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A Real Companion and Friend:
The diary of William Lyon Mackenzie King

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Behind the Diary

A King's Who's Who Biographies

Henry Albert "Bert" Harper (1875-1901)

Henry Albert 'Bert' Harper, ca. 1900

Source

Henry Albert "Bert" Harper, ca. 1900

Bert Harper was one of Mackenzie King's closest friends. Harper died tragically in 1901, trying to rescue a young woman, Bessie Blair, who had fallen through the ice into the Ottawa River. Deeply affected by his friend's death, King participated in a public subscription to raise a statue in Harper's honour, and King wrote a book, The Secret of Heroism, about Harper's life and character. This photograph is from King's personal collection.

Bert Harper was one of Mackenzie King's closest friends. They met while studying at the University of Toronto. After King became Editor of the Labour Gazette, he was able to secure a position for Bert as his assistant. As well as working together, they shared an apartment, attended numerous social functions and were considered two of the most eligible bachelors in Ottawa. It was on a cycling trip with Bert in 1900 that Mackenzie King discovered Kingsmere. Bert also began courting King's younger sister, Jennie.

All this ended tragically on December 6, 1901. That day, Bert went to a skating party hosted by the Governor General, Lord Minto, and his wife. As dusk approached, a young woman, Bessie Blair, daughter of the Minister of Railways and Canals, fell through the ice into the Ottawa River. Attempting to save her, Bert plunged into the water, but he and Bessie were both caught in the strong current and both drowned.

Mackenzie King had been out of town and was not at the party. When he learned of his friend's death, he was devastated. He described Bert as a "good, true, brave, noble soul" and "the man I loved as I have loved no other man, my father & brother alone excepted." (Diary, January 1, 1902) Money was collected from the public to raise a statue honouring Harper; King contributed $50. The statue, "Sir Galahad," was unveiled in 1905 on Wellington Street in Ottawa. A year later, King published The Secret of Heroism, about Bert's life and exceptional character.

Mackenzie King's diary contains many references to Bert Harper. On December 6, 1909, King made his first speech in the House of Commons, and remembered that this was the eighth anniversary of Harper's death. "Before going to the House ... I put ten white roses on the base of the Harper Monument," he wrote. (Diary, December 6, 1909) Even toward the end of his own life he remembered: "This is the anniversary of Harper's drowning." (Diary, December 6, 1948)

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