Wilfrid Laurier

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Sir Wilfrid Laurier

The Honourable Sir Wilfrid Laurier Photo A (HS85-10-16871) cropped.jpg
7th Prime Minister of Canada
In office
11 July 1896 6 October 1911
Governor General
Preceded by Charles Tupper
Succeeded by Robert Borden
Personal details
Henri Charles Wilfrid Laurier

(1841-11-20)20 November 1841
Saint-Lin, Canada East
Died17 February 1919(1919-02-17) (aged 77)
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Resting place Notre Dame Cemetery, Ottawa, Ontario
Political party Liberal
Other political
Laurier Liberal (1917–19)
Zoé Lafontaine (m. 1868)
Education McGill University (LL.L., 1864)
Profession Lawyer
Signature Wilfrid Laurier Signature2.svg

Sir Henri Charles Wilfrid Laurier GCMG , PC , KC ( /ˈlɒri/ LORR-ee-ay; French:  [wilfʁid loʁje] ; 20 November 1841 – 17 February 1919) was the seventh prime minister of Canada, in office from 11 July 1896 to 6 October 1911.

Queens Privy Council for Canada

The Queen's Privy Council for Canada, sometimes called Her Majesty's Privy Council for Canada or simply the Privy Council, is the full group of personal consultants to the monarch of Canada on state and constitutional affairs. Responsible government, though, requires the sovereign or her viceroy, the Governor General of Canada, to almost always follow only that advice tendered by the Cabinet: a committee within the Privy Council composed usually of elected Members of Parliament. Those summoned to the QPC are appointed for life by the Governor General as directed by the Prime Minister of Canada, meaning that the group is composed predominantly of former cabinet ministers, with some others having been inducted as an honorary gesture. Those in the council are accorded the use of an honorific style and post-nominal letters, as well as various signifiers of precedence.

Queens Counsel Jurist appointed by letters patent in some Commonwealth realms

A Queen's Counsel, or King's Counsel during the reign of a king, is a lawyer who is appointed by the monarch to be one of "Her Majesty's Counsel learned in the law." The term is recognised as an honorific. The position exists in some Commonwealth jurisdictions around the world, but other Commonwealth countries have either abolished the position, or re-named it to eliminate monarchical connotations, such as "Senior Counsel" or "Senior Advocate". Queen's Counsel is an office, conferred by the Crown, that is recognised by courts. Members have the privilege of sitting within the bar of court.


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." 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, and he supported the continuation of the Empire if it was based on "absolute liberty political and commercial". In addition, he was a strict nationalist, argued for a more competitive Canada through limited government, and was an adherent of fiscal discipline. [1] A 2011 Maclean's historical ranking of the Prime Ministers placed Laurier first. [2]

A politician is a person active in party politics, or a person holding or seeking office in government. Politicians propose, support and create laws or policies that govern the land and, by extension, its people. Broadly speaking, a "politician" can be anyone who seeks to achieve political power in any bureaucratic institution.

Conciliation is an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process whereby the parties to a dispute use a conciliator, who meets with the parties both separately and together in an attempt to resolve their differences. They do this by lowering tensions, improving communications, interpreting issues, encouraging parties to explore potential solutions and assisting parties in finding a mutually acceptable outcome.

English Canada is a term referring to one of the following:

  1. The Canadian provinces that have an anglophone majority. This excludes the francophone province of Quebec in total, and New Brunswick in part. Consequently, usage is usually in the context of geopolitical discussions involving Quebec. Among supporters of the two-nations theory, English-Canada is one of two founding nations, the other being French-Canada or Quebec. In avoidance of the two-nations theory, English-Canada is often referred to as the "ROC" .The expression has been used during the conscription crisis
  2. When discussing English-speaking Canadians in contrast to opposed to French-speaking Canadians. It is employed when comparing English- and French-language literature, media, art, and institutions. The 20% of Canadians whose native language is neither English nor French are either lumped into one of the two groups according to their knowledge and usage of the official language or classified separately as allophones.
  3. English Canadians, in some historical contexts, refers to Canadians who have origins in England, French Canadians Scottish Canadians, Irish Canadians etc.)

Canada's first francophone prime minister, Laurier holds a number of records. He is tied with Sir John A. Macdonald for the most consecutive federal elections won (four), 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 a record for that house. [3] At 31 years, 8 months, Laurier was the longest-serving leader of a major Canadian political party, surpassing William Lyon Mackenzie King by over two years. Along with King, he also holds the distinction of serving as Prime Minister during the reigns of three Canadian Monarchs. [4] Finally, he is the fourth-longest serving Prime Minister of Canada, behind King, Macdonald, and Pierre Trudeau. Laurier's portrait has been displayed on the Canadian five-dollar bill since 1972.

John A. Macdonald 1st Prime Minister of Canada

Sir John Alexander Macdonald was the first prime minister of Canada. The dominant figure of Canadian Confederation, he had a political career which spanned almost half a century.

House of Commons of Canada Lower house of the Canadian Parliament

The House of Commons of Canada is a component of the Parliament of Canada, along with the Sovereign and the Senate. The House of Commons currently meets in a temporary Commons chamber in the West Block of the parliament buildings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, while the Centre Block, which houses the traditional Commons chamber, undergoes a ten-year renovation.

William Lyon Mackenzie King 10th Prime Minister of Canada

William Lyon Mackenzie King, also commonly known as Mackenzie King, was the dominant Canadian political leader from the 1920s through the 1940s. He served as Prime Minister of Canada in 1921–1926, 1926–1930 and 1935–1948. He is best known for his leadership of Canada throughout the Second World War (1939–1945) when he mobilized Canadian money, supplies and volunteers to support Britain while boosting the economy and maintaining morale on the home front. A Liberal with 21 years and 154 days in office, he was the longest-serving prime minister in Canadian history. Trained in law and social work, he was keenly interested in the human condition, and played a major role in laying the foundations of the Canadian welfare state.

Early life

Bedroom at Sir Wilfrid Laurier National Historic Site, Saint-Lin-Laurentides, Quebec Laurier bedroom, Saint-Lin-Laurentides, Quebec.jpg
Bedroom at Sir Wilfrid Laurier National Historic Site, Saint-Lin-Laurentides, Quebec

The second child of Carolus Laurier and Marcelle Martineau, Wilfrid Laurier was born in Saint-Lin, Canada East (modern day Saint-Lin-Laurentides, Quebec), on 20 November 1841. Laurier was among the seventh 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 familiarized himself with the mentality, language and culture of British people. Laurier attended the Collège de L'Assomption and graduated in law from McGill University in 1864. [5]

Canada East eastern portion of the Province of Canada

Canada East was the northeastern portion of the United Province of Canada. Lord Durham's Report investigating the causes of the Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions recommended merging those two colonies. The new colony, known as the Province of Canada was created by the Act of Union 1840 passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, having effect in 1841. For administrative purposes, the new Province was subdivided into Canada West and Canada East. The former name of "Lower Canada" came back into official use in 1849, and as of the Canadian Confederation of 1867, it formed the newly created province of Quebec.

Saint-Claud Commune in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France

Saint-Claud is a commune in the Charente department in southwestern France.

Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on liberty, consent of the governed, and equality before the law. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but they generally support limited government, individual rights, capitalism, democracy, secularism, gender equality, racial equality, internationalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. Yellow is the political colour most commonly associated with liberalism.

Laurier in 1869 PAC - Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1869).jpg
Laurier in 1869

He was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Quebec from Drummond-Arthabaska in the 1871 Quebec general election, but resigned on 19 January 1874, to enter federal politics in the riding of Quebec East. [6] He was first elected to the House of Commons of Canada in the 1874 election, serving briefly in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie as Minister of Inland Revenue.

The Legislative Assembly of Quebec was the name of the lower house of Quebec's legislature until December 31, 1968, when it was renamed the National Assembly of Quebec. At the same time, the upper house of the legislature, the Legislative Council, was abolished. Both were initially created by the Constitution Act of 1867.

Drummond-Arthabaska was a former provincial electoral district in the province of Quebec, Canada. It was created for the 1867 election. Its final election was in 1886. It disappeared in the 1890 election and its successor electoral districts were Drummond and Arthabaska.

1871 Quebec general election

The Quebec general election of 1871 was held in June and July 1871 to elect members of the 2nd Legislative Assembly for the Province of Quebec, Canada. The Quebec Conservative Party, led by Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau, was re-elected, defeating the Quebec Liberal Party, led by Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière.


Chosen as leader of the federal Liberal Party in 1887, he gradually built up his party's strength through his personal following both in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada. He led the Liberal Party to victory in the 1896 election, and contested five other federal elections; he remained Prime Minister until the defeat of the Liberal Party by the Conservative Party in the 1911 election.

1896 Canadian federal election

The Canadian federal election of 1896 was held on June 23, 1896, to elect members of the House of Commons of Canada of the 8th Parliament of Canada. Though the Conservative Party won a plurality of the popular vote, the Liberal Party, led by Wilfrid Laurier, won the majority of seats to form the next government.

1911 Canadian federal election

The Canadian federal election of 1911 was held on September 21 to elect members of the House of Commons of Canada of the 12th Parliament of Canada.

Quebec stronghold

By 1909, Laurier had been able to build the Liberal Party a base in Quebec, which had remained a Conservative stronghold for decades due to the province's social conservatism and to the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, which distrusted the Liberals' anti-clericalism. The growing alienation of French Canadians from the Conservative Party due to its links with anti-French, anti-Catholic Orangemen in English Canada aided the Liberal Party. [7] 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.

Catholic priests in Quebec repeatedly warned their parishioners not to vote for Liberals. Their slogan was "le ciel est bleu, l'enfer est rouge" (heaven is blue/Conservative, hell is red/Liberal). [8]

Prime Minister (1896–1911)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier with Zoe, Lady Laurier in 1907 SirAndLadyLaurier.jpg
Sir Wilfrid Laurier with Zoé, Lady Laurier in 1907

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. A list of his Ministers is available at the Parliamentary website, [9] and is known as the 8th Canadian Ministry.

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. Laurier called his effort to lessen the tinder in this issue "sunny ways" (French : voies ensoleillées). [10]

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.

Laurier visited the United Kingdom in 1902, and took part in the 1902 Colonial Conference and the coronation of King Edward VII on 9 August 1902. While in Europe, he also visited France to negotiate on trade with the French government. [11]

In 1905, Laurier oversaw Saskatchewan and Alberta's entry into Confederation, the last two provinces to be created out of the Northwest Territories. [12] This followed the enactment of the Yukon Territory Act by the Laurier Government in 1898, separating the Yukon from the Northwest Territories. [13]

Laurier presided over the Quebec Bridge disaster, in which 75 workers were killed, on 29 August 1907.

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." [14]

In August 1911, Wilfrid Laurier signed an Order-In-Council that had been promoted by Minister of the Interior, Frank Oliver and approved by the cabinet on 12 August 1911. The order was intended to keep Black southern Americans escaping the segregation in the American south. "the Negro race...is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada." The order was never called upon, as efforts by immigration officials had already reduced the number of Blacks migrating to Canada. The order was cancelled 5 October 1911, the day before Laurier completed his term, by cabinet claiming that the Minister of the Interior was not present at the time of approval. [15]

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 Act of 1910 which created the Naval Service of Canada. The navy would initially consist of five cruisers and six destroyers; in times of crisis, it could be made subordinate to the British Royal Navy. The idea was lauded at the 1911 Imperial Conference 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.

Reciprocity and defeat

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.

Racial Views

The British Columbia electorate was alarmed at the arrival of people they considered "uncivilised" by Canadian standards, and adopted a white's only policy. Although railways and large companies wanted to hire Asians, labour unions and the public at large stood opposed, and had more votes. [16] Both major parties went along with public opinion, with Laurier taking the lead. [17] Scholars have argued that Laurier acted in terms of his racist views in restricting immigration from China and India, as shown by his introduction of a Chinese head tax in 1900. [18] He had it raised to $500 in 1903, but when a few Chinese did pay the $500, he proposed raising the sum to $1000. [19] The same line of argument had applied as well to John Macdonald, although at first he followed the wishes of the railway companies that wanted to hire the Chinese. [20]

It is a point of argument that over the course of Laurier's time as a politician, he had a history of racist views and racially charged action. [21] [22]

In 1886, Laurier told the House of Commons that it was moral for Canada to take lands from “savage nations” so long as they paid adequate compensation. [23]

In 1900, Laurier raised the Chinese head tax to $100, due to a still growing influx of Chinese immigrants. In 1903, this was further raised to $500. [24]

in August of 1911, Laurier signed an Order-in-Council restricting black immigrants to Canada. The document signed by Laurier stated, "For a period of one year from and after the date hereof the landing in Canada shall be and the same is prohibited of any immigrants belonging to the Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.” [25] [26]

Opposition and war

Election flyer for Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberal Party in the 1917 federal election Affiche electorale de Wilfrid Laurier.jpg
Election flyer for Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberal Party in the 1917 federal election

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 British 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.

Personal life and death

Lady Zoe Laurier by William James Topley Lady Laurier photo by William James Topley.jpg
Lady Zoé Laurier by William James Topley

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 Tessier known as Zoé Lavigne. 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. [27] 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 Barthe. [28] 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 Lavergne, with her, yet Zoé remained with him until his death.

Wilfrid Laurier's grave, sculpted by Alfred Laliberte, in Notre Dame Cemetery, Ottawa Laurier monument Feb 2005.jpg
Wilfrid Laurier's grave, sculpted by Alfred Laliberté, in Notre Dame Cemetery, Ottawa

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"." [29] Some 50,000 people jammed the streets of Ottawa as his funeral procession marched to his final resting place at Notre Dame Cemetery. [30] [31] [32] 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.

National Historic Sites

Laurier Museum, Victoriaville, QC MaisonLaurier.jpg
Laurier Museum, Victoriaville, QC

Laurier is commemorated by three National Historic Sites.

The Sir Wilfrid Laurier National Historic Site is in his birthplace, Saint-Lin-Laurentides, a town 60 km (37 mi) north of Montreal, Quebec. 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. [33]

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, owned privately and operated as the Laurier Museum. [34] [35] [36]

In November 2011, Wilfrid Laurier University located in Waterloo, Ontario, unveiled a statue depicting a young, passionate Wilfrid Laurier sitting on a bench, thinking deeply about the future. [37]


Laurier had titular honours including:

The $1,000 note in the 1935 Series and 1937 Series
The $5 note in the Scenes of Canada series, 1972 and 1979, Birds of Canada series, 1986, Journey series, 2002 and Frontier series, 2013
Wilfrid Laurier Montreal.JPG
Joseph-Émile Brunet's Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1953) in Square Dorchester, Montreal
Laurier statue, Ottawa.jpg
Joseph-Émile Brunet's statue of Wilfrid Laurier behind the East Block on Parliament Hill

Many sites and landmarks were named to honor Laurier. They include:

Supreme Court appointments

Laurier chose the following jurists to be appointed as justices of the Supreme Court of Canada by the Governor General:

See also

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  35. Wilfrid Laurier House National Historic Site of Canada . Canadian Register of Historic Places .
  36. Wilfrid Laurier House . Directory of Federal Heritage Designations. Parks Canada .
  37. The Cord Newspaper
  38. "Historical Chronological List Since 1867 of Members of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada". Privy Council Office (Canada). Retrieved 16 May 2010.
  39. "The Colonial Premiers in Edinburgh". The Times (36831). London. 28 July 1902. p. 4.
  40. Sir Wilfrid Laurier Day Act, 2002

Further reading