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Canadian Confederation and its Leaders
William McDougall



(1822-1905)

WILLIAM McDOUGALL plowed a devious and often lonely furrow in Canadian politics. He was a constructive and resourceful statesman, against whom the fates conspired at every crisis in his public life. The father of a radical platform in 1851, which he lived to see largely adopted by other politicians, he won no commanding place himself, and played a supporting part to other leaders, often of less ability. Joining George Brown as a Reformer in the coalition Cabinet of 1864, he later quarrelled with him and the party, and remained in the Macdonald Ministry which introduced the union. He moved the resolutions in 1867 which resulted in the purchase of the Northwest from the Hudson’s Bay Company, thus doubling the area of the Dominion, but as the first Governor of the new region he was ignominiously driven from the boundary by the angry half-breeds, and returned a broken and discounted figure. McDougall leaves as his contribution to the Confederation drama the memory of a skilful publicist, an artful orator, and an imaginative legislator. He was, however, the victim of an unexplained coldness and a mental inertia which handicapped his progress. A more attractive personality and a greater driving force would have carried him farther in the great tasks of his generation. His political misfortunes, which would have been avoided by a more crafty politician, earned him the name of ‘‘Wandering Willie,” and cast an undeserved aspersion on an earnest and faithful public servant.

For a generation McDougall was a familiar and imposing figure on the Canadian political stage. As an orator he appealed to the intellect. His speeches were marked by a steady flow of highly compacted logical expression, while Brown, who possessed more enthusiasm, usually began hesitatingly, and warmed up as the audience responded. ,

As a lad of fifteen William McDougall witnessed the burning of Montgomery’s Tavern near his home north of Toronto by the Loyalists in 1837. The incident, enacted by Sir Francis Bond Head “to mark and record by some act of stern vengeance the important victory,” impressed him as a shameless vandalism by the oligarchy of those days, and one of the first acts of his manhood was the formation of the radical platform identified with the “Clear Grit” party of 1851. This movement, which at first was despised by even a wing of the Reform party, was undoubtedly a reflection on this continent of the Chartist and other liberal agitations of the time in Europe. It took form at a convention at Markham, Ontario, in March, 1850, and associated with McDougall were Dr. John Rolph, Malcolm C. Cameron, Peter Perry of Whitby, Caleb Hopkins, David Christie and others. Thereafter McDougall gave currency to the “Clear Grit” planks by constant publication in his newspaper, The North American. Among the reforms advocated were: Elective Institutions from the Highest Office of the Government to the Lowest, Abolition of Property Qualification for Members, Extension of the Elective Franchise to all Householders and Housekeepers, Vote by Ballot, Biennial and Fixed Parliaments, No Expenditure of Public Money Without the Consent of Parliament, Retrenchment Through all Departments of State, Representation by Population, Application of the Clergy Reserves to Educational Purposes, and Commercial Autonomy.

Although McDougall lived to see most of these become part of the laws of Canada, he and his fellow radicals were referred to scornfully in The Globe as “Calebites,” the “adoption of whose principles would simply be a revolution.” Theirs was the fate of many another pioneer, not to say of many another insurgent whose dreams divide his own party.

McDougall, who was born on January 25, 1822, had been carefully educated in Toronto, and Victoria College, Cobourg, and was admitted as an attorney and solicitor in 1847. A natural controversialist and publicist, he quickly drifted into journalism, and despite his great ability never became eminent at the Bar. Besides founding and editing The North American, he had contributed to The Examiner and had established an agricultural paper called The Canada Farmer. Notwithstanding the spiciness of its articles, and the energy and constructive ability put into The North American, it was bitterly controversial and was not a success. In 1857 it was merged with The Globe. Its editor went with it, and was associated with George Brown for the next three years.

It was evident already that McDougall had abundant talent for public life. He was a ready speaker, having emulated Socrates and developed his oratory by rehearsing with the stumps on his father’s farm for audience. He ran for Parliament in Perth in 1857, but several contests were necessary before Brown’s influence finally brought victory in North Oxford in 1858. He took a prominent part, in the Reform convention in Toronto in 1859, in shaping the resolution which favored a federation of th£ two Canadas. From then on he was conspicuous in the troubled politics of his day, and served in Sandfield Macdonald’s cabinets until their retirement in 1864. With Brown and Mowat he entered the coalition preceding Confederation, and was joint Secretary with John Hamilton Gray at the Quebec Conference. He allied himself with Mowat at Quebec in urging an elective instead of a nominated Senate.

Laudable as were the motives of the great rapprochement wherein Brown and his colleagues sank party feeling to achieve Confederation, they were not at once understood or appreciated in Upper Canada by either party. McDougall, on seeking re-election in North Ontario, had an uphill battle from the first. Dr. Thomas Pyne, voicing Newmarket Conservative opinion, wrote asking Macdonald if he really wanted McDougall to win, and received an affirmative answer. Brown urged Macdonald to appeal to the electors in McDougall’s behalf, and he did so. “In order to prevent anarchy something had to be done,” Macdonald wrote, “and a new coalition, which would attempt to settle the great constitutional question of parliamentary reform, was accordingly entered into.” He was a strong party man and opposed to coalitions, he added, but no other course was left.

Despite the heroic efforts of Macdonald and Brown, McDougall was defeated, and sought refuge in North Lanark. Subsequently he attended the London Conference, and returned to face a new difficulty in his own party.

Brown had in 1865 retired from the coalition, which he held had performed the function for which it had come into being, namely, the passing of Confederation in Canada, and had re-established himself as a critic of the administration. His magnetic and forceful personality had ranged the Reform party solidly behind him, creating a formidable machine, which convened in Toronto on June 27, 1867. Macdonald had invited McDougall and Howland to remain in the new Cabinet which he was forming, wherewith to launch the Dominion on July 1 on the great journey of Confederation. Six hundred delegates gathered in the Reform convention which was to declare its attitude towards the new Government. McDougall and Howland attended by invitation, but the proceedings resulted in their being read out of the party. McDougall was courageous in facing the crowded hall of noisy partisans, but Howland, as related by Col. Charles Clarke, who was present, shrank from the encounter. “William McDougall stood erect, folded his arms as if defiant of the noisy throng and calmly awaited the threatened onslaught.” McDougall’s utterances on that occasion have stood the test of time.

“We think the work of coalition is not done, but only begun,” he said. “We think that British Columbia should be brought into the Confederacy, that the great Northwestern Territory should be brought in, that Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland should be brought in. I say that the negotiation of the terms upon which these Provinces are to be brought in is as important, and that it is as necessary that the government in power should not be obliged to fight from day to day for its political existence, as when Confederation was carried up to the point we have now reached. Those who are of a different opinion will have an opportunity at the elections of saying so by condemning us who think it our duty to remain in the Government. I think the coalition ought not to cease until the work begun under Mr. Brown’s auspices is ended.”

Mr. McDougall denied that Mr. Brown was entitled to all the credit of the new constitution. Public men of all parties had worked for it. “We have a clear slate,” he said—“a tabula rasa, there is the constitution—there is the machine—work it.”

Tragic disappointment marked McDougall’s connection with the event which almost made him father of the Canadian Northwest. As a writer in The Globe in the late ’fifties, when Confederation was as yet quite remote, he had demanded the acquisition of the vast areas of Rupert’s Land and the Northwest Territory.

In 1864 Lord Monck in opening Parliament said the condition of the great region was daily becoming a question of great interest. McDougall, then Minister of Crown Lands, in the ensuing debate said the Government had concluded it was time to determine whether that region belonged to Canada or some other country. But as late as September, 1868, according to a subsequent letter to Howe, every other member of the Government but himself and Tilley was ‘‘either indifferent or hostile to the acquisition of the Northwest Territories.” A crisis over the route of the Intercolonial Railway proved the solvent. The Government acted, and the House adopted in December, 1867, McDougall’s resolutions on the subject, opening with this memorable declaration:

“That it would promote the prosperity of the Canadian people and conduce to the advantage of the whole Empire if the Dominion of Canada, constituted under the provisions of the British North America Act, 1867, were extended westward to the Pacific Ocean.” Speaking in support of his resolutions, McDougall said the union and consolidation of British America had been desired by British American statesmen for the last fifty years. It had been the dream of patriots and philosophers that our destiny was to be united as one great people, with a nationality extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There had been doubt as to the suitability of the soil and climate of the Northwest Territory, but he was convinced it was adapted to the production of the chief grains necessary for the support of human life, and that the climate was quite equal to that of Canada. If the territory were joined to Canada he looked to a rapid increase in population, but if not the people of the Red River would soon look elsewhere.

It followed naturally that McDougall should be one of the commissioners to carry out this undertaking. In October, 1868, he and Sir George Cartier were sent to England to negotiate with the Imperial Government and the Hudson’s Bay Company for the purchase of this inland empire. During a considerable part of his absence McDougall was seriously ill, but eventually, when negotiations between the Canadians and the Governor of the Company had reached a standstill, the Secretary for the Colonies, Earl Granville, under pressure from Mr. Gladstone, made a proposal which both sides accepted. As a consequence the Hudson’s Bay Company relinquished its rights of domain on payment of £300,000, the retention of one-twentieth of the lands, and some 43,000 acres adjacent to the trading posts.

Peace had been made with the great Company, but the Canadian Government was a long way from peace with the inhabitants of the Red River country. In the fall of 1869 McDougall was appointed the first Governor of the new territory, the transfer of which was expected to take place on December 1. The population of the Red River settlement was then 12,000 or 13,000, half of whom were French half-breeds, chiefly engaged in hunting, trapping, trading and freighting. Naturally restless, they were fertile soil for the seeds of jealousy sown by Louis Riel. The appearance of Col. J. S. Dennis and a party of surveyors from Ottawa 90 gave excuse for the mischief makers, and the conditions were distinctly dangerous when the new administrator was due to take charge.

Joseph Howe as Secretary of State preceded McDougall to Fort Garry, arriving in September, and it was the report of Postmaster Bannatyne afterwards that “Howe told him that he approved of the course of the half-breeds.” Discontent increased, and by one of the accidents of history McDougall was not made aware of the real conditions. Late in October Howe left for the east, and as he crossed the Minnesota prairie he met and passed the imposing entourage of McDougall and his Council. It was in Howe’s power to apprize McDougall of the real conditions, but he barely stopped to converse with the new Governor. Long afterwards McDougall, stung by this incident and its train of consequences in the years to come, wrote: “Howe knew that he had done me an ill turn and was ashamed to meet me.” Howe’s version was that a cold northwest wind was blowing in the face of McDougall and his children, and that “it would have been barbarous to have stopped the cavalcade.”

McDougall passed on to Pembina, on the southern boundary of the Red River settlement, where he was met by a messenger hearing a letter signed by John Bruce, President, and Louis Riel, Secretary, of the Provisional Government, warning him not to enter the settlement without their permission. Weeks of vacillation and bluffing followed, ending in McDougall, with no military force at his disposal, being forcibly escorted across the boundary, with no other course than to return home.

Sir John Macdonald called the episode a “glorious fiasco,” while defenders of McDougall said he had lacked the firm support of the Ottawa Government from the first. His own letters declare that he protested against operations by the surveyors until the transfer from the Company had been effected.

On McDougall’s way out he had another historic meeting when he encountered on the prairie Donald A. Smith and Dr. Charles Tupper. The former was en route to Fort Garry in the official role of peacemaker, a duty for which he was well fitted by his years in the wilderness, and by his connection with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Tupper was on a private mission to bring back his daughter, Mrs. Cameron, whose husband was attached to the Governor’s staff.

Expelled from the Reform party by George Brown, unsupported and abandoned by Sir John A. Macdonald, a failure in his last great effort to redeem the new empire, McDougall’s plight was indeed unhappy. On arrival at Ottawa he promptly resigned the office of Lieutenant-Governor of the Northwest Territory, and thereafter used much ink in seeking to defend and justify his course. His country had now little to give to a man whose rating in a constituency, never high, had sunk to zero. Ingratitude is ever the sin of the politician, and it is especially in operation against the man who has nothing to give in return. For several years McDougall filled small positions for 92 the federal and Ontario Governments, including a mission to Britain regarding the fisheries, an immigration post in Scandinavia, and a commissionership on the Ontario boundary. In 1875 he was elected to the Ontario Legislature, but took no leading part and disappointed his friends. He was now recognized as a Conservative and opponent of the Government of Oliver Mowat, who had been one of his Reform colleagues in the coalition Government of 1864. His attitude toward the Legislature was indicated by his reference to it as an “enlarged county council.”

Late in the ’seventies he enjoyed a temporary revival in public life by throwing himself into the fight for the National Policy, and joined Macdonald in stumping the country. In 1878 he was elected to the House of Commons for Halton and sat until 1882. In 1887, so swift were his changes, he was Liberal candidate for Grenville, but was defeated.

In the constructive period following Confederation McDougall’s logical mind and knowledge of affairs made him an asset to his leaders. Howe described him as “the ablest parliamentary debater I have ever heard,” but he was intractable and could not get on with either Macdonald or Brown. Though he was one of the strongest speakers of the day, his instability lessened his influence, and on the stump he was sometimes answered by quotations from his own previous speeches.

McDougall’s last years were spent in Ottawa, where as a counsel he had some slight success. Ill health, following his political disappointments, clouded his later life, and he died on May 29, 1905. He had now largely dropped from public sight, but his work deserves recognition not always accorded. He was consistently a nationalist in spirit and a nation builder. He had vision and a mastery of detail to shape great issues on the anvil of public discussion.


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