|The Right Honourable
Sir Wilfrid Laurier
GCMG, PC, KC
|7th Prime Minister of Canada|
11 July 1896 – 6 October 1911
|Governor General||Earl of Aberdeen
Earl of Minto
|Preceded by||Charles Tupper|
|Succeeded by||Robert Borden|
20 November 1841
Saint-Lin, Canada East
|Died||17 February 1919
|Resting place||Notre-Dame Cemetery, Ottawa, Ontario|
|Political party||Liberal Party of Canada|
|Alma mater||McGill University|
Canada's first francophone prime minister, Laurier is often considered one of the country's greatest statesmen. He is well known for his policies of conciliation, expanding Confederation, and compromise between French and English Canada. His vision for Canada was a land of individual liberty and decentralized federalism. He also argued for an English-French partnership in Canada. "I have had before me as a pillar of fire," he said, "a policy of true Canadianism, of moderation, of reconciliation." And he passionately defended individual liberty, "Canada is free and freedom is its nationality," and "Nothing will prevent me from continuing my task of preserving at all cost our civil liberty." Laurier was also well regarded for his efforts to establish Canada as an autonomous country within the British Empire, though he supported the continuation of the British Empire if it was based on "absolute liberty political and commercial".
Laurier is the fourth-longest serving Prime Minister of Canada, behind William Lyon Mackenzie King, John A. Macdonald, and Pierre Trudeau. A 2011 Maclean's historical ranking of the Prime Ministers placed Laurier first. Laurier also holds the record for the most consecutive federal elections won (4), and his 15 year tenure remains the longest unbroken term of office among Prime Ministers. In addition, his nearly 45 years (1874–1919) of service in the House of Commons is an all-time record for that house. Finally, at 31 years, 8 months, Laurier was the longest-serving leader of a major Canadian political party, surpassing King by over two years. Laurier's portrait is displayed on the Canadian five-dollar bill.
The second child of Carolus Laurier and Marcelle Martineau, Wilfrid Laurier was born in Saint-Lin, Canada East (today called Saint-Lin-Laurentides, Quebec) on 20 November 1841. Laurier was the 7th generation of his family in Canada. He was a sixth-generation Canadian. His ancestor François Cottineau, dit Champlaurier came to Canada from Saint-Claud, France. He grew up in a family where politics was a staple of talk and debate. His father, an educated man having liberal ideas, enjoyed a certain degree of prestige about town. In addition to being a farmer and surveyor, he also occupied such sought-after positions as mayor, justice of the peace, militia lieutenant and school board member. At the age of 11, Wilfrid left home to study in New Glasgow, a neighbouring village largely inhabited by immigrants from Scotland. Over the next two years, he had the opportunity of familiarizing himself with the mentality, language and culture of British people. Laurier attended the College of L'Assomption and graduated in law from McGill University.
He was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Quebec in the 1871 Quebec general election in Drummond-Arthabaska, but resigned on 19 January 1874 to enter federal politics. He was first elected to the Canadian House of Commons in the 1874 election, serving briefly in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie as Minister of Inland Revenue.
Chosen as leader of the Liberal Party in 1887, he gradually built up his party's strength with his personal following in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada. He led the Liberal Party to victory in the 1896 election, and remained prime minister until the party's defeat in the 1911 election.
Laurier was able to build the Liberal Party a base in Quebec in 1909, which had been a Conservative stronghold for decades due to the province's social conservatism and the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, which distrusted the Liberals' anti-clericalism. He was aided by the growing alienation of French-Canadians from the Conservatives due to the national Tory party's links with anti-French, anti-Catholic Orangemen in English Canada. These factors combined with the collapse of the Conservative Party of Quebec gave Laurier an opportunity to build a stronghold in French Canada and among Catholics across Canada.
Because Laurier believed in a separation of church and state, Roman Catholic bishops in Quebec repeatedly warned their parishioners never to vote for the man. Journalist and author Laurier LaPierre wrote in his 1996 biography of Laurier: "children were made to kneel and beg God that their parents not be damned should they have the temerity to vote for the Liberal candidate. When electors asked directly whom they should vote for, the cagey priests contented themselves with informing them that le ciel est bleu, l'enfer est rouge – heaven is blue, hell is red."
However, Laurier had rather good relations with Pope Pius X himself, and had complimented him during a diplomatic meeting. In part, the tension of the time can be attributed to Pius's encyclical Vehementer Nos, which condemned strict Church-State separation in Émile Combes' secularist France.
Laurier led Canada during a period of rapid growth, industrialization and immigration. His long career straddles a period of major political and economic change. As Prime Minister he was instrumental in ushering Canada into the 20th century and in gaining greater autonomy from Britain for his country.
One of Laurier's first acts as Prime Minister was to implement a solution to the Manitoba Schools Question, which had helped to bring down the Conservative government of Charles Tupper earlier in 1896. The Manitoba legislature had passed a law eliminating public funding for Catholic schooling (thereby going against the federal constitutional Manitoba Act, 1870, which guaranteed Catholic and Protestant religious education rights). The Catholic minority asked the federal Government for support, and eventually the Conservatives proposed remedial legislation to override Manitoba's legislation. Laurier opposed the remedial legislation on the basis of provincial rights, and succeeded in blocking its passage by Parliament. Once elected, Laurier proposed a compromise stating that Catholics in Manitoba could have a Catholic education if there were enough students to warrant it, on a school-by-school basis. This was seen by many as the best possible solution in the circumstances, making both the French and English equally satisfied.
In 1899, the United Kingdom expected military support from Canada, as part of the British Empire, in the Second Boer War. Laurier was caught between demands for support for military action from English Canada, and a strong opposition from French Canada which saw the Boer War as an "English" war and to some degree appreciated the similar places that Boers and French Canadians held in the British Empire. Henri Bourassa was an especially vocal opponent. Laurier eventually decided to send a volunteer force, rather than the militia expected by Britain, but Bourassa continued to oppose any form of military involvement.
In 1905, Laurier oversaw Saskatchewan and Alberta's entry into Confederation, the last two provinces to be created out of the Northwest Territories. This followed the enactment of the Yukon Territory Act by the Laurier Government in 1898, separating the Yukon from the Northwest Territories.
On 29 July 1910, while in Saskatoon to attend the opening of the University of Saskatchewan, he bought a newspaper from a young John Diefenbaker, a future Conservative Prime Minister. The young Diefenbaker, recognizing the Prime Minister, shared his ideas for the country and amused him. He inquired about the young man's business and expressed the hope that he would be a great man someday. The boy ended the conversation by saying, "Well, Mr. Prime Minister, I can't waste any more time on you. I must get back to work."
The naval competition between the United Kingdom and the German Empire escalated in the early years of the 20th century. The British asked Canada for more money and resources for ship construction, precipitating a heated political division in Canada. The British supporters wished to send as much as possible, whereas those against wished to send nothing.
Aiming for compromise, Laurier advanced the Naval Service Bill of 1910 which created the Royal Canadian Navy. The navy would initially consist of five cruisers and six destroyers; in times of crisis, it could be made subordinate to the Royal Navy proper. The idea was lauded at the Imperial Conference on Defence in London, but it proved unpopular across the political spectrum in Canada, especially in Quebec as ex-Liberal Henri Bourassa organized an anti-Laurier force.
In 1911, another controversy arose regarding Laurier's support of trade reciprocity with the United States. His long serving Minister of Finance, William Stevens Fielding, reached an agreement allowing for free trade of natural products. This had the strong support of agricultural interests, but it alienated many businessmen who formed a significant part of the Liberals' support base. The Conservatives denounced the deal and played on long standing fears that reciprocity could eventually lead to the American annexation of Canada.
Contending with an unruly House of Commons, including vocal disapproval from Liberal MP Clifford Sifton, Laurier called an election to settle the issue of reciprocity. The Conservatives were victorious and Robert Laird Borden succeeded Laurier as Prime Minister.
Laurier led the opposition during World War I. He led the filibuster to the Conservatives' own Naval Bill which would have sent contributions directly to the Royal Navy; the bill was later blocked by the Liberal-controlled Senate. He was an influential opponent of conscription, which led to the Conscription Crisis of 1917 and the formation of a Union government, which Laurier refused to join for fear of having Quebec fall in the hands of nationalist Henri Bourassa. However, many Liberals, particularly in English Canada, joined Borden as Liberal-Unionists and the "Laurier Liberals" were reduced to a mostly French-Canadian rump as a result of the 1917 election.
However, Laurier's last policies and efforts had not been in vain. As a result of Laurier's opposition of conscription in 1917, Quebec and its French-Canadian voters voted overwhelmingly to support the Liberal party starting in 1917. Despite one notable exception in 1958, the Liberal party continued to dominate federal politics in Quebec until 1984. His protege and successor as party leader William Lyon Mackenzie King led the Liberals to a landslide victory over the Conservatives in the 1921 election.
Wilfrid Laurier married Zoé Lafontaine in Montreal on 13 May 1868. She was the daughter of G.N.R. Lafontaine and his first wife, Zoé Lavinge dit Tessier. Laurier's wife Zoé was born in Montreal and educated there at the School of the Bon Pasteur, and at the Convent of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, St. Vincent de Paul. The couple lived at Arthabaskaville until they moved to Ottawa in 1896. She served as one of the Vice-Presidents on the formation of the National Council of Women and was Honorary Vice-President of the Victorian Order of Nurses. The couple had no children.
Beginning in 1878 and for some twenty years while married to Zoé, Laurier had an "ambiguous relationship" with a married woman, Émilie Lavergne, with whom he fell in love. Where Zoé loved plants, animals and home life, she was not an intellectual. Émilie was, and relished literature and politics like Wilfrid, whose heart she won. Rumour had it he fathered a son (Armand) with her, yet Zoé remained with him until his death.
Laurier died of a stroke on 17 February 1919, while still in office as Leader of the Opposition. Though he had lost a bitter election two years earlier, he was loved nationwide for his "warm smile, his sense of style, and his "sunny ways"." Some 50,000 people jammed the streets of Ottawa as his funeral procession marched to Notre Dame Cemetery. His remains would eventually be placed in a stone sarcophagus, adorned by sculptures of nine mourning female figures, representing each of the provinces in the union. His wife, Zoé Laurier, died in 1921 and was placed in the same tomb.
Laurier is commemorated by three National Historic Sites of Canada.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier National Historic Site is in his birthplace, Saint-Lin-Laurentides, a town 60 km (37 mi) north of Montreal. Its establishment reflected an early desire to not only mark his birthplace (a plaque in 1925 and a monument in 1927), but to create a shrine to Laurier in the 1930s. Despite early doubts and later confirmation that the house designated as the birthplace was neither Laurier's nor on its original site, its development, and the building of a museum, satisfied the goal of honoring the man and reflecting his early life.
His handsome brick residence in Ottawa is known as Laurier House National Historic Site, at the corner of what is now Laurier Avenue and Chapel Street. In their will, the Lauriers left the house to Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who in turn donated it to Canada upon his death. Both sites are administered by Parks Canada as part of the national park system.
The 1876 Italianate residence of the Lauriers during his years as a lawyer and Member of Parliament, in Victoriaville, Quebec, is designated Wilfrid Laurier House National Historic Site, and is a privately owned museum operated as the Laurier Museum.
In November 2011, Wilfrid Laurier University located in Waterloo, Ontario unveiled a statue depicting a young, passionate Sir Wilfrid Laurier in his younger years sitting on a bench, thinking deeply about the future.
Laurier had titular honours including:
Many sites and landmarks were named to honor Wilfrid Laurier. They include:
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