In a country that has traditionally not done a good job of passing on its history and stories, there is a group of people bucking the trend with enthusiasm and skill.
They have come together to celebrate Sir John A. Macdonald and the Canadian spirit through a combination of art and education. The In Sir John A’s Footsteps walking tour tells the story of our first Prime Minister in a theatrical way that informs as it entertains, ensuring that Sir John A. is not forgotten as we near the 200th anniversary of his birth.
The walks, which last 60 to 90 minutes, wind their way through historic downtown Kingston, the community Sir John A. called home. Don’t worry fellow Liberals, there is plenty of friendly content to keep us happy.
It won’t surprise anyone to learn that two of my favourite stops – a beautiful 19th-century house on King Street and an impressive boutique hotel – are of special interest to Grits.
The first is the home of a man for whom I have a definite affinity: Sir Richard Cartwright. He was Canada’s first Liberal Minister of Finance, cleaning up the Tory books (I know what that feels like!) after Macdonald’s first government fell in the 1870s. Cartwright House, as it’s called, is a stunning piece of Canadian architecture of which Kingston and all Canada should be proud.
Just a ways down the street is the Hotel Belvedere. It was here, during the 1925 general election, that Mackenzie King – the party leader under whom my late father first served – held one of his famous spiritual readings. A stop there allowed me to share the story of my mother’s first meeting with King after my Dad was elected.
She accompanied Dad to a luncheon at Laurier House.
“My husband thinks you’re a very great man,” she told Prime Minister King.
“And what do you think Mrs. Martin?” Mr. King asked.
“I’m going to take some convincing,” she replied.
My Dad had coached his bride before she met the Prime Minister. Needless to say, this was not the response he wanted. To his astonishment, however, King dropped by their apartment the next day – but not to meet with his rookie caucus member. Instead, he invited my mother to join him on a walk in Ottawa.
While walking in Kingston, tour participants will no doubt also enjoy their stop at the historic market square located behind City Hall. It was here that Sir John A.’s constituents marked the new nation’s birth on July 1, 1867. Again, the preserved architecture is breathtaking, and visitors this summer will be able to imagine what it was like the day Canada was born.
The tours, which are offered twice daily in July and August, are led by fun, costumed guides. I was pleased to note that one plays the role of Sir Oliver Mowat, another stellar Liberal who called Kingston home. Professional young actors from the local SALON Acting Company also perform.
Tour-goers therefore get to “meet” Sir John A. Macdonald and others. During my tour, fellow Irishman Thomas D’Arcy McGee also dropped by and read one of his famous poems. The audience rewarded him with great applause and cheers. One quickly learns why McGee will be forever known as the poet of Confederation.
Because of my interest in Aboriginal peoples, one performance in particular stood out: These talented actors examine the trial of Métis leader Louis Riel with great fairness to both him and Sir John A. The two protagonists who did so much to shape the country we love are brought to life with skill and sensitivity. This is Canadian history at its best.
I hope you will visit Kingston and take the Macdonald walk this summer.
Don’t forget to say hello to Sir John A. for me.
IF YOU GO
The In Sir John A.’s Footsteps walking tours are provided by the non-partisan, non-profit Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission. Tours depart from 209 Ontario St., at 2 and 4 p.m. from July 1 to Sept. 2. Tickets are $5 to $10 and available at the Visitor Information Centre, by calling 613-548-4415 or online at sirjohna2015.ca and tourism.kingstoncanada.com. All proceeds from ticket sales benefit the Commission.
The Right Honourable Paul Martin was Canada’s 21st Prime Minister. He serves as an Honorary Commissioner of the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission, along with all living former Prime Ministers of Canada and Sir John Major of the United Kingdom.