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Thomas D’Arcy McGee

Gallery 2: Colonial Canada ⟶ Making a Country ⟶ Confederation

British North Americans used responsible government to create a new country — the Dominion of Canada.

Amid deepening concerns about security, trade and constitutional crisis, British North Americans crafted a union designed to balance common interests with regional, cultural and linguistic distinctiveness. In the process, they laid the groundwork of a federal democracy that flourishes today.

Confederation Visionary

The popular vision behind Confederation was supplied by an unlikely source: Thomas D’Arcy McGee, who had once described himself as “a traitor to the British government.” During his youth in Ireland, McGee became involved in efforts to free his native country from British rule and even advocated revolution.

Yet after immigrating to the United Canadas, McGee developed a profound respect for British-style parliamentary government, believing that it could sustain “a great new Northern nation,” in which minorities would enjoy liberty and tolerance. Elected to the assembly in 1857, McGee became famous for his impassioned writings and speeches in favour of Confederation.


The Assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee

In 1866, the Fenian Brotherhood, seeking to free Ireland from British rule, launched cross-border raids into Canada. McGee’s denunciation of Fenianism led many Irish immigrants to see him as a traitor. On April 7, 1868, he was shot and killed on Sparks Street in Ottawa. This revolver was found in the pocket of Patrick James Whelan, who was arrested within hours of the assassination. It was later used to convict him, but doubts about his guilt have long persisted. He protested his innocence right up to the gallows. And although Whelan admitted that he did “know the man who shot Mr. McGee,” he never provided a name.


Learn more

Watch D’Arcy Quinn speak about the portrait of his great-great-grandfather:


Photo at top of page:
Portrait of Thomas D’Arcy McGee
Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith, 1868
Courtesy of D’Arcy Quinn