Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1841-1919) was a Canadian political leader. Head of the Liberal party and prime minister, he spurred Canada's economy but foundered on questions of conscription and protective tariffs.
Wilfrid Laurier was born at Saint-Lin, Canada East (now Quebec), on Nov. 20, 1841. He attended Collège L'Assomption and McGill University, where he studied law. Already fluently bilingual, Laurier was rapidly developing into a superb orator in both of Canada's languages, but his health was delicate and he moved into rural Quebec in an effort to strengthen himself. At Arthabaskaville he practiced law and for a time was editor of a newspaper, Le Défricheur.
Laurier entered politics in 1871, winning a seat in the Legislative Assembly of Quebec, and in 1874 he entered the House of Commons at Ottawa. For a period of a year he was minister of inland revenue in the Alexander Mackenzie government but seemed languid and somewhat uninterested to his parliamentary colleagues.
Spokesman of Liberalism
In 1877 Laurier delivered a speech on political liberalism that clearly defined the difference between Catholic liberalism, anathema to Quebec clerics, and the liberalism of his party. This speech was instrumental in gaining respectability for the Liberals in Quebec. In 1885 he delivered a brilliant and passionate speech attacking the government for the execution of the rebel Louis Riel, and in 1887 Laurier seemed as good a choice as any other Liberal to succeed Edward Blake as party leader.
In 1891 Laurier campaigned on the issue of unrestricted reciprocity with the United States, but his party again was defeated by Sir John A. Macdonald. However, after Macdonald's death the Conservatives began to fall apart and split on the Manitoba schools question, when they were forced to take a position because they were in power. Relieved of responsibility, Laurier could talk of using "sunny ways" to resolve the crisis and sit firmly on the fence. The result was victory in the election of 1896.
Head of a Liberal Government
An economic boom began in 1896 that lasted throughout Laurier's term. Immigrants began flooding into Canada from all over Europe, lured by free land and a wise immigration policy. Within a decade or two, the great prairies to the west were settled. New railways were built, unfortunately with a too generous government aid, and sometimes supported by shamefully watered stock. Industry boomed, and Canada reached and passed the take-off point.
Still there were difficulties aplenty. In 1899 the South African War began, and Laurier found himself pressed by English-Canadian opinion into aiding Britain. French Canadians, however, objected, seeing in the Boers a people rather similar to themselves. The result was a political compromise that satisfied no one. In 1905 another question divided French and English, that of the Autonomy Bills that created Alberta and Saskatchewan as provinces. What kind of schools would the provinces have? Laurier proposed one course, tried to ram it through, and lost his minister of the interior, Clifford Sifton, as a result. Again in 1910 and 1911, Laurier's plans for a Canadian navy troubled Quebeckers, and the Prime Minister found himself under attack in his home province by the nationalists under Henri Bourassa's leadership.
Defeat and Decline
The troubles were mounting, but Laurier was confident. After all, he had won the elections of 1900, 1904, and 1908, and after his success in securing a long-awaited reciprocity treaty with the Americans, he was certain he had found the key to a continued hold on power. But Canada had changed, and reciprocity frightened the manufacturers who benefited from protective tariffs. The result was a stunning defeat for Laurier and the Liberals in 1911, a defeat that had been engineered by Conservative chief Robert Borden, Sifton, and Bourassa.
Laurier took his defeat with characteristic good grace. The man seemed somehow more noble than most politicians, above the muck of the arena. His political supporters loved him in defeat and in victory, and his political foes always admired him.
But World War I brought pressures on the country of a different kind, and although Laurier did his utmost to encourage French Canadians to enlist, there were soon cries that Quebec was disloyal. The crisis came in 1917. Quebec had already been frustrated by a school crisis in Ontario and the Conservative government's unwillingness to pay attention to the province's military ardor in a suitable fashion. But with conscription in 1917 the debate became nasty in tone.
Borden tried to induce Laurier into a coalition that would enforce conscription, but Laurier could not agree. Someone, he believed, had to stay to fight Bourassa and the nationalistes. As a result, Borden formed a coalition that was lacking any French Canadians of stature, and in the election of 1917 every stop was pulled. The campaign was a disgrace. "If Laurier wins," a professor said in the press, "he will win leading the cockroaches of the kitchen of Canada to victory." The result was inevitable in the hypertense circumstances of the war, and conscription carried the day. The Liberals were reduced to having strength only in Quebec, and Laurier, once the most-loved man in the Dominion, was often portrayed as something close to antichrist.
On Feb. 17, 1919, Laurier passed away in Ottawa. His career had shown the difficulties faced by French-Canadian national politicians. But it had also demonstrated that politics could be noble, that one could lead a nation without losing one's civility.
Further Reading on Sir Wilfrid Laurier
There is no first-class modern biography of Laurier. The authorized biography by Oscar Douglas Skelton, Life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1921), is badly outdated, but Joseph Schull, Laurier: The First Canadian (1965), is not a satisfactory substitute. See also John Willison, Sir Wilfrid Laurier (2 vols., 1903; rev. ed. 1926), and John W. Dafoe, Laurier: A Study in Canadian Politics (1922) and Clifford Sifton in Relation to His Times (1931).
Additional Biography Sources
Clippingdale, Richard, Laurier, his life and world, Toronto; New York: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1979.