In 2001, I had never heard of Lawrence Johnstone Burpee, but he was to become an inspiration for me. I was writing speeches for Saskatchewan premier Lorne Calvert, who maintained a prodigious schedule. When I broke for lunch after a morning of composing, I would often wander over to the nearby public library in Saskatoon where I then lived. I began to look for books containing speeches, perhaps in the hope that such material would provide some inspiration for my work in the afternoon. I did find volumes of speeches by American and British orators, and even a book of speeches by Australians. But I found little that was Canadian in content.
A little gem
That led me to contact the Legislative Library in Regina and there I struck pay dirt. They provided me with small gem called Canadian Eloquence, edited by Lawrence Burpee and published by The Musson Book Company of Toronto almost a century earlier in 1910. The slim little book comprised only 112 pages contained about 20 speeches. But some of Canada’s early statesmen and orators were there, including John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier, Joseph Howe, a Nova Scotia journalist and politician in colonial days and later an MP, and Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a Montreal journalist and MP, who was murdered in Ottawa in April 1868.
Here is how Burpee rated them as speakers:
— “In the field of Canadian eloquence, Joseph Howe and Thomas D’Arcy McGee stand pre-eminent.”
— “As a public speaker, Sir John Macdonald was rather forceful than eloquent.”
— “Sir Wilfrid Laurier [is] easily the foremost speaker in Canadian public life today (circa 1910), and with few peers among the statesmen of other lands.”
Anyone interested in Canadian history, politics and rhetoric knows of these people, but I was curious to learn more about Lawrence Burpee. Just who was the person who produced this small treasure in 1910? Burpee is not at all a household name but from what I have been able to discover he was a 20th century Renaissance man, skilled and highly productive.
He was born in Halifax in 1873 but moved to Ottawa during his childhood. He worked as a private secretary to three federal ministers of justice between 1890 and 1905, which means he began to do so at age 17. He would have served in a Conservative governments between 1890 and 1896, when Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberals were elected. He would then have worked under a Liberal government for nine years. Following that, he spent seven years as librarian at the Ottawa Public Library before becoming Canadian secretary to the International Joint Commission from 1912 until his death in 1946.
In addition to his professional life, Burpee was also omnipresent in cultural organizations where he would have volunteered his time and talents. He helped to found the Canadian Historical Association in 1922 and was its first president until 1925. He was president of the Royal Society of Canada, president of the Canadian Authors’ Association, and founding member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Writers’ Foundation. He was also a founding editor of the Canadian Geographical Journal. He was an early advocate for Canada’s having a National Library, which came into being only in 1953.
A search of a site called Open Library produces a list of 53 titles by Burpee, many of them with geographical themes related to the early exploration of Western Canada. But he also wrote a biography of famed railway engineer Sandford Fleming, and among his other book titles are these: Canadian novels and novelists; A little book of Canadian essays; Songs of French Canada; and Humour of the North. Ironically, most lists of Burpee’s books do not even mention Canadian Eloquence, which has been of great use to me.
Independence for Poland
Finally, there is a tidbit of biographical information about Burpee which obviously points to an interesting story, but not one which I have been able to track down. He was a passionate supporter of independence for Poland. In fact, he was on his way to Warsaw in 1946 when he died in Oxford, England, where he is buried. ♦♦♦♦♦