Flashback Friday – Sir Charles Tupper

I know everyone is always looking for cool facts and trivia that could be rolled out to impress your friends at parties, and other events, so why not wow them with your knowledge of Canadian prime ministers. Today we are featuring the prime minister who has the unenviable distinction of having the shortest tenure as a Canadian prime minister. Lasting only 69 days, Charles Tupper’s government was defeated just over two months after he took office. While Tupper was a father of confederation, and a successful premier of Nova Scotia, his record as prime minister is too short to have had much of an impact. Nevertheless, he still gets recorded in the history books as Canada’s sixth prime minister, serving from May 1 – July 8, 1896.

Tupper was born in Nova Scotia in 1821. Upon graduation from high school he travelled to Scotland, where he became a doctor. He then returned to Nova Scotia after completion, and opened his own practice. During this time he also met and married Frances Morse. Together they would have six children and be married nearly sixty-five years upon her death. In 1855, Tupper was convinced to enter politics by the leader of the Conservative party of Nova Scotia. James Johnston was a close personal friend of the Tuppers, and although being reluctant at first, he went on to defeat a prominent Liberal MLA and won a seat in the Nova Scotia legislature. During this period, the Liberals were in power, and Tupper was very much involved in the Conservative party’s attempts to regain power. When the Liberal government fell to minority status, Premier William Young was forced to resign and the Conservatives formed the government. Tupper was now afforded even more power, as he was very close to the now Premier James Johnston.

The Conservatives and Liberals traded power back and forth between 1857 and 1863. Tupper was a fierce opponent to the Liberals, and was often more vocal than Conservative leader Johnston. In the election of 1863, the Conservatives received a majority, and Tupper returned to the post of provincial secretary. By 1864, Johnston retired from politics, and it was evident that Tupper was the party’s natural successor. He had been essentially running the party unofficially for years and became premier in 1864.

While he only served as premier for three years, it was an eventful three years for Nova Scotia and the country. During his time in provincial politics, Tupper had made many trips to Britain to lobby for various causes. During this time he noticed that there was a push by many to unite the colonies into a unified country. At first Tupper, and many other maritime residents were strongly opposed to union. After American victories over Britain, Tupper was convinced the province had to unite with the other colonies, lest they be taken over by American muscle. As such, he attended every conference on unification determined to see Nova Scotia join forces with the other colonies. Meanwhile in his home province, a growing anti-confederation movement was growing, and Tupper faced a large opposition. Nevertheless, Tupper negotiated an agreement, and Nova Scotia was included in confederation, July 1, 1867.

That same year, Tupper set his sights on federal politics. Canada now had a federal government, which needed leaders to run it. Tupper was the only pro-confederation individual elected from Nova Scotia. As Sir John A. Macdonald put his first cabinet together, Tupper took a reduced role in government. He served as an MP, but also was elected the first president of the Canadian Medical Association. Tupper had continued to practice medicine since entering politics, and it still played a large role in his life. During this time he also helped to stop Nova Scotia from leaving confederation, as opposition to the decision was still rampant. Tupper was finally included in Macdonald’s cabinet in 1872, and he was then shuffled through a handful of different portfolios, all the while maintaining fierce loyalty to Macdonald.

In 1874, the Pacific Scandal brought down Macdonald’s government. Tupper managed to hang onto his seat though. As such, he had an increased voice, representing the party in parliament, even though Macdonald remained as leader. In 1878 Macdonald returned to power, and Tupper was once again shuffled through a handful of different cabinet positions. It was obvious that Tupper would take over from Macdonald when he retired, but a disagreement between the two ended that dream. By 1883 Tupper had quit cabinet, resigned as an MP and left for London to be the High Commissioner. He remained in this role until 1895, although he dabbled in Canadian federal politics periodically.

In 1891, Macdonald died, and the party was faced with replacing its leader for the first time. Although at one time Tupper was the obvious successor, that had changed when he left for London. He was more than qualified for the position, but was passed over not once, but twice, before he finally was handed the job. The party gave the reins to John Abbott. Abbott had been reluctant to take the job, but was begged by the party to do so. He remained in the role for just over one year, before brain cancer forced him to retire. He then handed power to John Thompson who had been some people’s first choice to replace Macdonald. Thompson was in the position for approximately two years when he died from a sudden heart attack at 49. He was the second prime minister, after Macdonald, to die in office.

The Governor General was now forced to call on a new individual to form a government. The party had expected Governor General Lord Aberdeen to call on Tupper to return from London to take over, but Aberdeen strongly disliked Tupper. As such he offered the job to Mackenzie Bowell who took over. Meanwhile, Tupper did return from London and won another seat in Parliament. He once again worked very close with his prime minister, nearly overshadowing them. Bowell’s government struggled with the Manitoba Schools Question, and was dissolved in 1896. Tupper then took over as prime minister, but never actually got a chance to sit in parliament as federal leader. His government was defeated weeks later in the Canadian federal election of 1896. Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals won a controversial victory. While Tupper won the popular vote, Laurier won the seat count, with support from Quebec. Tupper was not looked upon kindly in Quebec, and won few seats in the province. Tupper initially refused to cede power to Laurier but his nemesis, Governor General Lord Aberdeen, let Laurier form a government.

At 74, Tupper was and still is the oldest prime minister to ever serve. Although I am sure he would prefer not to have the titles as the shortest tenure, and oldest prime minister, that’s how he is remembered. But he is looked upon more favourably for his time as premier, cabinet minister and High Commissioner. He fought to bring Nova Scotia into confederation, then fought even harder to keep it there. He was a loyal servant to four Conservative prime ministers, and served in parliament for many years. He remained as opposition leader until 1900, when he was replaced by Robert Borden.

Tupper and his wife retired to London, but he made many trips back to Canada. He died in 1915, at the astonishing age of 94. That gives him another distinction, as being the longest lived prime minister. Tupper came painfully close to beating Laurier in 1896, but it was not meant to be. What are your thoughts on Charles Tupper?



About Chris James

A student of political science at a Canadian University sharing stories of interest on Canadian and American political and social issues.

Posted on February 25, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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