After obtaining his law degree from McGill in 1864 and practising in Montréal, Laurier went in 1866 to live in L'Avenir and then Arthabaska, Qué, where he ran the newspaper Le Défricheur. Upholding the position of the radical PARTI ROUGE, Laurier, a former vice-president of the INSTITUT CANADIEN in Montréal, vigorously opposed CONFEDERATION. In 1871, when the Catholic Church in Québec led by Bishop BOURGET was ferociously attacking the Rouges and liberalism, he became the Liberal member for Drummond-Arthabaska in the Québec legislature. His lack of interest in regional questions led him to resign in 1874 and, reconciled to Confederation, he was immediately elected a Liberal member to the House of Commons of Canada. Thus began an uninterrupted stay of some 45 years in Ottawa.
In October 1877, some months after giving a vigorous speech in Québec City in defence of political liberalism, he was appointed minister of inland revenue in Alexander MACKENZIE's Cabinet. The most prominent Liberal of his province, Laurier became the recognized leader of the Québec wing of the party. But his party's defeats in the elections of 1878 and 1882 meant a curb to his ambitions, though he himself was re-elected in Québec-Est, and he took less interest in political debate. In 1885 his ardour was aroused by the hanging of Louis RIEL and he vigorously defended the cause of the Métis leader and the need to unite the French and English in Canada. In 1887 Edward BLAKE, disappointed by the recent electoral defeat, chose Laurier to succeed him as leader of the Liberal Party, despite the opposition of a number of eminent Liberals.
From 1887 on, Laurier devoted himself to building a truly national party and to regaining power gradually. His efforts were divided into 2 distinct phases. The first and less successful, 1887-91, emphasized the policy of unrestricted RECIPROCITY with the US; announced in 1888, the program was rejected in the 1891 general election. Perceived as a continentalist and as anti-British, Laurier was trampled by the Canadian electorate even though, for the first time since 1874, Québec gave a majority of its seats to the Liberals.
The second more fruitful phase took place between 1891 and 1896; this was the period when Laurier, more sure of himself, managed to take his party in hand while the Conservatives, after the death of Sir John A. MACDONALD, were mired in difficulties. In 1893 Laurier organized an impressive political convention in Ottawa which approved a new program and the basis for a truly national structure. In the 1896 election, when the education rights of the Catholic minority in Manitoba, curtailed since 1890, became an important issue (see MANITOBA SCHOOLS QUESTION), Laurier, more a skilful politician than a sincere defender of the Catholic minority, avoided taking a definite stand. On 23 June 1896, Canadians chose him over Charles TUPPER to lead their country as prime minister.
During the period of prosperity that then ensued, Laurier and his government concentrated on the country's development and on implementing policies designed to heal the wounds to national unity. In 1896, with the signing of the Laurier-Greenway agreement, the prime minister decided the fate of educational rights for Manitoba's Catholic minority: never again would this group have the separate schools it enjoyed prior to 1890, but it would henceforth be possible to obtain, under well-defined conditions, religious instruction during the last half-hour of the school day and instruction in a language other than English.
In the name of national harmony and the politics of the "lesser evil," Laurier thus launched his policies of compromise which kept him in power for many years but never completely redressed the wrongs committed against the Catholic minority. After beginning, with Clifford SIFTON, to reorganize the immigration system, and finalizing with William FIELDING the details of a tariff policy based on imperial preference, Laurier participated in 1897 in London, Eng, at his first colonial conference. Guided by his belief in the future independence of Canada, he resisted every effort the British Empire made toward unification. Nonetheless, in 1899 he agreed to help defray the costs of transportation and material of Canadians wishing to fight for England in the SOUTH AFRICAN WAR; this conciliatory stance would bring reproach from those French Canadians fiercely opposed to any participation. But Laurier and his Liberals easily won the 1900 general election, well supported by Québec which gave them 57 of its 65 seats.
After 1900, Laurier led his country forcefully. Within Cabinet, it was he who directed policy, and he did not hesitate to push aside dissenters such as the powerful Israël TARTE, who was forced to resign in 1902. In this year Laurier also commanded attention outside the country when, at the colonial conference in London, he again opposed all proposals to unify the Empire. In 1903, however, shortly after the failure of the ALASKA BOUNDARY discussions with the US, Laurier revealed the most important policy of his second term: the construction of a second transcontinental railway.
The GRAND TRUNK PACIFIC would build the section from Winnipeg westward, while the government would undertake the construction of a line (called the NATIONAL TRANSCONTINENTAL) from Moncton and Québec City to Winnipeg. Indeed, Laurier was so optimistic about the nation's progress that he allowed the CANADIAN NORTHERN RAILWAY to build a third transcontinental. By agreeing to this multiplication of railways, much of it at public expense, Laurier mortgaged the future with a heavy financial burden. At the peak of this prestige, Laurier would allow nothing to check his ambitions as prime minister. Moreover, the people agreed and re-elected him with a comfortable majority on 3 November 1904.
The progressive decline of the Laurier government began in 1905 despite Laurier's pursuit of ambitious projects such as the creation that year of 2 new provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Although a reflection of the country's development, this undertaking necessitated defining the educational rights of the Catholic minority. Once again, yielding to pressures from Anglophones and Protestants, Laurier took refuge behind the status quo, thus depriving the minorities of separate schools. As a result, the last chance to establish genuine cultural dualism throughout Canada was lost.
Offended by this retreat, French Canadian nationalists bitterly criticized Laurier, whose prestige in Québec began to fade. In the years that followed, the prime minister sought chiefly to counter accusations of corruption and patronage within his administration and to rebuild his Cabinet. In the 1908 general election, Canadians once again entrusted him with their destiny. His party's majority, however, though still solid in Québec, was somewhat reduced. After 1908, despite his desire to correct certain abuses arising from the far-reaching changes in society, Laurier focused his attention primarily on 2 bills which, in the final analysis, resulted in his defeat.
The first, the NAVAL SERVICE ACT, presented in 1910, was to establish a Canadian navy composed of 5 cruisers and 6 destroyers; the navy was to be ready to fight with Great Britain anywhere in the world. Insufficient in the eyes of English Canadian imperialists, excessive according to French Canadian nationalists led by Henri BOURASSA, this moderate measure would cost Laurier precious support, especially in Québec.
The second bill concerned reciprocity with the US, the old Liberal dream of 1891. Brought to the Commons early in 1911, it provided for the free trade of several natural products and reduced duty for an imposing number of Canadian manufactured products entering the US. Despite the attractions of the plan, it raised the ire of Canadian industrialists and provided a target for the Conservative Party under R.L. BORDEN, who accused the Liberals of disloyalty toward England and of leading the country towards political annexation. To settle the issue the prime minister called a general election and, on 21 September 1911, suffered a bitter defeat.
Laurier was an energetic and vigilant leader of the Opposition. If he failed to renew his liberalism as progressive Liberals would have wished, he kept his troops united until at least 1916, and relentlessly attacked the government's failure to address problems such as the rising cost of living. Prior to 1914, he fought mainly against the emergency contribution of $35 million offered to Great Britain to help strengthen its navy and against the financial assistance given to the Canadian Northern Railway.
Out of personal conviction, Laurier vigorously supported Canadian participation in WWI. He ardently promoted voluntary enrolment and proposed a political truce. In 1915-16, at age 75, he held several recruiting meetings. In 1917, when the country was plunged into national crisis following imposition of military CONSCRIPTION, Laurier again turned to compromise. To save Canada's threatened unity, he refused to support this measure which was so repulsive to Québec and proposed instead a referendum and continued voluntary enlistment. This time, because his proposal was not supported by the majority of English Canadians, the formula collapsed in general bitterness.
Idolized by his French Canadian compatriots who remembered his vigorous defence of the rights of Franco-Ontarians in 1916, he became a symbol of division within the country. Now even his party disintegrated when several eminent English-Canadian Liberals crossed the floor to join the UNION GOVERNMENT in which Laurier refused to participate. In the general election of December 1917, Laurier was overwhelmingly defeated by Borden's Unionist Party. The vote was divided along distinctly cultural lines. Laurier died on 17 February 1919, just after beginning his courageous effort to restructure his party and to rebuild Canadian unity.
Under Laurier's leadership the country continued its industrialization and urbanization and was strengthened by the addition of 2 provinces and 2 million inhabitants. A clever and eloquent politician, a true legend in his own time, Laurier has been judged in a variety of ways. For some, he was the spiritual successor to Macdonald, who pursued and consolidated Confederation. For others, Laurier, in the name of national unity and necessary compromise, too often sacrificed the interest of French Canadian Catholics to those of a majority little inclined to support the ideals of Confederation. Finally, some think he too often governed his country with only Québec's interest in mind. Support for each of these opinions can be found in Laurier's actions in Ottawa but the last view is most open to argument.
Author RÉAL BÉLANGER
R.T. Clippingdale, Laurier (1979); J.W. Dafoe, Laurier (1922, new ed 1965); H.B. Neatby, Laurier and a Liberal Quebec (1973); J. Schull, Laurier (1965); O.D. Skelton, Life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1921, 2nd ed 1965).
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
First Among Equals
Learn about the private lives and political careers of Canada’s Prime Ministers. Includes biographies, speeches, and other historical documents. A Library and Archives Canada website.
Grave Sites of Canadian Prime Ministers
Check this site for photos and information about specific grave sites of former Prime Ministers of Canada. From the website for the National Program for the Grave Sites of Canadian Prime Ministers.
Laurier Museum National Historic Site
Learn about the life and times of Sir Wilfrid Laurier in this virtual tour of the Laurier Museum National Historic Site.
Laurier House National Historic Site
This Parks Canada website features a historical profile of two Canadian Prime Ministers, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King, as well as an interactive virtual tour of Laurier House (National Archives of Canada) in Ottawa.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier National Historic Site of Canada
This Parks Canada site offers an overview of the life and political career of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Prime Minister of Canada (1896-1911).
Check out the fine period furniture and other prime ministerial possessions as you wind your way through this virtual tour of Laurier House, former home of Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King. This site also provides background information about various items in the residence. From Library and Archives Canada.
The Canadian State: Documents & Dialogue
The Canadian State Web exhibition enables students to explore the various aspects of Canadian governance and to use a set of unique "real life" activities to create their own political party. The activities cover a wide variety of Social Science disciplines: History, Civics, Law, Language Arts, World Issues, Communications, and Canada in a North American Perspective. From Library and Archives Canada.
Click on the brief profiles of "extraordinary Canadians" and the authors who wrote about them in this Penguin Group (Canada) series. Also includes bios of artists who created the cover art for each book.
Wilfrid Laurier House National Historic Site of Canada
A description of the Wilfrid Laurier House National Historic Site of Canada from "Canada's Historic Places" website.
Sir John A. Macdonald Day and the Sir Wilfrid Laurier Day Act
See the text of the Sir John A. Macdonald Day and the Sir Wilfrid Laurier Day Act. From Canada's Department of Justice website.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...