Report by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
Arthur Milnes believes Sir John A. Macdonald’s birthday should be a national holiday in Canada. He hopes an annual day of honour is achieved on January 11, 2015, the 200th anniversary of the birth of the nation’s first Prime Minister. In the mean time, Milnes will continue his efforts to raise awareness nationally about Macdonald, who he feels does not receive the recognition worthy of his status as the father of the country. Based in Kingston, Ontario, Milnes runs the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission and is also a political scholar and author, as well as a political travel columnist for Vacay.ca. Prior to Macdonald’s 198th birthday, Milnes discussed the politician’s colourful life and his travels. He named five destinations meaningful to Macdonald’s life.
1. London, England
“Macdonald went to London many times and not just for work,” Milnes said, noting a particularly rambunctious night with Benjamin Disraeli, who was the United Kingdom’s prime minister for much of 1868 and also bore a resemblance to the Canadian leader, so much so that at Disraeli’s funeral in 1881 Macdonald was mistaken for the dead statesman’s ghost. When Macdonald joined Disraeli at his manor, Hughenden, the pair regaled each other with stories, quotes from literature and political gossip.
“Documents show that the next day, a letter from Disraeli tells of how the ‘Canadian prime minister drank him under the table,'” Milnes said.
Macdonald also watched the British North America Act passed in the British House of Commons. “He didn’t miss a session. It was very important for him to see every moment,” Milnes added.
Notoriously, Macdonald also caused a fire in a London hotel in January 1867 while in England to work with legislators on finalizing passage of laws leading to Canadian Confederation. Having had too much to drink, he fell asleep with a candle going. The flame landed on a chair, burned Macdonald and threatened the scorch the rest of the property.
2. Victoria, British Columbia
“When Macdonald crossed the country on the Canadian Pacific Railway, it was a dream come true for him,” Milnes noted. “After making the trip, he said he hoped all young Canadians will have the chance to see the Rocky Mountains ‘fringing the eastern sky.'”
The trans-continental railroad, completed in 1885, was among Macdonald’s greatest achievements, even though the Pacific Scandal forced him to resign in 1873. The journey to Canada’s westernmost province solidified the nation and allowed Macdonald to visit Victoria for the first time in 1886. In an often overlooked fact, Macdonald was the elected representative from the British Columbia capital during his second term in office, which began in 1878. He failed to win his political riding in Kingston, so he ran in British Columbia despite not having stepped foot on Vancouver Island, and was elected with a promise to complete the railway. On July 29, 1886, the Victoria Daily Colonist wrote that about 2,500 people listened to Macdonald say, “I shall never forget the kindness and confidence bestowed upon me by your city. I had never visited you, I had never seen British Columbia, and knew not its wants, yet you elected me.”
Accompanied by his second wife, Susan Agnes, Macdonald toured Beacon Hill Park and strolled through Government Street and the city’s downtown during his stay.
3. Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec
Each summer, Macdonald visited his summer home that was 200 kilometres northeast of Quebec City and on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. Today, the picturesque area is a popular vacation spot for Quebeckers. A well-regarded B&B, Auberge la Sabline, operates next door to the former Macdonald property.
4. Washington, D.C., United States
“This is where he had one of the funniest moments of his life,” Milnes points out. While in the American capital to work as part of the British delegation on treaty negotiations in 1871, Macdonald was approached at a reception by a politician’s wife. “The woman, not knowing who she’s talking to, says, ‘Those Canadians, I hear they have an absolute rascal as a Prime Minister.'” She went on to gossip about the Canadian leader’s penchant for drinking, scheming, indebtedness and political ruthlessness. Macdonald never let on who he was, instead choosing to amuse her. “And when the woman asked how the Canadians could put up with such a horrible man, he said, ‘Well, they can’t get along without him.'” Soon after, the woman’s husband arrived to introduce her to “the prime minister of Canada,” leaving the woman chagrined and Macdonald bemused.
5. Glasgow, Scotland
Macdonald was born in the Scottish metropolis in 1815 but his family moved to Kingston five years later. Although Milnes isn’t certain if Macdonald ever returned to the place of his birth, he said that it always held great interest for him. “He would have absolutely been fascinated by Glasgow and by his own family history,” Milnes said. “London was a mecca for him. Glasgow was important too.”
More Vacay.ca Coverage of Sir John A. Macdonald