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What was Canada’s first state funeral?

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Canada's first state funeral was conducted in circumstances similar to that of Lincoln when on 7 April 1868, the Honourable Thomas D'Arcy McGee (b. 13 April 1825 in Carlingford, Ireland) upon returning home from a late-night session in the House of Commons, was shot and killed as he entered the door to his rooming house in Ottawa (Ontario). Known as "the most powerful political orator of his era … he used his eloquence to support the new Canadian Confederation – promoting religious freedom, minority rights and national unity under the British Crown." Although unproven, it was generally believed that his assassination was part of a Fenian conspiracy.

Prior to 1867, the country had encountered a number of high profile funerals with large crowds. However, the death of McGee helped drastically change "how the people mobilized their collective values" and the degree by which public rituals and commemorations were to be held within Canada. As a brand new nation, it was at a height of shaping a fresh political, social and economic future. The death of this statesman was contentious as meetings continued to be held in various parts of the country, "condemning the atrocious murder of Mr. McGee, and sympathizing with his bereaved family." There was swift underpinning support from more than twenty communities throughout Canada – all wanting to participate in his funeral arrangements and his memorialization. The processions helped strengthen citizen loyalty, devotion to duty, and solidarity on a national scale that never existed before. Accorded a large public funeral by the Canadian government, it was split between the city where he sat in office and the constituency he represented. While government officials were involved with the development of the official funeral programme, there were countless other unofficial but organized commemorative activities that begun within an hour of his death in Ottawa and well past his burial in his family vault in Montréal's Catholic Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery.

Unlike any other major funeral ceremonies held in Canada prior to Confederation, McGee was memorialized "in a pageant of unparalled solemnity and magnificence." After high-level funeral rituals held in Ottawa, his body was carried in a special train to Montréal for culminating tributes. Upon arrival, his coffin was escorted to his residence where it lay in state for three days followed by a heavily orchestrated funeral procession and competing obsequies in francophone and anglophone Catholic churches. As shown in the photograph taken by James Inglis (1835–1904), the custom-built horse-drawn funeral car was part of a cortège that included an estimated 10,000 people who marched through the streets and crowded with 60,000 to 100,000 spectators. With over 70 institutions and groups represented among the marchers, it was considered "extraordinary for its variety and inclusiveness.” Considering that McGee was a civilian, it was also highly unusual that troops from 23 units, including members from Ottawa and Québec, were invited to participate in the funeral. While he did not receive 'military honours', the volunteer presence of the military was in recognition and high regard of McGee's contributions to the shaping of his country.

On this day, 7 April 2020, we commemorate the 152nd anniversary of the death of the Honourable Thomas D'Arcy McGee, a notable Canadian statesman who was known as "the most powerful political orator of his era."

André M. Levesque

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