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On St. Patrick’s Day, consider the assassinations of D’Arcy McGee and Pierre Laporte (ELLISSON & CO/The Canadian Press)
On St. Patrick’s Day, consider the assassinations of D’Arcy McGee and Pierre Laporte (ELLISSON & CO/The Canadian Press)

Aidan Johnson

Identity is for history, not for politics Add to ...

For D'Arcy McGee - Irish-born father of Confederation and the first Canadian politician to be assassinated - St. Patrick's Day was too often a day for "humbug toasts" and "vulgar triumph." In an 1845 editorial, McGee contrasted "shamrock wreaths and sighing harps" to the sober Catholic "song and sentiment" that he believed ought be the essence of March 17. St. Patrick's Day as usually celebrated in North America was, to him, a disservice to Irish freedom.

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The Montreal MP spent his final years urging Irish Canadians to resist the propaganda of the Fenians, Irish-American marauders who attacked New Brunswick and Ontario. He claimed crass "St. Paddy's Day" as a symptom of rebel excess. McGee was shot to death in Ottawa in 1868; an alleged Fenian was found guilty and executed.

Both McGee and Pierre Laporte, the victim of Canada's second political assassination (at the hands of the Front de Libération du Québec in October of 1970), were believed slain by members of their own ethnic group. Both were resented for advocating a moderate, conservative path to equality.

Remembering McGee and Laporte, we necessarily think of the duty to criticize our own cultural communities, whatever those may be, for their sins of excess and hypocrisy. We connect them to the many great leaders who have been killed by members of their own groups for advocating peace with historic enemies. Their legacy is an antidote to the identity politics that can poison real cultural pride.

For the Fenians, weakening Canada was a way to loosen the British Empire's grip on Ireland. But McGee argued that Fenian anti-Canadianism threatened the most hopeful model for Irish constitutional reform. McGee saw Canada as a polyglot country under the Crown in which Irish and French enjoyed an old legal right to their cultures. The Crown was understood as tradition and justice themselves. What chance had Protestants and Catholics of getting along in an undivided Ireland without these?

McGee's criticism of the Fenian St. Patrick's Day was inspired by Edmund Burke, another Irishman who spent much of his career abroad helping the mother country. McGee told the St. Patrick's Society of Montreal in 1856 that Burke was "the sublime of political science - the astronomy of affairs." In opposing the French Revolution, Burke sent a message to his fellow Irish that freedom could come only through rule of law. The Fenians terrorizing Canada were but updated Irish troublemakers of the kind Burke had so adamantly loathed.

McGee's dream of a federated, Canadianized Ireland defined by intercultural power-sharing is symbolized in the modern Irish flag, with its Protestant orange, Catholic green and white for peace between them. The cause for which he died - freedom for all the Irish - has made some awesome gains. The fading of the Irish Republican Army, like the folding of popular sympathy for Pierre Laporte's killers into the democratic Parti Québécois, suggests that the argument for an anti-terrorist nationalism has endured.

Conflict between British Protestants and Irish Catholics in Canada is now historic memory. The Toronto Maple Leafs, who played in the National Hockey League until 1927 as the Toronto St. Patricks, wore their retro green jerseys for a March 17 game a few years ago to postsectarian joy. Simultaneously, the rifts Canada faces today - between non-Muslim and Muslim, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, to name but two - make McGee and his objection to identity politics a modern song.

Those who complain that Canadian multiculturalism has reduced ethnicity to folk dances and food tastings are rebutted by McGee's conception of St. Patrick's Day. Enjoy your traditional language and art, he posited, and (to be true to his own liver) an amount of traditional drink. Ethnicity is for history, for remembering the past and so reaching to better serve justice. If celebrating identity leads to disorder, we forget what the party is for.

Aidan Johnson is a student at McGill Law School.

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