(Editor’s note: Hugh Gainsford, a retired Manitoba public servant and great-grandson of our founding prime minister, died November 25, 2014 at age 96. His mother Daisy, John A. Macdonald’s granddaughter, was the last person to have known the Father of Confederation when she passed away in Winnipeg in 1959. Gainsford gave his last interview to Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan on May 17, 2004. Following is a transcript of his reminiscences).
I go by what my mother told me about my great-grandfather, because she knew John A. Macdonald very well. She said, “He could make you laugh at the drop of a hat.” He had snappy comebacks he used at the appropriate time.
I wouldn’t say he was exactly handsome. He was more of a rugged type of person, with a rather prominent nose – which I seem to have inherited.
He had a very good way with people, to make them feel he was going to be a friend. He just seemed to have that magnetism. And my mother talked often of how much he loved his family. No matter how rough a day he’d had at the office, when he came home he really forgot those things. He was a very good family man.
He had lost one child, his son John, who died in a fall. His first wife died. His daughter Mary was an invalid, born hydrocephalic – water on the brain. Between all that and trying to form the policy to make a country, he was under a tremendous amount of strain.
Was he an alcoholic? Today we would classify him as a borderline problem drinker. I’ve known many people who’ve been drinking for lesser reasons. When he had all this worry about his family, and his daughter, and worrying about how to shape a country, I can see where a person would lapse and might lift the arm once too often.
My mother told me he didn’t drink any more than a lot of people did in those days. It seemed to be the thing to do. She swore he never came home “the worse for wear”, as she called it. If he drank as much as everybody said he did, and accomplished what he did, I wonder what he would have done if he’d been sober all the time!
I think there’s a good chance we would not have Canada as we know it. There were many prominent people in those years who were convinced the West would never develop into anything.
He just had a feeling for this country. Being an ancestor of his makes it difficult, because if I say certain things then people will comment, “Oh, he’s bragging”; or “He just doesn’t want to say anything nasty.”
I know he was a human being and had human failings like everybody else. But I still can’t get away from the fact that he had a vision for Canada, and he created it, and it happened.
When he died they had to take his body from Ottawa to Kingston by train, and on doing so people lined the tracks at every station. They stood there in the rain. I think the people stood in the rain because they knew he tried to do the best for Canada, and had a dream of this country stretching from one end to the other.
Maybe we wouldn’t have a country without him, who knows? He did it.