Memorable Manitobans: William McDougall (1822-1905)
Born near York (Toronto), Ontario, on 22 January 1822, son of Daniel McDougall, he was educated at Victoria College, Cobourg. In 1847 he was admitted to practise as an attorney and solicitor in Upper Canada and in 1862 was called to the Bar of Upper Canada (QC, 1881). He was married twice, first to Amelia Caroline Easton in 1845, and, in 1872, to Mary Adelaide Beatty.
McDougall was a leading Clear Grit and founder of the semi-weekly North American, which was absorbed by the Globe in 1857. McDougall became an associate of George Brown and entered politics in 1858. Rumours circulated in Red River later about his part in an “Indian rebellion” on Manitoulin Island in 1862, when he was Canadian superintendent of Indian affairs and commissioner of crown lands. According to the Montreal Herald, while commissioner he had allowed unscrupulous speculators to defraud people of their property.
He served as provincial secretary in the government of the Great Coalition of 1864 and attended all the major Confederation conferences. He remained the leading Liberal in the Canadian coalition government of Sir John A. Macdonald, holding the public works portfolio from 1867 to 1869. McDougall had long advocated westward expansion, and in December 1867 he shepherded through parliament a series of resolutions to incorporate Rupert’s Land into the dominion and extend Canadian sovereignty to the Pacific. He and Sir George Cartier went to London in 1868 to negotiate the transfer of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson's Bay Company to Canada. He was subsequently appointed the first lieutenant-governor of the newly acquired territory, and he was directly responsible for most of the clumsy Canadian actions that galvanized Métis hostility in the west.
His arrival in the West with a sizeable entourage, including a government-in-waiting that contained no residents, touched off the 1869 Red River Rebellion. McDougall never got beyond Pembina, although he did briefly set foot on soil north of the 49th parallel. He made the supreme blunder when he issued a proclamation in early December that assumed the transfer to Canada had taken place as planned -- it had not. He returned to Canada angry, embittered, and humiliated. He was very critical of the Manitoba Act in the House of Commons in 1870.
His political career was not ended by Red River but he never again held important office. He died in Ottawa. He was the author of Eight Letters to the Hon. Joseph Howe on the Red River Rebellion (1870), Six Letters to the Hon. O. Mowat on the Amendment of the Provincial Constitution (1875), and An Open Letter to the Hon. H. Mercier on the Federalism of the Federal Constitution of 1867 (1887).
McDougall died at Ottawa in 1905. He is commemorated by McDougall Street in Winnipeg. His papers, including an unpublished autobiographical fragment 1837-69 are at Library and Archives Canada.
Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.
Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 29 October 2020