Canada's seventh Prime Minister, and its first Francophone Prime Minister, is widely regarded as one of the most august of Canada's statesmen, and his fifteen-year-long tenure as Prime Minister remains Canada's longest unbroken term of office. A brilliant orator and effective, pragmatic, conciliatory political moderate, he was instrumental in defining not only an independent Canada, but one reconciled to itself on grounds of shared identity.
He was born November 20, 1841 in Saint-Lin, Lower Canada. His wide early education included an English-language school, and a classical education at a very traditional French-language Catholic secondary school. He was an exceptional student, and entered McGill College in 1861 to study law. He was engaged in the Parti Rouge's politics both as a student and as a graduate, and was widely respected for his intelligence, candor, conviction, and reserve.
Early in his professional life, Laurier relocated to Arthabaskaville. He entered local politics and began a meteoric ascent within Liberal circles. He was elected MP in 1871 on a moderate platform, and over the opposition of the Catholic clergy, earning a solid majority vote even as the Liberals performed poorly in that election. His best-received public speech as a freshman MP was an impassioned plea for better representation for the province of Quebec.
Laurier was instrumental in reorganizing and reinvigorating a moribund Liberal party, pressing for a program of political reforms and remaining moderate on many other issues, and founding the Parti National (which would later be integrated into the Liberal party). In 1873, when the Macdonald government resigned, Laurier stood for election in Drummond and Arthabaskaville and won. Two of his early speeches won him great praise: The first, delivered in French, described his loyalty to his nation, his party, and the liberal principles he had supported. The second was an ardent defense of Louis Riel.
Louis Riel was a Metis leader (Metis are Canadians of mixed ancestry, having both First Nations and European ancestors) who had been elected to Parliament despite having led the Red River Rebellion against his own government. That rebellion had been the result of conflicts between the Metis and First Nations on one side, and waves of Anglophone settlers on the other in Canada's frontier, as the direct result of Canadian policies encouraging Anglophone settlement at the cost of Francophone and Indigenous populations (see the Canada entry for additional information, although a fair accounting of the causes and outcomes of the conflicts exceeds the scope of the Civilopedia.) Laurier's speech defending Riel and castigating his removal from Parliament is a masterpiece of oratory and legal reasoning, and brought him considerable approbation and a reputation as a conciliator within Parliament.
As a Francophone Liberal, Laurier faced two primary sources of political opposition. The first was the conservative governments of Macdonald (and later Mackenzie). The second was the Catholic clergy. At that point in history, the Catholic Church was decidedly ultramontanist—a movement defined by its hostility to liberal political orders and its insistence on the hierarchy of the clergy—and given the strength of Catholicism in the identity of Francophone Canadians, this was a strong political adversary. Laurier argued that the liberalism he espoused was not hostile to Catholicism, but endorsed a political reform that would strengthen institutions and argued that a separation of church and state provided the clergy with a way to influence politics through argument and reasoning, not through fiat. This position, generally accepted as reasonable in the 21st Century, was, at the time, a new path forward for two hostile political camps, describing how they might find common ground in the political domain. Laurier articulated this vision best in an 1877 speech in Quebec, just as the Vatican's representative was travelling through Canada with instructions for the clergy on political issues.
The Manitoba Schools Question was a political crisis that brought down Canada's Conservative government at the close of the 19th century. This was a complicated political question involving matters of French and English language instruction and use in official languages, denominational and public schools, and provincial and federal powers. In response to it, Laurier gave perhaps his most famous speech—the “Sunny Ways” speech—in which he appealed for negotiation and compromise. Canada's Liberals won the election of 1896, and Laurier became Prime Minister. He was able to resolve the Manitoba Schools Question, but only at the cost of French-language minority rights in Manitoba.
Although the French-speaking Canadians formed the core of his supporters, Laurier was willing to vote against their interests throughout his career as Prime Minister, if he felt it led to a stronger, more independent and unified Canada. Canadians who wanted closer ties to Britain never felt he was close enough to the Crown; Canadians who wanted more robust support for the Francophone causes never felt he advocated strongly enough for them. His government ended in 1911, due to a lack of support for the trade policies he had advocated with the US. During his tenure, the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan had been added.
For the remainder of his life, he was an active member of the opposition. He strongly supported Canada's involvement in World War I (although he actively opposed conscription). After the Armistice, he had returned to a focus on rebuilding Canadian unity when he died in February of 1919. His political allies and enemies alike mourned his passing, and thousands flocked to the streets of Ottawa during his funeral.
Wilfrid Laurier's legacy is his firm belief that reasoned compromise is capable of producing the most equitable outcomes, even among people with firm and principled beliefs. Possessing a realist's moderation, but nonetheless holding respect for his opposition, he could argue with impassioned eloquence for those causes he believed in. Historians judge his term in office well, and crucial to the creation of a modern, independent Canada.