The First Martyr


Thomas D’Arcy McGee had played an important role in bringing about Confederation. As the only Canadian delegate to have actually toured the Maritimes in the past, speaking in halls and clubs on a number of visits since 1858, he introduced many of these men to each other for the first time at the Charlottetown Conference, and became the common factor, the link between powerful personalities who might not otherwise have settled down to work together as quickly and openly as they did.

He also provided Confederation with its underlying philosophy: the idea that raised it above merely a political arrangement. He preached a New Nationality, one that would encompass English, Irish, Scots and French, as well as all those who arrive on these shores, into a new identity: Canadians. He risked everything in brining along with him his Irish Catholic brethren, fighting against the lure of Fenian republicanism to an extent that destroyed his health, his political career, and finally cost him his life.

This Prophet of Confederation was one of the biggest losers in the Confederation story. Although he had done so much to make the new nation a reality, and had been promised, in writing, a cabinet seat by John A. Macdonald, when the time came, Macdonald left him out, effectively ending his political life and denying him an income. The new Canada required that Ministers be chosen with a careful balance in view between ethnicity, religion and geography, and Macdonald already had a Catholic from Quebec, and an Irishman too. There was no room for McGee.

And then, on April 7, 1868, less than a year after Confederation, McGee was murdered outside his lodging house on Sparks Street in Ottawa, the only federal politician to be assassinated in Canadian history: the first martyr to the new nation he had helped to found. In July, 1866, he had written in an article in the Montreal Gazette: “I verily believe that if we had bought the new Constitution with our blood, if we had paid for it its deserved price, we would understand its value better”.

Patrick Whelan was arrested, charged and convicted of the murder, though it remains one of the great criminal mysteries of Canadian history, as it is almost certain that Whelan was either innocent, or simply one among a number of conspirators. In a local connection, every day of his trial, after the court adjourned, the leading members of his defense team returned by train to their lodging in Kemptville.

This group included a man many believed to have been the actual assassin, a lawyer who was in charge of preparing defense witnesses at the trial. What were they doing in Kemptville? Who did they stay with, and what was the link that joined them to each other? Was there a Fenian presence in the village in 1868? There is yet much to learn about the death of Canada’s first martyr.


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