Today in Canada's Political History: Reflections on Sir Wilfrid Laurier, a Man of Dignity and Grace

  • National Newswatch

It is a solemn day on the Canadian history calendar today as we pause to mark the death of perhaps our greatest – along with Sir John A. Macdonald – Prime Minister. I speak, of course, of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who passed into history on this date in 1919.To mark this anniversary of Laurier's death, my friend Bob Rae – who himself has made a lot of history in his own remarkable career – has generously agreed to serve as the guest columnist at Art's History. Mr. Rae – along with his brother John – have been in my corner, supporting my work in the field of political history, for many, many years.  So, it is a great personal pleasure for me to welcome Ontario's former Premier to Art's History to celebrate Wilfrid Laurier. Over to you, Bob.


by the Honourable Bob RaeLaurier's giftWilfrid Laurier was born on November 30, 1841, and died on February 17, 1919.  It is right that we think about him from time to time and reflect on his gifts and his greatness.At a young age his parents sent him to an English school, and he grew up with an intimate grasp of French and English. Ironically, as a graduate of McGill law, he was an opponent of Confederation in 1867, feeling that Quebec's autonomy was limited in the constitutional arrangement.He was first elected to the Quebec National Assembly in 1871, but switched to federal politics in 1874, and remained a member of the House of Commons until his death.Laurier's political life was dedicated to the cause of reconciliation between English and French. He summed it up this way: “fraternity without absorption, union without fusion”.  He captured the attention of the House of Commons early on in his career in a famous speech about the Metis's quest for recognition in western Canada, letting it be known that he was prepared to fight for the rights of a beleaguered minority even if challenged for his patriotism by his opponents.This was to be the constant melody of his presence at the centre of our national life: being proud of his identity, but seeking to join in partnership with others; fighting for national pride, but not at the expense of his identity as a proud Quebecker (charming friends and opponents alike: note he had opponents, not enemies).Laurier's first campaign against Sir John A Macdonald led to his defeat, but after Macdonald's death it soon became clear that he was the new leader for the nation.  He became Prime Minister in 1896, and governed with majorities until his defeat to Robert Borden in the Free Trade Election of 1911.Laurier's tenure as First Minister was marked by an unprecedented wave of immigration to Western Canada, the creation of new provinces, and a determination to build a new nationality that challenged the Imperial designs of Conservatives.Laurier was asked by Borden to join a Union government in 1916, but he declined, believing strongly that Quebec's voice had to be expressed in opposition to the Conservatives. In doing so he divided his party, but saved both the federation and the Liberal Party.  No one but Laurier could have achieved such a feat.Eloquent, elegant, a man of dignity and grace Sir Wilfrid Laurier died after suffering a stroke in 1919.  He was one of those who were truly great.[caption id="attachment_1361" align="alignleft" width="583"] Sir Wilfrid Laurier, circa 1906.[/caption]Bob Rae is currently Canada's Permanent Representative to the United Nations. During his previous years of public service he served as premier of Ontario and member of the House of Commons.Arthur Milnes is an accomplished public historian and award-winning journalist.  He was research assistant on The Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney's best-selling Memoirs and also served as a speechwriter to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and as a Fellow of the Queen's Centre for the Study of Democracy under the leadership of Tom Axworthy.  A resident of Kingston, Ontario, Milnes serves as the in-house historian at the 175 year-old Frontenac Club Hotel.