Story by Adrian Brijbassi
KINGSTON, ONT. — Arthur Milnes’ hero is a long-dead tavern owner with a drinking problem, penchant for business dealings that end in scandal and a wicked wit. He’s also the father of our nation.
For Milnes, that’s a fact not celebrated nearly enough, especially in Sir John A. Macdonald’s hometown, this tony old city on Lake Ontario that was the country’s first capital. Since 2009, Milnes, a researcher on Brian Mulroney’s memoirs, has offered walking tours in Kingston of sites relevant to Macdonald. He carries a doll of Sir John A., which is a conversation starter for sure, and a passion for Canadian political history that anyone would find difficult to match. His dog, Mr. Pearson, is named after another beloved prime minister and his garden features trees planted by Paul Martin and John Turner.A monument to Sir John A. Macdonald is one of several sites related to Canada’s first prime minister that can be found in his hometown. (Julia Pelish photo)
Along with sharing his deep knowledge of political history, the Queen’s University fellow who specializes in researching prime ministers and U.S. presidents mixes in scintillating stories about our first leader and other politicians, both past and current.
The tour proves refreshingly patriotic and reminds us we have a rich political history to cherish. Sitting in the Royal Tavern, which once belonged to Macdonald, Milnes says, “If we were in Virginia, in George Washington’s hometown, and we were in a bar that he owned, there would be tour buses lined up outside of this place.”
Instead, he and I are among only a handful of patrons in a tavern that could easily hold 200. The Royal is an old-time Canadian bar with round wooden tables, chairs seemingly made to encourage slouching and wall paneling that will remind you of some station wagons from the ’70s. You can hear Robert Johnson on the jukebox, but other than that there’s not a whole lot of charm. It’s our history, though, and that’s something to drink to. There are some photos of Macdonald and the deed to the tavern showing his signature. On Princess Street, there are no clear indicators to let you know the locale was once his possession. In fact, up until two years ago, there were no signs on the 401 demarking Kingston as the prime minister’s hometown.
Milnes lobbied for action on that front and two striking, blue-hued billboards — one in English, one in French — now appear as you near the city. A journalist and Scarborough native, Milnes also continues to push for more national recognition for Macdonald, including a bicentennial celebration of his birth.
“I want the entire nation to recognize 2015. I want poems submitted, plays written. I want the Tragically Hip and Dan Aykroyd to write a song about our first prime minister,” Milnes said, mentioning some of Kingston’s other notable celebrities.A Canadian-Pacific engine is a reminder of one of the important building blocks for our nation. (Julia Pelish Photo)
He smiles when he points out that the Conservative Party added the proposed Macdonald Bicentennial celebrations to its May 2 election platform. If nothing else, Kingston is getting its John A. on. A play about the lawyer with a vision of how to build a nation is scheduled to be performed for several weeks this summer and the walking tour that Milnes gives can be heard for free through a headset you can sign out at the city’s visitor’s centre. Narrators of the recorded tour include former prime ministers Martin and Jean Chretien as well as Don Cherry, “in case you’re not so much into politics,” Milnes said. The tour lasts one hour to 90 minutes and he charges $13 per adult and $100 an hour for groups. On September 29, 2011, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will conduct the tour for a price of $40.
Those who took the tour that I was on expressed fascination for a man and a history that we’re indebted to but many of us know little about.
“It’s interesting to learn the history, but also to see some of the similarities and overlaps with our politics today,” said John Nater, a former Queen’s student who took the Sir John A. Walking Tour while visiting from London, Ont. two weeks ago.
During his tour, Milnes notes that Macdonald could be called “the 19th-century Barack Obama” because of his rhetorical flourishes and that his push to build the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1871 was tantamount to John F. Kennedy spurring Americans to the moon 90 years later and the corruption involved in getting that last spike hammered home in British Columbia would make the Liberals’ sponsorship scandal look like petty crime.
“He wasn’t a perfect man, which is one of the things I like about him. He had issues but that’s okay. It just showed he was human,” Milnes said. “Without him, we wouldn’t have a country.”
The tour starts in Kingston’s Market Square, a block-long public space behind the City Hall where Macdonald’s political career began as an alderman. It then heads east along King Street to the house of Sir Richard Cartwright, a free-trade supporter who went from Macdonald ally to enemy over the issue of reciprocity with the United States. A couple of blocks farther away is the Hotel Belvedere, a beautiful restored mansion where William Lyon Mackenzie King performed a séance in which he tried to speak to dead leaders, including Sir John A. No word on how that conversation went, Milnes said.
“The Americans on the tour love those stories. They like to know they’re not the only ones with eccentric politicians,” Milnes said. “I have some Clinton comparisons and those go over real well.”
The tour winds through Macdonald Park where the statue of the PM stands and past some of the old, leafy streets that once formed Kingston’s first downtown. Houses include Huguenot architecture, stately manors and large Victorian homes turned into B&Bs. The 19th-century courthouse, a neoclassical structure named after Frontenac, features a graceful fountain out front and an ugly history in the back, where public executions used to be held.
“You don’t hear a lot about the history, even here in Kingston,” Nater said. “Art, to his credit, does a good job of presenting it fairly, regardless of the affiliation of the politicians he talks about.”
Milnes, who is about to launch a book about Jimmy Carter’s influence on Canada, thinks Macdonald would look at the divide in our current political landscape and find a solution.
“He was the head of the Liberal-Conservative Party when he became prime minister,” Milnes reminds us. “Talk about a great Canadian compromise.”
MORE INFO: Visit Kingston Tours (www.kingstontours.ca; email: Arthur.Milnes@kingstontours.ca). The headset for the self-guided tour can be picked up at the Kingston Visitor’s Centre at 209 Ontario St. (www.cityofkingston.ca; 613-548-4415).