From 1867 to 1896, Canada was mostly under a Conservative government, with one gap during 1873 to 1878 when Alexander Mackenzie and the Liberals led the country. During that stretch for the Conservatives, there would be five Conservative prime ministers but the last Conservative prime minister of the 19th century and the last one until 1911, would be Sir Charles Tupper. Not only the last Conservative Prime Minister of the 19th century, but Tupper would also have the distinction of serving as prime minister for the shortest time in Canadian history.
Tupper’s political career is much more than his time as prime minister, and it dates to the formation of the country itself.
Born on a small farm near Amherst, Nova Scotia on July 2, 1821 to a Baptist pastor and his wife, Tupper was home-schooled with supplemental grammar classes. He was also taught the merits of hard work and self-discipline. The Tupper family actually dates to Thomas Tupper, who settled in New England near Cape Code in the early 1600s. The Tupper family would arrive in Canada, or at least Nova Scotia, thanks to Capt. Eliakim Tupper Jr. who arrived in the mid-1700s.
In 1837, at the age of 16, he would attend Horton Academy in Wolfville, Nova Scotia where he focused on Latin, Greek, French and science. He would graduate in 1839 and went to New Brunswick briefly to teach before returning to Nova Scotia to study medicine. He would earn his medical degree in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh in 1843. While in England, he would sample scotch for the first time and his Baptist faith would slowly weaken over time.
He returned to Amherst in 1843 and opened a medical practice. He also called off an engagement to the daughter of a Halifax merchant that he had committed to five years previous. In 1846, he would marry Frances Morse and the couple would have six children. The couple were described as a close pair and Frances was always at the side of her husband, often following him as he travelled.
During his years as a country doctor, he was known for never refusing a sick call and his skill as a doctor. His patients were rumoured to say, quote:
“If Tupper gave you up, you might as well turn your face to the wall.”
By the time he was 22, it is said that Tupper had performed 116 obstetric operations. Local farmers always knew when Tupper was on call because they would find different horses in their barns. This was because on long routes, Tupper exchanged horses.
By the mid-1850s, Tupper was making friends with several prominent people in Nova Scotia including James William Johnston, the leader of the Conservative Party. In 1855, Johnston recommended to Tupper that he run for the Nova Scotia Assembly, which Tupper did. In a dramatic win, he was able to remove Joseph Howe, the incredibly popular Reform representative in Cumberland County. This win immediately pushed Tupper to the forefront of the party and while the Conservatives did not do well in the election, Tupper used his time to outline a new party strategy in caucus, with an emphasis to court Nova Scotia’s Roman Catholic minority and to push for railway construction. Within two years, Tupper had been able to convince several Roman Catholic Liberals to cross the floor, which pushed the Liberals into minority territory. Soon after, an election was called and the Conservatives came to power on Feb. 14, 1857, with Johnston becoming premier. As a reward for his work in changing the party’s fortunes, Tupper became the provincial secretary. At this point, he turned his medical practice over to his brother and partner.
In June of 1857, he began working with officials in New Brunswick and the Province of Canada to create an intercolonial railway but was unable to secure backing for the project. In fact, his very first speech in the legislature made clear that he felt the railroad was the most important thing for the government to commit to.
In 1859, the Conservative Party lost the election, but Tupper kept his seat.
While Tupper was serving in the Opposition following the 1859 election defeat of the Conservatives, he would start up a medical practice in Halifax, while also serving as a hospital surgeon and medical officer for the municipality. In 1863, he was elected as the president of the Medical Society of Nova Scotia and in 1867, he became the first president of the Canadian Medical Association. On Oct. 9, 1867, he went to Laval University to discuss creating a national medical society. The Quebec hosts felt that their own society president should be the first president of any national organization. Instead, Dr. W. Marsten, who they wanted in charge, stated that Tupper was the more desirable choice. In 1868, he transferred his practice to Ottawa. Over time, his medical duties would decrease as his political duties increased. Throughout his time in the House of Commons, he always had a medical bag under his desk.
The party to returned power in 1863, Tupper was once again provincial secretary. He would reach the highest post in Nova Scotia when he became the last premier of the Colony of Nova Scotia, serving from May 11, 1864 to July 3, 1867.
During his time as premier, Tupper enjoyed a booming economy that allowed him to expand the rail network. Tupper would also hire a man named Sandford Fleming to be chief engineer on the railway projects through Nova Scotia.
He would also enhance public schooling with the Free School Act to create state-subsidized public schools. The first Free School Act was passed in 1864 and it established state-subsidized common schools. The act did not introduce local taxation but provided greater financial support to school districts which instituted compulsory assessment. When fewer than half did so, Tupper then did another act in 1865 to create compulsory taxation.
He also worked to protect the interests of Nova Scotia fishermen, saying quote on March 19, 1866 in a proclamation:
“Hereafter all vessels and boats belonging to any foreign country pursuing the fisheries within the territorial jurisdiction of her Majesty, in the province of Nova Scotia, are by law subject to forfeiture and the parties engaged therein to penalties and that the law will be rigorously applied to all cases of trespass on the fishing grounds of Nova Scotia.”
As a doctor, he also knew the dangers of poor sanitation to human health. As a result, he passed health-regulation legislation to bury the open sewers running down the streets of Halifax. He also set quarantine laws and established an office of vital statistics.
As the premier of Nova Scotia, Tupper was at the forefront of Canadian Confederation and was in favour of a union between the Maritimes and British North America.
At first, he was pushing for a Maritime Union into its own country, but decided it was better to join into Confederation. He would attend the Charlottetown, Quebec, and London Conferences. Despite his influence as the premier, he was unable to win the approval for the Quebec Resolutions put forward in the Nova Scotia Assembly.
He would continue to advocate for Nova Scotia getting greater influence within Confederation, stating, quote:
He had a strong belief in Confederation, stating quote:
“British America, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, would in a few years exhibit to the world a great and powerful organization, with British Institutions, British sympathies and British feelings, bound indissolubly to the throne of England.”
At the Charlottetown Conference, when a photo was taken of all the delegates, Tupper is holding a pickaxe and has his foot on a fish, representing the two main industries of Nova Scotia.
Due to his work in Confederation, he was able to win the vote in favour of union in 1866, despite strong opposition from some such as Joseph Howe.
Once Confederation happened, Tupper left provincial politics and won a seat in the House of Commons, the only supporter of Confederation from Nova Scotia. As a strong supporter of Confederation, Tupper could have had a cabinet seat, but he chose to allow others from Nova Scotia, those who did not support Confederation, to enter the ministry as a way of dealing with the anti-Confederation sentiment in Nova Scotia. Tupper also began to work with Howe to protect the interests of Nova Scotia together in Parliament. This allowed Howe to become a minister in 1870, along with Tupper who became the president of the Privy Council in 1870, serving until 1872. During his time in the House of Commons, Tupper often spoke for his province on issues, trying get Nova Scotia better deals and terms within the new country.
He would also serve as the minister of inland revenue and the minister of customs until 1873. He served only from Feb. 22 to Nov. 5 in that role before the government of Macdonald was brought down by the Pacific Scandal. Tupper was not part of the scandal and had been excluded from the inner circle of the cabinet, so he did not know about the substantial contributions being made by Sir Hugh Allan to ministers in Quebec and Ontario.
In the 1874 election, after the collapse of the Conservatives, only Tupper and one other Conservative were elected in Nova Scotia. Tupper, perhaps seeing that the Conservatives would be back, stood by Macdonald for the next four years and he would campaign in nearly every by-election in Canada during that time. In the House of Commons, he became the Conservatives most effective critic of the government of Alexander Mackenzie.
Tupper was described as a serious worker who was seldom given to humour. Although he was known to joke on occasion, including at a banquet where speakers were limited to five-minute speeches. Known to talk for hours on end, Tupper told the crowd quote:
“I see we are limited to five minutes. I must, therefore, bring into play my well-known powers of condensation.”
Following the return of the Conservative Party to power in 1878, Tupper became the minister of public works briefly, followed by the minister of railways and canals from 1879 to 1884. Taking such a position at the time in Canada’s history was immensely important as the Canadian Pacific Railway was nearing completion. Tupper believed that the railway would tie the country together, and he promised Nova Scotia residents this when he was elected. Macdonald for his part was worried about cost overruns. The two friends would often quarrel over the railroad and would never reconcile. In May of 1879, he would announce a new Pacific Railway policy that provided 10 million acres of land for the purposes of constructing the railroad.
He would also lower freight rates to increase traffic and revenues, and he made reductions to operating costs. By the early-1880s, thanks to his work, the railroads were operating at a profit. He would also convince the Grand Trunk Railway to sell the Intercolonial branch line to complete the link between Halifax and the St. Lawrence, while also not giving up the CPR running lights.
Eventually, Tupper became the Commissioner to the United Kingdom where he was an advocate of an imperial federation with the United Kingdom. By this point, the relationship between Macdonald and Tupper was not as good as in the past, but when Tupper asked for the post, Macdonald agreed. Sir John A. Macdonald did not like the views of Tupper on the matter, but Tupper’s political power was enough that he was immune from any censoring.
By 1885, Macdonald would appeal to him to return and assist the party in the upcoming election, stating that his absence in the House of Commons was being felt. He would return to Nova Scotia to campaign, where he once again was elected. In 1887, he became the Minister of Finance while also serving as the High Commissioner.
The same year he became the Minister of Finance, he helped draft the British terms of reference regarding the fisheries convention of 1818. Tupper worked with John Sparrow David Thompson, who was the legal advisor. Joseph Chamberlain represented the British and in 1888, Tupper was able to secure a treaty that gave significant concessions to Canada. Tupper was knighted for his efforts.
His time in England brought him many honours. He had already received the Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1867 and was made a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George in 1879. In 1886, Queen Victoria created him a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, and in 1888 he was given a Baronet.
After the death of Macdonald, Tupper saw that he could become prime minister, but he knew it would not be welcomed and he enjoyed being in England. He would instead advise his son, Charles Hibbert, who by this time was in the House of Commons himself and serving as the minister of marine and fisheries, to support Sir John Thompson.
Following the death of Thompson, Tupper was the logical choice to succeed but Lord Aberdeen and his wife did not like Tupper, and Tupper’s health was not great at the moment, so Bowell was chosen instead.
Tupper would remain off and on in England until 1896 when he was alerted to the fact that Sir Mackenzie Bowell was about to be pushed out of government. Following the resignation of Bowell, Tupper became prime minister on May 1, 1896, following the dissolving of parliament on April 24. To deal with the growing issue of the Manitoba Schools Question, Tupper introduced legislation to protect the educational rights of the French-speaking minority of Manitoba, but the bill was blocked in the House of Commons. Called the Remedial Order, it required the Government of Manitoba restore the school system as it was before 1890. Unfortunately for Tupper, this was not enough.
During the election campaign, Tupper found that there was constant criticism levied against the Conservatives along the campaign trail. In one case, while speaking at Massey Music Hall in Toronto, he stated there was, quote:
“A constant din of meaningless interruptions.”
It was not always poor receptions for Tupper. At one point during the election campaign, Tupper visited Exeter to support the Conservative candidate and was met at the station by a procession that included carriages, two bands, hundreds of people on foot and 20 militiamen.
The election was held on June 23, 1896 and Tupper, along with the Conservatives, suffered a terrible defeat, allowing Sir Wilfrid Laurier to emerge as the new prime minister of Canada. The Conservatives lost 31 seats, falling to 86, while the Liberals picked up 27, earning a majority of 117. While Tupper and the Conservatives had far less seats than the Liberals, his party had more of the actual votes in the country. As a result, he argued that Laurier could not form a government and he attempted to make appointments for his cabinet, but Lord Aberdeen refused to confirm them. As a result, on July 8, he resigned, while complaining that Aberdeen had acted unconstitutionally.
Tupper would serve as the Leader of the Opposition, attempting to rebuild his party. He argued that Canada should support the South African War, but Laurier defused the issue to the point where the war was of limited significance by the 1900 election. Tupper’s strategy did pay off in Ontario where his party picked up 17 seats, but Laurier carried the rest of the country. Unfortunately for Tupper, he lost his seat in the election and soon resigned. Robert Borden, a future prime minister himself, succeeded Tupper as leader of the party.
Following this election defeat, Tupper was appointed to the British Privy Council. He would spend most of his time in England with his daughter Emma, but often came back to Canada.
In 1905, he was given an audience with Pope Piux X, and was made a Member of the Imperial Privy Council in 1909.
His wife Frances would pass away in 1912 after 65 years of marriage together. Tupper would then move to Vancouver, and then moved to England in 1913 to live with one of his daughters. In 1914, he would publish his Recollections of Sixty Years. His eldest son would die in April of 1915 and Tupper would die in England on Oct. 30, 1915. His remains were sent back to Canada to be buried in Halifax. Upon his death, he was the last surviving Father of Confederation. During his state funeral, the procession was a mile long.
Upon his death, Prime Minister Robert Borden would say in the House of Commons, quote:
Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who ended the prime minister career of Tupper, would say on the news of the death of Tupper, quote:
“I have said that courage was his chief characteristic, but it was not his only characteristic. His mind had been cast in a broad mould. Whatever question he had to deal with he never approached it from the narrow sphere of parochial limitation. On the contrary, he approached it always from the broadest conception it was susceptible of. When I entered this house, more than 40 years ago, these were the two things which particularly struck me in him.”
Laurier would continue, quote:
“His was courage, courage which no obstacle could down. Courage which battled and hammered, perhaps not always judiciously, but always effectively. Courage which never admitted defeat and which in the midst of overwhelming disaster ever maintained the proud carriage of unconquerable defiance.”
In 2016, he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. In a ranking of the first 20 prime ministers in Canadian history, Tupper finished 16th. The Sir Charles Tupper Medical Building at Dalhousie Medical School is named for him, as is the Sir Charles Tupper Building in Ottawa. That building serves as the headquarters of the Department of Public Works. Two schools, one in British Columbia and one in Nova Scotia are also named for him. Mount Tupper near the Rogers Pass in the Selkirk Mountains is named for him. Originally, it was named Hermit Mountain until 1887 when it was renamed in honour of Tupper.
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Biographi, Wikipedia, Library and Archives Canada, the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, the CMAJ, the History of Stephen Township, Memories of Long Ago, Nova Scotians At Home And Abroad, The Making Of The Canadian West, the Hub and the Spokes, The Cod Fisheries, the History of King’s County