William McDougall, a true Father of Confederation

1851Standing sentinel behind the Locke library, a federal plaque pays tribute to the Honourable William McDougall, one of Canada’s most interesting Confederation characters.

In the 1860s, McDougall’s 200-acre farm on Yonge Street sat between Bowood and Snowdon, running east through the Don valley to today’s Bayview Avenue. Born in 1822 on his grandfather’s farm south of Lawrence, McDougall spent his youth playing in the ravines that are now Alexander Muir Gardens. He was 15 when he witnessed the burning of nearby Montgomery’s Tavern during the Rebellion of 1837.

Following an education at Upper Canada Academy in Cobourg, he returned to Toronto to study law in the firm of another neighbour, James Hervey Price. In 1845, he married Amelia Easton, daughter of Joseph Easton who owned the farm north-east of Yonge and Lawrence. They began raising a family on the Easton farm and McDougall started honing his interest in journalism and politics.

Two years later, he not only became a lawyer but also helped establish a sophisticated farm publication which evolved into the Canadian Agriculturalist. He was able to draw on his own experience working on his father-in-law’s farm, where, by 1851, he had also built a sawmill near today’s Rosedale golf club.

William McDougallBy this time, he was also actively involved in the Reform movement trying to achieve responsible government. He helped found the Clear Grit wing of the Reform Party, launching its first publication, the North American. McDougall and the Grits were looking for “common sense democracy” like that in the United States.

In 1855, he sold the North American to his Reform competitor, George Brown of The Globe, and joined Brown’s staff. Three years later he closed down the Agriculturalist and finally won a seat in the legislature, representing Oxford North (vacated by Brown). Over the years he would represent a variety of ridings around the province.

A proponent of federalism, McDougall took an active part in the talks that ultimately led to the creation of Canada, thus making him one of the Fathers of Confederation. In some ways it was surprising. Although he was admired as a brilliant orator, he was an eccentric politician who was aloof and ambitious. Not a great team player, his unreliability ultimately earned him the nickname, Wandering Willie. That trait arose in 1862 when he abandoned the Grit platform to join John Sandfield Macdonald’s Reform government.

While serving in cabinet, he was again a witness to history as part of the crowd listening to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in Pennsylvania.

In 1867 he changed parties again, becoming Sir John A. Macdonald’s first Conservative minister of public works. He braved the accusations of former colleagues to steer through Parliament the acquisition of western Canada from the Hudson’s Bay Company. For his efforts, he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor designate of the North West Territory.

The timing was bad. His wife had died and he had four children at home. All four joined his entourage travelling to the west. At the Manitoba border, they were stopped by Louis Riel’s Metis government. McDougall’s posting became invalid while the HBC negotiated with the Metis. Returning to Ontario bitter and shocked, he soon shifted his political energy to provincial politics.

McDougall later returned to the federal scene and moved to Ottawa in 1880. Even after losing several elections, he continued to leave his cantankerous imprint on Canadian politics. He died nearly penniless in 1905.

Beneath the ravine near his plaque in Lawrence Park runs the now-underground McDougall Creek, named after the farmer-journalist-politician who lived here for over 50 years.

The photograph of William McDougall is from Archives Canada.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Community Life.

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Published in: on September 1, 2008 at 4:29 pm  Comments (26)  
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26 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. i am a mcdougall i live in england but my family origeinated in scotland a town on the west coast called oban do u no if any of his ancestors came from there has he looks like a few members of my fathers family

    • the day you entered this comment was my birthday!!! and i’m a McDougall tooo!!! but i live in canada!!!

  2. Hello Daniel,

    I can’t say for sure whether or not William’s ancestors were from Oban, but they did come from the Scottish Highlands. His grandfather, John, emigrated to America in the 1750s. As a Loyalist after the Revolutionary War, he ended up in Nova Scotia where he was a merchant. Moving west to York (Toronto) he opened a tavern there before acquiring a farm on Yonge Street to the north. Thanks to North Toronto by Don Ritchie for this info.

  3. Hey,
    I was just wondering, did he have sny family like children or a wife?
    I would really like to know before October 24Th!!!!!!!!!!TOMORROW

  4. William McDougall was married twice, first to Amelia Easton in May 1845, When she died in Hogg’s Hollow (Toronto) in 1869, he remarried, to Mary ‘Minnie’ Beatty in Coburg in November 1871. He had at least seven sons and two daughters from the first marriage, and three sons from the second.

    Check out the Dictionary of Canadian Biography for more info.

  5. Katelyn & Maddy,

    Good question. A Father of Confederation in Canada is a name given to delegates who attended any of the conferences that led to the creation of Canada. The conferences were held in Charlottetown (1864), Quebec City (1864) and London, England (1866). William McDougall attended all three conferences as a cabinet member for the United Provinces of Canada.

    His primary role in the process was his strong belief that Canada needed to assume control of what is now western Canada from the Hudson’s Bay Company. He also pushed hard for an elected parliament that would be based on representation by population — the more people living in your region, the more members of parliament you would have.

  6. hey,

    I just wanted to know where and when did the three confrences lead to the creation of Canada?
    -Thanks

    • The three conferences that helped to create Canada were held in Charlottetown, PEI (1864), Quebec City, Que (1864), and London, England (1865-66). The ‘Fathers’ were delegates representing the colonies of Canada (both East and West), Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.

  7. why is the term “Father of Caonfedertion” confusing? Who did these men represent?

    I realy need to know the answer before tomorrow or else I’m busted from my ease I’m busted from my teach.
    -By the way thank you very much(btw tyvm).

  8. i have a few questions if you could get back to my very soon like in 2 hours. witch of the 3 major confereneces did william mcdougall attend to ? all these questions are for william mcdougall. what were the political views that he was know for. what roles did he serve in goverment? what other jobs did he have ? how did he contribute to the shaping of our nation ? so if you could get back to me very soon thanks

  9. Hi Emily,

    Here are some quick answers to your questions: William McDougall attended all three conferences leading up to Confederation (Charlottetown, Quebec City & London, England). He often changed his political stripes (Clear Grit, Reformer, Conservative), which is why he was called Wandering Willie. But two of his primary political view were that Canada should quickly acquire the territory west of Ontario, and political representation should be based on population.He was Canada’s first Public Works minister before leaving cabinet to become the first Governor of the Northwest Territory (a job Riel prevented him from ever filling).

  10. Why did McDougall join the Fathers of Confederation?

    • As a cabinet minister in Canada West, McDougall was invited by the premier, John A. Macdonald, to take part in talks to create the new country of Canada. Everyone who took part became known as the Fathers of Confederation.

  11. Uhm I Was Wondering If Anyone Knew Where He Live…..William Mcdougall

  12. what did william mcdougall say during the charletown meeting/confederationmeeting? to help the make an confederation…. ?? like what was he speech?

  13. Do you know if he had anything that he disliked about confederation? I would appreciate it if you could reply as soon as possible!
    thx

    • McDougall generally favoured Confederation. As part of Sir John A. Macdonald’s cabinet, he was a leading proponent of annexing the land west of Ontario all the way to the Pacific coast. If anything frustrated him about the new country, it was likely his concern that the government wasn’t moving fast enough to acquire the west.

  14. were did he live

    • Toronto, Canada

  15. why did william mcdougall want confederation? *if you could get this to me in the next 1/2 hour that would be great!

    • Check out the earlier comment of mine, on January 23, 2009 above, to discover the two primary reasons McDougall favoured Confederation.

  16. I have a few questions regarding William McDougall. Please respond as soon as possible-i need these answered by today!!! What colonie(s) did he represent and why? And what was his importance in history??? THANKS SOOO MUCH!

    • McDougall represented Canada West in the Assembly of the United Canadas. After 1967 he was an MP for Ontario and sat in cabinet. His importance to Canada at that time can be found in the last half of the article above.

  17. [...] a mix of both confirmed fact and unsubstantiated anecdote. Of Loyalist and Scottish stock, William McDougall was born and raised on a farm near the present-day corner of Yonge and Lawrence; a plaque honouring [...]

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