Quebec separatism has been a traumatizing fact of life for Anglo residents, many of whom witnessed a diaspora in the last third of the 20th century, marked as it was by no fewer than three referenda on the status of the province within Canada and the murder of a cabinet minister. Scotland had a referendum on independence in 2014. In Spain, Catalonian nationalists want one. Here the PQ and Québec Solidaire are looking to round four, as Britons absorb the consequences of Brexit. All the while longing for a proper Canadian’s dose of POGG – peace, order, and good government, one could be forgiven for thinking borders and breakups have become the order of the day.
Poles themselves know redrawing maps is part of the human condition, and we on our continent haven’t exactly escaped it. America was the first separatist state. There wouldn’t be a 49th parallel without the Revolution to break with British Imperial rule in 1775. No Revolution, no Loyalists. Never having addressed the question of slavery, that Revolution’s faults spawned yet another separatist bout in 1860, southern states’ unilateral declaration of independence and the US Civil War. Secessionists were brutally defeated. Here in the peaceable kingdom, at roughly the same time, under the auspices of the newspaper The New Nation, Louis Riel established the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia to give form and substance to the rights of the Métis and indigenous peoples. His government, Canada’s first of separatist aspiration, then proceeded in 1870 to execute a loyal Canadian, Thomas Scott. Later that year, the arrival of a Canadian expeditionary force effectively ended what came to be known as the Red River Rebellion and forced Riel into exile, but the province of Manitoba was carved out of British Northwest Territories and made part of Confederation in 1871. Peacefully, the map of Canada has been redrawn many times since.
Not so Great Britain. There the pendulum swing between local and cosmopolitan has spanned millennia. The Gaelic-speaking European peoples, among the continent’s oldest, can be justly called Europe’s indigenous, having occupied much of its landmass in the immediate decades before the birth of Christ. At the time the imperial power was Rome, which under Julius Caesar, defeated them and began the process of pushing them to the outer reaches of their living space, Cornwall, Brittany, Wales, Ireland, and the Scottish highlands, where Gaelic languages persist to this day.
The quintessential icon of these defeated peoples remains the famous Roman statue of the Dying Gaul. After the disastrous Irish potato famine of 1845 cut the island’s population roughly in half, Gaelic people could well understand the symbolism. Only their cosmopolitan imperial master had changed. Carrying their sense of grievance and their hatred of the British crown with them, hundreds of thousands emigrated to North America and fueled the movement for Irish separation and independence. Many died on the voyage, fulfilling the statue’s grim prophecy again after almost two thousand years.
2021 marks the sesquicentennial of the third and final Fenian raid on Canada, thirty-five rag-tag men led by Col. John O’Neill, all hoping to persuade Louis Riel to join them in their uprising against British authority. O’Neill measured success by bargaining chip. The British might trade Ireland for Canada, and Manitoba’s métis, often Catholic and French-speaking, were a good place to start. Only they weren’t. Riel wasn’t interested. After capturing a Hudson’s Bay Company post, O’Neill was arrested by US Army officials. Released uncharged, he didn’t realize he hadn’t actually crossed the border.
Opera Bouffe? Perhaps. But not entirely so. A refugee from the failed 1848 Young Ireland uprising, John O’Mahony established The Fenians in America in 1858, their aim to secure the independence of Ireland by violent means. The organization was not to be taken lightly. American cities along the eastern seaboard sheltered hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants, as much as a third of the population of New York City. Fenians were well-funded. They declared themselves the government of Ireland in exile and issued 10- and 20-dollar bonds to Irish Americans on the promise of repayment when Ireland became a country.
Their quasi-embassy in New York City was located in the prestigious Union Square district, flew a green and gold flag with an Irish harp, and housed meetings of Fenian Senators and Cabinet Ministers, for they’d constituted themselves along lines parallel to the US government. They were well-armed and in the streets of Philadelphia mounted para-military parades featuring over 6000 soldiers, all well-trained, many of whom had fought in the Civil War. Fenians had the ear of major US political figures, including the Secretary of State, William Seward, and after Lincoln’s assassination, the President himself, Andrew Johnson. Little known is the fact that only Lincoln’s death in 1865 prevented the US Senate from voting on a Bill to deploy, with Fenian approval and complicity, 200 thousand soldiers, half Union, half Confederate, to invade Canada.
Moreover, as Thomas D’Arcy McGee was aware, a former Young Irelander himself, Fenians bore the advantage of passionate grievance, inured over centuries, from the Norman Conquest on. In The Roof Walkers, I tried to capture some of that indurated rage in Bridgit Stephens, one of the twin daughters fictionally ascribed to James Stephens, O’Mahony’s colleague and co-founder of the IRA. Here she is, correcting young Eoin O’Donoghue, who after becoming the personal secretary of a prominent New York Fenian, has volunteered to serve as a double agent for the Canadian government.
“Deirdre has told me of your affinity for the English poet, Edmund Spenser.”
“Ahhh…” I was prematurely pleased and relieved the conversation had taken a literary turn.
“I must tell you I find that affection very disturbing. Deirdre does not concern herself with such matters as much as I, but in your role as personal secretary to Mr. Roberts – as well as for your own sake – I feel it necessary to correct you.”
“Because Edmund Spenser’s hatred of our people and our nation is profound and diabolical. That is why. Because this purveyor of sweet civility, as he fancies himself – had he been more than the despicable Sherriff of Cork, say the Lord Deputy of Ireland, the rank he coveted – would have done certain things the British authorities did eventually do, so he was for all intents and purposes a precursor and defender of violence and tyranny. He would have banned our people’s costumes as abetting vagrancy and thievery, destroyed our herds for the same reason, clipped our men’s beards for fear they concealed lawlessness, forbade any name beginning with O’ or Mac, erased whatever title to land we possessed, and willfully and deliberately put us to the sword and starved us into submission whenever we resisted his plans for the Queen’s order, as he conceived it. I am happy that he was turned out of the castle he usurped, saw his wife and child murdered, and died for want of bread in London, where he sought vainly to provoke the pity of the English crown he swore by. He was a furtherer of murder and famine, Mr. O’Donoghue, as his View of the Present State of Ireland attests, and would have rejoiced in what has sent us fleeing across oceans and wondered why it had taken so long. That is why. I hope you’ll forgive my lack of temper, for such a man brings the blood to my face. But I am peeved and angry that you could not know this, or worse, could countenance it.”
There is no zealot like a convert, and a convert D’Arcy McGee surely was. He began his political adventure as an Irish nationalist, participated in the Young Ireland movement of 1848, an uprising against British authority, and had to flee the island disguised as a priest. America was McGee’s Damascus. In and out of the United States since childhood, he came to see in the republic a kind of rowdyism, a fractious populism, and excess democracy, a tendency toward violence, disorder, and anarchy, all pervaded by anti-Catholic bias, urban poverty, and blight. However, after moving to Canada in 1857 to take up the editorship of The New Era, and with the access of the Civil War, McGee moderated these views. He became passionately opposed to separatist movements in general, in this case what he called the Confederacy’s “wanton assault on the legitimate central authority.” He tried to tamp down anti-American sentiment, always endemic north of the border, and praised American republican government as “the highest political experiment in modern times.” He allied himself firmly with the forces of American union.
… as between continental peace and chronic civil war – as between natural right and oligarchical oppression; as between free intercourse and armed frontiers; as between the constitutional majority and the lawless minority; as between negro emancipation and the revival of the slave trade; … as between the North and the South in this deplorable contest, I rest firmly in the belief, that all that is most liberal, most intelligent, and most magnanimous in Canada and the Empire, are for continental peace, for constitutional arbitrament, for universal, if gradual, emancipation, for free intercourse, for justice, mercy, civilization, and the North.
Note the conservative nature of the phrase “universal, if gradual, emancipation,” consistent with Lincoln’s own policies during the middle years of the Civil War, but not, of course, at its end, when Lincoln recognized the need and utility of African American Union Army troops and freed the slaves. When it suited him, McGee was a gradualist, certainly with respect to Ireland’s relations with Great Britain, though not to the future of British North America. There he put himself in the forefront, one of the first, ablest, and most ardent spokesmen for a Canadian Nationality, one that subordinated ethno-religious differences to what he hoped would be an emerging Canadian culture and identity.
How refreshing McGee’s conception when set beside our current, almost universal celebration of difference and diversity. “There is room enough in this country for one great free people,” he wrote,
But there is not room enough, under the same flag, and the same laws, for two or three angry, suspicious obstructive “nationalities.” … A Canadian nationality, not French Canadian, nor British-Canadian, nor Irish-Canadian – patriotism rejects the prefix – is, in my opinion, what we should look forward to; that is what we ought to labour for; that is what we ought to be prepared to defend to the death.
The key is the subordination, but not the elimination of ethno-religious (now ethno-linguistic or ethno-racial) differences. How could it be otherwise for a man so dedicated to minority rights? “Although there are two official languages,” Pierre Trudeau once wrote, “There is no official culture,” and since the incorporation of multiculturalism into the constitution, Canadian Liberalism has tried progressively to expunge the notion of a Canadian culture, in favour of particular cultures, however narrowly defined. If Canada has no culture it can call its own, officially recognized, but in this, the great hotel of the north, only the varied cultures of others, then from McGee’s standpoint the country has destroyed its own moral foundations as well as its raison d’être. For him, the whole had to be greater than the sum of its parts. He found himself, at the end of his career, turning back to his first love – literature. In his address to the Montreal Literary Club entitled “The Mental Outfit of the New Dominion,” he extolled the virtues of books and reading. McGee wrote: “From reconstructed Italy – so ripe in all intelligence – a new mental kingdom must come forth – if the new political kingdom is to stand.” He spoke overtly of Italy. But in the back of his mind, his own mental kingdom, stood Canada.
On the long, slow Ferris wheel of border making, Canada came together in the 1860s while America came apart. Similar divisions could be seen in the United Kingdom, a kingdom indeed, but hardly united. Not surprisingly, given his stance on Canadian Nationality, McGee led the drive for Confederation and articulated the many reasons in favour – not least of which the peril presented by what he called “the democracy, armed and insolent” south of the border, that combined with Britain’s reluctance to commit to the colonies’ perpetual defense. The Inter-Colonial Railway was also key. A united Canada needed a reliable, all-season military transport system – one that would have the additional benefit of providing what, he wrote, the Austro-Hungarian Empire already possessed in Trieste, a permanent shipping outlet to the sea: i.e. Halifax, Nova Scotia. But McGee’s real motive was visionary, best expressed in his “Shield of Achilles” speech before Parliament in 1860.
I look 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; I see within the round of that shield, the peaks of the Western mountains and the crests of the Eastern waves – the winding Assinaboine, the five-fold lakes, the St. Lawrence, the Ottawa, the Saguenay, the St. John, and the Basin of Minas – by all these flowing waters, in all the valleys they fertilise, in all the cities they visit in their courses, I see a generation of industrious, contented, moral men, free in name and in fact, – men capable of maintaining, in peace and in war, a Constitution worthy of such a country.
Counterpoised to this vision of Canadian unity were the efforts of Irish separatists, both within the country and without. McGee knew the danger posed by New York City’s Fenians, who were regularly threatening British North America. While in the cabinet, he’d proposed to Macdonald a secret spy operation in New York and likely had men of his own inside both the O’Mahony and the Senate wings of the movement. He was equally aware of Fenian efforts in Montreal to infiltrate the St. Patrick’s Society and take it over in favour of what was known in the day as the “physical force” side of the equation.
McGee was never moderate about such views. He hated them, viscerally. “If there is any, the least proof that this foreign disease has seized on any, the least among you, establish at once, for your own sakes – for the country’s sake – a cordon sanitaire around your people,” he wrote. “Establish a committee which will purge your ranks of this political leprosy; weed out and cast off those rotten members who, without a single governmental grievance to complain of in Canada, would yet weaken and divide us in these days of anxiety.” Even he, so attuned to Fenian activity in America, found himself caught off guard – as was the whole Canadian government – by John O’Neill’s invasion at Ridgeway in June of 1866 where 20 or so young Canadians, many University of Toronto students, died at the hands of these Irish American marauders. McGee was incensed and wanted the death penalty imposed on those captured, whom he considered no different from pirates on the high seas. Some death penalties were sentenced, but none carried out. One can only imagine how he might have reacted to the fate of Canada’s FLQ equivalents, who strangled a provincial cabinet minister with his own crucifix. Exiled to the Cuba of their ideological dreams, they soon demanded return to Quebec. Canada acquiesced. One of them took up a teaching post in Montreal, where for years he educated young men and women in the pleasures of radical, sectarian politics. Cordon sanitaire, indeed.
Did events in Eastport Maine in April of 1866, a clear victory for Canada, contribute to government complacency at Ridgeway two months later? Very likely. As pressure for Confederation mounted that year throughout the colonies, efforts were frustrated by the election of an anti-Confederation government in New Brunswick. Macdonald and McGee were not pleased. They had the British Colonial Office on side, but they didn’t know how long that would last. Something had to be done, and they turned to their nemesis to do it. McGee knew nothing could aid the forces of Canadian Union more than threats of violence from the south. If they weren’t quite in the offing, they could be manufactured.
For years, McGee had collaborated with a journalistic colleague called Bernard Doran Killian, a man who happened to have worked himself up the ranks of the O’Mahony wing of the Fenian movement in New York City. In the spring of 1866, he occupied a position as Treasurer of that well-funded organization. William R. Roberts, leader of the Fenians’ Senate wing, had long called for Irish American attacks on Canada, to overrun the colonies and use them as a bargaining chip to secure Irish independence. Not to be outdone or seen as a laggard in the struggle, O’Mahony allowed Killian to convince him into attacking the colonies first – a scheme O’Mahony had always hitherto resisted, believing as he did that revolutionary activities should be concentrated on Ireland itself. Arms were purchased, stowed aboard an old Confederate wreck of a vessel, the E.H. Pray, and shipped to Passamaquoddy Bay, supposedly at the ready for an assault on New Brunswick. Killian himself went to Eastport Maine in order to stage-manage activities up and down the Bay directly.
What transpired was a hoax, perhaps one of the greatest in pre-Confederation Canada. At the top of the Bay, near Calais Maine and St. Stephen New Brunswick, Killian made every effort to persuade colonists on the British side of the river that a Fenian attack was imminent, all the while knowing that without arms there could be no violent incursion. The U.S. government had stepped in and impounded the cargo of the E.H. Pray. Killian persisted anyway, emptying the Fenian treasury in the process. So frightened by these pantomimes were the St. Stephens New Brunswick residents, that according to contemporary reports, they started streaming across the wooden bridge to Calais Maine to seek refuge. Killian’s theatrics and the ensuing Fenian scare played a large part in the defeat of Albert Smith’s anti-Confederation government. He was replaced that year by the pro-Confederation leader, Samuel Leonard Tilley.
In The Roof Walkers, I put the short version of the plan into the mouth of Red McDermott, an actual well-known agent who cunningly played both sides of the field. Here he is educating young Eoin O’Donoghue, not himself the straightest of shooters, though entirely fictional:
To my question about how he saw this playing out, McDermott replied, “Killian’s trying to get O’Mahoney to sink his cash into an old Confederate wreck, the E.H. Pray. Claims it will ship arms to Campobello and secure territory for the Irish Republic. Now the ‘buts.’ ‘But’ number one: the British fleet will be fully apprized. ‘But’ number two: the Americans likewise. ‘But’ number three: all arms will be seized. The result? Fenian treasure wasted. Fenian enthusiasm boiled into the air. A beautiful Fenian invasion ruckus all over New Brunswick newspapers, scaring everybody into the pro-Confederation ranks. All the ‘antis’ in the province discredited for good. Brilliant! My hat is off to him, Bernard Doran Killian. Not a lawyer for nothing, Eoin! Hats off to all those scheming Canadians, Macdonald and McGee included, though they see no evil and hear less.”
O’Mahony himself thought Killian “was secretly in league with Mr. D’Arcy McGee” and even the British Consul in New York, Edward Archibald, felt it was “difficult not to believe that Killian deliberately played the part of a traitor in order to break up the organization.” However, historian David A. Wilson is not convinced. “While such suspicions among the anti-confederates and the Fenians are understandable, they exist entirely in the realm of supposition; they cannot be supported by evidence and are too far-fetched to be taken seriously. Not, of course, that this would deter any good conspiracy theorist worth his or her salt, for whom the very lack of evidence only testifies to the success of the conspiracy.”
Nevertheless, circumstantial evidence does exist. In The Roof Walkers, to Eoin O’Donoghue, Red McDermott expounds the following in one of his favourite lists.
“C – The Duncan (one of the largest war-ships of the British fleet) sails April 17th. That’s when the god-forsaken E.H. Pray-to-Lucifer arrives – same day, Eoin. Don’t tell me that’s a coincidence, because it isn’t. The story is there’ll be bands playing and flags waving, and seven hundred regulars in full scarlet will troop aboard for the good people in Halifax harbour to cheer and take note. That day, April 17th – not a coincidence, mind – the Premier of Nova Scotia will reintroduce a pro-Confederation bill in the legislature. Dead for a year and a half, Eoin, that bill was, dead as a door nail, now back to life. Lazarus it is. The Fenians can thank themselves to kingdom come. Without them it would never have happened. Are you a happy man, now? I say Killian deserves a knighthood – greatest bastard father of Confederation that ever breathed. I’ll go further. Fenians – the whole kit and kaboodle – all of them, greatest bastard fathers of Confederation that ever waved an Irish flag. Are you a happy man, Eoin?”
A chapter later, Charles Linehan, fictional journalist for the Irish Canadian, a real pro-Fenian publication, takes up the story of Killian’s theatrics in language supported by local news reports of the day:
Malloy and the boys are at the waterfront in Calais, and what do you think Killian’s organized up there? I know he’s got a big speech planned. The placards are already appearing. So my guess is he wants to scare the living daylights out of the poor New Brunswickers across the St. Croix – why, in god’s name, I’ll never know – so he has one of his men ride Paul Revere style up and down the St. Stephen side of the river, hollering at the top of his lungs, ‘Arm yourselves! The Fenians are upon you!’ If he’d wanted to cry wolf, he couldn’t have done a better job. The people on the other side – the New Brunswickers, mind – get so much into a lather, they start packing their belongings in carts and streaming over the wooden bridge to Calais, thinking there’s more safety there than in St. Stephen. ‘The Fenians are upon you!’ There were no Fenians coming. Not a one. Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, as they say. And that’s not the end of his shenanigans. The next day what do we see, but bands of Killian’s men, drilling and marching, marching and drilling, in broad daylight, as close to the river as they can get, just so they don’t go unnoticed, see. And to top it all off, there’s a whole team of his people laying out firewood in piles, up and down the waterfront road. I’m not making this up. God’s truth. Up and down they go, setting out big piles of firewood all along the river. Then the nighttime comes, and Killian gets the Calais fire bells ringing as if a plague of devils had descended. All the faggots are lit, and an unholy light graces our side of the river, an unholy, lurid light gleaming for miles up and down the St. Croix. That’s no lie I’m telling you. Four miles of bonfire light, and fire bells tolling the day of the damned, and shots fired from old fowling pieces. You’ve never seen so many carts of tearful, panic-stricken women and children in all your life. You’d think the lord’s hosts were upon them, for that’s exactly what they were made to believe. A hoax. Nothing but a hoax.
Thomas D’Arcy McGee hated the Fenian movement, and it no doubt deeply satisfied him that they managed to engender the very thing they despised. “The only reason Confederation passed,” wrote historian P.B. Waite, “was the Fenian invasions.” Foiled and embittered, Fenians returned McGee’s hatred with interest. Shortly after his narrow victory in the federal elections of September 1867, his murderer, Patrick James Whelan is reputed to have said, “Although McGee is elected the bloody old pig won’t reign long, and I will blow his bloody old brains out before the session is over.” On April 7, 1868, Whelan was as good as his word.
Forgive a few personal reflections to conclude. Two themes emerge from this martyrdom. The first is McGee’s constant invocation of the primacy, in any constitutional democracy, of minority rights and the rule of law. How apposite, even heart-breaking that McGee’s sacrifice should have violated both principles. My affinity and affection for his spirit should come as no surprise. Like F.R. Scott, he was a lover of literature and of the Constitution. In a much smaller way, I have worked the same vein, shared many of the same passions and antipathies. David A. Wilson notes that McGee wanted to replace the names of the Conservative and the Reform parties with the more broad-based “Constitutional Party.” “I like the term ‘Constitutional,’ for its comprehensiveness,” he wrote. “It includes the assertion as well as the conservation of great principles… as well as the jealous maintenance of all wholesome usages, established precedent, and lawful authority.” Faced with our own Fenians, here in Quebec, Wilson’s colleague from the history department at the University of Toronto, Michael Bliss, wrote the following to me as head of The Special Committee for Canadian Unity shortly after the second referendum in 1995:
I am writing to endorse your Committee’s concern for the maintenance of the Canadian constitution in Quebec. As I understood the Quebec government’s proposed course of action had there been a “Yes” vote in the referendum, it would have led, perhaps very quickly, to illegal acts in the direction of a unilateral declaration of independence.
Everyone who believes in democracy has to believe in the supremacy of the rule of law. If there is to be change, it has to be lawful change. When politicians or legislators or other groups of people begin taking the law into their own hands, they create something like a state of nature, in which others have license to do the same, and ultimately force rules.
If the province of Quebec, for example, were to break the Canadian constitution in an attempt to secede from Canada, it would in effect have suspended the rule of law. Nothing other than threats of force and violence would stand in the way of groups within Quebec, aboriginals or others, from determining to maintain their loyalty to Canada. Indeed, the loyalists would have a reasonable claim in both law and spirit to expect support from the rest of Canada.
The other theme worthy of mention in conclusion is McGee’s anxiety. He speaks of it on more than one occasion in his work, most notably at the beginning of a key paragraph from his “Shield of Achilles” speech previously quoted. “I look to the future of my adopted country with hope,” he wrote, “though not without anxiety.” One can only wonder how Thomas D’Arcy McGee would have reacted to two separate referenda on the break-up of Canada and on the abrogation of Quebecers’ Canadian citizenship, both taking place within fifteen years of each other, less than a generation apart, the second conducted outside the framework of any governing law whatsoever. What would this champion of minority rights have said, when confronted with rendering the English language illegal in Quebec with regards to commercial expression – a fact which remains in effect in certain areas of provincial life, not to mention the pervasive notion, noxious in the extreme, that the use of English in the public sphere, even so much as to utter the word “Hello”, has become somehow a threat to one’s French-speaking neighbours. What would a former Canadian Minister of Immigration have said faced with a law that deprived the English community’s educational institutions of any influx of students from English-speaking countries, faced moreover with a premier who declared at the time of the law’s passage, that should they wish to maintain their numbers, community members would henceforth have to rely on the power of their loins? No doubt McGee would have found his anxiety entirely justified.
McGee’s last words before his assassination bear repeating. Written on the 4th of April 1868, my birthday as it happens, they come from a letter to the Irish Earl of Mayo, the subject why Canadian Irish should feel loyal to the crown. “We are loyal because our equal, civil, social, and religious rights are respected by this Government, in theory and in practice. Were it otherwise, we would be otherwise.” At the conclusion of The Roof Walkers, I have young Eoin O’Donoghue write the following to his spy-master, the very real Gilbert McMicken:
Exiled, on the edges of my adopted city, vulnerable and disappointed in my country, I write this, my last letter to you, sir, as the only father of Confederation I’m ever likely to know. You can put me down in the column marked “otherwise.” I stand, henceforth, with the marginal, the unprotected, the few and far between. On all records and future documents, on the passport the American government now requires, you may call me: “otherwise Canadian.”
Keith Henderson has published six novels with DC Books, The Restoration (1992), The Beekeeper (1990), The Roof Walkers (2013), Acqua Sacra (2016), Sasquatch and the Green Sash (2018), and Mont Babel (2021), political essays from when he was Quebec correspondent for the Financial Post (Staying Canadian, 1997), as well as a prize-winning book of short stories (The Pagan Nuptials of Julia, 2006). He led a small provincial political party in Quebec during the separatist referendum of 1995 and championed Anglo language rights and the strategy of partitioning Quebec if ever Quebec partitioned Canada. He has taught Canadian Literature for many years.