Laurier, Sir Wilfrid
Lawyer, Journalist, Soldier, Prime Minister
Welcome Arch for Sir Wilfrid Laurier reading “Sir Wilfrid – Our Dominion & Our Empire”. 1909. CORA-RPL-A-171.
This biography focuses on a prominent political figure at the time of Saskatchewan 's entry into confederation. Although Sir Wilfrid Laurier was not a Regina resident, without his assistance Saskatchewan may never have come into being.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier's life started in 1841 in the Quebec town of St. Lin. He was the son of a farmer, but his father obviously held out great hope for Wilfrid, as he sent the boy to New Glasgow to learn English after several years at the local elementary school. From there, the boy went to a Roman Catholic college before attending McGill University , where he studied law. Wilfrid Laurier practiced law in Montreal after his 1864 graduation from McGill.
Laurier became involved in politics right after graduating from law school. He was a Liberal Party supporter from the start. In 1866 Laurier became the editor of Le Defricheur, a Liberal mouthpiece newspaper. This was a hard row to hoe in 1860s Quebec , where the Catholic Church passionately hated the Liberal Party or “parti rouge” as it was known. The Catholic Church supported the “parti bleu” or Conservative Party instead. In spite of this, Laurier ran and was elected to the Quebec National Assembly as a Liberal member in 1871. He resigned in 1874 to run for the House of Commons.
In 1868 Wilfrid Laurier married Zoe Lafontaine. They had a happy, though childless, marriage. Lady Laurier was a member of many civic organizations including the National Council of Women.
Following Wilfrid's 1874 win in federal politics, he became the Minister of Inland Revenue in the short-lived government of Alexander MacKenzie. He rose in the ranks of the Liberal Party and in 1887 became Liberal leader. Becoming Prime Minister, however, took him a little longer. The government of the enormously popular Sir John A. Macdonald held onto power in the 1891 election. The Liberal Party's pro-Free Trade stance hurt their political chances in that election. It was not until the death of Sir John A. Macdonald that the Conservatives' tight hold on power loosened. After the scandal of the Manitoba Schools Question finished off the Conservatives, Wilfrid Laurier became the nation's first Francophone Prime Minister in 1896.
In 1897, in honour of Queen Victoria 's Diamond Jubilee, Wilfrid Laurier went to England. While there, he was knighted, mostly against his wishes. He had not wanted a knighthood, but the process was already well under way by the time he arrived in England and in order to avoid being rude Laurier acquiesced. Britain had ulterior motives to the act – it hoped to regain control over Canada 's foreign policy and defense by currying Laurier's favour. This ploy did not work, as Laurier would repeatedly deny British overtures at Imperial Conferences.
The years of Sir Wilfrid Laurier's tenure as Prime Minister were part of Canada 's golden age. The homesteads that had attracted settlers to the American West were now all gone, but immigrants from Europe still wanted to move to North America to enjoy new freedoms and own their own land. Canada was ‘the last, best west.' A massive advertising campaign urged Europeans to consider Canada as a settlement destination. Settlers poured into the Canadian prairies from many nations, mainly from Eastern European countries that had not been traditional immigration strongholds for Canada. The area known as the North West Territories developed an interesting character from its diverse population base.
In the early part of the 20th century, it was time to consider creating a province or provinces out of the North West Territories. The premier of the North West Territories was Frederick W.A.G. Haultain. He felt the area should be made into a super-province called Buffalo that would have control over its own natural resources. He also thought it should be run by a non-partisan administration.
Laurier did not agree with Haultain for a variety of reasons. First, because Haultain had campaigned against the Liberal government in the last election, he had fallen out of favour with the Laurier government. Secondly, Laurier was concerned that having only one province would skew the balance of power in Canada. Finally, Laurier wanted to retain natural resources as a federal government power.
Ultimately, the North West Territories were divided into 2 halves that became Saskatchewan and Alberta. Control over natural resources was given to the federal government, just as Laurier had wanted. Finally, Laurier appointed Walter Scott to be premier of the new province instead of Haultain. Scott was a Liberal supporter and thus a more suitable candidate for the office in Laurier's opinion.
When Saskatchewan became a province, Laurier took the train to Regina to celebrate the occasion. He attended numerous events, including a celebratory banquet and ball.
In 1911, Laurier lost the federal election, again, over the issue of free trade. He had served 15 consecutive years as Prime Minister, the longest consecutive stretch of any Prime Minister. His leadership of the Official Opposition Party was soon in jeopardy as well – Laurier denounced conscription during World War I. While the decision probably saved the Liberal Party's Quebec support, it lost the Liberals the 1917 election and lost Laurier the support of many of his own party members. Some Liberal Party members joined the Conservatives to form a union government for the duration of the war.
Laurier was the head of a defunct, virtually powerless party when he died in 1919. He had served for 45 years as a Member of Parliament. For one of those years, he represented the district of Assiniboia – specifically, Prince Albert. (Prince Albert has been the riding for 3 of Canada 's prime ministers – more than any other riding.)
In honour of Laurier's years of service as a Prime Minister who represented a Saskatchewan riding, the name “Laurier” has been placed on the Master Street Names list for use in the City of Regina.