William McDougall: Father of Confederation, Canadian Nationalist

By John Merritt for the SCHA

Did you know that one of Simcoe County’s former MPPs was also a Father of Confederation?

Although he never lived in Simcoe County, William McDougall served as MPP for Simcoe South in the 1870s, in the twilight of his political career.

 McDougall was born in 1822 on a farm along Yonge Street, the third generation of a staunch Scotch-American Loyalist family who was amongst the first settlers at York (now Toronto) after the American Revolution.

In contrast with his loyalist parents, McDougall developed a passion for American-style liberty at an early age, when he witnessed the burning of Montgomery’s Tavern during the Rebellion of 1837, at age 15. After finishing school, McDougall studied law at the office of Toronto lawyer James Harvey Price, where he also learned many of the values underpinning his early political career: increased democracy, greater access to land ownership, and ambivalence towards the two existing political parties, the Reform and the Liberal Conservatives.

McDougall opened his law practice in 1847 but devoted much of his spare time toward politics. In 1849, McDougall’s Toronto office became the meeting place for reformers dissatisfied with the pace of change in provincial politics since 1837. From these meetings grew the Clear Grit movement, a radical wing of the Reform Party. Between 1850 and 1855, McDougall’s newspaper the North American was essentially a mouthpiece for the Clear Grits. It was later absorbed by the Toronto Globe.

After two unsuccessful attempts, McDougall finally entered the provincial Legislative Assembly in 1858, where he remained until Confederation.

An early proponent of Confederation, McDougall joined Oliver Mowat and George Brown in defecting from the Reform government of Canada West to call for political union between the provinces of British North America. He attended all three Confederation conferences.

Following Confederation, McDougall surprised his former political colleagues by setting aside his liberal political beliefs to join Canada’s first federal government, which belonged to the Conservatives of Sir John A. Macdonald.

In addition to his support for Confederation, McDougall was also a booster for increased colonization and the expansion of Canadian territory across the continent at the expense of Indigenous peoples. His term as provincial Commissioner of Crown Lands from 1862 to 1867 oversaw increased settlement and the repossession of reserve lands on Manitoulin Island. Between 1867 and 1869, it was McDougall who introduced the bill calling for the annexation of the Hudson Bay Company’s territories (what is now all of northern and western Canada) and helped negotiate the transfer.

At least in part due to his role in the annexation of Rupert’s Land and his support for colonization, McDougall was selected as the first lieutenant governor of the North West Territories, even before the official transfer of lands on January 1, 1870. It was this role as lieutenant governor that led to the incident for which McDougall is best remembered.

McDougall’s appointment coincided with the outbreak of the Red River Resistance, an uprising by Metis inhabitants of the Red River Colony (now Manitoba) over the transfer of Rupert’s Land. To the Metis, the arrival of federal surveyors in August 1869 was an intrusion on their traditional territory. Simmering tensions boiled over in October 1869, when a party of Metis men led by a young Louis Riel confronted a survey party and insisted that the Canadian government had no right to trespass on private property without permission.

Shortly afterwards, McDougall departed for the Red River in order to take possession of the North-West Territories for Canada. He brought with him a party of men and an arsenal of 300 rifles to be issued to supporters of annexation – mostly English-speaking Protestant migrants who had moved to the colony within the last ten years.

News of McDougall’s coming confirmed Metis fears that annexation to Canada would threaten their culture, for the French-speaking, Catholic Metis were well aware of McDougall’s anglophile, pro-Protestant beliefs. At the beginning of October, the Metis organized a “National Committee” led by Riel and erected a barricade along the road connecting the Red River to Ottawa via North Dakota, the only route by which McDougall could reach the area.

McDougall and his party reached the border at the end of October. Choosing to ignore a warning from the Metis National Committee, McDougall and two lieutenants continued along the road towards Fort Garry (now Winnipeg) before being stopped by a party of thirty Metis and conducted back to US territory.

Thwarted, McDougall returned to Ottawa, bitter and embarrassed. His failure to stand up to the Metis seems to have dealt a death blow to his political career. He lost the next federal election in 1872 and briefly resumed his law practice before returning to provincial politics as MPP for Simcoe South in 1875. In 1878 he resigned his position to return to federal politics for one term.

After losing the next two federal elections in 1882 and 1887, McDougall was forced to the sidelines in 1890 when he sustained a serious spinal injury after accidentally walking off a moving train. He died in Ottawa in 1905 after years of ill health.

Photo: McDougall in 1894, after his retirement from politics. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

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