Scottish Canadian Politicians
William McDougall (1822-1905):
Lawyer, Politician and a Founding Father of Confederation
"No greater, nobler, higher task was ever committed to the public men of a country than that which fell to the members of the Quebec convention of 1864."
~ William McDougal
William McDougall came from a long line of United Empire Loyalists: his paternal great-great-grandparents were among the first twelve families to move to York from the United States in 1793 during the American Revolution. Education was critical to the family's Loyalist beliefs and Scottish heritage, and William, although raised on a Yonge Street farm, attended grammar school in Toronto before moving on to the prestigious Upper Canada Academy (which became Victoria College in 1841), where he earned an advanced liberal degree.
McDougall's liberal leanings were tempered during his teenage years as he witnessed the burning of Montgomery's Tavern [see William Lyon Mackenzie], the nearby rebel headquarters of the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion. This powerful personal experience often rang in his memory as a movement of freedom and liberty against the rule of an entrenched oligarchy, the direction of which would become a critical factor in his expansionist ideology. The episode of rebellion underscored McDougall's unwavering faith in the inevitability of the triumph of reform over conservatism.
After leaving Victoria College, McDougall undertook legal studies in the office of the renowned Toronto lawyer James Hervey Price, whose practical politics exuded a great influence over the young student. His chief clientele being composed of farmers with grievances against the land policies of the administration, Price supported radical measures that would later form the basis of the Clear Grit platform: vote by ballot, freer landholding laws, secularization of the clergy reserves and elective democratic institutions. McDougall also absorbed his mentor's ambivalence toward party politics as an expression of independence, for which the memory of his political contributions suffered.
In 1847, McDougall opened a practice with Ambrose Gorham, another of Price's students. A legal career, however, was not his chief ambition: he used the practice to finance his pursuit of journalism. The same year he began his legal practice, he began running the Canada Farmer, a weekly devoted to science, literature, and the agricultural movement. The paper evolved quickly and branched out into the political sphere, and by 1849 it had become the Canadian Agriculturalist, a paper dedicated to promoting agriculture and colonization while transcending party politics by using science to work towards "the mastery of the Globe". In 1850, McDougall and the Agriculturalist's co-owner, George Buckland, worked with the Agricultural Association of Upper Canada to form the Board of Agriculture of Upper Canada, a "popular and responsible council mandated to assess and improve, through education and organization, the agricultural resources of the country." 1
McDougall's journalistic pursuits drew him into the unavoidable political arena. As reform attempts sparked across Europe, Canada won responsible government, and traditional liberal/conservative political lines blurred. Reformers dissatisfied with the Whig definition of "responsible government" gathered in McDougall's King Street office to discuss the ideas that founded the Clear Grit wing of the Reform party. McDougall anchored this new party branch in 1850 with the North American, a semi-weekly purported to espouse the importance of the march of progress towards a "healthy and higher civilization." That same year, the Clear Grits organized local political conventions to, according to McDougall, "roll the country down to the level of a common-sense democracy," giving the people a direct check upon the hypocrisy perpetrated by the Reform leadership.
The Clear Grit platform published its official radical platform in the North American in February 1851. Long-term, it was committed to elective institutions, franchise extension, vote by ballot, representation by population, parliamentary responsibility for public expenditures, trade and commerce, and retrenchment. Short-term goals, inspired by the American system, included a simplification of legal proceedings, uniform decimal currency, sale of public lands, secularization of the clergy reserves, the abolition of legislated privileges to religious bodies, public agricultural grants, and public works improvements.
Although McDougall challenged George Brown's mainstream Reform position as put forward in the Globe through his own North American, he was flexible enough to recognize the promise of coalition. In July 1851, he agreed to support the Hincks-Morin coalition government in exchange for two Clear Grit nominations to the Cabinet. Shifting into a politician, McDougall sold the North American to Brown in 1855 and joined the Globe staff as a political writer. He served as a secretary to the 1857 Toronto Reform convention, which adopted a goal he had been promoting since the creation of the North American: "the incorporation of the Hudson's Bay Territory as Canadian soil."
After having failed to gain a seat in the Legislative Assembly in two previous elections, McDougall finally won the seat recently vacated in Oxford North by Brown in 1858. At the following year's Reform Convention he became Provincial Secretary to the Constitutional Reform Association, through which he put forward Brown's federal union proposal as a solution to the province's constitutional dilemma.
McDougall proved an eccentric politician, his romantic political vision dampened by his reluctance to either follow or lead. Although a powerful orator, he earned a professional reputation for unreliability, and his colleagues dubbed him "Wandering Willie." He surprised his fellow Clear Grits in 1862 when he entered the provincial Reform ministry of MacDonald-Sicotte, which did not support the swelling representation by population platform, as Commissioner of Crown Lands, reasoning that "half a loaf was better than no bread." (By 1864 he would abandon the rep by pop principle on the grounds that it was no longer practical.)
In this position McDougall laid the groundwork for Canada's northwestward expansion. But in his quest for "progress," he bred native distrust and resentment when he breached the policy that kept settlements far from native reserves to protect them from encroachment, by repossessing lands on Manitoulin Island, opening a colonization road to Perry Sound, and selling off crown lands in expectation of agrarian development.
This position also afforded McDougall the opportunity to travel the United States. In 1863, he and John Galt went to Washington to renegotiate the Reciprocity Treaty, where McDougall left a strong impression on President Lincoln. Although Lincoln could not give his full attention to the treat at that time, he asked McDougall to travel with him to Pennsylvania so that they could discuss its terms during the train ride. In Pennsylvania, McDougall sat in the audience to which Lincoln delivered his "Gettysburg Address."
Back in Canada, McDougall participated in another historic event in 1864 when he followed George Brown across the floor of the Assembly to become Provincial Secretary for Upper Canada in the "Great Coalition." During the debates on legislative union in 1865, McDougall expressed his impatience, as union had seemed to him inevitable since 1841. As a father of Confederation, he helped to formulate its terms at all three of the Confederation Conferences, and stayed with the coalition even after Brown resigned. Sir John A. MacDonald rewarded McDougall for his contribution to confederation by making him Minister of Public Works in his first cabinet. The Clear Grit did not fit easily into the Conservative administration, however, as he was the only one who viewed the new government as a blank slate.
As a cabinet minister, McDougall dedicated himself to Canada's transcontinental expansion. After warning his colleagues in the House of Commons, "If we do not expand, we must contract," he steered them through a series of resolutions for the annexation of Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory into the Dominion. He then went to London in 1868 with Cartier to negotiate the transfer of the Hudson's Bay Company's territory to Canada. Upon his return, he launched a construction project to build a road between Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) and Lake of the Woods, Ontario.
His commitment to the cause (and perhaps the Conservative cabinet's eagerness to exile him) led John A. MacDonald to appoint him Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Territories in 1869. But McDougall admitted he "would rather make & control Governors than be one," and the timing, moreover, was inopportune. His wife had passed away recently, leaving four children in his responsibility, and his own health was meanwhile faltering. However, he did not shirk his duties, and refused to grant political power to the new territories until "we get a settled Canadian population to work upon."
Preceded by his nationalistic vision, Lieutenant-Governor McDougall set out for the Red River settlement in October 1869 to announce the government's purchase of Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory from the HBC. While McDougall and company (which included his four children) were making their way west, however, Ottawa decided to delay the transfer process until the issues surrounding the Métis population were resolved, thus rendering McDougall's annexation proclamation illegal. At Pembina, North Dakota, the party, unaware of the federal government's change of policy, was barred from entering the Red River settlement by a Métis army acting under orders from Louis Riel. Shocked and hurt by this sudden withdrawal of his authority, a helpless and humiliated McDougall returned to Ottawa betrayed by the feeling that progress had been withheld by reactionary forces. The following year he objected to Manitoba's admittance as a province.
McDougall served the federal government until 1875, when he entered the provincial legislature for Simcoe South. After three years he resigned to take the federal riding of Halton, and he sat as a Member of Parliament from 1878 until 1887. After resuming his law practice in 1876, he argued against the province's claim of implicit sovereignty in Mercer v. Attorney General for Ontario (1881). Although his personal finances were tight, he declined a judgeship and the Lieutenant-Governorship of British Columbia in the early 1880s, holding out instead for the Senate.
McDougall suffered a spine injury in 1890 when he stepped from a moving train in Cobourg. Unable to take the Senate seat, he was henceforth relegated to the political sidelines, occasionally expressing regret that he has strayed from the "Elysian fields [of agricultural improvement] into the slough of party politics." Yet the decline seemed to him a natural slide from the climax that had been confederation. Proud of his contribution to the idea of Canadian union and expansionism, McDougall asked in his unpublished memoirs, "What people or nation, in ancient or modern times, has been able to show, in the first decade of its existence, such magnificent boundaries?" None, of course, but the nation whose borders he had been so instrumental in creating.