It would be easy to make the case that the best-known and most distinguished Canadian at the last half of the 19th century was without a doubt Sir John A. Macdonald, politician, Prime Minister and nation builder.
That same mantle of best-known and most distinguished Canadian, throughout the English speaking world in the first half of the 20th century was without a doubt, Stephen Butler Leacock, economist, political scientist, humourist, public speaker and yes, nation builder in his own right.
It is perhaps ironic that the life and legacy of these two great men has been overshadowed by their indulgence, dare I say fondness, for the demon alcohol.
Stephen Butler Leacock (Image Courtesy Of: Stephen Leacock Museum)
Macdonald in his indulgence stood apart from the rapidly trending Temperance Movement which sought to bring peace to the home through eliminating the sale and consumption of alcohol. Macdonald a skillful campaigner and solicitor of votes never saw his drinking as a detriment.
Stephen Leacock likewise, was Canada’s fiercest anti-prohibitionist. He denounced the fear mongering of the Temperance Movement and resented their manipulation in the political arena: He would tell anyone, in person or in print:
“look at the French and Italians, who drink all day and all night. Aren’t they all right? Aren’t they a musical people? Take Napoleon, and Victor Hugo; drunk half the time, and yet look what they did.”
“the attempt to make the consumption of beer criminal is as silly and as futile as if you passed a law to send a man to jail for eating cucumber salad”
What Macdonald built with cunning, and skill and sheer force of will, not to mention the public purse, Leacock constructed with his pen.
Despite the iron-willed discipline of writing over 65 books and keeping a hectic travel and public speaking schedule, any Orillian you ask will immediately default to his propensity for drink.
Stephen Leacock House on Old Brewery Bay, now the Stephen Leacock Museum (Image Courtesy of: Stephen Leacock Museum)
Perhaps because he deigned to continue a lifestyle, imported from Montréal, where he entertained the leading figures of academia, politics and entertainment, and perhaps because the Town of Orillia voted to stay dry right up until the 1970’s, Leacock’s legacy as a great Canadian has been tarnished.
The name the Old Brewery Bay –known to make people thirsty as far away as Nevada- His crowning achievement in setting forth his views and vision for a new Canada, set in the ominous backdrop of the second world war, sparkles to this day with a glowing sense of goodwill and hopefulness for our future.
Canada: Its Foundations and Its Future, sets out in the unique Leacock style, the broad sweep of Canadian history and his perception of Canada’s place in the world to come.
The Sun Room at Stephen Leacock House in Orillia (Image Courtesy Of: Stephen Leacock Museum)
And who bankrolled this iconic treatise on Canadian history and future aspirations, none other than Samuel Bronfman of the Distillers Corporation – Seagram’s Ltd. There were two editions, a red leather bound, gilt edged, embossed edition and another in blue boards. The were available to anyone who asked and school board across the country used them as history texts.
In all, 165,000 were distributed by Seagram’s until the distillers imprint offended the national and provincial standards for liquor licensing.
It is perhaps fitting to share Stephen Leacock’s vision for his country, which closed the final chapter of his landmark work:
When we have taken our share in beating down iniquity, we must take more than our share in setting up happiness. Our day is tomorrow.
Build a shrine and someone will knock it down with a story about outrageous behaviour or unseemly conduct. But interpret the man in all his complexity and let his work stand for itself.
Fred Addis, pictured on the right, at the Orillia Town Hall on May 27th, 2013 where he first delivered this speech
And that is why as historians we make pronouncements on a body of work, a lifetime of accomplishment and put into proper perspective aberrations of behaviour and character.
There is much good to honour and celebrate in the life and legacy of our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.
It’s reputed that he slept here in Orillia in an hotel long ago torn down and forgotten.
Let us collectively resist the urge to say: Macdonald slept it off here, but rather, Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and foremost nation builder of his day, set Canada on the road to independence and paved the way for the formation of our great nation, stayed here.
Stephen Leacock was fond of invoking a spirit of generosity and goodwill which he invested in a great deal of his writing. It was based on an overarching philosophy that…
“…all political contrivance is vain unless it is based on righteousness. Without righteousness the richer our country the more rapid our ruin. Give us men of goodwill, whose hearts are in the cause and our happiness is assured.”
What I am really trying to say is that all government rests, not on codes and laws (those are for criminals), but on decency, kindly feeling and a proper idea of the merits and rights and the goods side of others.
That spirit of goodwill and generosity should be the foundation on which our 2015 Sir John A. celebrations are built and may we find a way to toast their legacies with our own beverages of choice.
Fred Addis is the Curator of the Stephen Leacock Museum in Orillia. He originally delivered this speech at the Orillia Town Hall Meeting about Sir John A. Macdonald’s upcoming bicentennial on May 27th, 2013.