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Prior to 1905 there had been no fixed public decision on whether the populous southern portions of the "old" North-West Territories (N.W.T.) should be formed into one or more provinces. The territorial Premier, F.W.G. Haultain, had long advocated "one big province" between Manitoba and British Columbia. While he had the consistent support of a majority in the Territorial Assembly, other voices  -  rooted in the municipal boosterism of thriving prairie towns  -  called for two, three or even four provinces. Those who called for two were divided between those who favoured a north-south division and those who wanted a provincial boundary running east-west (i.e., putting Calgary and Regina in one province). Another interested party was Manitoba, which hoped for a "western extension" that would boost the province's tax basis and political clout. Sifton favoured the latter until at least 1901. However, the Autonomy Bills created the boundaries of the two western prairie provinces as we have them today.

Inauguration ceremonies of the province of Saskatchewan with Governor General Earl Grey and Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, September 4, 1905 (C-021896)

Inauguration ceremonies of the province of Saskatchewan with Governor General Earl Grey and Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, September 4, 1905 (C-021896)

What rationale was there for the highly arbitrary boundaries chosen? Laurier argued that "one big province" would be too large to administer efficiently. The government's declared intent was to create two provinces that would be approximately equal in area and population. The fact that the population fell into two distinct north-south bands (Calgary-Edmonton and Regina-Prince Albert) effectively ruled out the idea of provincial boundaries running east-west. Although the new provincial border ran right through the newly incorporated town of Lloydminster (1903), the loudest protests came from the southern range country. Spokespersons for Calgary and Macleod, from the old district of Alberta, argued that the boundary should be set further east  -  as far as the 105th or 107th meridians  -  to encompass all the ranching country. Medicine Hat (included in the new province of Alberta, from Assiniboia) agreed; but Maple Creek declared that it wanted to be in the new province of Saskatchewan. However, the federal government could not be moved from its decision.

The federal elections of 1904 and 1908 and the election of Liberal provincial governments in the two new provinces in 1905 seemed to indicate Laurier's success in winning the allegiance of the new region. During his 1910 western tour, Laurier was very impressed by the strong support for free trade. Thus, indirectly and unintentionally, the Prairies contributed to Laurier's defeat in 1911, by adding impetus to the move for a new reciprocity treaty.

However, if Laurier had "won" the prairie West as Prime Minister, he was not able to hold it in opposition. In 1916, prairie Liberals, defying Laurier's threat to resign as leader, voted against a Liberal resolution protesting the end of French-language schools in Ontario. That dissent presaged the severing of the party the following year over the conscription issue. In his last election as party leader, Laurier could garner only two supporters from all of the four western provinces.

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