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Love and War in the House of McCain: inside the divorce that exposed the famous family’s deepest secrets

Christine and Michael McCain seemed like the perfect couple, with an uptown mansion, five well-adjusted kids and a circle of powerful friends—until Christine announced she wanted out

Love and War in the House of McCain

The McCains: Hannah, Lauren, Christine, Michael, Hilary, Scott and Jonathan (Image: Chris Young/CP Images)

Two years ago, on a family vacation in Mustique, Christine McCain told her husband that she wanted out of their marriage. Michael was shocked by the announcement and wanted to discuss her unhappiness right then and there, but Christine resisted. She didn’t want to argue while on holiday with their five kids.

Michael and Chris (as she is called by family and friends) had built a significant profile for themselves over their 15-plus years in Toronto. Michael was a scion of the McCain Foods empire and the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods. As a couple, he and Chris were prominent members of the city’s establishment, regularly hosting tables at fundraising galas and throwing lavish parties at their Teddington Park home. They’d donated millions to organizations like SickKids and CAMH. When Maple Leaf Foods endured a listeriosis crisis in 2008, leaving 23 dead, Michael issued a heartfelt apology, took responsibility for the disaster, and instantly became a business school case study in model crisis management. He and Chris were a formidable husband and wife team, and the prospect of breaking up that partnership was unfathomable to him.

Over the next four months, they tried to sort out their differences. Michael enlisted the help of a marriage counsellor. Though Chris agreed to the counselling, she thought it was pointless: in family court documents, she says that her husband was too controlling and that she was no longer attracted to him. On June 25, 2011, she made it clear to Michael that the marriage was over. Five days later, he moved out of the family home.

Sometime over the next month, when Chris was trying to determine how much financial support she was entitled to, she dug up her marriage contract. She’d been asked to sign it at the behest of Michael’s father, Wallace, who wanted to protect his assets and ensure his fortune would be passed down through generations of his bloodline, not fragmented by divorce.

Under its terms, Chris was entitled to the matrimonial home, valued at approximately $10 million, as well as a lump sum payment of $7 million, less the $300,000 she was given as a kind of signing bonus after the contract was executed. There would be no equalization of property or ongoing spousal support. For the vast majority of Torontonians, a $17-million payout would be like winning the lottery. But Michael’s income that year was $9.6 million; he was worth an estimated $500 million. If it weren’t for the contract, Chris would have been entitled to plenty more.

Chris and Michael had always maintained a privileged lifestyle (a “fantastic lifestyle,” in Chris’s words) and were known among their friends as big spenders. Their annual household budget, which covered a half-dozen or so staff and the operation and maintenance of multiple vacation homes and an 80-foot yacht, was somewhere in the neighbourhood of $2.5 million. If she kept living as she had been, Chris would blow through her one-time settlement in less than 10 years. Faced with that reality, she decided to fight it out.

At one time, Michael and Chris McCain were considered the perfect couple. Tall, good-looking, athletic, wealthy—they had everything going for them. They met as teens in Florenceville, New Brunswick, otherwise known as “the french fry capital of the world.” Michael’s family was far and away the biggest employer in the county; Chris was the daughter of Clayton and Maureen Buckingham, owners of Buckingham’s Department Store and good friends of the McCain family. Chris and Michael’s union was like something out of a fairy tale: the ambitious young prince marries the prettiest maiden in the village.

McCain Foods dates back to the mid-1950s, when two brothers, Harrison and Wallace McCain, opened their first frozen french fry plant. They started with $30,000 apiece, plus $20,000 each from their two older brothers, Bob and Andrew. The company remains private to this day, and descendants of the four founders dominate the board. McCain Foods now has 46 factories worldwide, employs 18,000 people and takes in $7 billion in annual revenue. One in every three french fries sold around the world is a McCain fry.

Harrison and Wallace lived next door to each other on Riverview Drive, a stretch that came to be referred to as Executive Row. Harrison and his wife, Marion (known as Billie), the daughter of the former New Brunswick premier John McNair, had five children: Mark, Ann, Peter, Laura and Gillian. Wallace and Margaret (the daughter of a mining engineer and a Liberal senator, known to friends as Margie) had four: Scott, Michael, Martha and Eleanor. Both Harrison and Wallace were larger-than-life characters, dynamic and fearless. Billie was an elegant woman, private and reserved, while Margie was an indomitable force, known around town as something of a busybody and a gossip.