150+ Canadians Day 92: Wilfred Laurier

Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier contributed to peace through championing national unity through political compromise.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier, lawyer, journalist, and politician was leader of the Liberal Party 1887–1919 and Canada’s eighth prime minister, 1896–1911.

Though his time in office was not without controversy, he was a skillful and pragmatic politician who is known for seeking compromise. He was a fervent promoter of national unity at a time of radical change and rising cultural conflict between French and English Canadians.

Though historians still debate Laurier’s legacy, it was under his leadership that the country continued its industrialization and urbanization, expanded westward, constructed another transcontinental railway, and was strengthened by the addition of two provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, and two million inhabitants.

Laurier studied law at McGill and established close ties with members of the Parti Rouge, a radical liberal political party from Canada East (Québec). An early opponent of Confederation, he argued that the federal government would have too much power, and that French Canadians would be overwhelmed. In 1871, when the Catholic Church in Québec was ferociously attacking the Rouges and liberalism, Laurier became the Liberal member for Drummond-Arthabaska in the Québec legislature. In place of his earlier radical liberalism, he adopted a position of moderate liberalism, which he hoped would be more acceptable to the Catholic clergy. He also decided, like many liberals of his time, he eventually accepted Confederation, and became committed to working within it.

For some, he was, as prime minister, the spiritual successor to Macdonald, who pursued and consolidated Confederation. For others, Laurier, in the name of national unity and necessary compromise, too often sacrificed the interest of French Canadian Catholics.

In 1885, outraged by the hanging of Louis Riel, he recognized the need to unite the French and English in Canada. From 1887 he devoted himself to building a truly national party.  In 1893, Laurier proposed a new program which served as the basis for a new national structure. In the 1896 election, contrary to the expectations of many French Canadians, Laurier did not champion the minority rights of Catholics in Manitoba.  Instead, his focus as prime minister was on the country’s development and on implementing policies designed to heal the wounds of national unity.

As leader of the opposition, and out of personal conviction, Laurier vigorously supported Canadian participation in the First World War. In 1917, when the country was plunged into national crisis following imposition of military Conscription, he refused to support this measure, which was so repulsive to Québec, and proposed instead a referendum and continued voluntary enlistment.

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