Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
KINGSTON, ONTARIO — John Turner, our nation’s 17th prime minister, sat at the foot of Sir John A. Macdonald and all but fired off a missive to every Canadian to get themselves to that same spot at some point in life. An octogenarian and showing it, Turner is far from the strapping man who riled up Parliament Hill during his nearly two decades in Ottawa, but his mind is just as sharp and his passion for the country as intense.
“He is responsible more than any other human being for the existence of a country called Canada,” Turner said on June 21, two weeks after his 83rd birthday. The English-born, Toronto-based lawyer who is most famous for holding the second-shortest term in office of any Canadian prime minister was in Kingston to honour the nation’s founding father.
There’s a revitalization of interest in Macdonald that is spreading out from his hometown. Canadian political scholar Arthur Milnes heads the bicentennial committee that wants to make Sir John A.’s 200th birthday on January 11, 2015 a national holiday. Milnes has succeeded in getting money from the federal government to run the campaign and has recruited the likes of Turner, Don Cherry, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and others to help in fundraising efforts, which includes a daily walking tour of Macdonald-related sites in Kingston, Canada’s first capital.
“We really think Canadians should be doing more to honour our history and the founding of our nation, which to a very large extent happened because of the efforts and vision of Macdonald. In many ways, he was the right man at the right time to build this country,” Milnes said.
Turner, who hobbled with a cane from his wheelchair to take a seat below the Macdonald Monument in Kingston, promised to be back in 2015 to mark the bicentennial of Sir John A.’s birth. He also lauded Macdonald as Canada’s greatest prime minister, pointing out that getting the French, English, Catholics, protestants, British loyalists and Britain itself to agree to a coalition was as monumental a feat as just about any political achievement in the 1800s.
“He will always be my hero,” said Turner, who served 79 days in office (Charles Tupper served 69).
Canadians don’t have to wait three years to revel in Macdonald or the events that led to Confederation in 1867. The Sir John A. Walking Tour takes place daily, including on Canada Day, and on Friday nights this year it will be led by players from Kingston’s Salon Theatre, who will perform impromptu skits from Macdonald’s life, including ones that depict his love of taverns, his testy relationship with fellow nationalist D’Arcy McGee, and the emotional haranguing the Louis Riel trial put him through.
It’s campy fun, with Matt Donovan, who plays Macdonald, and the other performers joining world champion town crier Chris Whyman in period dress. It’s education and entertainment rolled together, with more than a touch of patriotism. The goal, Milnes said, is to underscore that Macdonald had a fierce love of the country and if that passion can be rekindled in those who learn about his life, then the nation itself will be stronger for it. Milnes has called Macdonald “the 19th-century Barack Obama” because of his oratory skills and also equated his 1871 mission to build a railway that spanned the continent with John F. Kennedy’s push to send men to the moon in the 1960s.
“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.”
As the nation celebrates its 145th birthday on July 1, Kingston is hoping to enjoy a tourism boom around both the nation’s founding father and the other attractions in the city.
“I love this city,” Turner said a few hundred feet from the Queen’s University campus. “This town has history, beautiful geography. That lake out there is fantastic. It’s got a terrific university and some fabulous restaurants, too.”
MORE ABOUT KINGSTON AND THE SIR JOHN A. WALKING TOUR
Tickets: $20 per adults. Contact the City of Kingston’s website for details on how to purchase.
Summer 2012 Highlights: Along with the Friday night tours led by the Salon Theatre players, Don Cherry and Marc Garneau, the first Canadian in space and now a politician, will be among those who will lead the walking tour this year. The dates for Cherry, Garneau and other celebrity tour leaders are yet to be announced.
Where to Stay: The Hotel Belvedere (141 King Street East) is a charming property in a historic building where Canada’s longest-serving and oddest prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, once had a seance performed. Rates currently start at $119 per night. For reservations, call 1-800-559-0584 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where to Eat: Casa (35 Brock Street; 613-542-0870) serves outstanding Italian cuisine while Chez Piggy (68 Princess Street; 613-549-7673) is reputed for its Sunday brunch (10 am-2 pm).
Where to Drink: The Royal Tavern (344 Princess Street) was formerly owned by Macdonald, but there isn’t much else that distinguishes it. Still, it’s worth a visit for the memorabilia in the back. The Sir John A. Pub (343 King Street) opened last year in a building that once housed Macdonald’s law offices.
Location: Kingston is in close proximity of three of Toronto’s largest cities. In driving distance, it is 3 hours northeast of Toronto, 3 hours southwest of Montreal, and 2.5 hours south of Ottawa.
More Info: Read more about the Sir John A. Macdonald Walking Tour in Vacay.ca and watch our other video featuring town crier Chris Whyman.