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Sir John A. Macdonald: 'A guy who liked to drink'

Sir John A. Macdonald has been described as a pragmatic statesman, earning the title of Old Chieftain, and a procrastinating drunk with the nickname of Old Tomorrow. But there's no denying the legacy of Canada's first prime minister. He united the country with his national vision and the construction of the world's longest railway. Macdonald would overcome personal hurdles, albeit with the help of the bottle, to lay the foundation for modern Canada.

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"If that's all they can remember him for, he's better forgotten," says Macdonald's great-grandson Hugh Gainsford in this 1989 Front Page Challenge clip. He's responding to a question about his great-grandfather's legendary drinking, which Gainsford says has been much exaggerated throughout history. But panellist Pierre Berton prefers to celebrate this reputation: "I kind of like the idea that the father of our Confederation wasn't the guy who couldn't tell a lie; he was a guy who liked to drink."
• Macdonald was well known for his binge-drinking habits. As historian Michael Bliss put it in his 1994 book Right Honourable Men, today's popular image of Macdonald is that of a "whisky-soaked statesman." Bliss, however, points out that Macdonald's drinking binges typically happened in between "long spells of sobriety and very hard work" — he was by no means constantly drunk.

• One of the most often recounted stories of Macdonald's drinking has to do with a witty comeback he made after vomiting in the middle of a public debate. There are several different versions of the story, but the gist of it is that the drunken Macdonald stood up after vomiting on stage and said that this was just another case of his Liberal opponent turning his stomach. The audience roared with laughter.

• When Macdonald consulted the brother of his second wife Agnes about the possibility of marrying her, her brother had only one objection — Macdonald's drinking. Macdonald promised to reform, but could never stick to that promise for very long.
• Macdonald frequently made light of his own drinking. He is said to have often remarked that the country would rather have a drunk John A. in power than his Liberal opponent George Brown sober.

• During the London Conference of 1866-67, at which the details of Confederation were worked out, Macdonald apparently passed out in his hotel room and left a candle burning one evening. As historian Michael Bliss writes, the over-imbibing politician "was lucky to escape from the resulting fire with his life."

• This Front Page Challenge clip also discussed the idea of having Macdonald's birthday, January 11, be declared a national holiday. This idea has been raised numerous times over the last several decades. But although the date was officially designated by Parliament as "Sir John A. Macdonald Day" in 2002, it has yet to be declared a statutory holiday. According to James H. Marsh, editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia, "there are likely too many classes, interests and sections with a grudge against him for that to happen."

• One grudge that many Canadians have against Macdonald is the fact that he was responsible for hanging Louis Riel for treason in 1885. Riel was the Métis leader of the 1885 Northwest Rebellion. English Canada believed Riel should be hanged, while French Canadians, who had generally been supporters of the Métis cause, believed he should be spared. Riel's hanging split French and English Canada at the time, and the issue continued to be a contentious one for years to come.
Medium: Television
Program: Front Page Challenge
Broadcast Date: June 20, 1989
Guest(s): Hugh Macdonald Gainsford
Host: Fred Davis
Panellist: Pierre Berton, Allan Fotheringham, Betty Kennedy, Bruno Gerussi
Duration: 5:06
Photo: National Archives of Canada

Last updated: June 17, 2014

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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