One person's garbage

A nation's treasures pulled from a dumpster form the new U of A exhibit Serendipity: Unveiling the Historical MacDonald-Tupper Photographs.

By Michael Davies-Venn on February 28, 2012

(Edmonton) For the first time ever, family portraits of two men who helped shape present-day Canada will be on public display more than 25 years after they were pulled out of a dumpster.

Portraits of Charles Tupper, Canada’s sixth prime minister and Confederation Father, and James MacDonald, legal adviser to the Fathers of Confederation, will form part of Serendipity: Unveiling the Historical MacDonald-Tupper Photographs, which opens at the University of Alberta’s Faculty Club Feb. 29.

Wayne MacDonald, government studies program manager at the Faculty of Extension and a direct descendant of James McDonald, found the images in 2003 stacked against a wall in an antique store in Winnipeg while taking time off for a conference to look for a Mother’s Day gift for his wife.

“I saw this portrait sitting up against a wall. And I immediately recognized them as my relatives,” said MacDonald. “I was absolutely flabbergasted.”

The 18 portraits had been found in a dumpster in 1978 after a relative of McDonald, Emma Tupper-Harris, died. Tupper-Harris’ landlord sold some of the portraits to an antique dealer and threw the rest away. MacDonald says, thankfully, the antique dealer returned later to retrieve the portraits after being admonished by her mother.

“(The antique dealer) climbed into the dumpster and handed out the 18 damaged portraits to her mother and transported the portraits to a dry storage bin,” said MacDonald. “They stayed in that storage bin
from 1978 until I came to the conference in 2003.”

It took two people to move the three-feet-high packed portraits. Getting that oversized luggage home was McDonald’s next challenge, after successfully sealing the deal with the antique dealer for all 18 portraits.

Back in Edmonton, MacDonald, an avid antiques collector, got to work restoring the portraits. It was a labour of love, he says, that took him almost a decade to complete. McDonald says it’s a privilege to bring the images to public.

“I don’t believe that you can ever understand who you are or what your country is if you don’t know where you came from,” says McDonald. “They’re pictures that you’d never ever imagine having access to. It’s kind of like having a window into your past.”

Former Canadian deputy prime minister of Canada, Anne McLellan, will attend the exhibition, which includes pictures of the entire Tupper family, a confederation ball in Charlottetown in 1864, the investiture of the governor general and the Marquis of Lorne in Halifax at Province House in 1878.

The photographs will be on public display in the Faculty of Extension gallery in the atrium of Enterprise Square until 4 p.m. March 2.