Thomas D’Arcy McGee expressed the feelings and emotions that lay behind the Confederation project, writes Bob Rae.
By Bob Rae, July 1, 2017
Thomas D’Arcy McGee can rightly be called the “poet of Confederation.” His life, cut short by an assassin’s bullet, was full of change and chaos, but as a member of both the Legislative Assembly and the House of Commons his eloquence captured the best of the spirit of the times.
Canadians know McGee for his pleas for moderation and pluralism, but his life was full of twists and turns. As a young Irishman he was a fierce critic of discrimination against the majority Catholic population in his native land. His political attacks on British rule eventually led to warrants for his arrest – he was forced to leave Ireland permanently in 1848, and took up residence in New York. As a journalist there in the 1850’s he took on the “Know Nothing” anti–Catholic movement that followed the arrival of thousands of immigrants to the United States, and he became more conservative in his religious views. This brought him into yet another conflict, with political Fenianism, of which he eventually became a fierce critic.
When he was recruited to become a voice for the burgeoning Catholic population in Montreal, he realised that he had found his home. The Quebec Act of 1774 had allowed the Catholic population of Quebec to practice their religion, and given French Canadians recognition of their language and legal system. The Irish who arrived in the tens of thousands during the Famine Years faced disease, poverty, and great hardship. Many died on the voyage, and gravesites in Montreal and Toronto were filled with the bodies of those who succumbed upon arrival. But their political presence was quickly felt.
McGee felt instantly at home upon his arrival, and was soon elected to the Legislative Assembly of the United Canadas. He quickly found his voice as a spokesman not just for the Irish community, but for a vision of Canada that embraced difference and a celebration of the diversity of his time.
The two greatest things that all men aim at in any free government are liberty and permanency.
His experience with the worst of American populism made him fearful of its expansion north. He changed his mind about Britain – he now saw the Empire, if done right, as a better assurance of pluralism than populist democracy. And he loved, above all, the “newness” of Canada, the sense that this was a place where even newcomers could quickly make their mark. And above all, he became a fierce defender of pluralism and moderation:
“The two greatest things that all men aim at in any free government are liberty and permanency. We have had liberty enough – too much perhaps in some respects – but at all events, liberty to our hearts content.”
He loved a country where “we have none of these old popular legends and stories which, in other countries, have exercised a powerful share in the government; here every man is the son of his own works.”
And he called on Canadians to wake up to the risk of American expansionism – “If we are true to Canada, if we do not desire to become part and parcel of these people, we cannot overlook this the greatest revolution of our times. Let us remember this, that when the three cries among our next neighbours are money, taxation, blood, it is time for us to provide for our own security... But if we are to have a universal democracy on this continent, the lower provinces – the smaller fragments – will be ‘gobbled up’ first, and we will come in afterwards by the way of dessert.”
He summed up the arguments for Confederation in this way – “first, that we are in the rapids and must go on; next that our neighbours will not, on their side, let us rest supinely, even if we could do so from other causes; and thirdly, that by making the united colonies more valuable as an ally to Great Britain, we shall strengthen rather than weaken the imperial connection.”
McGee’s eloquence moved his fellow Canadians to tears, laughter, and cheers. He was a short man, but had a powerful voice, and he quickly gained friends with his winning ways.
So it was that he reminded his fellow Canadians, “Miracles would cease to be miracles if they were events of everyday occurrence; the very nature of wonders requires that they should be rare; and this is a miraculous and wonderful circumstance, that men at the head of the governments in five separate provinces, and men at the head of the parties opposing them, all agreed at the same time to sink party differences for the good of all, and did not shrink, at the risk of having their motives misunderstood, from associating together for the purpose of bringing about this result.”
McGee’s eloquence moved his fellow Canadians to tears, laughter, and cheers. He was a short man, but had a powerful voice, and he quickly gained friends with his winning ways. His friends from the Irish nationalist movement never forgave him for this embrace of Burkean constitutionalism. He, in turn, was not afraid to take them on, and it was for this courage that he ultimately paid with his life. He was assassinated in 1868, and a well known Fenian Patrick Whelan was found guilty in a trial undoubtedly affected by the strong emotions of the time. There was circumstantial evidence linking Whelan to the gun that killed McGee, but controversy still surrounds his conviction. Montreal’s population was 105,000 at the time – 80,000 of them turned out for McGee’s state funeral.
A poet, speechmaker, and fierce devotee of his new found country, McGee is rightly celebrated as the man who, above all his contemporaries, expressed the feelings and emotions that lay behind the Confederation project.
He also left us with what is called “the curse of Thomas D’Arcy McGee”. In defending the Quebec Resolutions to the Legislative Assembly he famously said “question it you may, reject it you may, or accept it you may, but alter it you may not.” The British North America Act remained an act of the British parliament until 1982, and since that time the amendment of the constitution has proven difficult, to say the least.
The Hon. Bob Rae was the 21st Premier of Ontario, and Interim Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. He is now a partner with Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP and teaches at the University of Toronto. This article originally appeared as the foreword to the MLI Confederation Series paper, titled Thomas D’Arcy McGee: The Idealist.