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Wilfrid Laurier

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Wilfrid Laurier

The Right Honourable
Sir Wilfrid Laurier
7th Prime Minister of Canada
In office
11 July 1896 – 6 October 1911
Monarch Victoria
Edward VII
George V
Governor General Earl of Aberdeen
Earl of Minto
Earl Grey
Preceded by Charles Tupper
Succeeded by Robert Borden
Personal details
Born 20 November 1841
Saint-Lin, Canada East
Died 17 February 1919 (age 77)
Ottawa, Ontario
Resting place Notre Dame Cemetery, Ottawa, Ontario
Political party Liberal
Spouse(s) Zoé Lafontaine
(1868-1919, his death)
Alma mater McGill University
Profession Lawyer
Religion Roman Catholic

Sir Henri Charles Wilfrid Laurier, GCMG, PC, KC, (20 November 1841 – 17 February 1919), known as Wilfrid Laurier (French: ; English ), was the seventh Prime Minister of Canada from 11 July 1896 to 6 October 1911.

Canada's first francophone prime minister, 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." And 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, though he supported the continuation of the British Empire if it was based on "absolute liberty political and commercial".

Laurier is the fourth-longest serving Prime Minister of Canada, behind William Lyon Mackenzie King, John A. Macdonald, and Pierre Trudeau. A 2011 Maclean's historical ranking of the Prime Ministers placed Laurier first.[1] Laurier also holds the record for the most consecutive federal elections won (4), 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 an all-time record for that house.[2] Finally, at 31 years, 8 months, Laurier was the longest-serving leader of a major Canadian political party, surpassing King by over two years. Laurier's portrait is displayed on the Canadian five-dollar bill.


  • Early life 1
  • Leadership 2
    • Quebec stronghold 2.1
  • Prime Minister (1896-1911) 3
    • Naval Bill 3.1
    • Reciprocity and defeat 3.2
  • Opposition and war 4
  • Family 5
  • Death 6
  • National Historic Sites 7
  • Recognition 8
  • Supreme Court appointments 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11
  • Further reading 12
  • External links 13

Early life

Bedroom at Sir Wilfrid Laurier National Historic Site, Saint-Lin-Laurentides, Quebec
Laurier in 1869

The second child of Carolus Laurier and Marcelle Martineau, Wilfrid Laurier was born in Saint-Lin, Canada East (today called Saint-Lin-Laurentides, Quebec) on 20 November 1841. Laurier was the 7th 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 had the opportunity of familiarizing himself with the mentality, language and culture of British people. Laurier attended the College of L'Assomption and graduated in law from McGill University.

He was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Quebec in the 1871 Quebec general election in Drummond-Arthabaska, but resigned on 19 January 1874 to enter federal politics in the riding of Quebec East.[3] He was first elected to the Canadian House of Commons in the 1874 election, serving briefly in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie as Minister of Inland Revenue.


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

Quebec stronghold

In 1909 Laurier was 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 Conservatives due to the national Tory party's links with anti-French, anti-Catholic Orangemen in English Canada aided the Liberal Party.[4] 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.

Because Laurier believed in the separation of church and state, Roman Catholic bishops in Quebec repeatedly warned their parishioners never to vote for the man. Journalist and author Laurier LaPierre wrote in his 1996 biography of Laurier: "children were made to kneel and beg God that their parents not be damned should they have the temerity to vote for the Liberal candidate. When electors asked directly whom they should vote for, the cagey priests contented themselves with informing them that le ciel est bleu, l'enfer est rouge" – heaven is blue, hell is red.

However, Laurier had rather good relations with Pius X himself (Pope 1903-1914), and had complimented him during a diplomatic meeting. Some of the tension at the time stemmed from Pius's encyclical Vehementer Nos of 1906, which condemned strict Church-State separation in Émile Combes' secularist France.

Prime Minister (1896-1911)

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,[5] 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.

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.

In 1905, Laurier oversaw Saskatchewan and Alberta's entry into Confederation, the last two provinces to be created out of the Northwest Territories.[6] This followed the enactment of the Yukon Territory Act by the Laurier Government in 1898, separating the Yukon from the Northwest Territories.[7]

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."[8]

Naval Bill

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 Bill of 1910 which created the Royal Canadian Navy. The navy would initially consist of five cruisers and six destroyers; in times of crisis, it could be made subordinate to the Royal Navy proper. The idea was lauded at the Imperial Conference on Defence 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.

Opposition and war

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 Royal 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.


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 dit 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.[9] 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,[10] with whom he fell in love. 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 Laliberté, 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"."[11] Some 50,000 people jammed the streets of Ottawa as his funeral procession marched to his final resting place at Notre Dame Cemetery.[12][13] 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

Laurier is commemorated by three National Historic Sites of Canada.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier National Historic Site is in his birthplace, Saint-Lin-Laurentides, a town 60 km (37 mi) north of Montreal. 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.[14]

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, and is a privately owned museum operated as the Laurier Museum.[15][16]

In November 2011, Wilfrid Laurier University located in Waterloo, Ontario unveiled a statue depicting a young, passionate Sir Wilfrid Laurier in his younger years sitting on a bench, thinking deeply about the future.[17]


Joseph-Émile Brunet's statue of Wilfrid Laurier behind the East Block on Parliament Hill, Ottawa
Joseph-Émile Brunet's Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1953) in Square Dorchester Montreal, Quebec

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 is scheduled to appear in the Frontier series, 2013
  • Laurier has appeared on at least three postage stamps, issued in 1927 (two) and 1973

Many sites and landmarks were named to honor Wilfrid 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


  1. ^ Hillmer, Norman; Azzi, Steven (10 June 2011). "Canada's Best Prime Ministers".  
  2. ^ "Years of service in Parliament". Parliament of Canada. Retrieved 16 May 2010. 
  3. ^ "Biography". Dictionnaire des parlementaires du Québec de 1792 à nos jours (in French).  
  4. ^ Pierre-Luc Bégin, Loyalisme et fanatisme: petite histoire du mouvement orangiste canadien, Québec: Éditions du Québécois, 2008.
  5. ^ "Ministers of the Crown" historical database
  6. ^ Library and Archives Canada. Canadian Confederation: Alberta and Saskatchewan Entered Confederation: 1905. Retrieved on: 14 December 2011.
  7. ^ Government of Yukon. Yukon Historical Timeline (1886-1906). Retrieved on: 14 December 2011.
  8. ^ "The prime minister and the newspaper boy". Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 16 May 2010. 
  9. ^ Morgan, Henry James Types of Canadian women and of women who are or have been connected with Canada : (Toronto, 1903) [1]
  10. ^ Réal Bélanger, Macdonald and Laurier Days
  11. ^ The death of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, CBC Digital Archives
  12. ^ Michael Duffy (22 August 2009). "Who's Who - Sir Wilfrid Laurier". Retrieved 12 March 2014. 
  13. ^ "Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada - Former Prime Ministers and Their Grave Sites - The Right Honourable Sir Wilfrid Laurier". Parks Canada. Government of Canada. 20 December 2010. Retrieved 12 March 2014. 
  14. ^ Negotiating the Past: The Making of Canada's National Historic Parks and Sites: (Montreal & Kingston, 1990), C.J. Taylor, pp. 119-121.
  15. ^ Laurier Museum
  16. ^ Wilfrid Laurier House NHS, National Register of Historic Places
  17. ^ The Cord Newspaper
  18. ^ "Historical Chronological List Since 1867 of Members of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada". Privy Council Office (Canada). Retrieved 16 May 2010. 
  19. ^ Sir Wilfrid Laurier Day Act, 2002

Further reading

  • Elizabeth H. Armstrong, The Crisis of Quebec, 1914-1918 (1937; reprinted 1973)
  • (1973)Laurier and a Liberal Quebec: A Study in Political ManagementH. Blair Neatby.
  • Craig Brown and Ramsay Cook, Canada: 1896-1921 A Nation Transformed (1983), standard history
  • (1922)Laurier: A Study in Canadian PoliticsJ. W. Dafoe,
  • Patrice Dutil and David MacKenzie, Canada, 1911: The Decisive Election that Shaped the Country (2011) ISBN 1554889472
  • J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer, Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada's Leaders. P.46-60. (1999). ISBN 0-00-200027-X.
  • Laurier LaPierre Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Romance of Canada – (1996). ISBN 0-7737-2979-8
  • Joseph Schull, Laurier. The First Canadian (1965)
  • Oscar Douglas Skelton, Life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier 2v (1921; reprinted 1965)
  • Peter Busby Waite, Canada, 1874-1896: Arduous Destiny (1971), standard history
  • Grace Stewart, Heather. "Sir Wilfrid Laurier: the weakling who stood his ground" (2006) ISBN 0-9736406-3-4

External links

  • "Wilfrid Laurier".  
  • Wilfrid Laurier – Parliament of Canada biography
  • by Wilfrid Laurier at archive.orgWilfrid Laurier on the platform; collection of the principal speeches made in Parliament or before the people, since his entry into active politics in 1871;
  • vol 1. at archive.orgLife and letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier
  • vol 2. at archive.orgLife and letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier
  • The Canadian EncyclopediaArticle on Sir Wilfrid Laurier from
  • Photograph:Wilfrid Laurier, 1890 - McCord Museum
  • Photograph:Sir Wilfrid Laurier, circa 1900 - McCord Museum
  • Photograph:Wilfrid Laurier, 1906 - McCord Museum
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