On April 7, 1868, Thomas D’Arcy McGee was assassinated on the doorstep of his boarding house in Ottawa. In his short, turbulent life – he was just shy of his 43rd birthday – he accomplished more than most men could ever imagine.
He wrote serious history and a multitude of poems, delivered hundreds of speeches, edited newspapers, was elected to Parliament not long after arriving in Canada from Ireland, defended the interests of Irish Canadians as he saw those interests and, in the last great battles of his life, fought for Confederation and against the extremism of the Irish Fenians, who sought the liberation of Ireland by all means, including violence.
When McGee’s body was returned to Montreal, an estimated 80,000 people lined the streets of a city whose population was 105,000. It was arguably the largest funeral in Canadian history.
Intellectually and politically, in Ireland, the United States and Canada, McGee moved all over the map, from firebrand revolutionary to statesman, from critic of Britain for its approach to his native Ireland to admirer of the British parliamentary government, from member of the Reform Party to a member of Sir John A. Macdonald’s Liberal-Conservative Party.
McGee died, as University of Toronto history professor David A. Wilson argues in his brilliant two-volume biography of this fascinating figure, an “extreme moderate,” slain as an enemy of Fenian extremism. For that rejection of extremism, he paid dearly politically among Irish Canadians and, ultimately, with his life; although much controversy attended the trial and conviction of his murderer, Patrick Whelan, no one doubted his Fenian fanaticism.
Prof. Wilson’s two volumes (beautifully produced by McGill-Queen’s University Press) didn’t receive the attention they deserved on publication. That fate, known to other authors of books about Canadian history, is a pity, because these volumes belong in the same league with Donald Creighton’s and Richard Gwyn’s biography of Sir John A., and J.M.S. Careless’s volumes on George Brown.
If Canada were the United States, where books about the Founding Fathers continue to sell well, Prof. Wilson’s volumes would be well-known. But this is Canada, where the formative years of what produced Canada are as foreign to most citizens as the battles of the Boer War.
Mid-19th-century Canada arguably revolved around religion, with the greatest political battles on minority rights. What McGee always sought – the cause for which he devoted much of his political capital – was Catholic education in what was then Canada West (today’s Ontario).
Every Catholic student in Ontario owes him a debt, as do so many other Canadians, for his early advocacy of a federal solution to the deadlocks that tied up the government of the Canadas before Confederation. Although McGee fought for the rights of Irish Catholics, often an oppressed minority looked down on by Scottish and English Protestants, he preached for constructive co-existence among all groups leading to a “new northern nationality,” quite distinct from that of the U.S., enjoying legislative autonomy within the British Empire.
Not everything McGee (who drank too much and could be mercurial) envisaged came to pass as Canada evolved, but Irish Catholics indeed integrated and made immeasurable contributions to their new country, co-existence won out over separation, and a country – despite all its cleavages and tensions – evolved into one of the world’s most durable federations.
Look around Canada today: bilingual and multicultural, even post-multicultural. McGee would be proud of this accomplishment, because he came to Canada from the U.S. to flee factionalism (he was attacked on all sides for his moderate views) and to oppose extremism in politics.
He looked far ahead, even before Confederation “to the future of my adopted country with hope, though not without anxiety. I see in the not remote distance, one great nationality bound, like the shield of Achilles, by the blue rim of ocean. I see it quartered into many communities, each disposing of its internal affairs, but all bound together by free institutions, free intercourse, and free commerce.”
His vision prevailed over the Orange Order, the Fenians, the annexationists, Quebec secessionists and all other parochial visions. He helped build better than he knew.