KINGSTON, Ontario — The recruit seemed startled as she snapped to attention.
“Salute and say ‘sir’ when I pass,” Lt. Col. Mark Bennett commanded in a deep voice.
The young private — dressed in a tunic the same shade of red as Canada’s ubiquitous maple leaf — drew smiles from onlookers as she brought her right hand to her brow. She wasn’t a soldier at boot camp, but a university student with a unique summer job: “guarding” Fort Henry (forthenry.com), overlooking Kingston and Lake Ontario.
“We’re pretending it’s 1867. The British army is alive and well and in garrison at Fort Henry,” explained Bennett, who’s never served in the military but is a veteran of 34 summers at the historic site.
North of the border, 1867 holds the same significance as 1776 in America. One hundred and fifty years ago on July 1, what are now known as the four provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick united to form a self-governing entity within the British Empire.
Elaborate celebrations are taking place all year long in the nation’s capital, Ottawa. But as visitors to Kingston learn, this lakeside city truly is the birthplace of a nation.
As Kingston’s town crier, Chris Whyman has posed for countless selfies on the steps of city hall. That’s where he planned to be on July 1, commanding townsfolk and tourists to listen as he bellows a proclamation of Canadian confederation. It was first read a century and a half ago to the throngs in Market Square, still a thriving marketplace, as cannons at the nearby fort boomed.
Kingston was the logical place to declare a new nation. It was the first capital of the Province of Canada, a British colony that lasted from 1841 until the birth of the country in 1867. The first parliament met at what’s now Kingston General Hospital. And Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s George Washington and the country’s first prime minister, was a local lad.
“It’s hard to talk about the first capital of Canada without talking about John A. Macdonald,” said Paul Fortier. A former historian for the federal government, Fortier now runs the popular downtown pub located where Macdonald practiced law.
“No one’s fingerprint is more on Canada than John A. Macdonald’s,” he added. “If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have this union.”
Kingstonians say it’s ironic and appropriate that his law office now serves as Sir John’s Public House (foodandheritage.com).
“Whoa, he loved to drink,” Fortier said while seated beneath a bust of the famous statesman. “I mean, Sir John A. was a big drinker.”
Fortier loves regaling guests with lively tales of the whiskey-swilling politician who could work a crowd even while intoxicated.
Whyman, the town crier, described the founding father as “a bit of a scoundrel,” pointing to the still-operating Royal Tavern as “his watering hole.”
Macdonald’s hangout, conveniently close to his office, now welcomes those in search of a cold brew, history or both.
The stories are about Sir John’s legacy, not his colorful antics, at Bellevue House, the architecturally striking residence where he once lived. While exhibits in the visitor center tell of the nation’s founding, docents dressed as 19th-century servants tell of Macdonald’s leadership as they take guests through the stately home.
Despite the fact that he only lived in the house for about a year, it’s a national historic landmark.
“He had about 13 different places in Kingston that he stayed,” guide Kiersten Forkes said. “He never stayed anywhere for very long.”
Visitors from the U.S. are often surprised to learn that fears of an American invasion were the catalyst for the calls for a united Canada.
“Macdonald was worried that the United States would overwhelm British North America,” Fortier explained. “There was the expansionist doctrine … that it was the manifest destiny of the United States to be the ruler of North America.”
A sometimes uneasy peace existed between the two lands. And Kingston was just out of rifle range of the U.S.
The geography is easiest to grasp from the water, where guides on tour boats on the St. Lawrence River explain the area’s history.
Kingston is where the river and the scenic 1000 Islands recreational paradise begin. The islands — there actually are 1,864 of them — sit in Canadian and American waters. During the War of 1812, the British based their naval fleet at Kingston, with the Yanks just a short sail away at Sackets Harbor, N.Y.
While there’s no narration, there’s also no charge for travel on the car ferry that connects Kingston with Wolfe Island, 3 miles away. The largest of the 1000 Islands (pronounced “Thousand Islands,” not “One Thousand Islands”), it’s home to a couple of quaint cafes and dozens of windmills. From the southern side of the island, another ferry makes the mile-long crossing between Ontario and Cape Vincent, N.Y.
On the Canadian side of the border, Fort Henry gets much of the credit for keeping the peace through many a decade.
“In its heyday, the fort would have been a tough nut to crack,” Bennett noted. “It was very advanced for its time.”