Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
April 2007

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Sir Wilfrid Laurier


Laurier, Sir Wilfrid (1841-1919), prime minister of Canada (1896-1911) was born at St. Lin, in the country of L'Assomption, Lower Canada, on November 20, 1841, the son of Carolus Laurier, a land surveyor, and Marcelle Martineau. He was educated at L'Assomption College and at McGill University (B.C.L., 1864), and was called to the bar of Lower Canada in 1864. While a law student in Montreal, in the office of Rodolphe Laflamme, he joined the Institut Canadien, and became a member of the parti rouge. After practising law in Montreal for two years, he assumed the editorship of Le Défricheur of Arthabaskaville; but this journal ceased publication in 1867, and Laurier then devoted

himself to the practice of law in Arthabaskaville. In 1871 he was elected to represent Drummond and Arthabaska in the Legislative Assembly of Quebec; but in 1874 he resigned in order to contest this seat in the Canadian House of Commons. He was successful, and he continued to sit in the Commons until his death in 1919, first for Drummond and Arthabaska (1874-7), and then for Quebec East (1877-1919).

He first attained cabinet rank in 1877, when he was appointed minister of inland revenue in the Mackenzie administration. He retired from office with his colleagues in 1878, and went into opposition. In 1887 he was chosen leader of the Liberal opposition in parliament in succession to Edward Blake, and he led the Liberal party from this time to his death. In 1896, on the defeat of the Tupper government over the Manitoba schools question, he became prime minister of Canada, with the portfolio of president of the council. He formed a strong administration, described at the time as a "ministry of all the talents"; and his government remained in power until its defeat in the general elections of 1911 on the issue of reciprocity with the United States. In 1913 he was instrumental in defeating, by means of his majority in the Senate, the Navy bill of the Borden government, by which it was proposed to contribute three dreadnoughts to the British Navy; but in 1914, at the outbreak of the European war, he proclaimed a political truce, and gave the government complete support. It is possible that if, at this time, the government had invited him to join in the formation of a national or coalition government, he might have accepted the invitation; but unfortunately the offer was postponed until 1917, and was then declined. In the general elections of 1917, which were fought on the issue of compulsory military service, Laurier carried Quebec with him, but was defeated in every other province. About his last years there was a touch of tragedy. The issues of 1917 split the Liberal party in twain; and he saw many of his former allies estranged from him. His fine equipoise, however, did not forsake him; and when he died at Ottawa on February 17, 1919, he had already established himself in the esti­mation of even his bitterest political opponents.

As prime minister of Canada, he left a deep impress on the history of the country. One feature of his régime, his railway policy, proved in the end disastrous; and his fiscal policy of 1911 was rejected by the electors. But during his régime Canada enjoyed a period of unparalleled prosperity; and for this the aggressive immigration policy of his government was in part responsible. His most notable contribution to Canadian development, however, was along constitutional lines. Though thoroughly loyal to Great Britain, as was shown by his course during the Boer war and at the outbreak of the European war of 1914, he was a pronounced nationalist, and Canada really achieved a national status under his guidance. It was under him that the last British troops were withdrawn from Canada, and that the Canadian militia ceased to be commanded by an imperial officer; it was under him that the policy of a Canadian navy was inaugurated, and that Canada undertook responsibility for the defence of her own shores; it was under him that Canada acquired the right to negotiate separate commercial treaties, and to contract herself out of other treaties. His theory that the British Empire was "a galaxy of free states" was championed at successive meetings of the Imperial Conference; and at these he successfully resisted all attempts to place any limitations on Canadian autonomy.

In 1868 he married Zoë, daughter of G. N. R. Lafontaine, of Montreal; but he had no children. Many honours came to him. He was an LL.D. of the University of Toronto (1897), of McGill University (1898), and of Glasgow Uni­versity (1911), a D.C.L. of Oxford Uni­versity (1897), of Cambridge University (1897), of Queen's University (1898), of Edinburgh University (1902), and a Litt.D. of Laval University (1902). In 1897 he was created a G. C. M. G. and a privy councillor, and the same year he was created a grand officer of the Legion of Honour of France.

His only publication was a famous Lecture on political liberalism (Quebec, 1877). But many of his speeches, which touched the high-water mark of Canadian oratory both in English and in French, are collected in Ulric Barthe(comp.), Wilfrid Laurier on the platform (Quebec, 1890) and in Sir W. Laurier, Discours à l'étranger et au Canada (Montreal, 1910). Some of his letters have been published in L. Pacaud, Sir Wilfrid Laurier: Lettres à mon père et à ma mère (Arthabaska, 1935).

See O. D. Skelton, The life and letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier (2 vols., Toronto, 1921) and The day of Sir Wilfrid Laurier (Toronto, 1915) ; J. W. Dafoe, Laurier (Toronto, 1922) ; J. Willison, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberal party (2 vols., Toronto, 1903; new and en­larged ed., Toronto, 1926) ; U. Barthe (comp.), Wilfrid Laurier on the platform (Quebec, 1890) ; L. O. David, Introduction to Sir W. Laurier, Discours à l'étranger et au Canada (Montreal, 1910), Laurier et son temps (Montreal, 1905), and Laurier, sa vie, ses oeuvres (Beauceville, Quebec, 1919) ; P. McArthur, Sir Wilfrid Laurier (Toronto, 1920) ; and H. Moreau, Sir Wilfrid Laurier (Paris, 1902). [See the entry for Laurier in the Encyclopedia Britannica edition of 1911; a more current bibliography is available at the site of the Library and Archives of Canada. Réal BÉLANGER has written the biography of Laurier at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. This text is available in English and in French.]

Source: W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., “Sir Wilfrid Laurier”, in The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. III, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 396p., pp. 394-396.

© 2007 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College