The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
Footnotes a speciality: in a column appearing once a month, there’s no way to be up-to-date; however there can be continuing significance in what hasn’t been talked about.
In late October we were all concerned with the events in Ottawa, the killing of an army reservist standing guard at the war memorial in Ottawa. In all the commentary on the history and meaning of acts of violence in Canada one name I was expecting to hear didn’t crop up. Thomas D’Arcy McGee. The name should be familiar; D’Arcy McGee was among those who attended the Charlottetown conference we’ve recently celebrated. And the later Quebec conference as well. A Father of Confederation.
Born in Ireland, McGee emigrated to the United States when he was 17, then returned to Ireland, where he became involved in the 1848 rebellion. Afterward, he fled to the US, worked as a journalist, and ended up in Montreal in 1857, his extremist ideas abandoned. He began a newspaper called New Era, which expressed the developing Canadian nationalism which had become McGee’s new interest. A poet and a fine public speaker, he was elected to parliament, made a member of the cabinet.
Ottawa, April 7, 1868: the House of Commons was holding a night sitting which went on until 2 am. When the session ended, McGee returned to his boarding house at 71 Sparks Street. As he reached the front stairs of the boarding house a figure ran out of the dark, shot him in the head, then vanished into the night.
It’s generally assumed that the murder of D’Arcy McGee had its source in the Fenian conspiracy, the anti-British activities of a fanatical secret society with members among the immigrant Irish Catholic population. The society, which had its largest membership in the United States, was dedicated to winning Irish independence from Britain, one of its factions determined to attack Great Britain by attacking Canada. Irish politics had international consequences. The invasions were impelled by the passion of those who wished to see Ireland free of British domination. In Canada, fear of the Fenian conspiracy led to the suspension of habeas corpus, a decision supported by D’Arcy McGee, now a moderate who had abandoned the wild ideas of his Irish youth.
In the way of underground movements, the Fenians split into cliques, and their sorties over the border into Canada have often been regarded as no more than pointless raids, though a recent biography of McGee suggests the threat felt very real at the time. McGee, as a committed enemy of the Fenians, was deeply hated by some Irish Catholics though he had a great many admirers and supporters.
The man charged with his murder was a tailor named James Patrick Whelan. No direct link to the Fenians was shown. While there was significant circumstantial evidence against Whelan, there have always been those who believe that someone else fired the gun. After his conviction he wrote a muddled and half-literate letter to John A Macdonald asserting his innocence, but it did him no good, and he was hanged for murder in Canada’s last public execution.
Thinking about McGee and examples of political violence in Canada I was prompted to look up a poem I wrote in 1970. The poem recalls another name out of the past: Pierre Laporte, a minister in the government of Quebec who was murdered by members of the Front du Libération du Québec. The whole poem summons up for me that time and place, the dark days of October, a trip to Montreal by bus, my attempts to articulate a response to Laporte’s death and Pierre Trudeau’s invoking of the War Measures Act.
In both cases the murder of a Canadian politician created a deep sense of shock and uncertainty. In both cases the state was given extreme powers in an attempt to offer reassurance. Were such draconian powers needed? At this distance in time, it seems unlikely.