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.

Published in: on September 1, 2008 at 4:29 pm  Comments (29)  
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