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Symposium 2008

2008 Irish Studies Symposium: November 3 & 4

State Security, Civil Liberty And The Fenians In Canada
Dr. David A. Wilson, St. Michael's College, University of Toronto

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Well, first of all, thank you very much Steven, thank you Christina and thanks to the Library and Archives Canada and National Archives of Ireland for putting on this symposium which gives us a great opportunity to try out new ideas, to exchange ideas with one another and to discuss these ideas with yourselves. It's a wonderful opportunity. It took place two years ago; I found it an enormously stimulating event then and I have no doubt it will be the same now.

The subject of my talk this morning is "State Security, Civil Liberty and the Fenian Underground in Canada."

I would like to begin with the historian, A.T.Q. Stewart who once remarked that each historian should have two signs on his or her desk, one reading, "I do not know" and the other reading "Everything is older than we think." "I do not know": There is much that remains to be discovered about Fenian activities in Canada during the 1860's, and there has been virtually no research on such matters as the suspension of habeas corpus in response to those activities. "Everything is older than we think":

Two weeks ago, in his inquiry about Canadian complicity in the detention and torture of three Canadians in Egypt and Syria, Judge Frank Iacobucci wrote that the key question involved "The appropriate response of our democracy in Canada to the pernicious phenomenon of terrorism, and ensuring that, in protecting the security of our country, we respect the human rights and freedoms that so many have fought to achieve." The same point was made in 2006 by Judge Dennis O'Connor, during his investigation of the Maher Arar affair.

Now, before going any further, I want to make the obvious point that the Fenians were not a nineteenth-century version of Al-Qaeda, and never entertained anything remotely comparable to the mass killing of innocent civilians. The extent to which the Fenian brotherhood can be described as a "terrorist" organization is highly debatable. For John O'Neill, the Fenian hero of Ridgeway, terrorist methods such as assassinations were completely unacceptable; open warfare with the forces of the Crown was the honourable course of action. But for other prominent Fenians, such as Tom Kelly and John McCafferty, assassinations were a perfectly legitimate and justifiable mode of operation — and as the research of Barry Kennerk has shown, there was a Fenian "shooting circle" of some thirty members in Dublin with assassination as their primary objective. Much, of course, hinges on the definition of terrorism. If the word is taken to mean actual or threatened violence directed for political ends against informers, politicians, judges, policemen; if it includes plans to attack banks and parliamentary buildings, including parliamentary buildings here, to destroy railway and telegraph communications; if it corresponds to John Mitchel's statement that the "Irish people" had the right to attack Britain in any way, at any place, at any time, then, yes, there was a terrorist element within Fenianism. Certainly, the British and Canadian governments thought so, and used the word at the time, the system of terror.

I also want to make the case, make it clear that the Canadian state during the 1860's was not involved in such euphemistically-named activities as "rendition" — where would you send suspected Fenians? — and there is no evidence that Fenian prisoners were tortured in Canadian jails — although this could fall into the "I do not know" category. On the other hand, there is little doubt that the police manufactured evidence against Patrick James Whelan, the man who was accused of assassinating Thomas D'Arcy McGee (and who was, in fact, probably guilty), just as there is little doubt that the Fenian prisoners in Kingston Penitentiary were given an exceedingly rough time.

Having said all this, it still seems to me that there are interesting parallels between the situation of ethnic minorities in contemporary Canada, and the situation facing Irish Catholics in Protestant English-speaking Canada during the 1860's. Consider, for example, the debate over crime reporting in mid nineteenth century Canada. In response to newspaper reports that specified the religion and nationality of convicted criminals, Irish Catholic leaders countered that criminals should be classified by their crimes and not by their origins; the same argument has been made by contemporary ethnic community leaders against collecting crime statistics by race. Or consider Irish Catholic demands in the mid-nineteenth century for political, religious and social parity with the population at large; some of them even wanted parity of placenames. Or consider the debate over separate schools during the 1860's; the arguments for and against the Scott Bill of 1861 resurfaced in the last provincial election in Ontario, when John Tory promised to extend public funding to faith-based schools. Similar arguments including the "thin end of the wedge" objection, and the argument that educational fragmentation would undermine a shared sense of Canadian identity.

As an aside, I must admit, although I would prefer to see people educated together rather than educated apart, the fears of those who opposed separate schools in 1861 have not been borne out, at least not yet.

But perhaps the most intriguing parallel of all consists in the condition of an ethno-religious minority that contained a revolutionary component with international links. An ethno-religious minority that contained a revolutionary component with international links. For all the differences between nineteenth-century Irish Canadian Catholics and the multiple ethnic groups of twenty-first-century Canadian Muslims, for all the differences between Fenian revolutionaries and groups such as the Toronto Eighteen (now down to ten, I believe), the dilemma facing the Canadian state during the 1860's had much in common with the dilemma facing the Canadian state today. "Canada and British America," D'Arcy McGee in 1866, "Canada and British America have never known an enemy so subtle, so irrational, so hard to trace, and, therefore, so difficult to combat." Hence the problem, then as now: How could you defeat a revolutionary minority inside an ethno-religious group, without alienating the moderate majority within that group? How could you balance the requirements of state security with the demands of civil liberty?

Well, let's see how they did it back then. Thomas D'Arcy McGee, he was a kind of Conor Cruise O'Brien figure — someone who had rejected his earlier Irish nationalism, who wanted to cut through Irish Catholic ambivalence about revolutionary nationalism, who wanted to isolate and marginalize revolutionary Irish-Canadian nationalists through a confrontational strategy of polarization. It's a fascinating story, and one that I could pursue at length this morning. But I've been working on it for several years now, and I could use a break; so suffice it to say that both D'Arcy McGee and Cruise O'Brien displayed remarkable moral courage in attacking atavistic nationalism, but that their strategy alienated many moderate nationalists, and they well have had more impact outside rather than inside their respective communities. Certainly, the old argument that McGee somehow "kept Irish Catholics in Canada loyal" has no foundation, as Peter Toner pointed out in 1974, although the breadth of Irish Canadian Catholic opposition to McGee has been exaggerated, in my view.

Another approach would be to examine the activities of the Canadian secret police force, established in 1864 to counter the threat of Confederate raids into the United States, and transformed the following year to counter the threat of Fenian raids into Canada. This is a fascinating story, as Irish and Canadian-born detectives fanned out into cities, towns and villages on both sides of the border, while the government intercepted and opened mail heading for Fenian focal points in northern New York and Vermont, and a host of shady characters and disgruntled Fenians sought new employment opportunities as paid informers. It is a story that has yet to be fully told, although Greg Kealey has made an early foray into the field, and there has been a recent, and I regret to say sensationalist, misleading and deeply disappointing biography of one of the key informers in the Fenian movement, Thomas Billis Beach, also known as Henri Le Caron.

But it's not the story of the Canadian secret police I'll be telling you now, although I do know it. Instead, I'd like to focus on the central figure in the Canadian fight against Fenianism — the Attorney General, Minister of Justice, Prime Minister of Canada, John A. Macdonald. I would like to examine his approach to the suspension of habeas corpus in the immediate aftermath of Ridgeway, the Fenian incursion or invasion or raid June 1st 1866. Coming a few days after the Fenian invasion had been turned back, the suspension of habeas corpus was publicly justified in terms of countering the external threat of Fenianism. The same applied to its renewal and extension during the new Dominion of Canada in November of 1867. In arguing for renewal, Macdonald referred to the international activities of the Fenian brotherhood, and to recent intelligence reports that the American Fenians were stockpiling arms at the frontier and preparing for another invasion. He also pointed out that the existing suspension had, as he said, not been "harshly or improperly used," which was true enough; among other things, Macdonald had issued a circular to magistrates in 1866, warning them against "hasty and ill-judged arrests" of suspected Fenians.

All this meant that the Bill for the suspension of habeas corpus for renewal of the suspension generated hardly any controversy. There were no public protests, no outraged editorials — although the one place where one might have expected strong opposition, the pro-Fenian Irish Canadian newspaper is not extant for 1867. Nor is there a sense of panic, or a rising wave of popular anti-Fenianism. In fact, there was barely a whisper; the suspension of habeas corpus was treated as part of the humdrum business of Parliament. The Globe mentioned it briefly in a column entitled "Nothing to Do," the main theme of which was that Parliament had no serious or important matters to discuss. And even this was more than appeared in other leading Canadian newspapers, which made no editorial comment at all. True, Timothy Warren Anglin and Antoine-Aimé Dorion expressed skepticism, but they acquiesced when they were told that the country faced an imminent threat of invasion. In the event, the vote for renewed suspension was unanimous.

And yet, when Macdonald framed the renewal in terms of the external threat, he was only telling half the story. His intelligence sources also revealed increased Fenian activity within Canada — forming new circles, raising money, attempting to draw non-commissioned officers into the organization, planning diversionary actions to pin down troops during the next invasion. Not a word of this appeared in any of his public speeches about the suspension of habeas corpus. Not a word. It is always difficult to draw inferences from silence, but it seems reasonable to assume that two factors were operating. First, Macdonald knew that any public statement about the revolutionary intentions of some Canadian Fenians could easily have produced an anti-Catholic backlash, with heightened Protestant suspicions that Irish-Canadian Catholics were untrustworthy, devious or disloyal. Such a backlash would have intensified ethno-religious divisions within the country, and produced an atmosphere in which Fenianism could flourish — the very last thing that he wanted. So I think that is one factor. And second, Macdonald had worked long and hard to cultivate the Irish Catholic vote, and did not want to jeopardize that support with general pronouncements about a Canadian Fenian conspiracy. So on the grounds of both prudence and political advantage, it made sense for him to focus on external invasion, and say nothing about internal subversion.

And here lies the irony: Because legislation that was justified in terms of external circumstances and government trustworthiness would actually be applied solely against real or suspected internal Fenians, with charges that the Conservatives were using the suspension of habeas corpus as a political weapon to discredit their Irish Catholic Liberal enemies and to bolster their own position.

What brought this about was McGee's assassination in April of 1868. Convinced that McGee was the victim of a Canadian-based Fenian conspiracy, in the context of more reports about American Fenian reconnaissance missions in Canada, Macdonald and the Irish Catholic Crown Counsel James O'Reilly detained some 25 Irish Canadians under the suspension of habeas corpus. Not surprisingly, the first to be arrested were friends and associates of Patrick James Whelan. But the net soon widened to bring in leading Fenians in Montreal, in Ottawa, in Toronto, in Guelph; the idea was not only to crack open the perceived conspiracy centered on Whelan, but to use the assassination to disrupt and defeat the revolutionary underground in Canada — something that could now be done, Macdonald and O'Reilly believed, without alienating moderate Irish Catholic opinion. The arrests were highly selective. They were based on accumulated intelligence information, which for the most part seems to have been accurate.

But some mistakes were made and as Frank Iacabucci wrote in his report, mistakes are inevitable. And the longer the prisoners were held in jail without trial, the greater became the risk of alienating Irish Catholics in general. Unless just cause was shown for the arrests, George Brown predicted in early May, "we shall have plenty of Irishmen persuading themselves that they are as much ill-used here as ever they were in Ireland." And indeed, something along these lines began to occur, amid complaints that the government was using Fenian fear tactics to conduct a campaign of "political persecution" against its Irish-Catholic opponents. Hard line nationalists fulminated against the government's "reign of terror" — the phrase was used, that world again -- and they spoke of avenging injustice through supporting invasion. Moderates became increasingly uneasy. The release during the summer of all but the core Fenian leaders went some way to reassuring the moderates, while making no discernible difference to the militants. Politically, the Fenians in Canada had been isolated and marginalized; in this sense, McGee's death enabled Macdonald to implement McGee's strategy. But, contrary to the government's belief, they had not been broken, and if anything were potentially more dangerous to the State than before. It was only when the external threat was defeated that the internal threat dissipated. Whether there are lessons here for our own time remains to be seen.

Session I

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