BORN: St-Lin, Canada East • 20 November 1841
DIED: Ottawa, Ontario • 17 February 1919
In deportment and dress, origins and outlook, Wilfrid Laurier was a product of the Victorian era. Throughout a long, highly successful public career, his was a horse-and-buggy, top-hatted world. Yet if Laurier was the last important Canadian of the nine¬ teenth century, he was also the first important Canadian of the twentieth.
If the young Laurier had had his way, there never would have been a Canada. He was born in a village near Montreal the same year that the French and English provinces of Canada were reunited by British decree. For Laurier, this arrangement only confirmed that the English of British North America still aimed to dominate the French.
The Confederation scheme of the 1860s was viewed as more of the same, and he spoke out passionately against the plans for a new nation.But Laurier could never be accused of being a slave to previously held opinions. In 1874 he made his peace with Confederation and won election to Parliament as a Liberal.
Better than most, Laurier read the public mood and saw that Confederation was here to stay. He rose rapidly in the party ranks, for he was a late nineteenth-century political rarity: a French-Canadian Liberal, educated at McGill University, who spoke and understood English perfectly.
He also possessed a gracious, self-effacing charm which, while gaining him few close friends, also made for few political foes. Even so, Laurier was as surprised as anyone when party leader Edward Blake named him his successor in 1887.Few expected Laurier to last. This, after all, was the age of Sir John A., and no Liberal leader, least of all a French Catholic, was likely to defeat the long-serving prime minister.
But when Macdonald died in 1891, Laurier looked very good in comparison with a succession of colourless, squabbling Conservatives, and he Was elected prime minister in 1896. The Macdonald era was truly over at last, and the country had its first French-Canadian prime minister.
Against all expectations, Laurier lasted in the country’s top political job for fifteen years, a consecutive streak unmatched before or since.These were times that defined the century: the West began to fill up with immigrants, the Canadian economy began to boom like never before, and the first cautious steps along a more independent path for Canada were taken.
Most important, Laurier kept the country together, proving a masterful student of the tactics Macdonald invented and Mackenzie King would later perfect. When facing a tricky decision, he would preach caution, delay, and refuse to commit.
His vague pronounce¬ ments on many subjects often pleased no one, but angered few. This strategy brought Laurier and his goverment through a series of crises: the Manitoba schools question, the Boer War, and the naval issue all threatened the fragile unity of the country.
With tact and a deft reading of the public mood, Laurier survived-—if just barely.It helped that he elevated capable lieutenants and gave them real authority. Henri Bourassa, Clifford Sifton, and Mackenzie King, all ahead of Laurier on this list, each were given crucial career boosts by the prime minister.
Laurier was always shrewd enough to know when power should be shared.Near the end, however, his instinct failed him: in 1911, as he approached seventy, Laurier agreed to fight an election on the Liberals’ proposed reciprocity treaty with the United States.
It was a good deal—a far better deal for Canada than the Mulroney trade pact of 1988—but the aging prime minister underestimated the extent of anti-American sentiment among voters. After a bitter, emotional election campaign, he was defeated at the polls by Robert Borden’s Tories.
In opposition, Laurier’s final years would be eventful. The war that began in Europe in 1914 provided the context for the most serious threat yet to national unity when Borden decided to impose military conscription in 1917. Quebec was horrified, and Laurier, painfully but honourably, fought the policy in the general election that year in the face of certain defeat.
The Conservatives won the day, Laurier’s party disintegrated around him in English Canada, and a few thousand reluctant soldiers were rushed to the battle front in time for the armistice. Quebec never forgot, however, and the Liberal stranglehold on the province that lasted for generations was assured.
Laurier died in 1919 while still party leader. At the time, he was planning the rebuilding of both his party and the country. But the Canada Laurier knew had changed. New provinces with burgeoning populations had shifted the balance of power in national politics.
Lessons learned in the Great War had altered the way Canadians saw the world. Gasoline- powered cars had already begun to revolutionize transporta¬ tion across the country. These were twentieth-century developments, and they would be left to others to deal with.