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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.

  • c.e.

    Do people not know how to live within a budget? Whether you think your monthly budget is what you deserve is besides the point. It’s what you have to live on…so make it work for the time being.

  • Jane and Finch Kid

    Just my opinion here, but her spending habits are insane. Michael, though a bit obsessive-compulsive (especially with the family memos and PowerPoint presentations), had a valid concern in wanting Chris to cut back her excessive purchases.

  • LT

    How anyone can live with themselves spending that much money monthly is beyond me. Disgusting human beings!

  • BL

    Who really cares? You shouldn’t! It is there lives, their choices. They have worked hard for what they have, employee 10′s of thousands of Canadians and pump back billions into our economy. We should all just mind our own business.

  • Paper_girl

    This is sure not the real world. Monthly household expenses that are quoted here are outside the realm of reality. And there is so much more that is hard to believe. It’s no wonder our society is so scr$$ed up.

  • DS

    When did toronto life become a gossip magazine? Why is this even news? We have far more impotant news effecting our lives in Toronto than this divorce. I find it disgusting that toronto life felt the need to publish the details of someone’s divorce just because they have been successful in business. I am glad I have canceled my subscription to this trash, as this is no longer a representation of toronto life.

  • Guest

    These people are grotesque greedy scum. This McCain family go around the world impoverishing every farmer and worker they deal with, all the while swanning around in jets to their holiday paradises….. sickening. The directors are constantly trying to increase margins,Who cares about their divorce, what about all their workers that get overworked and under payed, how do their marriages fare?? How do their kids fare?? How an u be a tight wad when u r worth $50million… That’s pure greed!! The monthly allowance is more than some mccain workers make in 10yrs, unfrickinbelievable, again, pure greed!!!

  • Weaver

    Mike when you were just a kid we watched you drive by on your way to school. Your uncle’s and father’s company wasn’t so big in those days.

    But like a small ember in a wood stove it caught, and next thing you know a pair of jets on a private runway in the backyard along Riverview Drive and Harrison and Wallace were on the fast track to being the poster boys for Canadian business.

    Your mom is a sweet lady but talk about ambition; she had enough for Carleton County, no, for the whole dang province and then some.

    Likely she and the family knew that as smart and successful as Wallace was that
    it was Harrison who brought the magic. That proved to be the undoing as GWF was
    canned in the early nineties, moved into a rented condo on Rosehill while you
    shacked up in his Thornwood dump with Chris and the kids ’till the renos in
    Riverview Drive II were complete.

    Chris and you were a wonderful couple, but to be fair and honest if it were not
    for your last name you’d likely have been managing Clayton’s store.

    Harrison and Wallace understood their roots, yes they had a private jet port in their backyard, a team of pilots back when such things were not the norm for CEOs, but they were not affected. Those things were the tools of business. But now we read that you, a scion of the great McCain dynasty are living an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. My gawd you have a $7 million yacht but decided that was not sufficient and commissioned an $18 million dollar vessel. What will that cost to operate? A million a year? That would be the low end. And vacations in exotic locals such as Mustique, was Round Hill not good enough? Were you staying at Mick’s Stargroves? or perhaps Tommy Hilfiger lent you his villa aptly named “Palm Beach”.

    And now this Toronto Life apologetic. One thing you are is a brilliant strategist, a case study in crisis management: with all the deaths in the Maple Leaf Foods Listeria outbreak you managed a settlement of just a few million dollars. For decades to come you will be the role model for CEOs of a business in crisis.

    It would certainly appear that you, your influence and PR people have brought those same skills to bear in the crafting of this article.

    It is very sad to see: one of Canada’s great families, the McCains devolve into the soap opera that we are currently witnessing. It is equally sad to see Michael de Pencier’s once great magazine produce content as if it were a subsidiary of PRweb.

  • TheCrick

    Funny how we expect movie stars and musicians to live a certain way but our own successful Canadians are not supposed to indulge. I don’t begrudge the McCain family one cent of their money. Wallace and Harrison worked very hard to establish the original company -I was witness to part of it as an employee in the 1980′s. I’ve also witnessed their extreme generosity in giving so much of it away. The break-up of this marriage saddened me. I was shocked to see this as a cover story but what really angers me about this article is that Ms. Pullen felt the need to not only identify the children, show them on the cover leaving a funeral, but also to identify where they attend school and work. Since when do we make children pay for the sins/troubles of their parents? It matters not that they are now adults themselves. This situation is not of their making. They are the innocent victims. That Ms. Pullen felt they are fair game and obviously felt the need to add to their pain sickens me. Write about them IF and WHEN they do something newsworthy. “DS” below, is correct – there is much more to write about in Toronto that DOES pertain to the lives of many.

  • CanadaDry

    The media doesn’t understand the profound effect this has on children. Life is tough enough but when you are under the scope of the media it only magnifies. Have you ever wondered why teen pop stars that your children idolizing and you approved of suddenly broke down from all the pressure of prevention and rebelled on a large scale. Imagine being one of their children and having to work out this divorce and a lowlife gossip columnist decides not only to include their names but plaster their faces for everyone to see. TL may think the have to report everything about “high-society” whether it be another uptown mansion or a posh restaurant (which don’t get me wrong, I love reading about) but these are people. LT called them “disgusting human beings” and another person called them “grotesque greedy scum” quite easily behind that computer screen. These are real people, real people with feelings. This their money, their story and their divorce so don’t ever stick your nose where it doesn’t belong ever again.

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    This really should not be on the Toronto Star its a subject that should be given privacy for only them and who ever they’d like to know. Its difficult enough to go through a divorce but to have the media telling it, is just rude.