protestants in Canada East and he saw this as an expression of the core value of tolerance for minorities.

Second, he wanted all the British colonies to end their isolation, join in a political federation and create closer links for trade and mutual support to resist external threats, notably from America. Although not part of the business group that was promoting an inter-colonial railway, McGee was a vocal supporter of this project because he believed efficient transportation was essential to creating a nation.

Third, he voiced a vibrant call for a new sense of nationality that would embrace the entire population of the British colonies. He also supported more immigration to sustain growth and expanded settlement.

And fourth, he underlined the centrality of British institutions of government, peace and social order as the foundation of effective freedom. He contrasted those values with the individualism of American society, which he felt to be selfish and anarchic. Wilson describes him as a conservative in the mould of that other Irish thinker, Edmund Burke.

When the first volume of David Wilson’s biography appeared, I reviewed it for the LRC and raised four questions about McGee’s historical importance. Wilson cites these questions in his introduction and answers three of them very clearly: McGee was a genuine political force, not only “Confederation’s poet”; McGee was instrumental to winning support for Confederation in the Maritimes; and McGee was pivotal in achieving protection for Catholics within the Confederation arrangement.

The answer to the fourth question is somewhat ambiguous. Did Patrick James Whelan kill McGee? Like others who have looked at the court records, Wilson concludes that Whelan’s trial did not meet today’s standards for justice administration.
But today’s methods for discovering evidence also did not exist in 1868. And so, in our modern style of distrustful skepticism, some individuals try to prove a miscarriage of justice, turning Whelan into a victim. Wilson’s broader conclusion is clear. Even if the conspiracy details remain unknown, Fenian sympathizers, notably Whelan, wanted McGee dead and they succeeded.

In his final years, McGee was a target. Extremists from both Catholic and Protestant camps were deeply uncomfortable with his attacks on prejudice and intolerance. Jealousies in the Irish community were stoked by his celebrity status. Church leaders—notably the French-Canadian hierarchy—distrusted his record of independent opinions. His public drunkenness (like John A. Macdonald’s) often went beyond acceptable bounds. These factors weighed heavily in political circles. For the general public, however, McGee was still a hero. Wilson reports that his cortège attracted 95,000 people, nearly the population of Montreal, and “the largest funeral that British North America had ever seen.”

McGee had been ahead of his time. Over the years, many of his goals did become government policies, notably the long-term emphasis on immigration, cultural identity and the expansion of Catholic (and French-language) education rights. But it was McGee’s critical attacks on ethnic extremism that echo today. Wilson draws parallels to modern extremism and says we should be inspired by McGee’s uncompromising struggle. He pays tributes to present-day Canadians such as Tarek Fatah and Ujjal Dosanjh who have faced physical or political attacks from extremists in their ethnic communities.

Wilson’s great contribution is to revive our knowledge of D’Arcy McGee and revise our understanding of his ideas. In contemporary culture we communicate through references to celebrities and public personalities. Wilson demonstrates that McGee fits comfortably into that pantheon of Canadians whose life stories resonate with importance.

Altogether, both volumes make up a remarkable piece of research and lucid writing, a compelling narrative of the man and his era. The work is not sycophantic, for we certainly see McGee’s shortcomings. David Wilson conveys a sympathetic understanding of the tumult of real politics, the contradictions of real people and the contributions of McGee to the ideals of this country.