Again this morning, on CBC radio, we heard the now familiar attack on John A. Macdonald: how in building the Canadian Pacific Railway, and not incidentally laying the foundations of Canada, Macdonald mistreated the native peoples. There is no disputing the allegation. But I would suggest, and do so in Celtic Lightning, that this was a direct result of the disaster that happened on April 7, 1868.
That was the date on which, after participating in a late-running session in the House of Commons, the most eloquent democrat ever to emerge from the Irish diaspora was ambushed on the steps of his Ottawa rooming house. Thomas D’Arcy McGee was shot to death by a Fenian sympathizer. In Celtic Lightning, I speculate about how different Canadian history might have been if D’Arcy McGee had escaped assassination. I write:
"Historian Christopher Moore reminds us that D’Arcy McGee had outlined a plan 'for a separate province to be set aside for the native nations on the plains of the far North West. He had begun to imagine a new country where none existed.'
How would McGee have responded to the Indian Act of 1876, which set up residential schools and aimed to assimilate indigenous peoples? He did have the ear of Macdonald. And given that he was a champion of minority rights, and had envisioned the emergence of a separate province for First Nations peoples, he might well have sought to subvert that Act.
"Also, McGee was staunchly Roman Catholic. He had led the battled against Orange-Order intolerance. How would he have responded to the judgment against Louis Riel? Would he have been able to prevent the hanging?
"Richard Gwyn has described John A. Macdonald was 'the one irreplaceable man' of Confederation. I would suggest, rather, that he was 'one irreplaceable man.' To my mind, and from the perspective of today, there was one other. In retrospect, we can see that Macdonald needed D’Arcy McGee. One of the great tragedies of Canadian history is that a Fenian assassin removed the Irish statesman before he had finished his work. "
Above all, that work would have included a much different relationship with the First Nations peoples.