Wilfrid Laurier (1841-1919), seventh prime minister of Canada (1896-1911). Laurier was the first French Canadian to attain the post of prime minister. Laurier was an excellent speaker in both French and English, and he bridged the divisions between French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians to build a strong Liberal Party reflecting common national interests. He relied heavily on rational argument to win his points. Through compromise and conciliation he settled the question of church schools in Manitoba, initiated imperial preference for British imports, and furthered Canada's independence in foreign affairs. He remained in power for 15 years.
Laurier was born in 1841, in Saint Lin (now Laurentides), Québec. His father, Carolus Laurier, was a farmer and land surveyor. Laurier's mother, Marcelle Martineau Laurier, died when he was four, and he was raised by his stepmother.
While still young, Laurier was sent to a Protestant school in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, some distance from his home. Living there with an Irish family, he learned fluent English. His next school was L'Assomption College, which he attended from 1854 to 1861. He then went to McGill University to study law.
While he was at the university, he entered the law office of Rodolphe Laflamme, one of the leaders of the Parti rouge, the most liberal political faction in Québec. He also joined the Institut Canadien, a literary and scientific society that attracted many young liberals and radicals. Both the Parti rouge and the Institut were under steady attack by the Roman Catholic clergy, who had extended Pope Pius IX's denunciation of liberalism in Europe to include liberals in Québec. Although a Catholic, Laurier consistently defended his right to hold political beliefs not endorsed by the church, a stand that was to incur the clergy's opposition to his political advancement in the future.
In 1864 Laurier became a lawyer and joined a Montréal law firm. However, due to poor health he decided to move to the country. In 1866 he settled in Arthabaskaville (now Arthabaska), in south central Québec.
|III||EARLY POLITICAL CAREER|
Laurier's first venture into politics came in 1871, when he ran for the Québec provincial legislature from Arthabaska. His opponent had held the seat for some time and was expected to win again. Laurier campaigned hard and won decisively. In 1874 he resigned his seat in the provincial house to run for the federal Parliament. He was again successful. His first important speech, made in French, glorified the British Empire. In it he stressed that his liberalism was of the moderate British type, not the radicalism of the European continent that had been attacked by the Pope. Although he failed to gain immediate support for his program, he opened the way for Catholics to vote for him with a clear conscience.
By 1877 Laurier had already proved himself one of the most promising young men in the Liberal Party, which consisted of a union between the Parti rouge in Québec and the Grits in Ontario. In October of that year the minister of inland revenue, Joseph Cauchon, resigned. Alexander Mackenzie, the Liberal prime minister, chose Laurier to succeed Cauchon. However, by Canadian law at that time a newly appointed minister was obliged to run for Parliament again. The clergy mounted a violent campaign against Laurier, some even saying from the pulpit that it would be a sin to vote for him. Their attack was successful, and Laurier lost. The party thought that he was too valuable to lose, and the member from the eastern region of Québec was persuaded to resign in order to give Laurier a seat. He continued to hold this seat for 40 years.
However, Laurier's first period in office was brief. In the election of 1878 the Liberals were defeated and the Conservatives, led by Sir John Alexander Macdonald, returned to power. In the years of opposition to the Conservatives that followed, Laurier continued to build a personal following in Québec. In the election of 1882 he was not only returned to Parliament but was also made mayor of Arthabaska, where he had been rejected five years before.
In 1885 Louis Riel, who had led an unsuccessful rebellion of Métis, or people of mixed European and indigenous heritage, was hanged in Regina, in what is now Saskatchewan. Laurier, convinced that both Riel and the plight of the Métis deserved sympathy, immediately denounced the government in Parliament and at a mass meeting in Montréal. His views echoed those of most French Canadians. Nevertheless, in the 1887 election the Liberals gained only a few seats in Québec and the Conservatives remained in power.
Edward Blake, who had succeeded Mackenzie as leader of the Liberals, was disheartened by the Liberal loss and insisted on resigning in 1887. Although the Liberals had never before been led by a French Catholic, Blake advised them to choose Laurier as his successor, and he was elected.
Laurier led a vigorous campaign against Macdonald in the election of 1891. The Liberals' chief campaign issue was free trade with the United States. The Conservative majority was reduced, but it still held. Then, in 1891, Macdonald died. He was followed as prime minister in rapid succession by Sir John Abbott, Sir John Thompson, Sir Mackenzie Bowell, and Sir Charles Tupper. None of them managed to deal with the controversial question of church schools in Manitoba.
In 1891 the Protestant majority in the Manitoba legislature passed a law closing the separate schools attended by Roman Catholics. The Thompson government was pressed to declare the law unconstitutional but preferred to leave the matter to the courts. In 1895 the judicial committee of the Privy Council in Britain, the ultimate court of appeal, gave its decision: It declared the Manitoba law to be legal, but also said that the federal government had the power to reverse it. The federal government was forced to act, since it had the duty of protecting the educational rights of minorities. Laurier refused to give his opinion on what should be done until the government showed its hand. Tupper introduced a bill in 1896 that would have restored separate schools in Manitoba. The Catholic hierarchy backed the measure and called on Laurier to support it. He refused, declaring to Parliament: “I am here representing not Roman Catholics alone, but Protestants as well, and I must give an account of my stewardship to all classes.” Tupper failed to pass the bill and was obliged to seek support from the people in a general election.
|A||The Manitoba Schools Crisis|
The Manitoba schools were the main issue in the 1896 election. Although the Catholic clergy campaigned against him, Laurier argued in Québec that he would obtain better terms for the Catholics by negotiating directly with the provincial government of Manitoba. “Hands off Manitoba” was an effective slogan in the other provinces as well. A second issue was corruption in the Conservative Party, as a series of scandals had rocked the Bowell administration. Israel Tarte, a former Québec conservative who possessed evidence of these charges, managed Laurier's campaign in Québec. It was in Québec that he had his greatest victory, carrying a large majority of seats. Victories in Ontario and western Canada brought the Liberal majority in Parliament to 21. Tupper resigned on July 8, and on July 11, 1896, Laurier became prime minister of Canada.
Laurier's cabinet contained, in marked contrast to those of his predecessors, many people of real ability, some of whom had been provincial leaders. Sir Richard Cartwright was made minister of trade and commerce. The post of minister of finance was given to William Fielding, a former premier of Nova Scotia. Tarte was made minister of public works, and Clifford Sifton of Manitoba became minister of the interior. The minister of justice was Sir Oliver Mowat, a comparatively old man who had been premier at Ontario since 1871. Laurier took no department for himself.
The first task of the new government was to find a solution to the Manitoba crisis. Laurier did so by pushing through a plan that allowed a limited amount of religious teaching and instruction in French in the Manitoba schools. However, it did not return the province to its original educational system, which had been based on equality between the Protestant and Catholic populations. The plan failed to satisfy the more extreme Catholics. When L'Electeur, the Liberal paper in Québec, defended Laurier's compromise, the Catholic bishops of the province excommunicated anyone who continued to read it. However, the paper merely changed its name to Le Soleil. Eventually the Pope, the leader of the Roman Catholic church intervened to restrain the bishops, whose political domination in Québec came to an end.
Laurier's first budget was a compromise between his free trade views and the need to protect Canadian industries accustomed to a high protective tariff, a tax on imports. He made only a few reductions in the general tariff and then offered Britain a large discount, amounting to one-third of the duty on all its trade with Canada. This offer made Laurier a key figure at the Colonial Conference of 1897, a meeting of the heads of state of the British Commonwealth, when he firmly resisted pressure from the British to form an imperial confederation or to contribute Canadian ships to the British navy.
In 1899 the outbreak of the Boer War in South Africa, a conflict between the British and the South Africans of Dutch descent (Boers), again made an issue of Canada's relationship with Britain. The British Canadians believed that Canada should strongly support England against the Boers. Most French Canadians believed that it was none of Canada's business. Feelings on both sides were high, and Laurier's solution was again a compromise. He agreed to equip a contingent of volunteers, and although this action did not please extremists on either side, it gained general support. About 8000 Canadians eventually fought in South Africa, about one-third of whom came from the militia and were paid by the government. Laurier's policy was fiercely attacked by Henri Bourassa, one of his former supporters from Québec. However, Bourassa's views had little effect on the results of the next election, in 1900. The Liberals lost a few seats in Ontario but carried Québec and the country as a whole. Laurier was at the height of his power.
At the 1902 Colonial Conference, Laurier's role was much as it had been in 1897. He refused to cooperate in a common defense policy or to consider seriously an imperial parliament. When he returned from Europe, he became very ill and offered to resign. The party refused to let him go, but Tarte began to have hopes of succeeding him. Returning to his former protectionist views, Tarte made a series of speeches in Ontario urging higher protective tariffs. As this view was directly against declared government policy, Laurier forced him to resign. Tarte returned to the Conservatives and became Laurier's chief enemy in Québec.
Two setbacks affected the government in 1903. One was the final solution of a dispute over the boundary between Canada and Alaska. A commission was set up consisting of three members from the United States, two from Canada, and the British lord chief justice, Lord Alverstone. Although its members were supposed to act impartially, President Theodore Roosevelt's appointees were all passionate supporters of the U.S. claims. Alverstone sided with the Americans. Canada believed that it had been betrayed by England, and Laurier declared that his country must have greater power to deal with such problems independently of Britain.
|E||Development of the West|
The second setback was the resignation of Laurier's minister of railways over Laurier's decision to build a second transcontinental line to compete with the Canadian Pacific Railway that the Conservatives had built. Even with a large flow of immigrants to the Canadian west, the line was not needed, and it was built at a huge cost to the country's taxpayers. A third transcontinental railway, the Canadian Northern, was built before Laurier left office in 1911.
Despite these problems, the main factor in the election of 1904 was Canada's continued prosperity and expansion. The result was a triumphant success for Laurier. The Liberals carried every province except Prince Edward Island and won the election by a large margin.
The Liberals had a much larger majority than they had had in 1896. At the same time, however, they had become essentially a one-man party. Laurier was indispensable and there seemed no likely successor. The years to follow showed a steady decline in the government's effectiveness and the party's fortunes.
With the formation of Alberta and Saskatchewan provinces from the Northwest Territories, another Catholic-Protestant dispute over the question of church schools broke out in 1905. Laurier proposed to follow the Ontario system, which supported separate Roman Catholic schools through taxes. That time the Protestants objected. Laurier's minister of the interior, Clifford Sifton, returned from holiday to protest and resigned. A compromise proposal was worked out, although it again cost Laurier the support of Bourassa. Sifton was not invited to rejoin the cabinet, and he, too, became Laurier's enemy.
In 1906 the government was beset by a succession of scandals, and some ministers were forced to resign. Laurier's own integrity was never questioned, but he had a tendency to put problems off. Once forced to act, however, he was usually decisive.
The Imperial Conference of 1907, another meeting of British Commonwealth members, was a happier occasion. A Liberal government was in power in Britain, and it agreed with Laurier's view of the empire. In a remark at the conference Laurier summed up this view in the words: “We are all His Majesty's governments.” At the 1911 Imperial Conference, Laurier won British agreement to his proposal that Canada would not be bound by any British treaty without its consent. Two years before, he had established a department of external affairs for Canada.
In spite of constant disputes between extremists, Laurier continued to draw support from a balance of moderate opinion throughout Canada. The election of 1908 was fought mainly on the issue of government corruption, but a vigorous campaign by Laurier carried the country against the Conservatives.
The first challenge after the election came quickly. The British were alarmed by the German arms buildup, and Canada was forced to define its naval policy at a defense conference in 1909. Ontario wanted Canada to contribute to the British navy, but Québec wanted no part of it. As so often before, Laurier sought a compromise, proposing the creation of a Canadian navy to be built and trained in accordance with British naval requirements and placed under British command if Canada chose to enter a war as an ally of Britain. This proposal satisfied no one.
During debate on Laurier's navy bill it became increasingly clear that a curious alliance was forming between the imperialist Conservatives under Robert Borden and the anti-imperialist Nationalists under Bourassa. Bourassa was a power in Québec, with a large following among young French Canadians. Although he had given support to Laurier in 1904, he had continued to build his own party. In July 1910 he made a final break. In November, when a by-election was held to fill open seats in Drummond and Arthabaska, Bourassa ran an obscure Nationalist candidate against the Liberals. The Nationalists won.
It seemed that the Nationalists could capture Québec and that the Conservatives, on completely opposite grounds, could capture the rest of Canada. One last chance to save Laurier came in 1911. The United States was ready to change its views on trade between the two countries. It seemed possible, after years of failure, to agree on a free trade agreement. An agreement was worked out with the administration of President William Howard Taft, its terms being highly favorable to Canada.
However, industrial and railway interests in Canada had come to believe that their success was due to tariffs and their trade with England, rather than with the United States. The initial Canadian approval of free trade turned to anger against it. In Parliament the Conservatives stalled, and Laurier decided to go to the people and campaign on the issue of free trade. The result was catastrophic. The Liberals retained only 88 seats, the number of opposition seats in the previous Parliament.
Laurier resigned and was succeeded by Robert Borden. When war came in 1914, Laurier gave full support to the government in its decision to send troops and arms to Europe. In 1917 the United States and Britain adopted the draft and Borden announced that Canada must do the same. He invited Laurier to join a coalition government to help pass the measure. Laurier refused. Although most English-speaking Canadians favored the draft, Québec was bitterly opposed to it.
The issue that split the country also split the Liberal Party. When Borden campaigned on the draft issue, a large number of English-speaking Canadians left the Liberal Party and formed the Union Liberal Party to support the draft. In the election of 1917 only Québec remained Liberal. It seemed as if Laurier's party had become purely French Canadian and that his vision of a Canada united through compromise had come to nothing. He did not live to see Canada unite once more under William Lyon Mackenzie King. Ill throughout a long and hard campaign, Laurier died in Ottawa in 1919.