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Thanks to Rhiannon for this fascinating post on Canada’s first and only political assassination. We hope you have a wonderful holiday season. As always, if you have suggestions for topics you’d like to see covered here, leave them in the comments!
In 1868, one of our Fathers of Confederation met his end at the barrel of one politically adverse Canadian’s gun. This would be Canada’s first and only political assassination. How did it happen?
Thomas D’arcy Etienne Grace Hughes McGee, better known as Thomas D’arcy McGee, was born on April 13th 1825 in the Republic of Ireland. His father, employed by the Irish Coast Guard Service and his mother’s family were strongly tied to the Irish Revolution of 1798. McGee attended Catholic school like every other Irish child of that time. Although, unlike most children, he showed interest in works such as plans to dismantle the Irish-British union, and in the Dublin Penny Journal, a popular Irish paper at the time.
McGee came to North America by way of timbership at the age of seven. The trip from Wexford to Quebec would have taken an excruciatingly long time during the 1800s. Quebec was only a pitstop for McGee. He soon moved on to New England where he would be welcomed into his maternal aunt’s home in Providence. Eventually, he moved to Boston for work, where he would first speak out about his political beliefs. On Independence day of 1842, McGee addressed the Boston Friends of Ireland, a segment of his speech follows. “The sufferings which the people of that unhappy country have endured at the hands of a heartless, bigoted, despotic government, are well known to you… Her people are born slaves, and bred in slavery from the cradle; they know not what freedom is.” His well constructed speech and manner of addressing controversial topics landed him a travelling agent’s position at the Boston Pilot, a newspaper at the time.
Over the course of his mid-life, McGee would never be afraid to share his opinions on current events. He continued to speak out for the good of Ireland and at one point stated “…Canada must be yielded by Great Britain to this Republic [USA].” He remained in journalism for a notably long time and eventually moved back to Ireland due to a job offer. During his time in his home country, McGee married, continued to support the repeal of the Ireland-Great Britain union, and participated in plans for the Irish Revolution. All this, only to move back to North America once faced with legal struggles.
Once he arrived in Montreal, McGee worked towards starting a newspaper in order to kickstart his political presence in Canada. He had an idea which he called “a new nationality,” in which he planned to promote economic development by encouraging the construction of a railway and immigration. Separately, he endorsed the development of Canada’s literature industry and Canadian sovereignty. He was elected to represent Montreal in the Legislative Assembly in 1857. At the time, McGee identified as a Reformer, the opposing side being Conservative.
All throughout his political career, McGee heavily supported the Irish. Keep in mind that they were a minority that was heavily discriminated against at the time. He also began to support education in Canada by pushing the relevant bills of his peers. Allegedly, he suggested that Canada’s education system should be based on that of Ireland. His support eventually lead to a school being named after him, Thomas D’arcy McGee Catholic School. He continued to support immigration and eventually shifted into the Conservative party. While his political career was extremely rocky and controversial, much like that of any politician, he continued to write. McGee wrote hundreds of poems, using the pseudonym “Amergin,” 309 of which were published after his death.
McGee’s outspokenness and opposition of Fenianism is what eventually lead to his death. On April 7th, 1868, outside of his Ottawa apartment complex, the Father of Confederation was fatally shot from behind. The culprit was located within the day.
Patrick James Whelan was an Irish tailor. Upon following a tip, the Ottawa police force found themselves in his hotel room. There, they found multiple pieces of evidence connecting Whelan to North American Irish organizations along with the murder weapon, one Smith & Wesson brand revolver. After he had been taken into custody, multiple individuals came forward as witnesses to Whelan’s crime, including a lumberjack that claimed he had seen Whelan pull the trigger. Although, this man evidently could not pick Whelan out of a line up, making the defence suggest that he lied about being a witness in order to receive the reward money. Many other individuals claimed to have overheard Whelan conspiring to assassinate McGee, or bragging about the crime after it had been committed.
In the end, Whelan was convicted and sentenced to capital punishment. It was believed that Whelan targeted McGee due to their differing opinions on Irish issues. For example, evidence suggest that Whelan supported Fenianism while McGee did not. Right up until his death, Whelan proclaimed his innocence. He claimed that he was at the scene but another man pulled the trigger,though he never stated who this man was. The evidence against him was strong albeit circumstantial. Additionally, there are reports that the trial was not run in a manner consistent with the procedure at the time. Was it Whelan, this mystery man, or someone entirely unheard of? We may never know.
Burns, Robin B. “Biography – McGEE, THOMAS D’ARCY – Volume IX (1861-1870) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, 1976, www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcgee_thomas_d_arcy_9E.html.
“The Assasination of Thomas D’arcy McGee.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 2001, www.cbc.ca/history/EPCONTENTSE1EP9CH1PA2LE.html.
Wilson, David A. “The Assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, The Canadian Encyclopedia, 18 Oct. 2013, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/the-assassination-of-thomas-darcy-mcgee-feature.