Sir Wilfrid Laurier (November 20, 1841 - February 17, 1919) was the seventh Prime Minister of Canada from July 11, 1896 to October 7, 1911.
He was born in Saint-Lin, Canada East (what would later become Quebec), and graduated with a B.C.L. from McGill University in 1864. In 1868 he wed Zoe Lafontaine (1841-1921).
Often considered one of Canada's great statesmen and the first francophone prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier is well known for his policies of conciliation and nation building. He 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."
Before joining the Liberals, Laurier was a member of the radical Rouge wing of Quebec politics. He became disenchanted with extremism and ideology, and was a key player in uniting Les Rouges of Quebec with the Clear Grits and Reformers of Ontario into what is now the Liberal Party of Canada. Distinguished by his debonair charm and intellect, Laurier was first elected to the Canadian House of Commons in 1874, 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 1896 and remained prime minister until 1911.
Laurier was able to build the Liberal Party a base in Quebec which had been a Conservative stronghold for decades due to the province's social conservatism and the influence of the Catholic Church which distrusted the Liberal's 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, its role in the suppression and execution of Louis Riel as well as the suppression of French language rights as a result of the Manitoba Schools Question, all of which 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.
Laurier led Canada during a period of rapid growth, industrialization, and immigration. His long career straddles a period of major political and economic changes. As Prime Minister of Canada he was instrumental in ushering Canada into the 20th century and in gaining greater autonomy for his country vis-ŕ-vis its international partners. His most famous quotation comes from a speech given to the Canadian Club of Ottawa, 18 January 1904:
"The 19th century was the century of the United States. I think we can claim that it is Canada that shall fill the 20th century.”
One of Laurier's first acts as Prime Minister was to implement a solution to the Manitoba Schools Question, which had brought down the government of Mackenzie Bowell earlier in 1896. His compromise stated that French-speaking 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 under the circumstances.
In 1899 the United Kingdom expected military support from Canada in the 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 a reminder of its own defeat in the Seven Years' War. Henri Bourassa was an especially vocal opponent. Laurier eventually decided to send a volunteer force, rather than the militia expected by Britain, but Bourassa denounced him anyway.
Laurier's greatest failing was, perhaps, his ambitious railway schemes. John A. Macdonald had had great success building a national railway and in many ways Laurier wished to match him and began constructing a second national railway. This and other railway schemes were a financial disaster.
In 1905 Laurier oversaw Saskatchewan and Alberta's entry into Confederation, the last two provinces to be created out of the Northwest Territories. In 1910 Laurier introduced the Naval Service Bill to create an independent Canadian navy, but Bourassa attacked him again over this issue, saying Britain would simply call on the Canadian navy whenever it felt necessary. However, imperialists in English Canada were opposed to attempts to remove Canada from Britain's influence.
Reciprocity and Defeat
Another controversy arose regarding Laurier's support of trade reciprocity with the United States. This was opposed by Conservatives as well as Liberal businessmen, but had strong support of agricultural interests. These controversies led to the victory of Robert Laird Borden and the Conservatives in the election of 1911, which was mostly fought on the issue of reciprocity.
Opposition and War
Laurier led the opposition throughout Borden's tenure as Prime Minister. During World War I he was an influential opponent of conscription, which led to the Conscription Crisis of 1917 and the formation of a Union government, although Laurier refused to join the coalition.
Laurier died on February 17, 1919, and was buried in Notre Dame Cemetery, Ottawa, Ontario. The Sir Wilfrid Laurier National Historic Site of Canada is in Saint-Lin-Laurentides, a town 60 km north of Montreal. Another site is Laurier House, his official residence in Ottawa at the corner of Somerset and what is now Laurier Street.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier is depicted on the Canadian five-dollar bill. On November 1, 1973, Waterloo Lutheran University was renamed and became Wilfrid Laurier University, one of Ontario's publicly funded universities. There are also many high schools in Canada named after him.
Laurier is also the personal hero of recent Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien who saw in Laurier's abilities at conciliation and at winning majority governments an ideal model to follow.