In a 2010 poll of 1,000 Canadians, weekly news magazine Maclean’s asked who Canada’s greatest Prime-Minister was. More than 80% of respondents replied “Wilfrid Laurier”. Serving as PM for nearly 20 years, from 1896 until 1911, Sir Wilfrid Laurier was responsible for settling Canada’s west, bringing Canada into the modern industrial age, gaining autonomy from Britain and forging a vision of Canada as a united country strong and free that still exists today. With more than 30 high schools and one major University named after him, as well as statues, roads, hospitals and even a Montreal metro station in his name, Sir Wilfrid Laurier is a giant of Canadian history.
Laurier was born in the small Quebec town of Saint-Lin on November 20 1841 to sixth-generation French Canadian parents. The Lauriers could trace they ancestry back to the famed Champlauriers of Saint-Claud, France (intrepid explorers, nobility and at one point in history, knights). Wilfrid’s father was a very active member of the community with very liberal ideas. Serving as mayor of the town, school board governor and local militia commander, he was a pillar of the community and young Wilfrid grew up surrounded by politics and local prestige. At age 11 Wilfrid was sent off to study in an Anglophone school in a very Scottish town. This experience would help Laurier bridge the gap between the French and English voters of Canada.
Laurier graduated from McGill University with a law degree and immediately ran for office. He was elected to the Quebec General Assembly in 1871 at the age of 30, and only 3 years later, in 1874, he ran for the Liberal Party and was duly elected to the federal Parliament in Ottawa.
Laurier won the next two elections in his riding and moved up in the ranks of the young Liberal Party, which was constantly being battered at the polls by the Conservatives. During the 1887 Liberal leadership convention in Montreal, Wilfrid won enough delegates following two years of backroom politicking and was named leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
For ten years Laurier slowly but surely built up the support base of the Liberal Party, concentrating his efforts in Quebec and among the quickly-growing immigrant populations of the prairies. In 1896 the Conservative government of Prime-Minister Charles Tupper was brought down due to a school funding scandal and Laurier took now-strong and confident Liberals to the polls. He won with a landslide victory and was named Canada’s seventh Prime-Minister.
One of Laurier’s first acts was to re-affirm the rights of Catholics to attend separate Catholic schools and to ensure those school boards were adequately funded, the very issue that had brought down his predecessor’s government. With Western Canada and Quebec’s support firmly sealed, Laurier went about dismantling the protectionist economy the Conservatives had built and brought in market-liberal ideals of free enterprise and free trade, particularly with America. Laurier had a vision of Canada as a natural resource powerhouse and boldly boasted that the “20th Century belongs to Canada!” His vision was to mine and extract resources across the great nation and ship them to American markets via thousands of miles of railroads. Laurier strongly believed that this would make Canada, and every Canadian, rich beyond their wildest dreams.
Laurier’s government set out creating two seperate large scale, nation-building railways, the Canadian Pacific railway (CP) and amalgamating several smaller ones into the national Canadian National (CN) railway. He sent emissaries all across Europe, particularly eastern Europe, with a goal of attracting waves of immigrants to farm and mine and drill. His vast railroad dreams and his moves towards free-trade with America earned him many admirers as well as many opponents, especially among the more conservative Tories, who viewed any trade with America with distrust.
Under Laurier’s Liberal free-market ideals Canada’s economy exploded in the last years of the 19th Century. Mines, factories, railroads, towns and ports were opened. Unemployment dropped to near-record lows and the average wealth of the wage earner rose. Laurier increased the size of the civil service and established federal offices in cities across the country, to ensure that the federal government had a presence wherever people might live. He also created the Department of Labour and Canada’s first social welfare system for injured workers.
In 1899 the Boer War began in South Africa and England called on the Dominion of Canada to send help. While most Anglophone Canadians were behind the war, the Francophone community was fervently against it. As a compromise, Laurier commissioned four battalions of volunteers, provided they were under Canadian leadership, and in 1900 the first Canadians were in battle in South Africa at Bloehmfontain. While the Boer War remained unpopular in Quebec, and Laurier’s support waned there, voters in English Canada flocked to the Liberal Party.
Despite opposition to the war in Quebec, Laurier won the 1900 general elections although the Liberal Party lost several seats to the Conservatives. The Boer War, Canada’s first overseas military conflict, ended in 1901 and the Canadian contingent came home (minus 500 dead) to celebrations and victory parades. To turn attention away from the political rift the Boer War had caused in Canada, Laurier set his sights on shoring up his western base by dividing the sprawling Northwest Territories into four, and then inviting two of the new territories, Alberta and Saskatchewan, to join Confederation as fully fledged provinces. Populated largely by English Canadians and Ukrainian immigrants loyal to Laurier, the two new provinces promised much needed support for Laurier’s Liberals, who were quickly losing their Quebec base. The third territory was renamed The Yukon and given equal status to the Northwest Territories.
Laurier went on to win two more elections, but in 1911 he faced his final crisis when his finance minister, William Fielding, attempted to sign a free trade deal with the United States that would see tariffs removed on natural food products. The strong farm lobby of the prairies, who had been so loyal to Laurier, suddenly turned on him. The government went into crisis mode and in Parliament the Conservatives, capitalizing on the momentum, managed to get a vote of non-confidence passed. The Laurier government fell. In the ensuing election the Conservatives swept the polls in both Quebec and the prairies and Robert Borden was named Prime-Minister.
Laurier’s days as PM were over. He would go on to lead the Liberal Party as the Loyal Opposition until 1919, when Wilfrid Laurier, one of Canada’s most successful and visionary Prime-Ministers, suffered a massive stroke and died.
Since the days of wild railroad building and province-making, the legend of Laurier has lived on. Schools, roads and hospitals are named after him, and even money has his face on it. Voted Canada’s greatest Prime-Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier is a truly a nation-builder.