July 13, 2012

Les Rochers reflected the craggy bluffs


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The possibly key historical reference to Sir John’s fugue is that of the governor-general of the day.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.

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