Wilfrid Laurier

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Wilfrid Laurier
Wilfrid Laurier
7th Prime Minister of Canada
Term of Office: July 11, 1896
October 6, 1911
Predecessor: Charles Tupper
Successor: Robert Borden
Date of Birth: November 20, 1841
Place of Birth: Saint-Lin, Quebec
Spouse: Zoe Lafontaine
Profession: Lawyer
Political Party: Liberal Party of Canada
Religion: Roman Catholic
Laurier re-directs here. For the Canadian federal electoral district see Laurier (electoral district). For the university in Waterloo, Ontario, see Wilfrid Laurier University.

The Right Honourable Sir Wilfrid Laurier, PC , KC , GCMG , BCL , DCL , LL.D , D.Litt (November 20, 1841February 17, 1919) was the seventh Prime Minister of Canada from July 11, 1896, to October 7, 1911.

He was born in Saint-Lin, Canada East (what would later become Quebec), and graduated with a BCL from McGill University in 1866. In 1868, he wed Zoe Lafontaine (1841-1921).

Often considered one of Canada's great statesmen and the first francophone prime minister, Laurier is well known for his policies of conciliation, nation building, and compromises between French and English Canada. He argued for an English-French partnership in Canada. "I have had before me as a pillar of fire," he said, "a policy of true Canadianism, of moderation, of reconciliation."


Early career

Before the Liberals, Laurier was a member of the radical Rouge wing of Quebec politics. He became disenchanted with extremism and ideology, and was a key player in uniting Les Rouges of Quebec with the Clear Grits and Reformers of Ontario into what is now the Liberal Party of Canada. Distinguished by his debonair charm and intellect, Laurier was first elected to the Canadian House of Commons in the 1874 election, serving briefly in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie as Minister of Inland Revenue. Chosen as leader of the Liberal Party in 1887, he gradually built up his party's strength with his personal following in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada. He led the Liberal Party to victory in the 1896 election, and remained prime minister until the party's defeat in the 1911 election.


Laurier was able to build the Liberal Party a base in Quebec, which had been a Conservative Stronghold for decades due to the province's social conservatism and the influence of the Catholic Church which distrusted the Liberal's anti-clericalism. He was aided by the growing alienation of French-Canadians from the Conservatives due to the national Tory party's links with anti-French, anti-Catholic Orangemen in English Canada, its role in the suppression and execution of Louis Riel, and the suppression of French language rights as a result of the Manitoba Schools Question. These factors combined with the collapse of the Conservative Party of Quebec gave Laurier an opportunity to build a stronghold in French Canada and among Catholics across Canada. However, because he believed in a separation of church and state, Roman Catholic bishops in Quebec repeatedly warned their parishioners never to vote for him. Laurier LaPierre wrote in his 1996 biography of Laurier, "children were made to kneel and beg God that their parents not be damned should they have the temerity to vote for the Liberal candidate. When electors asked directly whom they should vote for, the cagey priests contented themselves with informing them that "le ciel est bleu, l'enfer est rouge – heaven is blue, hell is red."

Prime Minister

Laurier led Canada during a period of rapid growth, industrialization, and immigration. His long career straddles a period of major political and economic change. As Prime Minister he was instrumental in ushering Canada into the 20th century and in gaining greater autonomy from Britain for his country. His most famous quotation comes from a speech given to the Canadian Club of Ottawa, 18 January 1904:

"The 19th century was the century of the United States. I think we can claim that it is Canada that shall fill the 20th century."

On October 15, 1904, a tall man stood up to the podium on that cool October evening and began his speech of a new vision of the new century for Canada. He was Wilfrid Laurier.

"Let me tell you, my fellow country men, that the twentieth century shall be the century of Canada and of the Canadian development. For the next seventy-five years, nay for the next 100 years, Canada shall be the star towards which all men who love progress and freedom shall come."

One of Laurier's first acts as Prime Minister was to implement a solution to the Manitoba Schools Question, which had brought down the Conservative government of Mackenzie Bowell earlier in 1896. His compromise stated that French-speaking Catholics in Manitoba could have a Catholic education if there were enough students to warrant it, on a school-by-school basis. This was seen by many as the best possible solution in the circumstances, making both the French and English equally satisfied.

In 1899, the United Kingdom expected military support from Canada, as part of the British Empire, in the Boer War. Laurier was caught between demands for support for military action from English Canada, and a strong opposition from French Canada, which saw the Boer War as a reminder of its own defeat in the Seven Years' War. Henri Bourassa was an especially vocal opponent. Laurier eventually decided to send a volunteer force, rather than the militia expected by Britain, but Bourassa denounced him anyway.

The naval competition between the United Kingdom and the German Empire escalated in the early years of the 20th Century. The British asked Canada for more money and resources for ship construction, precipitating a heated political division in Canada. The imperialists wished to send as much as possible, whereas the Canadian nationalists wished to send nothing.

Aiming for compromise, Laurier advanced the Naval Service Bill of 1910 which created the Royal Canadian Navy. The navy would initially consist of five cruisers and six destroyers; in times of crisis, it could be made subordinate the Royal Navy proper. The idea was lauded at the Imperial Conference on Defence in London, but it proved unpopular in Canada and contributed to Laurier's losing the election of 1911 to Robert Laird Borden.

Still the Greatest?

Laurier's greatest failing was, perhaps, his ambitious railway schemes. John A. Macdonald had had great success building a national railway and in many ways Laurier wished to match him and began constructing a second national railway. This and other railway schemes were a financial disaster.

In 1905, Laurier oversaw Saskatchewan and Alberta's entry into Confederation, the last two provinces to be created out of the Northwest Territories. In 1910, Laurier introduced the Naval Service Bill to create an independent Canadian navy, but Bourassa attacked him again over this issue, saying that Britain would simply call on the Canadian navy whenever it felt necessary. However, imperialists in English Canada were opposed to attempts to remove Canada from Britain's influence.

Reciprocity and Defeat

Another controversy arose regarding Laurier's support of trade reciprocity with the United States. This was opposed by the Conservative Party and by Liberal businessmen, but had strong support of agricultural interests. These controversies led to the victory of Robert Laird Borden and the Conservatives in the election of 1911, which was mostly fought on the issue of reciprocity.

Opposition and War

Laurier's grave in Ottawa's Notre-Dame Cemetery
Laurier's grave in Ottawa's Notre-Dame Cemetery

Laurier led the opposition during World War I. He was an influential opponent of conscription, which led to the Conscription Crisis of 1917 and the formation of a Union government, which Laurier refused to join. However, many Liberals, particularly in English Canada, joined Borden as Liberal-Unionists and the "Laurier Liberals" were reduced to a mostly French-Canadian rump as a result of the 1917 election.

Laurier died on February 17, 1919, and was buried in Notre Dame Cemetery, Ottawa, Ontario. The Sir Wilfrid Laurier National Historic Site of Canada is in Saint-Lin-Laurentides, a town 60 km north of Montreal. Another site is Laurier House, his residence in Ottawa at the corner of Somerset and what is now Laurier Street.

Laurier is depicted on the Canadian five-dollar bill. On November 1, 1973, Waterloo Lutheran University, one of Ontario's publicly funded universities, was renamed Wilfrid Laurier University. There are also many high schools in Canada named after him.

Laurier is also the personal hero of former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien who saw in Laurier's abilities at conciliation and at winning majority governments an ideal model to follow.

Supreme Court Appointments

Laurier appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of Canada:

External links

Preceded by:
Sir Charles Tupper
Prime Minister of Canada
Succeeded by:
Sir Robert Laird Borden
Preceded by:
Edward Blake
Liberal Leaders
Succeeded by:
Daniel Duncan McKenzie

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John A. Macdonald Alexander Mackenzie John Joseph Caldwell Abbott John Sparrow David Thompson Mackenzie Bowell Charles Tupper Wilfrid Laurier Robert Laird Borden Arthur Meighen William Lyon Mackenzie King Richard Bedford Bennett Louis St. Laurent John Diefenbaker Lester Bowles Pearson Pierre Trudeau Joe Clark John Napier Turner Brian Mulroney Kim Campbell Jean Chrétien Paul Martin

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