A portrait of the man often called the Canadian establishment's quintessential figure.
Hartland Molson's life spanned almost a century that included two world wars, Prohibition, the Depression, major political upheaval, and massive social and industrial change. Born in 1907 to great wealth and privilege, he used his numerous talents wisely and lived his life with integrity.
A vigorous and active entrepreneur, he was intimately connected to key events in Canada's history:
Hartland de Montarville Molson: Man of Honour is an authorized inside look at the life of an outstanding Canadian and the story of Canada over the last century.
Karen Molson is a seventh-generation Molson in Canada. She is the author of The Molsons: Their Lives and Times.
Aside from official introductions at family gatherings, the first time I properly met my cousin Hartland Molson was in 1997 at his office in the brewery, where he had agreed to be interviewed for my book The Molsons -- Their Lives and Times. Some weeks prior to this interview I had mailed him a small packet of photographs of Molson family members, copies from a collection held at the National Archives in Ottawa. The people in the photos were not identified, though they appeared to be taken in the early 1900s, and I was hoping Hartland could tell me who they were. As I was shown into his office, he had the photos in his hand; he told me he had managed to identify them all. "I hope you didn't go to any trouble, Cousin Hartland," I said as I thanked him. "I assure you," he replied, "I went to a great deal of trouble."
I didn't know it at the time, but Hartland's sense of humour was legendary. It came naturally to him: he had an abundance of it and he wielded it expertly, whether offering it with affection to friends or using it pointedly to counter his detractors. His humour also served to deflect the feeling of awe many felt upon meeting him, which he likely sensed in my own demeanour. My grandparents and parents, who always referred to him as Cousin Hartland, had always spoken of him with the utmost respect and deference. I grew up knowing about some aspects of his career, more about his eminence as family patriarch, but relatively little about his character.
It was at this meeting in his office at the brewery that Hartland shared with me the story of his mother, Bessie, who, attempting to spank him at the age of 7, collapsed instead into giggles. Here I first heard about Hartland's father Herbert's stern countenance, and the funny chugging sound he made when he was trying to stifle laughter. Hartland told me about his own early ventures in the business world and how he came to be asked to join the brewery in 1938. Hartland readily described his experience in the Second World War, and it was easy to tell that those years had been very meaningful to him. He was able to be philosophical about the decades he spent serving the Senate. His love of and dedication to the game of hockey, especially during the years he owned the Montreal Canadiens, was evident. But when I dared to ask him about how he and his cousins had resolved their differences over the sale of the team, his discomfort was palpable. "We never speak of it," he answered brusquely, and would not elaborate.
Even though I had the pleasure of other conversations with him after our initial meeting, Hartland remained very much an enigma to me, his modesty alone forming a screen between my questions and his answers. His valued privacy was also something I was loathe to violate, and as such posed my questions carefully, not wanting to appear disrespectful.
It was Stephen Molson, Hartland's nephew and president of the Molson Foundation, who first suggested to me shortly after Hartland's death that I write this biography. At the beginning, though I agreed it was a good idea, I was apprehensive that I might not be up to the task. Furthermore, as a writer, while I could see that human dramas, conflicts and resolutions were all present in Hartland's life, I worried about two things: one, how could I write his life story and not make it sound like a panegyric, and two, how could I, some fifty years his junior and having led a completely different life than he did, possibly interpret his myriad actions, let alone do justice to their impact?
In the end, my intention to give a full and balanced account of an extraordinary person was, as I suspected, no simple undertaking. After examining Hartland's public and private documents; questioning his acquaintances, friends and family members; reading copies of speeches spanning sixty years and a multitude of topics; poring over Hansard reports of Senate debates and reading through transcripts of interviews by others, there was still something elusive about him that was impossible to pin down.
It's not that the truth was hidden somewhere -- on the contrary, the truth was everywhere, and the only surprises I discovered were ones that shed more light on his good qualities. It soon became evident that, unlike many others who have been as successful in business, as respected in politics, as admired in sports or as lauded in philanthropy, Hartland, while being all these things, had no ulterior motives. There was nothing concealed, no artifice to his character; in all respects and under every examination he came across as a man of integrity.
Some might point out that Hartland had a life without handicaps. It is true he never had to rally against a difficult upbringing, nor did he have to grapple with poverty, or even much bad luck. All the same, he rose above his circumstances: that is, he didn't allow his good fortune to corrupt his moral code, he didn't live as though there was one set of rules for himself and one for everyone else and he didn't lapse into laziness or self-indulgence.
Another person born under the same lustre of wealth and privilege as he was might have been settled in a much different life, might have been a dilettante, a professional socialite or established in a comfortable, predictable routine in some wood-panelled executive office. Instead, Hartland continually chose to take on any challenge to which he was able to rise and accepted the responsibility he felt was his, from childhood until long after he had reached the age when most people consider retirement. Dignified and resolute to the end, he used his gifts to better the lives of others, in near and wider communities.
One of the things that particularly struck me while researching and writing this book was the devotion of Hartland's friends, those who knew him best, a group that encompassed his elders, his peers and his closest associates. One of these friends was his principal private secretary for many years, Rolland Peloquin, who disclosed that Hartland always used to keep a letter from his father, Herbert, in a drawer of his desk. It was written in 1928, while Hartland was working in Paris apprenticing as a banker. Herbert's letter, a reply to Hartland's request for extra money, contained a soft admonishment, his attempt to teach his son not to be a spendthrift. However, Herbert sent the money his son requested anyway. Hartland not only kept the letter all those years, but took it out from time to time to read it. His father's words touched him, and he liked to be reminded of the meaningful and important values that he was raised to represent. This small private action -- keeping this letter, and sharing its contents with Peloquin -- may say as much or more than any public speech, business decision or legislative achievement, about what made Hartland the man he was.