Hugh John Macdonald

Manitoba's Reluctant Politician

by George Siamandas


On January 8, 1900, Hugh John Macdonald, son of Canada's first Prime Minister became Manitoba's ninth premier. He was born in Kingston Ontario in 1850 to John and Isabella Macdonald. But his mother died at age seven and as his dad was busy with his political career. Hugh John Macdonald was raised by his aunts.

He attended the University of Toronto but instead of following the wishes of his dad who wanted him to become a lawyer, Hugh John came west with the Wolseley expedition in 1870. Hugh John had shown an early interest in the military and while still only 16, had served in the Prince of Wales Militia during the 1866 Fenian Raids. Later in 1885, he served as a captain in the Winnipeg Rifles which were active in the North West Rebellion. But Hugh John did return to Toronto in the 1970s and trained as a lawyer joining his father's firm. In 1882 he returned to Winnipeg to begin his practise of law.



It seems Hugh John did not share his father's passion for politics. He ran for a federal seat in 1891 and did win but he did so very reluctantly and did not wish to seek re-election. He felt that politics was distasteful. Rodmond Roblin wanted to capitalize on Hugh John's popularity and persuaded him to run for the conservatives and rebuild their weak party in the mid 1890s. He took over the conservative party in 1897 and the conservatives won the 1899 election. Hugh John became premier in 1900 at age 50, but served only until October 29 of that year resigning to contest a federal election against Clifford Sifton. He lost and subsequently left public life. One could almost think that he was not unhappy to be out of public life.



Hugh John had a son called John Alexander, born in 1905. The boy who was called Jack died at age 19 of diabetes, and Hugh John resorted to drinking heavily. The family left Winnipeg for a while. In 1911 his friends helped him become a police magistrate, a position he handled compassionately. His health was poor and he lost a leg to erysipelas (circulatory problem) in 1927 and had to be carried into court by police officers. He died in 1929 of an infection. Hugh John was appointed to the Commission on the legislative building scandal and his presence on the commission reassured Winnipeg that the truth would come out. Hugh John tried to live down the image of his father. He was knighted in 1913. Hugh John was noted for his trust-worthiness. And he was recognized as being very benevolent to youth. After his death in 1929, Sir Hugh John Macdonald Memorial Youth Hostel was established. It is now called Macdonald Youth Services.



Dalnavert was built in 1895, with Charles Wheeler as architect. It cost $10,000 a price ten times the average cost of a home. The family lived there continuously till 1929. Daughter Isabella got married in 1915 and died in 1959. She had two sons one of which is Hugh Gainsford. Little is known about the family's life there. In fact of the elaborate furnishings at Dalnavert, only two pieces are really the family's: a sofa and a china cabinet.



George Gainsford is the grandson of Hugh John Macdonald and is a volunteer at Dalnavert Museum, 61 Carlton Street. Hugh John's first wife, Jean Murray King, died in Kingston. Hugh John remarried before returning to Winnipeg in 1882. His second wife's name was Agnes Getrude Van Koughnet. They had two children John and Isabella. Isabella Mary, married George K Gainsford a civil engineer. Their son is George Gainsford.



George Gainsford recalls visiting his grandparents in their home, in an old Overland and later an old Dodge. It was a long drive from their Thompson drive home. Would go with his mother. Grandfather nice. Sometimes visited him in the Boyd Building. On most visits granddad would squeeze a quarter into his grandson's hand. Granddad advised him not to go into politics.

The setting at Dalnavert was very Victorian, and Gainsford remembers having to behave according to the Victorian notion that children should be seen and not heard.

Gainsford described his grandmother like the "step mother in cinderella". She liked high society. She had to be with the right crowd. "Very hoity toidy." Mr Gainsford was 13 when his grandfather Hugh John died. He remembers that big funeral at the Legislature; hundreds of people came by.



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