William McDougall

On a Collision Course with Riel

By George Siamandas

© George Siamandas


He was never allowed into Manitoba, but this man had as much to do with the creation of Manitoba as did Riel. On December 1, 1869, William McDougall tried to enter Fort Garry and assume dominion over the land now known as Manitoba but was turned back by Riel's Metis guards. William McDougall tried to introduce progress to Manitoba, without first consulting any Manitobans.



McDougall was born Jan 25 1822 in York (Toronto) the son of Scottish loyalists. He was given a liberal education and developed a strong sense that freedom can be the vehicle of progress and achievement. McDougall would have many careers including that of lawyer, journalist, politician and office holder.

McDougall was committed to ideas like progress, education, and reform. He entered the field of journalism in order to disseminate his reform minded views initially in the field of agriculture, but later for all aspects of society. In the 1850s he was encouraging the structure of Canada's future democratic foundations: elected institutions, extension of the franchise, rep by pop, and parliamentary responsibility.



While not an official father of confederation, McDougall had been the man who had drafted many of the ideals of Canadian democracy, especially at the Charlottetown conference. One of his rejected ideas was an elected senate. In 1866 he chaired a commission that advocated free trade with Mexico, the West Indies and Europe.



After confederation McDougall was appointed the Minister of Public Works. He had already served as commissioner of crown lands. McDougall steered through the House a series of resolutions calling for the transfer of Rupertsland to Canada and accompanied Cartier to England. He was then named Manitoba's new Lieut. Gov and his job would be developing the west and extending Canada's sovereignty to the Pacific.



On Nov 1 1869 McDougall arrived to plan the take-over from the HBC but was not allowed to enter Red River. On the same day, Riel seized Fort Garry. McDougall would wait at Pembina for the next month. Not allowed to enter Manitoba, on Dec 1, and from Pembina ND, the agreed transfer date, McDougall issued a proclamation which was roundly ignored. On Dec 18 after being rebuked by Riel he returned east humiliated. McDougall had not been informed of the difficulties that had been brewing at Red River, and felt betrayed by the people in Ottawa.

Of 12,000 inhabitants that would later be recorded in the 1870 census, 5,750 were Metis, 4,000 English Metis, 650 Indians and only 1,600 whites. People with completely different aspirations. The Metis community generally feared that progress would mean change. It would mean immigration of Ontario anti Catholic people and a loss of culture and language. McDougall had already sent Dawson to build his new road. But before any community consensus could be found, McDougall was in their face having already decided their future course.

McDougall was embittered by his experience in Manitoba and felt that he had been betrayed by the Canadian govt. He felt that reactionary emotional cultural factors had impeded progress. He just couldn't understand it.



McDougall ran for election numerous times and was successful, but he invariably made it harder for himself by being too outspoken and by being unwilling to tow the party line. His friends noted he had "a deficient sense of appropriateness." He was called "Wandering Willie" for all the times he changed from one party to another over his long career. He believed too much in the causes he championed, to take political heed.

McDougall had 10 sons and two daughters from two marriages. Never one to pursue position or money, he died virtually penniless in 1905.


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