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People I Like: Wilfrid Laurier, 1841-1919, Canadian PM from 1896-1911

June 13, 2012 Leave a comment

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

I can’t say how far I will go with this series idea, but nevertheless, I do want to spotlight some of the people I do find worthy of reading about and researching, especially if they are generally neglected by history. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight someone I’ve recently been enjoying reading about and reading the speeches of: Canada’s 7th Prime Minister Henri-Charles-Wilfrid Laurier.

Now, I don’t profess to be an expert on Canadian politics, so despite the fact that I know our modern conception of the word “Liberal” here in America is not the meaning the word has always held, when I saw the word beside his name, I assumed it meant he was a Liberal in the vein of Trudeau or Pearson–or Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt here in America. It was only when, out of curiosity on night, I decided to do some research on him while looking up other things on Wikipedia. What I found was a man who appeared to be of like mind to myself. When I saw quotes like “Canada is free and freedom is its nationality,” and a man who would rather go down in defeat on the principles of free trade and a volunteer army than compromise his basic principles (even though he was nevertheless one willing to compromise when it didn’t involve selling out said principles), I knew I had to read more.

So I did, and this post is the results of my research. Here, I have provided various quotes and passages I could glean from his speeches.

But before we dive into his own words, I’d like to give a brief biographical sketch: Henri-Charles-Wilfrid Laurier was born on November 20, 1841, in what was then Saint-Lin, East Canada (today, it’s Saint-Lin–Laurentides, Quebec). His affinity for liberalism (in the old sense), as best I can tell, came both from his father, Carolus Laurier, and the time he spent as a child in the nearby village of New Glasgow, which was populated by Scottish immigrants–where he studied British culture. He attended the College of L’Assomption and graduated in law from McGill University in Montreal. In 1868, he married Zoe Lafontaine. In 1871, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Quebec from the district of Drummon-Arthabaska. In 1874, he was elected to the Canadian House of Commons, and he served briefly as Minister of Inland Revenue under Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie.

In 1887, he was chosen as Liberal party leader, and he would remain in that position until his death. He served as Prime Minister from July 11, 1896, to October 6, 1911. He is renowned as a firm believer in federalism and provincial rights, opposing, for example, the Canadian federal government’s attempt to override Manitoba’s legislation eliminating public funding for Catholic schools (though Laurier himself was Catholic)–an issue that had felled several governments before him. Instead, he proposed a compromise: Catholics in Manitoba could have a Catholic education on a school-by-school basis, provided there were enough Catholics to support it in a given school. He also supported greater autonomy of Canada from Great Britain. Four times between 1897 and 1910, he refused to allow Great Britain to encroach upon his nation’s foreign policy–to insure that Canada was not merely a colony gone adrift, but a nation in its own right. He also established Canada’s Navy and the Department of External Affairs, both of which affirmed and strengthened Canada’s independence. What eventually led to his defeat was his support of reciprocity with the United States (free trade), a principle he was not willing to compromise on.

After his party went back into the minority status after the 1911 election, he remained leader of his party until his death in 1919. He was known for his opposition to conscription (the draft), even to the point of refusing to join his successor as Prime Minister Robert Borden’s Union government during the First World War. The “Laurier Liberals” were but a rump of some 40-odd members, but they stuck by their principles. He holds the records for most consecutive federal elections won as PM (4), longest unbroken tenure in office (15 years), and longest tenure as party leader (31 years, 8 months). He also hold the record for longest tenure of service in the House of Commons at nearly 45 years (1874-1919).

A younger Wilfrid Laurier

You can read more in his biography at the Library and Archives of Canada, his biography at the Parliament of Canada, and this article from the Canadian Encyclopedia.

History has been kind to Mr. Laurier. In June of 2011, MacLean’s ranked him Canada’s greatest Prime Minister. Other rankings typically find him in a similar position, with 3rd generally being the lowest he goes. Among American Presidents, he’s probably best compared to Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge, especially since they were from around his era. Probably Ronald Reagan, too, but I’d mention as well the world of Reagan’s day was different from the world of Wilfrid Laurier.

So, having said all that, here are some notable quotes from his speeches. Most of these speeches come from a book published in 1890, Wilfrid Laurier on the Platform (available in full for free on Google Books), which showcased the major speeches he had given from his entry into politics in 1871 up until the year of its publication. It does not contain any statements from his tenure as Prime Minister, since he did not assume office until 1896. I have also included other quotes he is known for, but I might not always have a citation for them that you can view in the same way as that book. I have also used a two volume series published in 1922 called the Life and Letters of Wilfrid Laurier (vol. 1, vol. 2), but these are for quotes from after the span of the other book–especially his time as Prime Minister. For a few quotes, I also resorted to volume 1 of the same. There is also his profile at the Library and Archives of Canada, which contains a few of his speeches as Prime Minister.

Granted, these quotes reference the particular nature of Canada’s and Quebec’s, before he went to Ottawa, legislatures, but the principles expressed here are nevertheless universal. As I have hinted at earlier, do not attach the meanings we know of today for “liberalism” and “conservatism” where they are used here. Be mindful of their meanings at the time, especially in contexts outside the United States. I’ve bolded the best parts here, if you don’t want to read everything, but I do recommend the latter if you are willing. Also, for the quotes that come from books that are available on the internet, I have generally just copied and pasted transcriptions of the pages. This might lead to a typos here and there, but I have done my best to correct them all. If you have an issue, I have linked to each speech or page in question. Speeches begin below the fold. Read more…

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