Thomas D’Arcy McGee was one of the great pre-Confederation orators. This speech, urging the creation of a new Canadian nationality, was delivered three years prior to conferences in Charlottetown and Quebec City, which negotiated the details of Confederation. McGee came to Canada from Ireland via New York and settled in Montreal where he was a newspaper editor and later a politician. The US civil war was raging in 1862 and McGee warned that to survive people in British colonies to the north must create their own nationality, an un-hyphenated Canadianism.
“A Canadian nationality, not French-Canadian, nor British-Canadian, nor Irish-Canadian: patriotism rejects the prefix”
It is upon this subject of the public spirit which can alone make Canada safe and secure, rich and renowned, which can alone attract population and augment capital, that I desire to say the few words … I do not believe that it is our destiny to be engulfed into a Republican union, renovated and inflamed with the wine of victory, of which she now drinks so freely; it seems to me we have theatre enough under our feet to act another and a worthier part. We can hardly join the Americans on our own terms, and we never ought to join them on theirs.
A Canadian nationality
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. Heirs of one-seventh of the continent, inheritors of a long ancestral history—and no part of it dearer to us than the glorious tale of this last century—warned not by cold chronicles only but by living scenes passing before our eyes of the dangers of an unmixed democracy, we are here to vindicate our capacity by the test of a new political creation.
What we most immediately want to carry on that work is men, more men, and still more men. The ladies, I dare say, will not object to that doctrine. We may not want more lawyers and doctors, but we want more men, in town and country. We want the signs of youth and growth in our young and growing country. One of our maxims should be: “Early marriages and death to old bachelors.”
“We must all liberalize”
Seriously . . . if we would make Canada safe and secure, rich and renowned, we must all liberalize, locally, sectionally, religiously, nationally. There is room enough in this country for one great free people; but there is not room enough, under the same flag and the same laws, for two or three angry, suspicious, obstructive nationalities. Dear, most justly dear to every land beneath the sun, are the children born in her bosom and nursed upon her breast; but when the man of another country, wherever born, speaking whatever speech, holding whatever creed, seeks out a country to serve and honour and cleave to, in weal or in woe, when he heaves up the anchor of his heart from its old moorings, and lays at the feet of the mistress of his choice—his new country—all the hopes of his ripe manhood, he establishes by such devotion a claim to consideration not second even to that of the children of the soil. He is their brother delivered by a new birth from the dark-wombed Atlantic ship that ushers him into existence in the new world; he stands by his own election among the children of the household; and narrow and unwise is that species of public spirit which, in the perverted name of patriotism, would refuse him all he asks . . .
“A new epoch”
I am not about to talk politics . . . but I am so thoroughly convinced and assured that we are gliding along the currents of a new epoch, that if I break silence at all, in the presence of my fellow subjects, I cannot choose but speak of the immense issues which devolve upon us, at this moment, in this country. Though we are alike opposed to all invidious national distinctions on this soil, we are not opposed, I hope, to giving full credit to all the elements which at the present day compose our population . . .
“A great new northern nation”
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. All we have to do is, each for himself, to keep down dissensions which can only weaken, impoverish, and keep back the country; each for himself do all he can to increase its wealth, its strength, and its reputation; each for himself . . . to welcome every talent, to hail every invention, to cherish every gem of art, to foster every gleam of authorship, to honour every acquirement and every natural gift, to lift ourselves to the level of our destinies, to rise above all low limitations and narrow circumscriptions, to cultivate that true catholicity of spirit which embraces all creeds, all classes, and all races, in order to make of our boundless province, so rich in known and unknown resources, a great new northern nation.
When Confederation occurred in 1867 McGee became a Member of Parliament but he was assassinated in 1868 just steps away from Parliament Hill.
Source: Lawrence J. Burpee, ed. Canadian Eloquence, Toronto: the Musson Book Co. , 1910.
See also: You tube, “Prophet of Confederation” carries audio excerpts from tis speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0xyKgE9VNw
Robin B. Burns, “McGEE, THOMAS D’ARCY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 19, 2017, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcgee_thomas_d_arcy_9E.html
“Thomas D’Arcy McGee”. The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
What wonderful use of the language. Is oratory a lost art? His second paragraph on Canadian Nationality where women are relegated to a supporting role would probably draw a lot of guffaws today but his idea of non-hyphenated Canadians is worthy of today’s aspirations.
Thanks for your comment Bob. It is so good to have you back as a reader of my work. McGee was no doubt one of the best orators of his day. Re un-hyphenated Canadianism: many have taken up that slogan including John Diefenbaker. However, I don’t think most, or at least many, Quebecers have felt that way. They would say they are French-Canadians or Quebecois. I suspect most, or at least many, Indigenous Canadians might feel the same way for somewhat different reasons. It is a diversity that a) we have to live with, or b) is ultimately a strength rather than a liability. Again, good to have you back.
My first ever McGee speech! A gem!
Thanks for reading Bill. There is an entire book, at least one, of McGee speeches and a two or three volume biography of him. More than you need I know, but he was a force in his day.
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