7 April 1868
“I, Sir, who have been, and who am still, its [Confederation’s] warm and earnest advocate, speak here not as the representative of any race, or of any Province, but as thoroughly and emphatically a Canadian, ready and bound to recognize the claims, if any, of my Canadian fellow subjects, from the farthest east to the farthest west, equally as those of my nearest neighbour, or of the friend who proposed me on the hustings.”
Spoken at a late night sitting of the House of Commons, these were among the last public words spoken by Thomas D’Arcy McGee, poet, author, and Canadian nationalist. It was fitting that they were voiced in defence of an enterprise with which he was so intimately association—the Confederation of Canada. After the House adjourned at 2.05am on 7 April 1868, McGee walked to the bar of the House, bought three cigars, and stopped to chat with Sir John A. Macdonald. Retrieving his overcoat, gloves, new white top hat, and silver knobbed bamboo walking stick given to him some years previous by admirers in Montreal, he stepped out into the frosty moonlit night…and into history.
McGee left the newly-built gothic centre block of Parliament with Robert McFarlane, another Member of Parliament. The two men walked slowly as McGee was bothered by an ulcerated leg. Arm in arm, the men strolled along the path leading from the centre block towards Wellington Street. Leaving Parliament Hill, they ventured a block down Metcalfe Street to Sparks Street, where they parted company. McFarlane turned east toward Sappers’ Bridge and Lower Town, while McGee headed west to his digs at Mrs. Trotter’s boarding house at 71 Sparks Street on the south side of the road close to O’Connor Street. McFarlane bade McGee a good night; McGee replied “God bless you.”
Minutes later, McGee was dead, shot at point blank range as he bent down to insert his key into his front door lock. The bullet entered the back of his neck, and exited his mouth, breaking off an upper plate of artificial teeth before lodging itself in the wooden front door. McGee was found in a widening pool of blood on the wooden sidewalk by his landlady who had been waiting up for her 13-year old son who worked as a page in the House of Commons. Hearing someone at the front door, Mrs. Trotter had gone to open it just as McGee was fumbling in the dark with his key. She thought she heard something like a firecracker go off but on opening the door she saw McGee slumped on her door step, his mangled face covered in blood. There was no sign of the assassin.
Informed of the murder, Macdonald rushed from his Daly Street home to Mrs. Trotter’s boarding house in time to help bring McGee’s body inside. On his return home covered in blood, MacDonald’s wife Agnes commented that he was “much agitated,” his face a “ghostly white.” Later that day in the House of Commons, Macdonald, struggling to maintain his composure, said “He who only that morning had charmed them with the eloquence, elevated them by his statesmanship, and instructed them by his wisdom, the echo of whose voice was yet ringing in their ears, has passed from among them, foully murdered. If ever a soldier who had fallen on the field of battle in the front rank of the fray had deserved well of his country, Thomas D’Arcy McGee had deserved well of Canada and her people.”
Thomas D’Arcy McGee was an unlikely Canadian hero. Born in 1825 in Carlingford, Ireland, McGee, a Roman Catholic, was raised on stories of British oppression in Ireland, and Irish resistance and rebellion. As a teenager, he already showed signs of impressive oratory powers speaking at temperance meetings—ironic given his later prodigious capacity for alcohol. With little future in Ireland, he immigrated to the United States in 1842, taking a job as a journalist in Boston. He was a precocious correspondent, well attuned to Irish political issues both in North America and back in the old country. While in Boston, at the tender age of nineteen, he published his first of approximately twenty books, mostly on Irish history and literature. His American newspaper editorials were favourably noticed in Ireland, and he was enticed to return to write for a prominent Dublin newspaper. While in Dublin he met his wife Mary. Together, they were to have five children, only two of whom survived to adulthood. With hundreds of thousands of Irish peasants dying as a result of the potato famine, and continuing British neglect and incompetence in dealing with it, McGee became radicalized, joining Young Ireland in 1847, an Irish nationalist organization. McGee was sent to Scotland to raise men and arms among the Irish settlers around Glasgow, seize a ship, and return to Ireland in time for a planned country-wide insurrection. But the insurrection fizzled, its leaders rounded up. McGee had to flee. Returning to the United States, he resumed his career as a journalist.
But life in the United States was not what he had expected. Immigrants, especially poor, Catholic ones, suffered discrimination and exploitation. Nativist American political groups, fearing the wave of Irish immigrants, looked to disenfranchise them. Far better was life in Canada where the Irish were treated well; many were becoming quite prosperous. Thriving communities had also taken root in the major cities. As well, despite the presence of anti-Catholic Orange lodges, Catholicism was not only tolerated, it was protected under the law, and was the majority faith in Canada East (Quebec).
Invited to Montreal in 1857, McGee started a newspaper, The New Era, and was asked to stand for Parliament in the Province of Canada, winning a seat in the General Election of 1857. In 1858, McGee published a volume of verses titled Canadian Ballads and Occasional Verse. It was also about this time, McGee began to speak publicly in favour of a Canadian federation bringing together all the colonies in British North America. United, they would have the strength to resist annexation by the United States. He later put forward a three-point plan towards Confederation, comprised of representation by population, an Upper House safeguard based on equality of representation, and a constitutional guarantee of full religious and civil rights.
Initially sitting on the opposition benches as an Independent, McGee was made a Cabinet Minister in 1862 in the Reform government of Sandfield Macdonald as President of the Council. Owing to growing policy differences with Sandfield Macdonald, McGee was dropped from Cabinet the following year. Courted by John A. Macdonald, with whom he was developing a close friendship, McGee crossed the floor of the House of Commons in 1863 to join the Conservative Party. McGee was made Minister of Agriculture and Immigration in the short-lived 1864 government of John A. Macdonald and Sir Étienne Taché, a position he retained in the Great Coalition Government, led by Macdonald and Cartier that immediately preceded Confederation. McGee, a “father of Confederation,” was a key player at the Charlottetown and Quebec City Conferences that laid the groundwork for Confederation on 1 July 1867.
McGee’s transformation over time from an Irish republican to a Canadian cabinet minister, loyal to the Crown, brought him many enemies. Irish nationalists despised him, viewing him as a traitor to Ireland. Foremost of McGee’s foes were the Fenians, a secretive society of Irish extremists based largely in the United States, though with cells in Canada. McGee was outspoken in his opposition to them, viewing the Fenians as irreligious, foolish, and dangerous. There was little doubt that a Fenian hand held the gun that blew his brains out that cold, starry night in April 1868. But whose hand was it? Many were initially arrested, but police attention quickly focused on one man, Patrick James Whelan, who was subsequently charged and later hanged for McGee’s murder.
On the Wednesday morning following his assassination, McGee’s body was brought from Mrs. Trotter house to Ottawa’s Catholic Cathedral and then to the train station for its last journey to Montreal. Macdonald and Cartier were among the pallbearers. Arriving in Montreal that evening, McGee’s body laid in state at the McGee family home on St. Catherine Street through the weekend. Thousands lined up outside to view the body.
The day of the funeral, Easter Monday, 13 April, was declared a day of public mourning; it would have been McGee’s 43rd birthday. In freezing temperatures, virtually the entire population of Montreal turned out to witness the funeral cortege. At least 15,000 people marched in the procession itself to St. Patrick’s Church, led by members of parliament, senators, and other dignitaries as a band played Handel’s Death March. McGee’s exposed coffin was carried in a catafalque 15 feet long and 16 feet high, drawn by 6 dark grey horses. A canopy, supported by eight pillars, with dark feather plumes shaded his remains. As the funeral procession made its way through the streets of Montreal, guns fired off a final salute to Canada’s fallen leader. Thomas D’Arcy McGee was laid to rest in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-des-Nieges cemetery.
CBC, 2001, “The Assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, http://www.cbc.ca/history/EPCONTENTSE1EP9CH1PA2LE.html.
Gwyn, Richard, 2007. John A.: The Man Who Made Us, The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald, Volume I: 1815-1867, Radom House of Canada, Toronto.
——————, 2011. Nationmaker, Sir John A. Macdonald, His Life, Our Times, Volume II, Random House of Canada. Toronto.
House of Commons, 1868. Debates, 1st Parliament, 1st Session, Volume 1, 6-7 April.
Slattery, T.P., 1968. The Assassination of D’Arcy McGee, Doubleday Canada Ltd. Toronto.
Wilson, David. A., 2008. Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Volume 1, Passion, Reason, and Politics, 1825-1857, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston.
——————-, 2011. Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Volume 2, The Extreme Moderate, 1857-1868, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston.
Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Library and Archives Canada, C-01679.
Funeral of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, 13 April, 1868, James Inglis / Library and Archives Canada, C-083423.