Today in Canada's Political History - March 19, 1918: In Opposition again, Laurier debates the Borden government’s Speech from the Throne

Parliament was back in session on this date in 1918 for the first-time since the divisive conscription campaign of December 1917. Canada’s unity had been fractured like never before – or arguably since – in that election. Sir Robert Borden had been re-elected heading a Union government that included Liberals who had deserted Sir Wilfrid Laurier over his refusal to accept conscription.

After MPs had gathered to hear the Union government’s Speech from the Throne, Laurier stood, still proud and dignified, and responded. Though he had been defeated at the polls, his speech was still a masterful performance. You will find it below.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier: In the Address to which we listened yesterday there is no mention of a subject which does not require any legislation and in which the public is much interested – that is to say, that since Parliament prorogued in the month of September last there had been quite a change in the Government […]

There is no new government: we have the same Government that has existed for the last six years. And so long as there is no change in the Premiership it is a continuation of the same administration. There is the same control, the same principles and the same everything in connection therewith. I emphasize that there is the same control and the same principles. There is a change, I must admit, in the complexion of the Government, and if I may say so it is not only a change but an improvement.

As we look at the government from this side of the House, we cannot fail to notice that it is characterized by a healthier complexion than it wore last session. There is not about it the same pallor that existed then. Although I am not a follower of the government, I am glad to say that this present administration displays a rosy red colour which is at all events pleasing to the eye.

Last summer the friends of the government were much concerned as to its condition. Many of them, perhaps I should say all of them, believed that unless there was a copious draft of rich red blood injected into the system, things might go hard with them. This condition necessitated a surgical operation. Such operations have been very much resorted to of late, especially since the war began. Many have been the instances where healthy, strong men came forward and presented their bare arms to the surgeon in order to have a vein opened in the last desperate attempt to save a moribund life.

The records do show that the operation was successful. Indeed, it so happened that in many instances the patient was so far gone that he could not be saved except by the sacrifice of another’s blood, and sometimes the sacrifice was fatal even to the saviour who offered his blood for transfusion.

Let me say at once that to these Liberal members who joined the administration, I do not wish such a fate. With most of them it was my privilege for many years to be closely associated in intimate friendship. I know them too well not to realize that in what they did they were guided by wholly conscientious motives. Indeed, we have the declaration of some of them that it was a sacrifice; indeed, there is the written statement of others that they for a long time hesitated and resisted all advances.

Conscience is the supreme arbiter, and into the sanctity of conscience I will not enter. I respect the convictions of everybody, even of those with whom for the time being I may differ: but I may be pardoned if I say that so far as I am concerned, I never could appreciate those many subtle disqualifications made in the effort to convince us that war necessitates and creates new standards of duty. There is no such thing as new standards of duty in war. Duty is on the concrete expression of eternal truth which never can vary, which remains the same in war as in peace. But war undoubtedly intensifies all duties and lifts them up to an altitude which of course is unknown in peace time […]

Sir, last session those who sat in the House were divided on the question of conscription. There were members of the Liberal Party who favoured conscription; others opposed it. Upon this point I as the recognized leader of the Opposition, did not interfere with the conscience of any man. Strong reasons were brought forward in support of each view, but there was no divergence of opinion on this side in regard to the outrageous measure known as the Wartime Elections Act […] Among members of the Opposition there was no divergence of opinion: they were unanimously opposed to it. Every feature of that law was an outrage, an odious violation of the very foundations of our system of democratic government […]

The Act was conceived in iniquity and was carried out in worse iniquity still. I say it, and I say it soberly in the presence of the new members of the House and of the old, that the Act by which the elections were carried was such that there was no fair play for the Opposition. With partisan enumerators, partisan returning officers, and partisan deputy returning officers, the true electorate of the country was diminished almost to the vanishing point […]

Now, what of the soldiers in Europe. I will refer to these soldiers in Europe, dealing with what has come to our notice in the press. I have in my hand a picture which was published in all the ministerial papers in the month of December 1917. It is a photograph of a polling booth for soldiers in London. The copy I have was taken from the Toronto Star of the 19th December, and under the cartoon I find the following:

” The picture shows Canadians at a London polling station on December 2nd, and is from the first pictures to reach Toronto since the voting began on December 1st.’

There is the recording officer. There is the voting soldier. There are the clerks; there are soldiers coming also to offer their votes, and on the wall is this placard: ‘A vote against the Government is a vote for the Hun.’”

We have seen that in Canada, sir, but not in the polls. We have seen it placarded in the streets of the city of Ottawa, that a vote against the government is a vote for the Hun. We have seen more in the city of Ottawa. We have seen the statement made that a vote for Union is a vote for Christ. If the law can be thus openly, and even boastfully, violated in the polls in England, then we can have an idea of the opportunity which was left to the soldier to cast his vote untrammelled.

In the face of all these circumstances is it not evident to all classes of the community, to all impartial men – whether they are on the side of the government or on the side of the Opposition, or whether they form part of that larger body, which associates with no party, and which is, perhaps, in the last resort, the grandeur of the nation – that the verdict recorded on the 17th of December for the government is not a victory for democracy, but rather that it is a blow to the very foundation of the system of free institutions under which we live.

If democracy is to produce all that we hope and expect for it and from it, it must be apparent to everybody, it must be in the breast of every man that every consultation with the people ought to be carried out in such an open manner that every man must be satisfied that the vote recorded is an expression of the majority of the people. Not, sir, that the majority of the people is always right. Majorities are wrong sometimes, and so are minorities. But, after all, under our constitutional system, whether we sit on one side of the House or upon the other, what we want is that the government of the country should be carried on by representatives of the people, according to the opinion of the people as it exists in the country.

Here are some of my friends on the side of the minority. It matters not whether we are on the right side or the left side of your chair, sir, what we want is that the voice of the people should be heard, and, even though we are in the minority, at all events that the people should rule. But, sir, in regard to the verdict which was recorded on the 17th December, and which I see represented before me today, however respectable the representatives may be, no amount of sophistry, no loud clanking of sonorous numbers can give it the character of certainty and respectability, which ought to be the commitment and the result of right done.

It is the misfortune of the government and the misfortune of the country, but it is still more the misfortune of the government that, by their own conduct, they have failed to obtain moral support with their majority; they have failed to obtained that support which is the one support a government should have, if the battle had been fought by fair and honest methods.

As to the members on this side of the House, we Liberals sitting here – what is left of us after these vicious practices – what is to be our attitude? Sir, so far as I am concerned, and so far as my friends about me are concerned, the answer is easy. Liberals, democrats and law-abiding citizens we come back from the fight. In number we are not as strong as we were, but we are stronger before the people, because we fought an honest fight according to our own rules.

What shall be our attitude? Sir, I have only this to say, that the lashes of the government will in no way affect our conception of the duty which we owe to our country. We have our views upon the questions which are now before the Canadian people. We stood behind the government in all of their war measures except one, and we will carry on the same policy: we will be behind them in all their war measures, with the same reservations […]

I have only to repeat once more that we on this side of the House stand exactly as we have at all times stood since the war began by this declaration: It is our fervent and solemn conviction that the fame which is now trembling in the balance of destiny is that of freedom and liberty itself. It is a sad thing that upon such an issue as this, when we are battling for the sacred cause of liberty and freedom, that I should have to arraign the government for having itself sapped the foundations of the free institutions which we live, a deed which has already produced its evil effects.

Men there are today who declare by voice and pen that all the militant powers are governed by the same selfish spirit. Against such an unfounded assertion I protest with all the force at my command and with all the energy I can put into my words. To say there is no difference between the belligerent – to put German on the same plane as France, as the United States, as Belgium, and as England, is simply to flout history. The rulers of Germany have shown that they will respect no law, either of God, nor of nations, nor of men […]

But our first duty is to overcome the greater danger which threatens, and to that imperative duty we on this side of the House will give, with all our might, whatever it may be, and with our whole heart, we shall give it our undivided support.

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.