July 13, 2012

Les Rochers reflected the craggy bluffs

By PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch

---- — Last weekend we were invited to a soiree at the prime minister’s summer residence. Okay, that sounded a little snooty.

We weren’t actually invited by the current prime minister, and the residence, at Riviere du Loup, 200 km east of Quebec City, belonged to a prime minister — Canada’s first, Sir John A. Macdonald — who last stayed there in 1890, the year before his death.

It also wasn’t a “soiree,” but an afternoon birthday gathering for an old friend. It was a completely booze-free occasion, which might not have pleased Sir John, an extraordinary politician but a notorious drunk.

I couldn’t help thinking as I tested the solidity of the thigh-high rail rimming the open gallery with its soul-stirring view of the St. Lawrence River, if a tipsy Sir John had ever taken a tumble.

The founding father of Canada started summering in what was then called St. Patrick in 1871. There are several theories why he chose this particular spot, seeing that it’s a long train ride from the nation’s capital of Ottawa and the bustling cities of Montreal and Quebec. One story says Sir John was seeking a healthful climate and discreet getaway for his brain-damaged daughter.

Regardless, Sir John rented a modest farm property to begin with, but in 1882 upgraded to the spacious manor-like residence, which he named Les Rochers, to reflect the craggy bluffs on which seaside houses were built in the area.

But it was the original farmhouse that was the scene of what I like to call (and indeed wrote a 2007 magazine article about) Sir John’s “lost weekend.”

To make a long and mind-bendingly complex story short, what happened was Sir John, according to several reports, disappeared for a period of about three days in August 1873.

The political and personal nightmare in which he found himself at that time explains why Macdonald would have wanted to go dark. He had been caught in a flagrant blackmail and kick-back scheme with a railway tycoon seeking the massive contract to build a railway to the Pacific.

With the defeat of his government looming upon the return of Parliament in the fall, and the possibility of criminal charges and financial ruin, Macdonald had taken to what might be described as the epic bender of his long career as a boozer.

The possibly key historical reference to Sir John’s fugue is that of the governor-general of the day. who confided this note to his diary: “... at the very moment when our correspondence ought to have been most confidential, I could get neither an answer to my letter, nor even to my telegrams. No one — not even his wife — knew where he (Macdonald) was. He had stolen away, as I subsequently heard, from his seaside villa and was lying perdu with a friend in the neighbourhood of Quebec.”

This account took on new life and narrative polish in what many consider the definitive biography of Macdonald, by Donald Creighton: “... one day, when he could bear it no longer, he stole away from his modest farm cottage and took the Grand Trunk Railway train west to Levis. Nobody knew where he was; the frantic (wife) Agnes was ignorant of his condition and his whereabouts.”

My subsequent efforts to find out what really happened came up empty, though it was a fascinating detective game. The magazine story did, though, spark a response from some local historians who suggested Macdonald had fetched up at the home of an MP “friend” in Levis, across the river from Quebec City.

In any event Sir John returned to St. Patrick after the “lost weekend.” He did lose the next election, but returned to power in 1878 and stayed prime minister until his death 13 years later.

His precious retreat in Riviere du Loup is now a bed and breakfast respectfully maintained by a Quebec heritage property foundation set up by the Molson brewing company, a Canadian historic institution in itself. A fan of the grape and grain like Macdonald surely would have appreciated the irony.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at