Final resting place of Thomas D’Arcy McGee and Patrick James Whelan

Sharing the north slope of Mount Royal in Montreal with three other cemeteries is Notre-Dame-Des-Neiges, the largest burial ground in Canada, which was founded in 1854 originally to serve the Roman Catholic community.

Notre-Dame-Des-Neiges covers a whopping 343 acres in area, and more than one million people are buried there. While wandering along its 55 kilometres of pathways, you may come across the graves of notables such as René Angélil (1942–2016), manager and husband of singer Céline Dion; Robert Bourassa (1933–1996), two-time premier of Quebec; Maurice “Rocket” Richard (1921–2000), beloved star of the Montreal Canadiens hockey team; and politician and governor-general of Canada Jeanne Sauvé (1922–1993).

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In the course of your wanderings you may also stumble upon the family mausoleum of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, who was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in April 1868.  McGee was a charismatic poet, journalist, politician, and public speaker. He was also a Father of Confederation, a key player in negotiations with Britain prior to the establishment of Canada in 1867. He had been passionately opposed in his youth to the British domination of his native country, Ireland, but after moving to Canada he converted to the cause of peaceable political evolution.

As a result, he fell afoul of the Fenian Brotherhood, a secret society committed to violently overthrowing British rule in Ireland, and was denounced as a traitor to Ireland.

The man accused and convicted of assassinating McGee on the doorstep of his lodgings near the House of Commons in Ottawa one early April morning was Patrick James Whelan, a fellow Irish immigrant with Fenian connections. After a state funeral in Montreal, McGee was buried in his family tomb.  Whelan was hanged for his murder at the Carleton County Gaol in Ottawa in 1869 and interred in an unmarked grave in the jail yard.

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However, if you happen to carry on walking for some 8 minutes from the McGee mausoleum to Lot 00056 in Section GA of the cemetery, you’ll find a grave stone commemorating Patrick Whelan. How can that be? Whelan was buried in Ottawa, and his ghost is still said to stalk the hallways of the old jail.

Turns out that in the early 2000s, a box of earth was taken from the approximate spot where he had been buried in Ottawa and symbolically reinterred next to the remains of his widow in Montreal.

In life these two Irish immigrants had called Montreal home. And in a supreme stroke of irony, their memorials now stand in Notre-Dame-Des-Neiges Cemetery, a scant 400 feet from each other.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee remains the only Canadian federal politician ever to have been assassinated.