Sir Charles Tupper

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Sir Charles Tupper

Sir Charles Tupper (1821-1915) was one of the Canadian fathers of confederation. He was a political leader in Nova Scotia and then Canadian Cabinet minister, high commissioner to the United Kingdom, and prime minister of Canada.

Charles Tupper was born on July 2, 1821, at Amherst, Nova Scotia, of Puritan stock. He was educated at Horton Academy, Wolfville, and in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he earned a degree in medicine in 1843. He practiced medicine successfully in Cumberland County, Nova Scotia, and developed a wide acquaintance which in 1855 helped him defeat a formidable opponent, Joseph Howe, for the Cumberland seat in the Legislative Assembly. Thereafter Tupper, an aggressive politician, rose rapidly in the ranks of the Conservative party, and he became premier of Nova Scotia in 1863.

Tupper's leadership was marked by a courageous reorganization of the province's educational system under the nonsectarian Council of Public Instruction and by his persistent championing of a union of the British North American colonies. Probably the most fruitful part of Tupper's confederation work came from his friendship with John Alexander Macdonald, who, when he became the first prime minister of Canada, chose Tupper as his right-hand man. Tupper was not at once in the first Canadian Cabinet, standing aside to permit a more balanced representation of Roman Catholics (Tupper was a Baptist), but he entered as president of the council in 1870. In the meantime, he had overcome ferocious opposition to Nova Scotia's participation in confederation and had even induced Howe, a leader of "repeal, " to enter Macdonald's government.

When Macdonald resigned in 1873 and was leader of the opposition until 1878, Tupper was again the forceful lieutenant, although he had to resume the practice of medicine. On Macdonald's victory in 1878, Tupper became minister of public works and then of railways and canals, in which capacity he was the overseer of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. So vast an enterprise made him enemies, and although no personal corruption was charged, his temporary retirement from the Cabinet was considered a sound move; in 1883 he was appointed high commissioner (ambassador) to the United Kingdom.

Tupper returned to Canada to campaign in the general elections of 1887 and 1891, briefly becoming minister of finance in 1887-1888. In 1896, when the Conservative party had fallen into almost total disarray after having had three leaders since Macdonald's death in 1891, Tupper was offered the prime ministership, which he assumed after the end of the first parliamentary session of 1896. He fought, and lost, the general election of 1896 as prime minister and remained as leader of the opposition until his personal defeat in 1900 as member of Parliament for Cumberland, a seat he had held provincially and then federally (except for his tours of duty in the United Kingdom) since 1855. He retired to look after a variety of business interests, dividing his time between Canada and England, and died in England on Oct. 30, 1915, the last survivor of the fathers of confederation.

Tupper was a doughty fighter for anything he believed in and an implacable foe of those who opposed him. His loyalty and courage were legendary, and under different circumstances he could easily have become a great prime minister. His major defeats (as in his inability to carry Nova Scotia either provincially or federally for confederation in 1867, the anticonfederates scoring overwhelming victories in both arenas) he regarded as merely temporary. He was a stout champion of Canadian autonomy and argued for a policy of national development years before the Conservative party under Macdonald finally adopted one.

As high commissioner in London, Tupper invariably sought, and with growing success, to enlarge Canada's role in the negotiation of treaties affecting the country. Frequently in his career he inherited enormous problems, one of the chief ones being the question of sectarian schools for Manitoba in 1896. But he never sought to avoid them or to blame somebody else for them. In 1869, during Canada's first Northwest rebellion, he went directly into the enemy's camp to seek news of his daughter, whose husband was an army captain.

Further Reading

There are several good books on Tupper, including his own Recollections of Sixty Years in Canada (1914); William A. Harkin, ed., Political Reminiscences of the Rt. Hon. Sir Charles Tupper (1914); E. M. Saunders, ed., The Life and Letters of the Rt. Hon. Sir Charles Tupper (1916); and James W. Longley, Sir Charles Tupper (1917).

Additional Sources

Durant, Vincent, War horse of Cumberland: the life and times of Sir Charles Tupper, Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 1985. □

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Sir Charles Tupper

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