by Peter Russell
No other Prime Minister had so much impact on the prairie West as Wilfrid Laurier. In turn, few other Prime Ministers have been so much affected by it. Not only did he greatly effect the contemporary issues of day-to-day politics in the West, but he also contributed to the economic and especially the political configuration of the Prairies.
Laurier first captured the public eye outside of Quebec in an uncharacteristically forceful speech about the hanging of Louis Riel. "Had I been born on the banks of the Saskatchewan," he declared, "I would myself have shouldered a musket to fight against the neglect of government and the shameless greed of speculators." Two years later he became leader of the Liberal Party.
Ontario may have disapproved of his stand in that debate, but those in the new West supported him. On the eve of the 1896 election, Prince Albert Liberal Party stalwart T.C. Davis was seeking to exploit a division of alliance within the Conservative Party. A respected lawyer, James MacKay, nominated to run for the Conservatives, had been opposed by a faction that refused to accept him because he was a "half-breed," and put forward an alternative candidate. Davis hit upon the idea of offering the Liberal nomination to Laurier (at that time it was possible for someone to contest more than one federal riding). He reasoned that it would give the Liberal Party more prominence in a region where it had not been strong in the past, and capitalize on Laurier's defence of the Métis in 1885. Laurier won both his usual Quebec South constituency and that of Prince Albert.
As Prime Minister, Laurier's term in office coincided with the immigration boom which settled much of the Prairies. He appointed an energetic and capable westerner, Clifford Sifton, Interior Minister to direct the settlement of the West. Some feel he had placed the right man in exactly the right place. Others argue that Sifton and Laurier merely benefited from the fact that free land was no longer available in the United States. Canada's "last best West" can be seen as inevitable, regardless of the politicians in power.
However, the same cannot be said for the decision to construct two new transcontinental railways. In a bid to challenge the Canadian National Railways' monopoly, two rival groups - the Grand Trunk based in central Canada and the Canadian Northern based in Manitoba - each sought to persuade the Canadian government to subsidize their own transcontinental project. Since neither would embark upon such a major expansion without federal subsidy, it lay in Laurier's power to compel a compromise to join the two groups, each supplying the part that the other lacked. Although Laurier's Minister of Railways, A.G. Blair, supported this compromise, Laurier over-ruled him, forcing his resignation. Laurier had proclaimed that the twentieth century would be "Canada's century." In that spirit of enthusiasm he agreed to underwrite two new transcontinental railways. By 1916, as the lines neared completion, the companies' financial troubles would signal the failure of Laurier's over-optimistic expansion.
As the new Prime Minister, Laurier sought to satisfy the Prairies' quest for more independence by granting responsible government to the Territorial Assembly in 1897. He soon regretted this action, for in 1901 the territorial government passed a new ordinance that made it more difficult to establish Roman Catholic schools. The issue of schooling came to a head in the 1905 debate over the Autonomy Bills, which created Saskatchewan and Alberta. Laurier and his Justice Minister, Charles Fitzpatrick, sought to entrench guarantees for separate schools in the new provincial constitutions. Their action precipitated the resignation of Clifford Sifton. In the end, the bills entrenched only the reduced status of the 1901 ordinance. Overshadowed at the time - and in subsequent discussion by the separate schools provisions - was a second issue that was ultimately of far greater import.