David Wilson’s new book captures a little-known era of Canadian history that has more lies, deception, betrayal and scandals than a Netflix series.
Wilson, a professor with the Department of History and the Celtic Studies Program, has just published Canadian Spy Story: Irish Revolutionaries and the Secret Police with McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Researched and written over the past decade, the non-fiction book captures Canada in the late 1860s, when a group of Irish revolutionaries, known as the Fenians, set out of invade Canada in order to weaken Britain’s North American empire and ultimately liberate their country from British rule.
“It’s an absolutely fascinating story,” says Wilson, noting that his research uncovered shocking revelations such as a sex scandal, a plan to kidnap John A. MacDonald, and a plot to assassinate Queen Victoria.
The Fenians believed attacking Canada would create a crisis in Britain that could lead to a war between Britain and the United States. That would then weaken British resolve in Ireland if a rebellion broke out there.
Pursuing this goal, the Fenians launched a series of armed raids across Canada between 1866 and 1871, including the Battle of Ridgeway near Fort Erie, Ontario, which saw about 800 Fenians clash with Canadian soldiers.
“These raids were not a sufficient threat to take over Canada, but a threat to do significant damage to Canada,” says Wilson.
To carry out the raids, the Fenians created secret societies in Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto and in some rural townships that were all part of a wider North American network.
But while the Fenians were plotting and scheming, there was a Canadian secret police force that was determined to stop them. They did this through deep undercover work, often posing as Fenian members to infiltrate the organization’s cells.
Who was in charge of this secret police? None other than Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. Wilson discovered a gold mine of letters between Macdonald and the heads of the secret police, with one based in Ontario and another in Quebec.
“There were some 3,000 letters, which are now online, from the detectives in the field to the spymasters, and then to Macdonald and back down the chain,” says Wilson.
Struggling to infiltrate the Fenian organization, “the spymaster in Ontario suggested using prostitutes to get to the head of the leadership of the Fenians, and even volunteered a couple of names,” says Wilson. “But John A. McDonald didn't do that. As I say in the book, ‘copulating for Canada was a step too far.’”
Within the secret police force were many colourful characters, none more than Charles Clarke — an Irish-born Toronto police officer who was fired from the regular police force due to “improper connections” with a woman. However, he was deemed perfect for the secret police and quickly hired on.
According to Wilson, Clarke posed as a Fenian member, using the pseudonym Cornelius O’Sullivan, and helped set up a fake Fenian cell in Missouri to start building ties with organization’s leaders north of the border.
“Clarke infiltrates the top of the Fenian brotherhood,” says Wilson. “He meets all of the leaders and the generals involved in the raids.”
However, his cover is later blown because of yet another extra-marital affair and he manages to escape serious consequences, though there was a period of time when Clarke’s life was in danger.
For Wilson, uncovering such stories was thoroughly enjoyable but also extremely challenging.
“You're dealing with Fenians in Canada who operate under the cloak of deception, and secret policemen who also operate under the cloak of deception,” he says.
He sorted through countless letters trying to decipher who was who, as both sides frequently used pseudonyms. He started making connections and understanding the Fenian network and how they operated.
But Wilson didn’t work alone. He had the help of several graduate and undergraduate students who took his Irish Nationalism in Canada course.
“Many of them became very enthusiastic about the Fenians and started doing research papers,” says Wilson. “They came up with things that I might not otherwise have found and for that the book is partly dedicated to them.”
One former student, Bridget Hager, uncovered a Toronto connection through her research on the Fenian leader, John O'Neill. She found letters written between a high-ranking Fenian member in Buffalo and members of a Toronto cell.
“Almost all the resources about Fenians in Canada come from the secret police and you have to filter out how much has been exaggerated,” says Wilson. “But these letters provided an inside account of what it was like to run a Fenian cell in Toronto.”
Wilson learned intricate details, like how members met at a tavern at the corner of Queen and Beverley Streets, and how the home of Mary Harnett at 68 Queen Street East became the drop off point for any correspondence. (Her brother, Daniel, was part of the Fenian movement.)
“The letters didn’t come through regular mail; they went directly to Mary, and she gave them to the head of the cell,” says Wilson.
Wilson also had help with writing, though unexpectedly, when he became the general editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (DCB) in 2013 — an online dictionary with nearly 9,000 biographical entries for individuals who have contributed to the history of Canada.
“The DCB has some of the best editors in the world and I’ve learned so much from them,” says Wilson.
“But one of the byproducts of this was that every time I sat down to write a paragraph, I imagined the editors hovering over me, shaking their heads. Their imaginary presence slowed down the writing, but ultimately made it better.”
Putting all those paragraphs together, creating Canadian Spy Story has been an enriching and rewarding experience that Wilson hopes emerges from the pages.
“With this book, I discovered a world that had largely, but not entirely, been overlooked by Canadian historians. I discovered that the deeper the research, the more surprises lay in store. It has, in that sense, been the most exciting book that I’ve ever researched and written.”