It was not hard to be Prime Minister of Canada 100 years ago. In
1910 immigrants were pouring into the Canadian west. Canadian
trade was booming. New transcontinental railways were being
built. Great deposits of gold, silver and other minerals were
being discovered all across the north. In 10 years the
population of Canada increased by almost 40 percent, and in 1905
two new provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, had been created on
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No wonder Sir Wilfrid Laurier, prime minister since 1896, kept
being re-elected. As he famously said in one of his campaigns,
“The 20th Century will belong to Canada”.
Laurier was unusual in two ways. He was the first French
Canadian to hold the country’s highest office. He had been born
in rural Quebec in 1841 into a farming family that had been in
Canada for two centuries. French was his mother tongue and he
was a Roman Catholic by religion. Secondly, Laurier was a
Liberal, leader of the party that had usually been in opposition
since Confederation in 1867. One of Laurier’s greatest
achievements was to make the Liberals the dominant political
party in Canada for much of the 20th century.
The secret of Laurier’s success was his ability to appeal to
Canadians of different backgrounds and beliefs. He received his
higher education at McGill University in Montreal, became
completely bilingual, and as a young lawyer and politician in
Quebec opposed attempts by the Roman Catholic clergy to dominate
politics. As Liberal leader after 1887, Laurier realized that he
had to adopt moderate policies similar to those of Sir John A.
Macdonald’s Conservatives. Laurier’s Liberals came out in favour
of the “National Policy” of protective tariffs to stimulate
Canadian industries, hoped to encourage immigration and
development in Western Canada, and stood for compromise on
issues that divided English and French, Protestant and Catholic.
As prime minister after 1896, Laurier was unusually eloquent,
said to have a silver tongue because of the high quality of his
speeches in the House of Commons and during election campaigns.
He was a handsome, popular leader who soon became noticed
abroad, particularly in England, as chief of one of the most
promising new countries in the British Empire. Laurier was
careful, though, not to identify Canada too closely with the
Empire. He hoped that eventually Canada would become a
completely independent nation with its own foreign policy.
Opportunities for farming on the Canadian prairies and work in
railway and lumber camps attracted several million immigrants to
Canada during the Laurier years. Most came from Great Britain
and the United States, but large numbers were also attracted
from the Ukraine and other areas of central and eastern Europe.
Laurier’s energetic minister of immigration, Sir Clifford Sifton
declared that Canada would be happy to welcome any immigrants
willing to work hard, even “men in sheepskin coats” from far-off
Asia. Some critics began to wonder if such immigrants could be
easily Canadianized. It remained government policy that Canada
was not suitable for immigrants of African or Asian descent.
Although he won majorities for his party at four national
elections, Laurier gradually lost support because of his
inability to find a middle course on divisive issues. His
government’s decision to support Canadian volunteers fighting
with the British army against Boer settlers in South Africa (the
Boer War, 1899-1902) was unpopular in Quebec. Several of his
compromises on educational and other policies were unpopular in
the rest of Canada.
Relations with the United States were a constant problem, as
many Canadians wanted freer trade across the border. In 1911 the
Liberals negotiated an agreement with the United States to
gradually lower tariffs, and fought the election that year on
the issue. The Conservative Party, led by Robert Borden, charged
that free trade with the Americans would weaken Canada’s ties
with Britain, and with support from Laurier’s opponents in
Quebec, won power.
Laurier continued to lead the Liberal party in opposition during
World War I. In the bitter 1917 election he opposed Borden’s
policy of conscripting Canadians to fight in Europe, but was
deserted even by many Liberals. He died in 1919 after 32 years
as Liberal leader, 15 years as prime minister.
Laurier always took pride in his attempts to find a middle way
in Canadian politics.
“I am branded in Quebec as a traitor to the French, and in
Ontario as a traitor to the English … ,” he said famously in
1911. “I am neither. I am a Canadian. Canada has been an
inspiration of my life.”
Laurier’s legacy was a vision of Canada and Canadians that
included everyone, French, English and Europeans willing to
start over again in the new world. In this sense he is sometimes
called the first Canadian. He was certainly the most important
builder of the Liberal Party.
Further Reading: Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian
Politics from Macdonald to Chrétien, by Michael Bliss; Laurier,
the First Canadian, by Joseph Schull.
Next Instalment: Prime Minister Forever: Mackenzie King