Edmonton man’s impromptu visit to Winnipeg antique shop unearths hidden genealogical cache

Jordana Divon
Contributing Writer
Daily Brew

Genealogy enthusiasts spend a great deal of time (and sometimes money) piecing together their family trees. Wayne MacDonald simply walked into a Winnipeg antique shop to discover his.

As the National Post reports, the Edmonton man unearthed far more than a hidden cache of Canadiana in 2003, when an impromptu visit to the shop's cluttered backroom led him straight to a stack of old photographs of his ancestors.

The University of Alberta administrator, in town for a conference, had slipped into the shop — on Edmonton Avenue, of all streets — to escape a sudden snowstorm. An avid collector of Victorian-era items, MacDonald figured he'd use the time to seek out a Mother's Day gift for his wife.

He was about to leave when a group of portraits in Edwardian and Victorian frames caught his eye.

"My heart almost leapt out of my chest," he told the Post after recognizing the image of his great-great-grandfather James MacDonald. "What are the odds of this happening? It's serendipity."

A further search revealed over a dozen such photos of his long-dead relatives taken between 1878 and 1915.

Lawyer James MacDonald belonged to an influential Halifax branch of the family who shared close ties with Sir Charles Tupper, a former prime minister and Father of Confederation.

The MacDonald and Tupper clans were bound by marriage, friendship and political ties, the article point out. The MacDonald patriarch, in addition to being good friends with Tupper, served as a legal advisor to the Fathers of Confederation, and worked as both a justice minister and attorney general in the Cabinet of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald.

During the heyday of their influence, both men, considered political progressives, advocated for public education and religious tolerance. Tupper, in particular, pushed for French to be taught in schools.

"We are surrounded by the Hollywood of American history and Canadians don't seem to get all excited about their own historical figures," MacDonald told the paper. "But I think we have a very different country today because of people like James MacDonald and Sir Charles Tupper."

Starting Wednesday, the collection of 18 photographs showing several generations of MacDonalds will be displayed at the University of Alberta's Faculty Club.

Their restoration is a coup for history lovers, but made even more remarkable by the circumstances of their discovery. Just think of the odds.

The portraits had once hung in the home of Emma Tupper-Harris, a descendant of the Tupper family and a relative of MacDonald. When Tupper-Harris died in 1978, her landlord sold several of the portraits and threw the rest into a dumpster. The Winnipeg antique shop's owner fished the portraits out of that dumpster with her elderly mother. They would sit in a storage bin for the next two decades, waiting for MacDonald to walk through the door.

Had a bout of bad Prairie weather not pushed him into the shop, the portraits may have never been found. Now, MacDonald can tell one of the best antique shop stories in recent memory.