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Eaton's: Canadian royalty

T. Eaton Company was formed shortly after Canadian Confederation and soon became rooted in the country's cultural landscape. The department store was part of Canadian life. The Eaton's mail-order catalogue was called the "Family Bible" and the company's lavish Santa Claus parade launched the Christmas season. When the last Eaton's store closed its doors on Feb. 26, 2002 many Canadians mourned its death. It wasn't the business empire they would miss, but the loss of a national institution.

The Eaton family is homegrown aristocracy -- Canada's answer to the American Kennedy clan. For generations Canadians are transfixed by the Eaton wealth, power and legacy. In the 1970s four Eaton brothers -- collectively called "the boys" -- control the company; the fourth generation to run the family empire. "The boys" -- John Craig, George, Thor and Fred -- also keep the Eaton name at the forefront of the Canadian establishment as highlighted in this CBC television documentary.

The Eatons have fascinated Canadians for over a century. While Timothy Eaton launched the company, his son John Craig brought the family name into the upper echelons of society. In 1915 John was knighted for his contributions to the First World War effort. It was a fitting tribute since most Canadians already viewed the Eaton family as their own royalty. Canadians adored John's wife, Lady Flora Eaton, for her glamour and outspoken support of numerous causes.

When John Craig died at an early age in 1922, his cousin Robert Young Eaton ran the company until John Craig's heirs were old enough to take over the family business. In 1942 John David Eaton, the second eldest son, became president. A relative described John David as "the best of a bad lot," but he was quite inactive in the running of the family business. When John David retired in 1969, Bob Butler &$151; an Eaton's vice-president and non-family member -- took over briefly until "the boys" ascended to the Eaton's throne.
•Sir John Craig Eaton was a major philanthropist. He gave away an estimated $4 million to various causes during his lifetime. In 1917, after a major explosion in Halifax, Sir John filled two railroad cars with medical supplies and food and personally handed out supplies in the devastated city. He brought along the Eaton's store pharmacist and two nurses.

•When Sir John died of pneumonia in 1922 the mayor of Toronto ordered flags at half-mast and classes were cancelled at the University of Toronto. Tens of thousands gathered outside Timothy Eaton Memorial Church during the service. Thousands more lined the streets as the casket was borne to the family mausoleum.

•On Nov. 26, 1975 the Eaton family was the focus of a botched kidnapping attempt. A man broke into the Toronto home of John Craig Eaton and tried to take his young daughter Signy. Police arrived before the man could flee.
•In the late 1960s George Eaton spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance a brief foray into car racing.
Medium: Television
Program: The Canadian Establishment
Broadcast Date: Oct. 5, 1980
Guest(s): Fredrik Eaton
Host: Patrick Watson
Duration: 1:41

Last updated: March 30, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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