Charles Tupper & Me


Nellie McClung


I went down to Wesley United Church on Burrard in Vancouver to hear Dr. Helen Caldicott, the Australian doctor who keeps check on these crazy men and their atomic bombs—and who I consider the smartest woman in the world.Suddenly a 6’3” tall, dark handsome man in a green Tilley hat walked down the aisle. My friend Velma Paige, who protests against Bush—even when she is alone at the Court House—was talking to him. I nudged my way in. With a smile (she found it funny) she said, “Nellie McClung, this is Charles Tupper.” I said: “Tupper? Tupper? Doesn’t that have something to do with Upper or Lower Canada?” “Yes,” smiled this handsome man, “My great, great grandfather was Prime Minister of Canada.”“Well, you certainly are good looking,” I went on blithely, “but I have a boyfriend.” He just smiled. “Where have you been?” I continued, relentlessly zooming in on the target. “Oh, I’ve been around,” he drawled.

Later when we were standing by the books at the back of the room, I went up and said “Ming Jung Li, the beautiful Korean girl who gives the news on Global TV, asked me the most interesting question I ever had in my life when we met at an art show. She asked me, if I liked being Nellie McClung? The answer is yes.” I asked, “How do you feel about being Charles Tupper?” “I like it too,” he said. “Let’s get together and tell funny stories about our families.” “OK”, he said.

And that’s how Charles Tupper and I became friends.

I discovered he lives alone in a small house at 13th and Cambie, is completely at home with himself (private schools do this for you). He greets you at his home in his Bali sarong, silver Haida bracelet and clay pendant. He’s 51. His place is called “Skeldale House” after the British television series “All Creatures Great and Small”. He is a computer analyst and his family dates back to 829 A.D. They have a coat of arms, a knight’s helmet, a whippet on top a greyhound and three clam shells. The family motto is “Hope is My Strength”. Tupper means a keeper of the rams and “pile driver”.

He has a sister Julia who lives in Vancouver, Washington, and she assures me Charles is “sweet” which is a nice thing for a sister to say about a brother. He is always on the phone giving advice to his friends and I tell him he should charge, set up a business.

He tells me the first Charles Tupper was a doctor and a lawyer and generally credited with bringing Nova Scotia into Confederation. He supported the building of the railway and is responsible with bringing MacDonald on board. I phoned the library and they told me Tupper used to like to tell little jokes, which no one found funny, but everyone encouraged him because he was such a nice guy. He was something like Kim Campbell because he was only in office for three months.

Charles, the descendant, has political ambitions and works as a strategist for the Conservative party. He is currently working for Vancouver Centre candidate Gary Mitchell.

Anyway, one thing I forgot to tell you is he drives a Landrover (right hand drive), and likes going out to Van Dusen Gardens where they have an auto show, have tea, and chat about his car. He tells me 80% of Landrovers are still on the road.

Charles is very good about calming me down when I phone and tell him I’m giving up Andy, my boyfriend, 79, after a fracas. He tells me Andy is very good for me, that I’m lucky to have him, which I suppose on reflection I already knew.

I should add Charles has a wing at St. George’s Boys School named after him, a street, and the Sir Charles Tupper School. We’re going there sometime to have a picture taken with all of us under the name, Tupper. Yes, Tupper Ware is a branch too.

He also owns an island in Howe Sound. I have plans to go to Hermit Island next summer, but when I mention it Charles just smiles.

Sonnet for Peter

I hung my poem
about Ireland
out the window
to dry for you
(you lying pale & wan
in your hospital bed)
& soon the gannet & kestrel
small sparrows in twos and threes
alighted at your window
& pecked at the words

& you said it was good
excitement in your voice
“The birdies are here,”
on the phone

not knowing what to do
with my simple poem
I came each day
and pinned my latest poem
with clothes pins
on a wire across your window

I thought of Chekhov’s story we shared
of the man who goes to visit
a hospital patient, & describes
the view out the window, to the enthusiasm
of the patient the next visitor
saying there was only a brick wall

& again of Li Po who put his poems
in lighted candled paper boats

and sent them out to sea in the dark

Poetry’s Finest Hour

when I was twenty
in Toronto
teaching English
to some young Italians
in a settlement house
on Spadina

I would say blue
& they would say like
your eyes just practicing
simpatico wherever they go

I would come in tired of all this
& sat beside Margrethe, a social worker
from Germany, older, fortyish

she turned to me one night
at the dinner table & said
“do you like poetry?”

I haven’t read much I said,
but I know it’s waiting for me

a strange look came into her eyes
& she invited me up to her room
to try on hats, a blue velvet I remember

& then all of a sudden she could
keep her secret no longer

I was a guard at Belsen, she said
when I walked down those rows at night
I heard Poetry being quoted

for Irving Layton


My friend
Ruth Graffir
on the Olympic ski team
in Italy

arrived in Vancouver
I met her at the post
office at Christmas time
where we were each doing
our stint

we discussed the war

she told me there was a man
in her village
during the war

who was employed by the Germans
in Poland to push the Jews

through the doors to the gas ovens

he took pity on one young little
boy & kept pushing him toward

the back of the line

until the Germans noticed
what he was doing & told him
it was his life or the boy’s.
Ruth said in later years
in the village he was
considered odd & kept to himself.

Johnny Appleseed

I’m not too much
for work
but one of the jobs

I thought I’d like

is standing on the back
platform of a caboose

as the train sped across
the prairies

throwing flower seeds
from a gunny sack

to both sides of the track

so that next spring

passengers in trains would

look out the window

& see a profusion of flowers
growing beside the train & track

daffodils, fireweed, red poppies

delphiniums, butter cups

snapdragons, hollyhocks

along the train-tracks…

as far as the eyes can see
across the prairies


blowing whistles
slicing the Carrigana pod
in the hot, dusty

I am five
there’s a bee’s nest
in the hedge

Kim, the old spaniel
black & white
sits on his doorstep
next door

I am eating red licorice
& trying to catch
fireflies with my hand

the first breeze
stirs the honeysuckle
& wild rose
wafting over
the verandah,
the prairie sun setting

where are all the
fireflies gone?
you never hear of
fireflies any more

Bird in the City

Just two inches long. In a circular
straw little basket. The kids rang
the doorbell excitedly. “We found it.
A cat got it.” I took it in and
placed it on the kitchen table. It didn’t
move, dazed, but its little breast rose and fell.
Now as an animal activist, I phoned the
Emergency Animal Clinic at Fir and Fourth open
24 hours a day. “Place it back where you got it,”
was the advice, “but if the cat is around, bring it in.”
It was eleven o’clock at night so I put it in
a plastic shopping bag and tore a small hole
so it could breathe. Then I caught the skytrain.
Suddenly on the train it started chirping.
Everyone looked around delighted, with smiles
on their face. I pointed to the bag and explained.
It chirped again and again. Finally,
I took it to the clinic. “They don’t usually
last the night,” she said, “infection gets in
and without antibiotics they die.”
The nurse said it has a large wound in its side.
“But it chirped all the way down,” I insisted.
I phoned in the morning. It had died during
the night but it had made its statement
chirping on the way to the clinic.
For one shining moment, it brightened its
little corner of the world.

Slaughter in March

The baby seal
is born
with a tear in its
I know why.

That’s all…

But the baby seal
is lucky.
It gets out of this
rotten world early.

It is the mother seal
who could have spawned
nine or ten times
on the ice floes

Only to see her beautiful
white fur pups massacred
before her eyes.

She is trapped by

Repeat victims in this
act of immorality.

(And do not tell me
animals do not have
a retentive memory.)

Save your tears
for the mother seal.

Newfoundland Arm Pie

Knock one cruel and old Newfoundlander /

on the head / Leave rest of body / skinned alive /

taking arms only leaving red carcasses on the innocent

snow-white ice-field / like wounds. / Boil until blubber /

top with whipped cream and cherry

Serve at state functions / of joyous baby seal gatherings

in St. Anthony’s.

On the Old Silk Road

on the silk road
in ancient China
friends would tear off willow trees

twist them into circles
& give them to travelers
for good luck
departing on the silk road

many never returned


Ten thousand butter-lamps are burning
awash on the grief-air


the country that
eats its young

Goddess of Freedom

Tiananmen Square
June 5, 1989

Mademoiselle Hamlet

when Richard Burton
met her he asked
if he could kiss
her knees

& his wish was
the mysterious elusive

who set her stamp
on the ‘30s
pencil-thin eyebrows
butterfly mouth
slouch felt hat

Before this,
she lived in the Soder,
the poorest part of
Stockholm, her father
a labourer, dying when she
was 13. At 14 she was a
barber’s assistant,
soaping men’s faces until
The Torrent.

A doctor’s daughter
threw herself in front
of her car, for love.
A spectator
at her film in France,
walked over the row of seats
& into the screen.

La divine’s public resented
her frugal diet (spinach,
yogurt, carrots) her nomad’s home
(two rooms furnished crudely)
her trousers, flat heels, severe
hats, her diffidence—which
trampled on their love.

Her I want to be alone
Ninotchka said was I want
to be left alone
A character in search of an author.
Worthy of Baudelaire.


the modern poet: a little talent,
an emphatic reader
& a lot of nerve

Nellie McClung
Born in Edmonton, Nellie McClung attended the University of Alberta and is the grand-daughter of the famous Canadian novelist and suffragette, Nellie McClung. Her books include Duenda, Baraka, and a book of stories, Tea with the Queen. Nellie McClung has made her home in Vancouver for many years.

CHARLES TUPPER & ME © Nellie McClung, 2004, 2012