1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Laurier, Sir Wilfrid
LAURIER, SIR WILFRID (1841– ), Canadian statesman, was born on the 20th of November 1841, at St Lin in the province of Quebec. The child of French Roman Catholic parents, he attended the elementary school of his native parish and for eight or nine months was a pupil of the Protestant elementary school at New Glasgow in order to learn English; his association with the Presbyterian family with whom he lived during this period had a permanent influence on his mind. At twelve years of age he entered L’Assomption college, and was there for seven years. The college, like all the secondary schools in Quebec then available for Roman Catholics, was under direct ecclesiastical control. On leaving it he entered a law office at Montreal and took the law course at McGill University. At graduation he delivered the valedictory address for his class. This, like so many of his later utterances, closed with an appeal for sympathy and union between the French and English races as the secret of the future of Canada. He began to practise law in Montreal, but owing to ill-health soon removed to Athabaska, where he opened a law office and undertook also to edit Le Défricheur, a newspaper then on the eve of collapse. At Athabaska, the seat of one of the superior courts of Quebec, the population of the district was fairly divided between French- and English-speaking people, and Laurier’s career was undoubtedly influenced by his constant association with English-speaking people and his intimate acquaintance with their views and aspirations.
While at Montreal he had joined the Institut Canadien, a literary and scientific society which, owing to its liberal discussions and the fact that certain books upon its shelves were on the Index expurgatorius, was finally condemned by the Roman Catholic authorities. Le Défricheur was an organ of extreme French sentiment, opposed to confederation, and also under ecclesiastical censure. One of its few surviving copies contains an article by Laurier opposing confederation as a scheme designed in the interest of the English colonies in North America, and certain to prove the tomb of the French race and the ruin of Lower Canada. The Liberals of Quebec under the leadership of Sir Antoine Dorion were hostile to confederation, or at least to the terms of union agreed upon at the Quebec conference, and Laurier in editorials and speeches maintained the position of Dorion and his allies. He was elected to the Quebec legislature in 1871, and his first speech in the provincial assembly excited great interest, on account of its literary qualities and the attractive manner and logical method of the speaker. He was not less successful in the Dominion House of Commons, to which he was elected in 1874. During his first two years in the federal parliament his chief speeches were made in defence of Riel and the French halfbreeds who were concerned in the Red River rebellion, and on fiscal questions. Sir John Macdonald, then in opposition, had committed his party to a protectionist policy, and Laurier, notwithstanding that the Liberal party stood for a low tariff, avowed himself to be “a moderate protectionist.” He declared that if he were in Great Britain he would be a free trader, but that free trade or protection must be applied according to the necessities of a country, and that which protection necessarily involved taxation it was the price a young and vigorous nation must pay for its development. But the Liberal government, to which Laurier was admitted as minister of inland revenue in 1877, made only a slight increase in duties, raising the general tariff from 15% to 171%; and against the political judgment of Alexander Mackenzie, Sir Richard Cartwright, George Brown, Laurier and other of the more influential leaders of the party, it adhered to a low tariff platform. In the bye-election which followed Laurier’s admission to the cabinet he was defeated—the only personal defeat he ever sustained; but a few weeks later he was returned for Quebec East, a constituency which he held thenceforth by enormous majorities. In 1878 his party went out of office and Sir John Macdonald entered upon a long term of power, with protection as the chief feature of his policy, to which was afterwards added the construction of the Canadian Pacific railway.
After the defeat of the Mackenzie government, Laurier sat in Parliament as the leader of the Quebec Liberals and first lieutenant to the Hon. Edward Blake, who succeeded Mackenzie in the leadership of the party. He was associated with Blake in his sustained opposition to high tariff, and to the Conservative plan for the construction of the Canadian Pacific railway, and was a conspicuous figure in the long struggle between Sir John Macdonald and the leaders of the Liberal party to settle the territorial limits of the province of Ontario and the legislative rights of the provinces under the constitution. He was forced also to maintain a long conflict with the ultramontane element of the Roman Catholic church in Quebec, which for many years had a close working alliance with the Conservative politicians of the province and even employed spiritual coercion in order to detach votes from the Liberal party. Notwithstanding that Quebec was almost solidly Roman Catholic the Rouges sternly resisted clerical pressure; they appealed to the courts and had certain elections voided on the ground of undue clerical influence, and at length persuaded the pope to send out a delegate to Canada, through whose inquiry into the circumstances the abuses were checked and the zeal of the ultramontanes restrained.
In 1887, upon the resignation of Blake on the ground of ill-health, Laurier became leader of the Liberal party, although he and many of the more influential men in the party doubted the wisdom of the proceeding. He was the first French Canadian to lead a federal party in Canada since confederation. Apart from the natural fear that he would arouse prejudice in the English-speaking provinces, the second Riel rebellion was then still fresh in the public mind, and the fierce nationalist agitation which Riel’s execution had excited in Quebec had hardly subsided. Laurier could hardly have come to the leadership at a more inopportune moment, and probably he would not have accepted the office at all if he had not believed that Blake could be persuaded to resume the leadership when his health was restored. But from the first he won great popularity even in the English-speaking provinces, and showed unusual capacity for leadership. His party was beaten in the first general election held after he became leader (1891), but even with its policy of unrestricted reciprocity with the United States, and with Sir John Macdonald still at the head of the Conservative party, it was beaten by only a small majority. Five years later, with unrestricted reciprocity relegated to the background, and with a platform which demanded tariff revision so adjusted as not to endanger established interests, and which opposed the federal measure designed to restore in Manitoba the separate or Roman Catholic schools which the provincial government had abolished, Laurier carried the country, and in July 1896 he was called by Lord Aberdeen, then governor-general, to form a government.
He was the first French-Canadian to occupy the office of premier; and his personal supremacy was shown by his long continuance in power. During the years from 1896 to 1910, he came to hold a position within the British Empire which was in its way unique, and in this period he had seen Canadian prosperity advance progressively by leaps and bounds. The chief features of his administration were the fiscal preference of 331% in favour of goods imported into Canada from Great Britain, the despatch of Canadian contingents to South Africa during the Boer war, the contract with the Grand Trunk railway for the construction of a second transcontinental road from ocean to ocean, the assumption by Canada of the imperial fortresses at Halifax and Esquimault, the appointment of a federal railway commission with power to regulate freight charges, express rates and telephone rates, and the relations between competing companies, the reduction of the postal rate to Great Britain from 5 cents to 2 cents and of the domestic rate from 3 cents to 2 cents, a substantial contribution to the Pacific cable, a practical and courageous policy of settlement and development in the Western territories, the division of the North-West territories into the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan and the enactment of the legislation necessary to give them provincial status, and finally (1910), a tariff arrangement with the United States, which, if not all that Canada might claim in the way of reciprocity, showed how entirely the course of events had changed the balance of commercial interests in North America.
Laurier made his first visit to Great Britain on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee (1897), when he received the grand cross of the Bath; he then secured the denunciation of the Belgian and German treaties and thus obtained for the colonies the right to make preferential trade arrangements with the mother country. His personality made a powerful impression in Great Britain and also in France, which he visited before his return to Canada. His strong facial resemblance both to Lord Beaconsfield and to Sir John Macdonald marked him out in the public eye, and he captured attention by his charm of manner, fine command of scholarly English and genuine eloquence. Some of his speeches in Great Britain, coming as they did from a French-Canadian, and revealing delicate appreciation of British sentiment and thorough comprehension of the genius of British institutions, excited great interest and enthusiasm, while one or two impassioned speeches in the Canadian parliament during the Boer war profoundly influenced opinion in Canada and had a pronounced effect throughout the empire.
A skilful party-leader, Laurier kept from the first not only the affection of his political friends but the respect of his opponents; while enforcing the orderly conduct of public business, he was careful as first minister to maintain the dignity of parliament. In office he proved more of an opportunist than his career in opposition would have indicated, but his political courage and personal integrity remained beyond suspicion. His jealousy for the political autonomy of Canada was noticeable in his attitude at the Colonial conference held at the time of King Edward’s coronation, and marked all his diplomatic dealings with the mother country. But he strove for sympathetic relations between Canadian and imperial authorities, and favoured general legislative and fiscal co-operation between the two countries. He strove also for good relations between the two races in Canada, and between Canada and the United States. Although he was classed in Canada as a Liberal, his tendencies would in England have been considered strongly conservative; an individualist rather than a collectivist, he opposed the intrusion of the state into the sphere of private enterprise, and showed no sympathy with the movement for state operation of railways, telegraphs and telephones, or with any kindred proposal looking to the extension of the obligations of the central government.
Bibliography.—J. S. Willison, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberal Party; a Political History (Toronto, 1903); L. O. David, Laurier et son temps (Montreal, 1905); see also Henri Moreau, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Premier Ministre du Canada (Paris, 1902); and the collection of Laurier’s speeches from 1871 to 1890, compiled by Ulric Barthe (Quebec, 1890). (J. S. W.)