Reflections for Canada Day: The Planter Prime Ministers

In ten days time Canadians will observe Canada Day, the 133rd anniversary of Confederation. On July 1st 1867 four former British colonies: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick. Lower Canada (Québec) and Upper Canada (Ontario) were united to form a new Dominion.

Use of the word Dominion was the inspiration of a New Brunswick Father of Confederation, Samuel Leonard Tilley. During the course of the 1866 London Conference, the Canadian delegation was struggling to find a distinctive name for the country. Their first choice, Kingdom of Canada, was discarded because it might, in the words of John A. Macdonald, wound the sensibilities of the Yankees.

At this point Tilley intervened. Legend has it that he was reading his Bible the previous night, and noted a verse in Psalm 72: He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth. Since the Fathers of Confederation were dreaming great dreams of a country that might extend from sea to sea, they accepted Tilley’s suggestion and settled on Dominion of Canada. In 1871 their hope became reality when British Columbia entered Confederation.

From 1867 until 1982 Canada’s national holiday was known officially as Dominion Day. This was changed by an act of Parliament passed on October 27, 1982 renaming July 1st Canada Day. The motivation for change was a belief that Dominion had colonial overtones and that the change was more appropriate for a fully independent country.

As we enter a new millennium, celebrations on Canada Day 2000 will undoubtedly spotlight our past. This interest is also revealed in recent media attention to Canadian history. For example, several newspapers and magazines have compiled lists ranking Canada’s Prime Ministers from 1867 to the present. At least two books have appeared on the same subject.

Of the 21 individuals who have served as Prime Minister of Canada, there have been but four Maritimers: Sir John S. D. Thompson, Sir Charles Tupper, Sir Robert Borden and Rt. Hon. R. B. Bennett. It is worthy of note that the latter three all shared a common New England Planter ancestry; and further, that both Tupper and Bennett had close associations with this region.

In 1760 Sir Charles Tupper’s New England ancestors moved from Lebanon, Connecticut to Cornwallis Township in Nova Scotia. His father, Rev. Charles Tupper became a Baptist minister and served for many years in Amherst, NS. Charles Jr., was born on July 2. 1821 at East Amherst where the family then lived.

Later Tupper graduated in Medicine from Edinburgh University. He then returned home to set up a practice serving much of western Cumberland county and adjacent Westmorland county. Next time you visit Amherst, check out the pharmacy on the corner of Church and Victoria Street. One of the oldest in Canada, it was begun by Dr. Charles Tupper in 1843. Later sold to his brother, Nathan, also a medical doctor, it passed through many hands and is known today as Pugsley’s Pharmacy.

As of the year 2000, Sir Charles Tupper is on record as having served the shortest time as Prime Minister — a mere 69 days in 1896. However, it is recognized that Tupper’s major accomplishments came earlier in his career. Entering provincial politics in 1855 as MLA for Cumberland he went on to be Premier of Nova Scotia, advocate of free public school education, a leading Father of Confederation, long time federal cabinet minister, Canadian High Commissioner in London and MP for Cumberland for much of his career from 1867 onward.

Following his defeat by Sir Wilfrid Laurier in the election of 1896 Tupper served as Leader of the Opposition until 1900. As a means of promoting his political views during these two election campaigns, Tupper Clubs were formed in both Amherst and Sackville. For the last years of his life he lived in Bexley Heath, Kent, England. He died there October 30, 1915, the last surviving Father of Confederation.

Sir Robert Borden was Prime Minister from 1911 until 1920. The Borden family descended from Perry Borden, whose birthplace was Tiverton, Rhode Island. The family emigrated to Kings County, NS where Robert Laird Borden was born at Grand Pré on June 26, 1854. Elected in 1908 as MP for Halifax; he was to represent this constituency for most of his political career. Borden became leader of the opposition following Tupper’s defeat in 1900 and was elected Prime Minister in 1911. His major triumphs came during World War One. Owing to Borden’s efforts Canada gained a seat at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, became a signatory of the peace treaties, a founding member of the League of Nations and the International Labour organization.

Although Borden had few personal links with this region, his government will be remembered for establishing permanent ferry service between Cape Tormentine and Borden PEI. The latter community was named in his honor. During roughly the same period that Borden was prime minister, another descendant of the same Planter family, Dr. Byron Crane Borden, served as president of Mount Allison University.

Prime Minister R. B. Bennett’s forebears were part of the Lyme, Connecticut migration to Horton Township, NS in 1761. Twenty years later, the Bennett’s along with other Planter families moved across the Bay of Fundy, to found a New Horton in Albert County. Richard Bedford Bennett was born at Hopewell Cape, July 3, 1870. A lawyer by profession, he moved to Calgary in 1897. It was from here that that he was to launch his career in federal politics.

Bennett had the misfortune to be Prime Minister from 1930 to 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression. Consequently his place in Canadian history will always be measured by this fact. Following his defeat in

the federal election of 1935 he, like Tupper, left Canada to reside permanently in England. Created Viscount Bennett in 1941, he died five years later at his estate in Mickleham, Surrey, England.

Of the three Planter Prime Ministers, Bennett had the closest connection with the Tantramar region. His brother Captain Ronald V. Bennett lived in Sackville; thus over the years R. B. Bennett was a frequent visitor to the town. A bachelor, it was his custom, whenever possible, to spend Christmas with his brother and family at The Anchorage on York Street. On one of these visits, the Prime Minister was serenaded by members of the Mount Allison Glee Club. R. B. appeared at the front door and presented each singer with a red rose.

Both Bennetts, true to their Methodist roots, were benefactors of Mount Allison. In 1943 Viscount Bennett gave the university $200,000 to endow scholarships and faculty salaries. Financial aid from Captain Bennett in 1958 was responsible for the erection of three new men’s residences. One of these was named Bennett House in his honor.

On October 23, 1998 another university link was forged with the Bennett family. The renovated Animal Pathology Laboratory originally built by the federal Department of Agriculture in 1955 was reopened as the Bennett Building. It honors the memory of Major Edwin Ronald Bennett and Lieutenant Henry Harris Bennett, sons of Captain Ronald V. Bennett and Marion Machum Bennett. Both were killed in action, August, 1944. The building now houses the Centre for Learning Technologies.