Sir Wilfrid Laurier


By Ritchie Rocha

The first French Canadian to become prime minister of Canada was Wilfrid Laurier.
Although French was his native tongue, he became a master of the English
language. This and his picturesque personality made him popular throughout
Canada, and he led the young country in a 15-year period of great development.
Wilfrid Laurier was born in St-Lin, Quebec, and studied law at McGill University.
After three years in the Quebec legislature, he was elected to the Canadian
House of Commons in 1874. There he rose rapidly to leadership. Although he was a
French Canadian and a Roman Catholic, he was chosen leader of the Liberal party
in 1887. Nine years later he became prime minister. He was knighted in 1897.
"Build up Canada" were the watchwords of Laurier\'s government. Laurier was loyal
to Great Britain, sent Canadian volunteers to help in the Boer War, established
a tariff favorable to British goods, and worked to strengthen the ties between
the two countries. But he saw the British Empire as a worldwide alliance of free
and equal nations, and he opposed every attempt to limit Canada\'s freedom.
Laurier\'s liberal immigration policy brought hundreds of thousands of settlers
to the western provinces. He reduced postal rates, promoted the building of
railroads needed for national expansion, and appointed a commission to regulate
railroad rates. After 15 years in office his government was defeated, presumably
on the issue of reciprocal trade with the United States. Laurier believed,
however, that his political defeat was caused primarily by opponents in Ontario
who considered him too partial to Roman Catholic interests in Quebec. Prior to
World War I, Laurier tried forcefully to support the formation of a Canadian
navy. His own Liberal party defeated this measure, however, and Canada entered
the war without a fleet of its own. During the early years of World War I,
Laurier supported the war policy of Sir Robert Borden\'s Conservative government.
In 1917 he refused to join a coalition government that was formed to uphold
conscription. Laurier felt that he could not back a measure so unpopular in the
province of Quebec. Wilfrid Laurier\'s regime lasted 15 years. It was one of
renewed growth and prosperity. The Manitoba School Question was promptly hushed
up by new legislation enacted by the province in accordance with a compromise
worked out with Ottawa. To his Cabinet Laurier drew some of the most capable
leaders from every part of Canada. Business throughout the world was on an
upswing, and the Laurier government was determined to get in on the action. The
demand for Canadian wheat abroad encouraged immigration, and immigration in turn
increased farm production and the value of national exports. "The 20th century
belongs to Canada," cried Laurier; and the whole nation took confidence from his
assurance. Two new transcontinental railways were begun. By 1905 the west had
expanded in both population and economic strength to such an extent that two new
provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, were carved out of the Northwest
Territories. These encouraging developments were inadvertently assisted by an
occurrence in the far northwest. Since the Fraser River gold strike of 1858,
prospectors had been consistently combing the mountainous areas of British
Columbia and to the north. In 1896 their persistence paid off with the discovery
of gold nuggets on the Klondike River in the far western Yukon Territory. When
the news spread, the gold rush of 1897 began; it was to become the most
publicized gold rush in history, eventually to be celebrated in the works of
such writers as Jack London and Robert Service. The gold strike had some
beneficial side effects. As miners poured into western Canada from the United
States and other parts of the world, the extent of the unpopulated prairie lands
became known. By this time, of course, the supply of free land in the United
States had become exhausted, and the frontier was closed. Very soon after the
gold rush, settlers began pouring into the western prairies of Canada by the
thousands, from Europe as well as the United States. With much of Canada being
unpopulated, this would help to create the massive population increase that
Laurier was waiting for. More Canadian citizens would of course mean more taxes.
More taxes would mean more money for the government. More money for the
government would mean that Laurier could use the new financial wealth of the
country to slingshot Canada\'s status of being just a large cold country to the
status of being a country where all were welcome and good land was available to
people that were willing to put it