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September 2010 - Nr.9

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 the prairies.

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

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright ©2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

The Canadian Experience communicates to us about the many facets of Canada, the people, the Charter, brings us reality and creates understanding.

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