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1841 - 1919
"Canada has been modest in its history, although its history, in my estimation, is only commencing. It is commencing in this century. The nineteenth century was the century of the United States. I think we can claim that Canada will fill the twentieth century." -- Sir Wilfrid Laurier, January 18, 1904
These words, so familiar to Canadians, sum up the spirit of optimism which characterized Laurier himself, as well as the country during the time he governed. His skill as a politician gave him the longest unbroken term of office as prime minister, while his charismatic personality endeared him to friend and rival alike, and made him a hero to the nation.
Wilfrid Laurier was born in St. Lin, Quebec in 1841, the son of a farmer. After a few years at the local elementary school, Laurier was sent to New Glasgow, a nearby town, to learn English. He spent seven years at a Roman Catholic college, and then studied law at McGill University. Laurier graduated in 1864 and began practising law in Montreal.
It was during these years that Laurier became involved in politics, supporting the Liberal party or "parti rouge", as it was known in Quebec. In 1866, he moved to L'Avenir and took over as Editor of Le Défricheur, defending liberalism. It was not an easy platform to support in Quebec at that time; the clergy fiercely condemned "les rouges," and the rival "parti bleu" dominated the provincial government. Laurier won a seat in the legislature as a Liberal member in 1871, but resigned in 1874. That same year, he was elected to the House of Commons. During the brief Liberal regime under Alexander MacKenzie, Laurier served for a year as Minister of Inland Revenue. His spirited defence of Louis Riel in 1885 brought his oratorical abilities to the attention of the party, and when Liberal leader Edward Blake resigned in 1887, Laurier succeeded him.
During the election of 1891, the Liberal platform of unrestricted reciprocity with the U.S. proved unpopular, and the Conservatives won again. But with the death of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald later the same year, the collapse of the Conservative party began. The Manitoba Schools Question hastened the process, and Laurier simply bided his time. After eighteen years of Tory government, the nation voted Liberal in the 1896 election and Laurier became Canada's first francophone prime minister.
National unity was of supreme importance to Laurier. He had seen how divisive the issues of Riel and the Manitoba schools had been, and he sought to reconcile the interests of French and English Canada with his policies. Laurier was a great admirer of the principles of British liberalism, and felt they offered the means by which Canadians of all ancestries could live in one nation. But at all times his dedication to Canadian unity took precedence over his esteem for British tradition.
In 1897, he was invited to London for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria's reign. Although Laurier had indicated that, in the tradition of former Liberal leaders Alexander Mackenzie and Edward Blake, he did not wish a knighthood, preparations to knight him had already been made. To avoid appearing rude, he accepted. There was an ulterior motive in the extravagant welcome Laurier received in Britain. Anxious to re-establish control over the foreign policy and defence of their colonies, the British were hoping that Laurier would acquiesce and convince others to follow. But they underestimated Laurier's determination to maintain Canada's control over her destiny. At three more Imperial Conferences between 1902 and 1911, Laurier held firm against the British encroachment on Canadian autonomy.
The fifteen years of Laurier's government were distinguished with unprecedented growth and prosperity. Immigration expanded, especially in the West, leading to the creation of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905. Such growth required expansion of the railways and two new continental lines were built.
The golden age came to an end in 1911, when the Liberals lost the election over the issue of unrestricted reciprocity. As leader of the Opposition, Laurier maintained the confidence of his party until the First World War. While he supported Canada's contribution to Britain's war efforts and urged young men in all provinces to enlist, Laurier was against conscription. The Liberal party was badly split over this issue in the 1917 election, and several Liberals formed a union government with the Conservatives for the duration of the war.
Laurier died on February 17, 1919, having served for forty-five years in the House of Commons. At his funeral, 50,000 people lined the streets of Ottawa, while hundreds of dignitaries and officials from all over the country followed the funeral procession. This solemn occasion was one of the first public events in Canada to be recorded on film.
Source: Canada's Prime Ministers, 1867 - 1994: Biographies and Anecdotes. [Ottawa]: National Archives of Canada, . 40 p.