Wilfrid Laurier, a political child of the 19th century, led his Liberal Party into the 20th century as Canada’s first French-Canadian prime minister. Equally adept both in his native French and in English, Laurier promoted growth in prairie provinces and predicted a golden century for Canada. But his leadership foundered on trade and military issues related to U.S. economic power and British imperialism.
Laurier became politically active while at Montreal’s McGill University. As a young lawyer he joined the Parti Rouge, Québec’s homegrown liberal organization. He spoke eloquently against the 1867 British North America Act, which created a confederated Canada. Months before it became law he wrote, “Confederation is the second stage on the road to ‘anglification.’ . . . We are being handed over to the English majority. . . .”
His embrace of French-Canadian separatism proved a passing phase. Winning election to Québec’s provincial parliament, Laurier worked to make Canada’s new federal system advantageous to fellow French speakers. He also began to develop a new kind of politics, similar to that of Britain’s Whigs, and cofounded the Parti National to attract like-minded politicians.
When a railway scandal brought down John A. Macdonald’s Liberal-Conservative government in 1873, Laurier won a seat in parliament. By 1877 the young Liberal headed the internal revenue ministry and had been chosen to lead his party. Although the Liberals were soon swept out of power by a resurgent Macdonald, Laurier remained as leader and was well positioned to take advantage of Conservative fatigue after Macdonald’s death in 1891. Laurier became prime minister in 1896.
Among Laurier’s goals during his 15-year tenure were trade reciprocity with the United States and robust western immigration and agricultural development. Like Theodore Roosevelt, his counterpart to the south, Laurier sought to safeguard Canada’s environment. He reached out to labor interests while cautiously reining in corporate abuses. To foster western growth, Laurier proposed a second transcontinental railway. It was, like its predecessor, beset by competing interests, but Laurier crafted a compromise that made the Canadian National Railway a reality. In 1905 he overcame tough opposition to create the western provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Although knighted during Queen Victoria’s 1897 Jubilee, Laurier encountered difficulties with Britain that were only partly due to his continuing FrenchCanadian attachments. The British Empire was at its pre–World War I zenith. Laurier’s compliance with British demands for Canadian soldiers in the 1899 Boer War outraged nationalists, especially in Quebec. His 1909 proposal to create a semiautonomous Canadian navy deeply alarmed Britain and many AngloCanadians, showing that Canada, for all its growth, remained dependent.
The United States also disappointed Laurier and helped bring an end to his government. An Alaskan boundary dispute, made urgent by the 1897 gold rush in Canada’s neighboring Yukon Territory, ended with most Canadian claims denied. In 1911 Laurier negotiated an agreement that would have been the first comprehensive trade measure between the two nations since 1866. But Conservatives, joined by many of Laurier’s Liberals, attacked the reciprocity pact as a sell-out that portended Canada’s annexation. Within weeks it and Laurier’s government had failed.
Laurier remained party leader until his death of a cerebral hemorrhage but never again held power. Thousands accompanied his funeral bier to Notre-Dame Cemetery in Ottawa, where he had spent the best and worst years of his life.
- Clippingdale, Richard. Laurier: His Life and World. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1979;
Schull, Joseph. Laurier: The First Canadian. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965
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