|Frank Oliver, circa 1880. Photo courtesy of City of Edmonton Archives, EA-10-689.45 |
In a 1927 tribute to Frank Oliver, the Edmonton Bulletin offered, There is no doubt that (he) can be fairly reckoned as the most outstanding pioneer of Alberta. The paper that he had founded 47 years earlier published the story chronicling his life and times as a statue bust of him was unveiled at the Exhibition Grounds for Canadas Diamond Jubilee celebrations July 1st.
Few early Edmonton figures have so inspired loyalty as Frank Oliver. While older accounts of his life and times paint a picture of a man of integrity, more recent accounts point out that Oliver frequently spoke out against aboriginal Canadians and did all he could to ensure that their lands were taken from them.
He argued that the Cree should be removed from the Papaschase reserve (modern day south Edmonton) because, the land was needed for better men. He went on to say, Now is the time for the Government to declare the Reserve open and show whether this country is to be run in the interests of the settler or Indian.
Oliver certainly wasnt alone in his views. Like most other white men who were powerful in the community late last century and early this, Oliver usually got his way. When it came to a cause he believed in, Oliver was steadfast and outspoken.
During his 80 years, he served as a printer, newspaper publisher, member of the Legislative Assembly of the North-West Territories, Albertas first Member of Parliament, Minister of the Interior and national railway commissioner. It was a life filled with achievement and adventure.
It all began September 14, 1853 when Oliver was born in Peel County, Ontario as Frank Bowsfield. The Bowsfield family were farmers and Frank grew up working on the farm and, in his teenage years, apprenticing as a "printer's devil" with the local newspaper. The story goes that Frank and his father had a disagreement and, about the time he finished high school, he changed his last name to Oliver, that of his mother's family.
Young Frank went to work setting type for the Toronto Globe. Captivated by what he was reading about opportunities for growth in western Canada, he headed west about 1873. He spent three years in Winnipeg, working for the Winnipeg Free Press. He heard rumours that the Transcontinental Railway would pass within a few miles of Fort Edmonton and believed that was the place to be.
Oliver left Winnipeg in 1876, part of an ox-cart brigade whose destination was a sawmill 50 miles upriver of Fort Edmonton. His Red River cart was laden with flour and bacon.
Oliver off-yoked his oxen and cast his tent on the bank of what was then called the Saskatchewan River, about where the University of Alberta now sits. There's a story that, as he rafted his goods across the river to the north side, the entire affair capsized. With what he managed to salvage, he opened a store -- the first beyond the walls of the Hudson's Bay Company's fort.
Oliver was to return to Winnipeg by foot several more times in the next few years and in 1880 he returned with a small printing press that had been ordered from Minneapolis by Alex Taylor, Edmontons first telegraph operator. Taylor and Oliver became partners and founded the Edmonton Bulletin, the second newspaper in the North West Territories (the Herald in Battleford, Saskatchewan was first).
That first press weighed just 200 pounds and cost $20. It produced pages five inches by seven inches and the first issue, two pages long, rolled off December 6, 1880. The subscription price was $2 for the first seasons issues between December 1880 and March 1881.
Oliver is credited with Edmontons first real estate deal, completed in 1880. He purchased a lot on the south side of Jasper Avenue, looking up 99th Street, from Kenny McLeod. Legend says there was no cash involved in the deal, as there wasnt much of that here at the time, so McLeod got his moneys worth of printing from Oliver and Taylors press.
Oliver married Harriet Dunlop, daughter of Thomas Dunlop of Prairie Grove, Manitoba, in 1881. He had met her while working with her brother as a pressman in Winnipeg. She was just 18 and, as she laughingly recalled in later interviews, their honeymoon was spent as a three-month ox journey to Edmonton. When they arrived, the newlyweds moved into a log house behind the newspaper office.
In 1900, Oliver purchased two lots at the southeast corner of 100th Avenue and 103rd Street and built a frame house. Five years later, the couple commissioned well known local contractor Charles May to erect a new three-storey brick house.
When Alberta became a province in 1905, they turned it over to the lieutenant-governor to be the first Government House. The family returned to the structure from 1916 to 1943, when Harriet died. The public works building which now occupies this patch of land is called the Oliver Building, in honour of the sites famous former residents.
Oliver became a member of the North West Council in 1883 and a member of the North West Territories Assembly from 1888 to 1896. That year, he was elected to the House of Commons as an Independent Liberal -- the first member of parliament from Alberta. He was quickly appointed Minister of the Interior in Wilfrid Lauriers cabinet and a member of the Privy Council. He served in the Commons until 1917 when he was defeated and then, in 1923, was appointed as a member of the board of railway commissioners.
In 1911, when Oliver was in his last year as Minister of the Interior, the Toronto Star Weekly published a story headlined: Frank Oliver, Fighter. The article explained Olivers popularity in the west by saying, he is a fighter from the word go. He has had to win his way in life inch by inch through dogged persistence and he has always stood on his own feet and pulled himself through every hardship and injustice which has come his way.
There are numerous accounts of Olivers vivid use of language to convey his point. Walker Taylor, son of Alex Taylor, explained in a 1958 letter that Olivers utterances were not always suitable for family consumption. I know that the old bird frequently called on phrases and verses from the Bible but I never heard of him doing so in terms of reverence.
In 1930, Oliver told a reporter that overproduction was the cause of Canadas wheat difficulties. Only poor crops will relieve the situation, he offered, and his wish came true, with some of the worst crops in history through the Dirty Thirties. He told a 1931 gathering that the task of nation building is never finished . . . It is the law of nature that when growth ceases, decay begins.
Oliver was in Ottawa doing work for the Board of Railway Commissions when he took ill and was taken to the Ottawa Civic Hospital. He died March 31, 1933 at the age of 80. The headline on the front page of the Edmonton Journal blared in large type: "Frank Oliver, Pioneer, Journalist, Statesman, Dies in Ottawa; Funeral Here on Tuesday." Harriet, his wife of more than 52 years, passed away in 1943.
The bust originally erected as a tribute at the Exhibition Grounds was relocated in 1964 to Frank Oliver Memorial Park, at the southeast corner of Jasper Avenue and 100th Street. The park was officially opened August 17, 1964. Olivers old log store, which for many years resided at the Exhibition Grounds, is now part of Fort Edmonton Park.
A lot of Edmonton bears his name including a neighbourhood, a school, an arena and a pool. For his many contributions to our city, Oliver was honoured in 1980 by the Edmonton Historical Board with its Recognition Award.
Information for this article sourced with the kind assistance of the staff at the City of Edmonton Archives.