As leader of the Liberal Party 1887–1919 and prime minister 1896–1911, Laurier was the dominant political figure of his era. A skilful and pragmatic politician with a charismatic personality, he unceasingly sought compromise. Above all, he was a fervent promoter of national unity at a time of radical change and worsening cultural conflict. Laurier also promoted the development and expansion of the country, encouraging immigration to Western Canada, supporting the construction of another transcontinental railway, and overseeing the addition of two provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Education and Early Career

While studying law at McGill, Laurier established close ties with radical members of the Parti Rouge, including one of his professors, Toussaint-Antoine-Rodolphe Laflamme. He also became vice-president (1864–1866) of the Institut Canadien, a literary society with Rouge links. 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, Québec, where he ran the newspaper Le Défricheur. Like the Liberals of Lower Canada, Laurier opposed Confederation, arguing both that the federal government would have too much power, and that French Canadians would be overwhelmed. In 1871, when the Catholic Church in Québec, led by Bishop Bourget, was ferociously attacking the Rouges and liberalism, Laurier became the Liberal member for Drummond-Arthabaska in the Québec legislature. In place of his earlier radical liberalism, he adopted a position of moderate liberalism, which he hoped would be more acceptable to the Catholic clergy. He also decided, like many other Liberals, to accept Confederation as a fait accompli and to work within the new system. In 1874, he resigned his provincial seat and ran for election to the House of Commons of Canada. Thus began an uninterrupted stay of some 45 years in Ottawa.

Federal Politics

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. However, 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. They believed he was too easygoing and too physically weak to be an effective leader (he suffered from chronic bronchitis for much of his life). They also feared that Ontarians would associate him with Riel, and that Catholic clergy in Québec still viewed him as a radical.

Leader of the Liberal Party

From 1887 on, Laurier devoted himself to building a truly national party and to regaining power gradually. His efforts were divided into two distinct phases. The first and less successful, 1887–91, emphasized the policy of unrestricted reciprocity with the United States; announced in 1888, the program was rejected in the 1891 general election. Perceived as a continentalist and as anti-British, Laurier was rejected 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, built a strong national Liberal Party 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, the education rights of the Catholic minority in Manitoba became an important issue; in 1890, Manitoba Liberals had established a uniform school system in place of the separate school system enjoyed to that point, prompting protest from the Catholic minority (see Manitoba Schools Question). Laurier avoided taking a definite stand, but French Canadians believed he would be more supportive of minority rights than the Conservatives would. On 23 June 1896, Canadians chose Laurier over Conservative Charles Tupper to lead their country as prime minister.

Prime Minister of Canada

Contrary to the expectations of many French Canadians, Laurier did not champion the minority rights of Catholics in Manitoba. Instead, his focus as prime minister was 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, although it would be possible to obtain religious instruction during the last half-hour of the school day and instruction in a language other than English. (See also History of Education and Francophone-Anglophone Relations.)

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.

He adopted a similar approach to relations with Britain. Shortly after becoming prime minister, Laurier began to reorganize the immigration system with Clifford Sifton, and, with William Fielding, he finalized the details of a tariff policy based on imperial preference. Not long after, Laurier went in 1897 to London, England, to participate in his first colonial conference and to receive a knighthood. Guided by his belief in the future independence of Canada, he resisted every effort the British Empire made toward federation of the empire in political, economic, or military terms. Nonetheless, in 1899, he agreed to help defray the costs of transportation and matériel 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. However, Laurier and his Liberals easily won the 1900 general election, well supported by Québec, which gave them 57 of its 65 seats. His personal popularity in Québec likely played a role in this result.

After the 1900 victory at the polls, 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, 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 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 his prestige, Laurier allowed 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 Creation of Alberta and Saskatchewan

In 1905, Laurier succeeded in adding two new provinces to the Dominion of Canada: Alberta and Saskatchewan. However, the addition of these provinces also meant that a decision had to be made regarding the educational rights of the Catholic minority. Once again, yielding to pressure from anglophones and Protestants, Laurier took refuge behind the status quo of one uniform school system, 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. Thus began the progressive decline of the Laurier government. 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. While his party's majority was somewhat reduced, it was still quite strong in Québec. After 1908, Laurier focused his attention primarily on two bills, which, in the final analysis, resulted in his defeat.

Controversial Policies and Defeat at the Polls

In 1910, the Naval Service Act established a Canadian navy of five cruisers and six destroyers, which would 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 permitted the free trade of most natural products but only a small number of manufactured products. . 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.

Leader of the Opposition

Laurier was an energetic and vigilant leader of the Opposition. If he failed to adapt 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. Laurier achieved some success in rebuilding the Liberal party. 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. In 1916, he defended the rights of Franco-Ontarians to bilingual instruction in schools, increasing his popularity among French Canadians.

Out of personal conviction, Laurier vigorously supported Canadian participation in the First World War. 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.

Opposed by English Canadians, but idolized by French Canadians, Laurier 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 Govenment in which Laurier refused to participate. In the general election of December 1917, Laurier was overwhelmingly defeated by Borden's Unionist Party, with the vote divided along distinctly cultural lines. After the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918 and the First World War brought to an end, Laurier began a courageous effort to restructure his party and to rebuild Canadian unity; he died on 17 February 1919.

Legacy

Under Laurier's leadership, the country continued its industrialization and urbanization and was strengthened by the addition of two provinces and two 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. Conversely, 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.