Walking John A.’s walk in Kingston




by Kenneth Bagnell Special to QMI Media.          This article appeared in the Toronto Sun, The Winnipeg Sun, Northumberland Today, The Owen Sound Sun Times, the Chatham Daily News, and the St. Catharines Standard.

No other streets in our nation whisper of history so much as the leafy streets of Kingston, home of the man who created Canada: John A. Macdonald.  I began a theatrical walking tour of John A.’s streets in a square beside the elegant city hall, where in 1843 he began political life as an alderman. My guide — an actor playing a man of that era — was Paul Dyck, a recent graduate of Kingston’s Queen’s University, itself a monument to Canadian history founded a year or so before Macdonald entered public life.  “I’ll tell you a story of the day he got elected alderman,” Dyck began.   “Me and the lads were waiting in the pub for the result and as time passed we had a drink, then another. In time we heard John A. won. We put him on our shoulders and were carrying him, when we fell and dropped him into the slush. He picked himself up, laughed and said: ‘Isn’t it strange I should have a downfall so soon.’ That was John A., always a smile.”

Our next stop was a former site of the British Whig, a newspaper with opposing political views to Macdonald’s, and a forerunner of today’s Kingston Whig Standard. Macdonald also clashed with Canadian journalist and politician George Brown.  “Brown would stop at nothing to discredit our friend John A,” Dyck said. “He liked a drink as you know. But he turned that to his advantage by saying: ‘Canada prefers a drunk John A. Macdonald, to a sober George Brown any day …”

Stories abound — often embellished — of John A.’s drinking habits. But drinking seems to have been a way of life in Kingston back then, with about 100 taverns for a population a fraction of the size of today’s approximate 120,000. In a leafy green park, Dyck, in his witty way, recalled Macdonald’s early career as a criminal lawyer. Macdonald was shrewd: Criminal law got his name in the papers day after day, raising his profile, especially if a client faced the death penalty, Dyck said.

“Once he defended a man charged with murdering an eight-year-old girl. Imagine the headlines. John A. gave a great defence but the man was found guilty and brought to (the park) where hangings were held. But guess what happened? Theman was done up, put on the gallows and the lever pulled. Down he went. But he hit the ground. Why? Because the rope was too long. So he stood up and shouted: `See? I wasn’t meant to be hanged!’ Nonetheless they did it over again with a shorter rope. He was truly hanged.”

We continued to 191 King St. E., a historic home bearing a plaque to Sir Richard Cartwright, who hated Macdonald even more than Brown. A one-time political colleague of John A.’s, Cartwright quit the Conservative party over a scandal and joined the Liberals. He seethed as John A.’s strength grew as prime minister. In time, we arrived back at city hall, where John A.’s political career began and where, in June 1891, his body was returned to lie in state as thousands filed by in respect. For sure, he had human frailty and was caught up in political scandal.

But as Richard Gwyn, author of Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times,   said “He made Canada.”


Rosemount’s Inn-Side story.    SLEEPOVER

When in Kingston, I feel enveloped in the past. It especially surrounds me at my favourite inn, the Rosemount, with its echo of yesterday.             Built in 1848, the Rosemount was originally the home of a prosperous merchant. Over the years, and through various owners, it was carefully preserved. In 1990 it became the cherished heritage of new owners Holly Doughty and her husband John Edwards (now deceased). The couple not only restored the building but also enhanced it, adding several suites all faithful to history. Today, like Kingston itself, the inn attracts scholars and lecturers, corporate leaders and medical professionals from across Canada, many in town for conferences at Queen’s.

Early coffee is served in the wide windowed living room, and then breakfast — always prepared with the imagination of a professional chef — in the sunny dining room overlooking the garden. It’s an easy 10-minute walk downtown for dinner. On a recent visit, that was at two of the city’s most respected tables — Olivea (olivea.ca) and Chien noir (lechiennoir. com) — both on Brock St.   There, at window seats we dined very well (healthy bulgar burgers at Olivea and duck breast at Chien noir) watching carefree young people strolling past in the waning Kingston sun.


The In Sir John A.’s Footsteps walking tours resume next season. see sirjohna2015.ca. For rosemount Inn, 1-888.871- 8844 or rosemountinn.ca.