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Sir Wilfrid Laurier Courtesy Library and Archives Canada, C-001971

Fathers of Confederation LAC c001855.jpg

Photo by James Ashfield of Canadian artist Robert Harris’ 1884 painting, “Conference at Québec in 1864, to settle the basics of a union of the British North American Provinces”, also known as “The Fathers of Confederation”. The original painting was destroyed in the 1916 Parliament Buildings fire. (Caption and Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Statues of  Sir John A. Macdonald are being removed. People are revisiting Confederation. The Indigenous people of this country wish to be recognized as a founding nation. As for the French-speaking inhabitants of British North America, John A. MacDonald, who belonged to the Orange Order which was anti-Catholic and anti-French. Quebecers had to say in Quebec. However, they resented the Act of Union (1841) proposed by Lord Durham in his report on the Rebellions of 1837-1838.

Upper and Lower Canada were seeking responsible government, or self- government, but French-speaking Canadians remember the Rebellions as a conflict between English-speaking Canadians and French-speaking Canadians. It wasn’t, not initially. Men were hanged or exiled and victims were more numerous in Lower Canada than Upper Canada. Quebecers have always sought to remember their motherland. Je me souviens (I remember) is the province’s motto. By and large, they accepted Confederation, but what role could they play?  Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1811-1919), the seventh Prime Minister of Canada, opposed Confederation:

Like the Liberals of Lower Canada, Laurier  opposed Confederation, arguing both that the federal government would have too much power, and that French Canadians would be overwhelmed. (See Sir Wilfrid Laurier, The Canadian Encyclopedia.)

John A. Macdonald, who remains a father of Confederation, was a member of the Orange Order, which was anti-French and anti-Catholic. Consequently, Confederation excluded Quebec, but Confederation was a fait accompli

He also decided, like many other Liberals, to accept Confederation as a fait accompli and to work within the new system. In 1874, he resigned his provincial seat and ran for election to the House of Commons of Canada. (See Sir Wilfrid Laurier, The Canadian Encyclopedia.)

The House of Commons

It had pleased Sir George-Étienne Cartier that the Crown located the capital city of the new Dominion of Canada on the border between Ontario and Quebec. Nothing prevented Québécois from running for office and being elected to the House of Commons

Federalist Québécois could not undo the Conquest, nor could they walk back the hurried arrival of United Empire Loyalists. But they could bring to confederation the liberalism of Quebec’s Institut canadien. At the time of Confederation, Orangemen arrived at the Red River bearing arms and demanding their due, which caused the Red River Rebellion. This time, the conflict did oppose English-speaking settlers and the people whose land they were taking: French-speaking and English-speaking Métis, Amerindians, and other inhabitants of the Red River Colony.

Le Patriote (Le vieux de 37)

Le Patriote (Le vieux de 37) Henri Julien, via Wikimedia Commons, Henri Julien, [libre de droit]s, 1904.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

At first, a radical … and then a moderate Liberal

After graduating from Montreal’s McGill’s Law school, where he studied in English, Wilfrid Laurier worked briefly in Montreal and then moved to Arthabaska, where he ran a newspaper: Le Défricheur (The Land Clearer). He had been a “rouge,” or radical Liberal, and he had also been a member and vice-president (1864-1866) of the Institut canadien, which ultramontane Bishop Ignace Bourget would close.

The Institut canadien had sponsored the most liberal and innovative discussions of the period, and its library was a collection of major scientific, legal and literary works. (See Institut canadien, The Canadian Encyclopedia.)

At first, a radical, Wilfrid Laurier adopted moderate liberalism but he served in Quebec before being elected to the House of Commons where French-speaking and federalist Canadians could play a vital role. In 1861, Laurier was elected to Quebec’s Assemblée nationale, the member from Drummond-Arthabaska. But, in 1874, he resigned from his position and ran for office at the federal level. Quebec could play a role in Confederation in the House of Commons. What Sir Wilfrid Laurier would take to Ottawa his liberalism and his wish to promote national unity.  Sir Wilfrid Laurier was elected to the House of Commons in 1874 and lived in Ottawa for an uninterrupted 45 years. (See Sir Wilfrid Laurier, The Canadian Encyclopedia.) Born in St-Lin, Quebec (1911), he died in Ottawa in 1919. I am inserting a video of his state funeral. He had always been frail, chronic bronchitis, but he died of a heart attack.

Manitoba: the Laurier-Greenway Agreement

Sir Wilfrid Laurier was alarmed when Manitoba abolished the dual school system Louis Riel advocated as a right. Canada was as John A. Macdonald’s Conservative-Liberal government wanted it: an Orangist and English-language country, or a Church-and-State government, resembling ultramontanisme. Yet, Laurier signed the Laurier-Greenway Agreement. His ability to find and accept compromises characterizes the Laurier years, as a member of Parliament, Prime Minister, and Leader of the Opposition. So, although he may appear a traitor to Louis Riel and to Canadian minorities. During his first year as Prime Minister of Canada, could Laurier fully support Louis Riel

In 1905, Sir Wilfrid negotiated the entry into Confederation of two western provinces: Saskatchewan and Alberta. In fact, during the Laurier years, Canada welcomed two million inhabitants. They spoke in many tongues and practised different religions. Could the Laurier-Greenway Agreement be merely temporary? Despite his own convictions and respect for Louis Riel, Sir Wilfrid Laurier didn’t break the Laurier-Greenway Agreement. 

However, he may have paved the way to Lester B. Pearson‘s Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism and its outcome: the Official Languages Act of 1969 and the election Pierre Elliot Trudeau. When World War I erupted, the people of Quebec opposed conscription. Laurier proposed voluntary enlistment, which was not approved. The moderate Sir Wilfrid Laurier sat in the House of Commons as leader of the Opposition.

I am branded in Québec as a traitor to the French, and in Ontario as a traitor to the English. In Québec I am branded as a jingo, and in Ontario as a separatist.… I am neither. I am a Canadian. Canada has been the inspiration of my life. I have had before me as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day a policy of true Canadianism, of moderation, of conciliation. (Sir Wilfrid Laurier in Sir Wilfrid Laurier, The Canadian Encyclopedia.)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier made mistakes, as did other Canadian leaders, but he remains one of Canada’s “monarchs.” He took Quebec to the House of Commons, where Quebec would have a voice and contribute leaders to Canada. 

Monière, Denis. Le Développement des idéologies au Québec des origines à nos jours. Montreal. Éditions Québec/Amérique: 1977. 

The State Funeral of Sir Wilfrid Laurier 

© Micheline Walker
14 July 2020