Ottawa Lost: “The Big Man”

Near Ottawa City Hall at the corner of Cooper and Cartier Streets lived an unforgettable prime minister, Charles Tupper. His grand home like so much of the city’s architectural heritage is gone. Yet Tupper is oddly immortal.

His autograph lists on eBay for $4,950. In Parliament his portrait peered down over the main entrance to the Commons foyer. Across the country there are Tupper schools in Halifax and Vancouver where the basketball team is called the Tupper Tigers. There is a Tupper icebreaker in the Coast Guard, a Tupper township in Ontario, a Tupper Mountain in British Columbia.

The post office designed a Tupper stamp in 1955 and printed up 50,000,000 copies. The National Film Board once produced a Tupper movie, The Big Man. In painter Robert Harris’ famous composite portrait of the Fathers of Confederation the mutton-chopped Tupper stands as the most prominent figure in the foreground. Interestingly, he was prime minister only two months.

Tupper bought the house at 123 Cooper Street in the spring of 1896. It was an exclusive address. The home was built for the manager of the Bank of Ottawa.

Tupper became prime minister in May that year. On Cooper Street he plotted a disastrous election campaign in June that cost the Conservatives 35 seats including Tupper’s own Cape Breton riding, and here he sulked until resigning as prime minister in July.

“It was a hopeless task,” recalled Hector Charlesworth, a newspaperman who covered the ’96 campaign. Tupper assumed the premiership in the twilight days of a creaking Conservative dynasty 18 years in office. No Tory could have won that election, Charlesworth recalled: “Tupper was one of the greatest and most farseeing statesmen this continent has produced.”

Tupper was the nation’s sixth prime minister and the most fearsome. He once punched a man who interrupted his Bible reading. He was the first prime minister to speak Greek and Italian, the first to publish his memoirs, Recollections of Sixty Years in Canada, the first to use lapel buttons in an election campaign.

As a self-made millionaire he was founding president of Crown Life. As a gynecologist he was founding president of the Canadian Medical Association which annually sponsored a Charles Tupper Award for Political Action.

As public works minister Tupper oversaw construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. It was said he accepted $100,000 in payoffs. “They were a hungry lot in Ottawa then,” as one railway promoter put it.

In Tupper’s old hometown of Amherst, N.S., the Cumberland County Museum and Archives reported 5,000 visitors a year came to see Tupper’s desk. There is no such shrine at the corner of Cooper and Cartier Streets in Ottawa. Instead they put up a Holiday Inn.

By Andrew Elliott

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