“Patriotism rejects the prefix”

Inclusivity injunction against a hyphenated Canada.

The political landscape of Canada in the mid-nineteenth century was riddled with fractures, often in the form of English-French, Protestant-Catholic, and Conservative-Grit political divides. Insults flew as fast as fists in political struggles that defined much of the era.

Journalist, poet and politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee, no slouch when it came to slinging words, tried to focus on what might connect rather than divide people. And the humble hyphen was in his sights.

In 1862, five years before Confederation, McGee pleaded for members of a Montreal audience to think big about Canadian nationality. Rather than maintaining loyalties to old European identities, he said the emerging nation should strive for a new national unity:

“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 … We Irishmen, Protestant and Catholic, born and bred in a land of religious controversy, should never forget that we now live and act in a land of the fullest religious and civil liberty.”

McGee drew his warnings from his own experience. Born in Ireland and radicalized as a young man, he had raged against British domination of Catholics to the point that Imperial authorities put a price on his head. He moved to Canada in 1857 by way of the United States, was promptly elected as an MP for Montreal, and was a keen advocate for a unified Canada.

But his hopes to help guide the new country were violently dashed. This Father of Confederation, notwithstanding his rejection of extremism, was assassinated in April 1868 by Irish Catholic radicals on the steps of his Ottawa boarding house.

Today, a pub bearing McGee’s name stands just blocks from the Sparks Street site of his assassination. It’s a gathering place for scribblers, politicos and those still wishing to raise a glass to Confederation’s poet. But McGee’s true legacy might be the relatively inclusive and peaceful quality of Canadian politics. There wasn’t a single further political assassination in this country until the October Crisis, 102 years after McGee’s murder.

Image source: Canada Post

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