J.D.M. Stewart is a history teacher and author of Being Prime Minister.
With the Canada Day weekend upon us, many Canadians across the country have made the trek to the cottage, cabin, camp or lake to celebrate with family and friends. Getting away from the city and the demands of work are an essential part of every Canadian summer. It is no different for prime ministers.
Every PM since the days of John Diefenbaker in the 1950s has wisely escaped Ottawa to recharge the batteries, spend time with family and enjoy some outdoor recreation at Harrington Lake (known as Lac Mousseau in French), the prime minister’s official country residence. After his first day there in 1958, Dief called it “the most restful day and a half that I have spent in over a year and a half.”
Earlier prime ministers also had their favoured retreats: Sir John A. Macdonald and Louis St. Laurent loved to escape to Rivière-du-Loup, Que.; Robert Borden loved Echo Beach, near Huntsville, Ont.; and William Lyon Mackenzie King had his treasured Kingsmere estate in the Gatineau Hills, about 20 kilometres outside Ottawa, where he sought solace from the demands of being prime minister.
But it is Harrington Lake, near Chelsea, Que. – about 10 km further up the road from Kingsmere – that has now become the primary summer holiday spot for our leaders.
The idyllic property is probably the greatest perk of being prime minister, and Mr. Diefenbaker’s successor, Lester Pearson, understood its value, too. It was a place to which he always wanted to return, “because that cottage, the peace, the water and the co-operative fish, is going to be a life saver,” he noted.
For Mr. Pearson, it was also a great family retreat where he would entertain his grandchildren, taking them on hikes or out to fish. He would affectionately name bays on the lake after them. It was there at Harrington where he also flew various designs for a new Canadian flag on the property’s flagpole, something that enraged Mr. Diefenbaker.
Like cottages across the Dominion, the use of this prime ministerial country residence as a family retreat is the hallmark of Harrington Lake. “[It] has brought us such sanctuary in the storms and joy and freedom as a family,” wrote Brian Mulroney in his memoirs.
The Mulroneys and their four children moved out of 24 Sussex for the entire summer, returning only when school started. Their first weekend there in 1984 got off to an inauspicious start, however. Oscar, one of the Mulroneys’ two standard poodles, got into a tussle with a local porcupine. Oscar lost. “So,” Mr. Mulroney wrote, “that night, the prime minister of Canada, his wife and their children spent many hours on the floor of the kitchen removing quills from poor Oscar.”
Stephen Harper and his young family also made good use of Harrington, a place he once said where he would love to retire. In one notable incident, Mr. Harper mused aloud that part of the waterfront of the property would make a great beach if only some sand were brought in and a few rocks removed.
Apparently, an employee with the National Capital Commission (the Crown corporation in charge of the property) overheard the conversation and took the comment quite literally. The next day the rocks were gone, sand carted in, and Harrington Lake had its beach.
The current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has probably spent more time at Harrington Lake than any other PM, if you include the time he was there as the son of Pierre Trudeau during the 1970s and ‘80s.
“Harrington Lake in those days was like the setting for a Hardy Boys novel,” Mr. Trudeau wrote in his memoir, Common Ground, “a place that begged for adventure. My father, to our delight, always seemed to encourage the idea.”
As with other families, Harrington was a treasured destination for the Trudeaus. They hiked, canoed and swam, among other summer activities. In fact, Pierre and Margaret were swimming in 1974 – apparently “skinny dipping” – which led to a comical security flap.
A pair of Laval University researchers were studying beaver lodges in the area when the prime minister spotted two sets of binoculars trained on him and his wife. He immediately dispatched his RCMP security detail to apprehend the alleged oglers. As it turned out, the two scientists weren’t looking at the Trudeaus at all; they were following the flight path of an osprey they had sighted.
A subsequent NCC report indicated that any future research projects on Harrington Lake would have to be sanctioned by the PMO. A series of tall trees were also planted to provide more privacy for the PM and his family.
Not surprisingly, the current Prime Minister has followed in the footsteps of his father and other predecessors. Mr. Trudeau and his young family of three children spend the summers there, as well as most weekends during the year to take advantage of the outdoor activities all kids enjoy.
It is a long weekend in Canada, one during which we celebrate this fabulous country. Sitting somewhere at the water’s edge, enjoying a beer, a burger and a bit of family time is a big part of summer – for everyone, the prime minister included.