Laurier: “The First Canadian”

In truth, Laurier’s famous ability to compromise sometimes left everyone dissatisfied.

Wilfrid Laurier took leadership of the Liberal party of Canada on 18th of June 1887. Frail and intellectual, preferring the privacy of his library to the battlefield of politics, he was uncertain. “I know I have not the aptitude for it,” he admitted, “and I have a sad apprehension that it must end in disaster.”

He had come a long way. A radical in his youth, he opposed Confederation as “the tomb of the French race and the ruin of Lower Canada.” When Confederation became a reality, however, he joined the cause. Seeing that his radical liberalism aroused mistrust, he became a moderate.

The Riel crisis completed his transformation. In taking up the Métis cause he defined his conception of a Canadian nation built on the two founding cultures, English and French. He compared the two cultures to two parallel currents of water, like those flowing from the Outaouais and the western lakes, separate and distinct. “There is the perfect image of our people,” he wrote. He defended this definition of the nation all his life as the only guarantee of national unity.

Laurier ran successful campaigns for PM in 1896, 1900, 1904 and 1908 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-5598).

After some difficult years in opposition, Laurier finally triumphed on 23 June 1896. At age 54 he became the first French-Canadian prime minister.

Laurier would lead the country for 15 years with a policy of systematic compromise. “At once seducer and manipulator,” writes historian Réal Bélanger, “he would cultivate the art of ambiguity to achieve his own ends.”

In truth, Laurier’s famous ability to compromise sometimes left everyone dissatisfied. His solution to the thorny issue of Catholic schools in Manitoba pleased the Protestant majority at the cost of the Catholic minority. His later retreat on Catholic education rights in the formation of the new provinces in the Northwest did not enhance his place in history. In the long term it ended any hope of Canada becoming an authentic bilingual country.

Laurier had more success on economic questions. In 1897 he managed to satisfy the contradictory interests of the country’s protectionists and proponents of free trade. With the support of the dynamic Clifford Sifton, he carried out a vigorous immigration policy. The West became the most dynamic factor in the economic growth of the country. A sunny optimism prevailed for “Canada’s century.”

In external relations his objective was to improve Canada’s position relative to both the United States and Great Britain. He opposed efforts by British authorities to draw Canada into a closer Imperial Federation. In the Boer War he again chose compromise between ardent English Canadian support for sending an army and the vehement opposition of French Canadians. When imperialists demanded that Canada send immediate help directly to Britain in its struggle to stay ahead of the German navy, Laurier compromised by forming a new Canadian navy with its own cruisers and destroyers.

In 1911 Laurier finally put his foot wrong and campaigned on a policy of free trade with the United States. The opposition talked about the destruction of the country and made vicious attacks on the old leader. He was defeated.

Laurier devoted the last stage of his political career to rebuilding his party. He hounded the new prime minister, Robert Borden, in parliament. He saw the country torn asunder over Borden’s coercion in forcing conscription and he lost another election in 1917. The cruel defeat did not leave Laurier personally beaten. Despite his 76 years he announced that a Liberal congress would take place to restructure the party organization. Unfortunately he died on 17 February 1919 before the congress could take place.

Wilfrid Laurier was one of the central figures of Canadian history. By his tolerance and compromise, he had carried out the plan of Confederation and brought Canada to the status of nationhood. After the conscription crisis, he began to rebuild the shattered Liberals. By bringing them together as a bicultural institution that represented the country as a whole, he prepared the Liberalism to rule Canada for most of the 20th century. It is a lesson that the other parties have ignored to their peril.

Laurier summed up his own philosophy best. “I am branded in Quebec as a traitor to the French, and in Ontario as a traitor to the English. In Quebec I am branded as a Jingo, and in Ontario as a Separatist. I am neither, I am a Canadian. Canada is the inspiration of my life. I have had before me as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day a policy of true Canadianism, of moderation, of conciliation.”

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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