Ottawa Citizen

Ottawa’s forgotten hero

Ignored by passersby, the Galahad statue on Wellington Street memorializ­es Bert Harper who died on this day in 1901. His story should inspire all as an example of heroism.


As I often do as Dec. 6 approaches, I went to Parliament Hill a few days ago to spend some time with Ottawa’s hero. If the spirit of Bert Harper lingers any place, it would be near the Galahad statue on Wellington Street.

The plan is to wait until somebody stops to look at the memorial to one man’s brave act, and observe reactions. This year it was a chilly Saturday and it appeared Bert might not get any attention. It was a girl about 12 who eventually stopped and brought the statue to the attention of her family. They paused and read the inscriptio­n, and the man I assumed was the father, said: “It seems some young man tried to save a girl from drowning.”

“Was he famous?” asked an older girl, who looked so like the younger girl she had to be a sister.

“I wonder who he was,” said the father as he moved away with the girls following him. The mother lingered and ran her fingers over the raised lettering of the plaque, then rushed to catch up with her family.

In late autumn the Galahad statue doesn’t get much attention from passers-by. Tourist season is over, and locals barely pay it any attention at any time of year. Galahad is a fictitious character, not a famous Canadian politician — the customary subjects for Parliament Hill statuary. Over the years I’ve been drawn to the Harper memorial, I’ve more than once watched a local resident, acting as a guide, bypass the statue without a word. I’ve heard some, when asked about it, describe it as “a decoration.”

I’ve never seen anybody, other than profession­al guides, stop and tell one of the capital’s most interestin­g stories, and even they go short on the details.

I was a 10-year-old boy attending Grade 5 at Elgin Street Elementary School when I discovered the statue. I walked past it twice every day. I often lingered, my boyish curiosity drawn to the caped, swordwield­ing knight, with his hand over his heart, peering bravely to the heavens. My imaginatio­n gave him words: “My duty is to rescue the helpless.” Then I would read the inscriptio­n on the bronze plaque, and not really knowing what it all meant, smile with the thought of it.

Eventually I asked my teacher about the Galahad statue. His attitude, as much as his answer, appealed to the rebel in me. He told me to stop wasting time with such trivial things and to pay attention to my studies.

Curiosity unsatisfie­d in a boy can quickly become an obsession. I’m now 67, and the boy in me is still obsessed.

I took my curiosity to the one person I knew who knew more about a lot of stuff than anybody in my small world — my Mom. I had no end of questions about so many things, and although she answered as best she could, she seldom stopped what she was doing. The Galahad question is one instance in memory where she stopped everything. I thought she was ignoring me because so much time passed without her saying anything. Then I watched my answer lady turn into a storytelle­r.

It was a long time ago, but I feel no discomfort in putting quotation marks around my mother’s words because I remember them exactly. “That statue is very important,” she said, “it was put there when I was only a little girl to honour a brave young man who tried to rescue a young woman from drowning in the Ottawa River. He knew it was impossible, but he had to try. He drowned too.”

She wiped at tears as she told the story, saying that it had been told to her by her parents, and that it was a story that should inspire all, by example of the quality of heroism. It was a man’s duty to rush to the aid of the helpless, even when it seemed hopeless.

She told the story in detail, and we both cried.

For the rest of my years in grade school, as I passed that memorial twice a day, I was in awe of Bert Harper. That’s when I started talking to him. I still do.

Dec. 6, 1901: There had been a bitter cold snap and not a drop of snow. The ice surface of the Ottawa River was a spectacula­r op- portunity for some fun in a town that, at that time of year, didn’t offer much. Their excellenci­es governor general Lord Minto and Lady Aberdeen saw an opportunit­y for some entertainm­ent. They threw an ice skating party that would become legend, albeit for the wrong reasons, after many in their party fell through the ice in the shallows at Rideau Falls.

It was dangerousl­y early to trust ice, but the glassy surface was spellbindi­ng. One could see fish. Some young skaters saw an opportunit­y to skate across the river.

The following morning the Ottawa

Citizen led the city in the mourning of the deaths of two beautiful young people; flowers of Ottawa society: They were Bessie Blair, the 19-year-old daughter of Hon. A. G. Blair, Canadian minister of railways and canals, and 27year-old Bert Harper, associate editor of the Labour Gazette. At the time he was also acting deputy minister of labour.

That grief became more profound when it was revealed through the paper that Mr. Harper died performing a selfless act of heroism. Witnesses told how Henry Albert “Bert” Harper had shown utter disregard for his own safety in a vain attempt to save Miss Bessie Blair from drowning. She had gone through the ice near the Quebec shore, and although Mr. Harper had to know it was hopeless, he lived in an age that honoured gallantry. How would he face his peers if didn’t try? He died trying.

It was the ultimate act of courage, and with the newspaper’s help, lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Holy Grail came to mind. The Galahad statue commemorat­es Harper’s bravery with this inscriptio­n chiselled into its granite base:

“GALAHAD CRIED … If I lose myself — I save myself …”

They were lines that teased a curious boy trying to understand, and drove me to learn the rest of the story.

Henry Albert “Bert” Harper was a small-town boy. On Dec. 9, 1873 he was born in Cookstown, Ont., a dusty little hamlet about 30 kilometres from Barrie. The Harper family, consisting of Bert and his mother Margaret, father Henry, two sisters and two brothers, moved to Barrie seven years later where he was raised and educated. In his early years Bertie (as his family called him) enjoyed yearround activities including boating, fishing, swimming and skating on Lake Simcoe’s Kempenfelt Bay, just across the street from their home on Dunlop Street.

In the autumn of 1891 when he was 17, Bert Harper enrolled at the University of Toronto and roomed at the same boarding house as fellow U of T student and future prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. With Mackenzie King, called “Billy” by his classmates, Harper shared various common interests including politics, social reform and literature. All were debated at length, with intermissi­ons filled by poetry of the likes of Tennyson and Longfellow.

During this period of his life young Harper kept daily journals (on file at the National Archives of Canada) and from them we know him.

He enjoyed working on election campaigns and was dedicated to learning. He was a popular fellow and a ladies’ man. Names pop up, including Bea, Rose, Miss Lowrey, Emma Stewart, Constance Kerr and many others. There were picnics, bowling, cruising on Lake Ontario, moonlit carriage rides, open-air band concerts and dances. He was invited to many events featuring tea and literary readings.

Mackenzie King wrote in his 1919 book, The Secret of Heroism: A Memoir of Henry Albert Harper, that as a prominent member of the U of T Student Literary and Scientific Society, Harper was able to witness the currency of his thoughts on social reform by seeing them in action at the 1895 U of T students’ strike against censorship in the student paper, the Varsity. This would act as a guiding force that led him to journalism after completing his master’s degree. He worked as a reporter first in London, Ont., and then at the Toronto Mail and Empire, now the Globe and Mail.

Harper’s appointmen­t in February, 1899 to the staff of the Montreal Herald, one of the most influentia­l papers of the day, broadened his experience. While at the Herald, Harper wrote a long list of probing editorials on a wide variety of subjects. Twenty-six of his editorials are stored in the newspaper section of the National Archives.

He was ahead of his time, and banged heads with the male bastions of Canadian society that continued to freeze out the participat­ion of women.

The Historical Society of Canada in Montreal did not allow women members. Her Excellency Lady Aberdeen, an advocate for the interests of the women of Canada, was an admirer of Bert Harper.

She invited him to address the opening reception of the Women’s National Historical Society. Harper accepted, and in the face of contempora­ry male thinking, advocated for women to take their place in Canadian society. His speech could have been considered a creed for the continuing fight for women’s rights, but he was considered too young. He was 25.

In the summer of 1900, the government establishe­d the new Department of Labour, and in No- vember of that year, Harper left the Herald to accept the position of associate editor of the department’s official journal, the Labour Gazette. The editor was Mackenzie King.

Harper also took on management duties, and filled in for the deputy minister, another post held by Mackenzie King, when the latter was away.

Harper delved deeply into labour conditions across the spectrum, in order to fine-tune his knowledge of the field, as shown by examples quoted from The Secret Of Heroism: “I spent most of the day in the Library of Parliament, reading up on the provincial acts concerning mining. The thing which impressed me, as I read, was the uninviting nature of the task of the miner, cut off from the light of day, hewing away in the bowels of the earth, exposed to the danger of cave-ins, explosions, and a living entombment, as the result of carelessne­ss on the part of his employers, or his associates, or the will of nature …”

And again: “… I have been much interested in working upon the article on the Fisheries of Canada inasmuch as it has shown to me a sturdy class of men toiling under conditions of hardship and danger for what is comparativ­ely a small return …”

On Dec. 6, 1901, when Mr. Harper went skating, Mackenzie King was returning by train from working at labour negotiatio­ns in British Columbia.

At about 4:30 that afternoon, Alex Creelman, an accountant at the Imperial Bank, along with Bessie Blair and Jeannie Snowball, daughter of Senator Snowball of New Brunswick, started skating from the Rideau Canal.

A short distance later, Bert Harper joined in and they all skat- ed down the river. Owing to rough ice at one point, the skaters separated, with Harper and Snowball skating to the right and Creelman and Blair to the left. Just below Rockcliffe, they all skated toward the north shore with Alex and Bessie about 50 yards in the lead.

It was getting dark, and Creelman was powering along, vigorously skating and pulling Blair along by letting her hold onto his walking stick. He was spinning and swinging her in wide arcs. Suddenly they plunged through the ice into the moving water beneath. Creelman supported Blair until he sank from exhaustion.

Harper then reached the scene and shouted at the others to stay back, as the ice cracked ominously.

Harper sent others for help to Gatineau Point, the nearest landfall. With ice forming on her hair and jacket, Blair was holding on bravely. Creelman, having been swept downstream, was able in a last desperate push, to break through the ice a short distance downstream, and hold on.

Harper flung his stretched-out scarf for a lifeline in an attempt to pull Blair onto the ice. He had to keep crawling closer despite the threatenin­g cracking. He made it, but in her weakened state Blair couldn’t hold on. She started to sink soundlessl­y. Bert Harper peeled off his hat, gloves and coat. Someone shouted: “For God’s sake, not you too!”

“What else can I do?” Harper said as he slipped into the icy water.

The Galahad quote would find its way into print, one of the witnesses claiming Bert was heard to say: “If I lose myself, I save myself.” That may have been a stretch, but it grabbed at the hearts of newspaper readers.

Bessie and Bert died together. Their bodies were found the next morning, not far from each other. He was three days shy of his 28th birthday.

Ottawa was thrown into mourning when news of the tragedy hit the streets. Within a few days the Henry Albert Harper memorial fund was founded. Mackenzie King argued for a likeness of the noble Galahad, a fitting memorial for his heroic friend:

“The character of Harper’s act was sufficient in itself to suggest ‘Sir Galahad’ as a subject suitable for a memorial of this kind, but the choice had, in fact, a more intimate associatio­n with Harper himself. Hanging on the wall above the desk in his study, and immediatel­y before him whenever he sat down to work, was a carbon reproducti­on of Watts’s painting (of Sir Galahad). He had placed it there himself, and often, in speaking of it to others, had remarked, ‘There is my ideal knight!’”

Interestin­g names can be found on the list of donors. Sandford Fleming (inventor of standard time) $25, Thomas Ahearn (inventor of the electric stove) $100, Nicholas Sparks’s children (Nicholas, Doris, Gracie and Beatrice) 50 cents each, Hon. A.G. Blair (Bessie’s father) $200, William Lyon Mackenzie King $25, fish monger Albert Lapointe $1, “a working man” $1, and many more.

When enough money was raised, the design and creation of the sculpture was put to tender. The artist selected was renowned American sculptor Ernest Wise Keyser. On Nov. 18, 1905, the Galahad statue was unveiled “amid a vast throng,” according to the Ottawa Journal.

As I walked away after the family paid unknowing homage at the statue, I carried the girl’s question. “Was he famous?”

He is to me.

 ??  ?? The Sir Galahad memorial to Bert Harper bears the inscriptio­n, ‘If I lose myself — I save myself.’
The Sir Galahad memorial to Bert Harper bears the inscriptio­n, ‘If I lose myself — I save myself.’

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