Prime Minister Arthur Meighen lived for years on tree-lined Cooper Street in Ottawa. He owned a rambling Georgian Revival-style home. Meighen raised a family, sent his three children to Ottawa public schools and crafted the most momentous legislation of his era. Today the house is gone, replaced with an ugly apartment block.
Meighen was a brilliant math scholar and lawyer, a six-term parliamentarian, the most influential solicitor general in Canadian history and twice prime minister, in 1921 and 1926. He bought the place at 21 Cooper in 1915. It had a magnificent view of the Rideau Canal yet Meighen lived so plainly he kept chickens in the backyard.
Here he crafted the bill that created Canadian National Railways. He wrote the country’s first conscription bill in 1917 and emergency legislation that ended the 1919 Winnipeg general strike. On hearing Meighen speak in the Commons, Wilfrid Laurier said: “Remarkable.”
He lived simply on Cooper Street. Meighen had an unaffected lifestyle. In 1921 a colleague noted the Prime Minister arrived at work having forgotten to shave. He wore suits till they were threadbare and “has not yet learned to put on his collar and tie properly or wear a hat that does not look like an undertaker’s,” a reporter wrote in 1935.
He was a farmer’s son and all his life had a farmer’s habits. In his youth in St. Marys, Ont., Meighen had sold twine door to door and remained a champion walker. The old man’s walks were “interminable,” his grandson Michael Meighen once told an interviewer.
As prime minister, Meighen walked 13 blocks to work at a military pace, then home for lunch – onion soup, two slices of brown bread, ice cream, coffee – then back to work, six days a week. Meighen had one vice, tobacco. He rolled his own cigarettes.
Most evenings he remained at home, working and smoking, and Cooper Street neighbours would stop by. “He lived in one of the plainest houses,” recalled one visitor, “with no celebrated fads, no celebrated pictures, not much music, but plenty of room for the juveniles.”
In time Meighen moved to Toronto and became a wealthy investment banker. He sold the place on Cooper Street in 1941, for $16,000. In 1957, long retired from politics, Meighen said: “I don’t regret my time in public life. I don’t have to make amends.”
He died in 1960. They demolished the place on Cooper Street in 1965. Today there is nothing to remind us of Meighen’s life in Ottawa.
By Andrew Elliott