New Brunswick

Forgotten father: Play brings Peter Mitchell's role in Confederation to life

After deciding to do something special to celebrate Canada 150, the board of Beaubears Island settled on Peter Mitchell, a man New Brunswickers ought to know since he brought the province into Confederation.

Playwright focuses on largely forgotten politician who got New Brunswick to join with 3 other provinces

Canada's Forgotten Father is being performed at the Playhouse in Fredericton on Friday, June 30, at 7 p.m. (Canada's Forgotten Father/Facebook)

After deciding to do something special to celebrate Canada 150, the board of Beaubears Island settled on Peter Mitchell, a man New Brunswickers ought to know since he brought the province into Confederation.

But the Newcastle-born Father of Confederation, who was also a lawyer, businessman, premier and federal cabinet minister, seems largely forgotten, despite his 40 years of contributions to local, provincial and federal politics and on the Miramichi. 

Shawn McCarthy, the playwright and executive director of the Beaubears Island site, was aware that Peter Mitchell's name wouldn't spring to many minds at the mention of Confederation. He wanted to find out more about the man, who once owned Beaubears Island too.

"Since one of the Fathers of Confederation owned the island, this is the character to focus on," McCarthy said.

McCarthy's research led him to write a play, Canada's Forgotten Father, which will be staged at the Playhouse in Fredericton on Friday at 7 p.m.

Old articles, letters

Using old newspaper articles and a letter Mitchell wrote about his life, McCarthy was able to tell his story. 

"In a lot of those newspapers, you were able to find his speeches, so it was great to be able to put his own voice into it as well and not just be something a writer come up with," he said. 

McCarthy learned the plainspoken Mitchell had a lot of grit and determination.

"He was very involved in so many huge moments here in the province and then to be the premier that brought New Brunswick into Confederation by some rather interesting means, including but not limited to, bribery and coercion and all these other things." 

McCarthy, who portrays Mitchell in the play, said that by the end of his life — he died in 1899 — he was very bitter.

"He wrote a 36-page letter but his 36-page letter was on how he didn't like Sir John Macdonald." 

Stepping into ancestor's shoes

Director Chris Matheson is playing the role of his great-great-great grandfather, John Mercer Johnson, another Father of Confederation from Northumberland County. 

Matheson admitted he gets a weird feeling playing his ancestor. The role was tough to prepare for, since the family doesn't have a lot of information about him.

Canada's Forgotten Father director Chris Matheson and playwright Shawn McCarthy pose in the New Brunswick Legislature where their characters, Peter Mitchell and John M. Johnson, once stood. (Canada's Forgotten Father/Facebook)

"It was kind of daunting because I was thinking, 'Is he like me at all?'"

Matheson said he chose to focus on the fact Johnson, being a politician, had strong convictions and goals. 

"I did know from some articles we found that he was praised for being a strong public thinker, that he was considered a witty pun master. … I just took some of those things and kind of wove them together and come up with something I felt approriate."

Matheson said the play helps the audience learn the story of Mitchell and other characters involved in Confederation.

"I hope people realize Confederation was such a huge undertaking," he said. "There were all these people involved that had this vision and idea that they wanted it to happen so badly, and they were from all over the place." 

Matheson said New Brunswick played a big role on making it happen.

"I think we as New Brunswickers had a huge part to play in this process, this Confederation waltz that led to Canada." 

With files from Shift