Today in Canada's Political History - May 10, 1916: Sir Wilfrid Laurier speaks out against Ontario’s infamous Regulation 17

Canada’s past Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, took to his feet in the House of Commons on this date to defend the rights of Franco-Ontarians that were threatened by the province’s infamous Regulation 17. Under its terms, the teaching of French was severely restricted in Ontario.

“I want to appeal to the sense of justice and fair play of the people of Ontario, and to their appreciation of British institutions,” Canada’s first French-Canadian Prime Minster said. “Even if I am wrong—and I hope I am not—I am sure that a frank understanding between the majority and the minority in the province of Ontario, between the two great elements which compose the Canadian people, may force a solution of this troublesome question.”

Regulation 17 was so odious that 100-years-later a modern-era Ontario Premier, Kathleen Wynne, formally apologized to Francophone Ontarians.

But that was far in the future as Laurier’s lonely voice was heard that day. You can read parts of his address below.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier: I appeal, not to passion or prejudice, but to the sober reasoning and judgment of my fellow-countrymen of all origins. I discard at once all reference to constitutional arguments. I do not here and now bring within the purview of this discussion the British North America Act. I do not here and now invoke the cold letter of any positive law. Still less do I question the paramount power of the legislature of Ontario to finally pass judgment upon this question and record the final verdict of its people.

I rise, Sir, not for the purpose of giving advice or admonition to the province of Ontario. I rise to plead before the people of Ontario, in behalf of his Majesty's subjects of French origin in that province, who complain that by reason of a statute passed by the province they have been deprived of rights in the matter of education which they have enjoyed themselves and their forefathers before them, ever since Canada became a possession of the British Crown. . . .

I am of the old school of Mowat and Blake, the parent school of Provincial Rights. By that doctrine I stand. The province of Ontario, and the province of Ontario alone, will and shall determine for herself the decision. Yet is it forbidden by the code of the new converts to the doctrine of provincial rights that I stand at the bar before my fellow-countrymen of Ontario and make my plea? Is it forbidden that I respectfully present the petition of a humble servant of French origin? . . .

I know there is in the province of Ontario a sense of irritation at the position taken by some of my fellow-countrymen of French blood in the province of Quebec, who have from the first deprecated the participation of Canada in the present war, and who have exerted their influence to attempt at least to prevent enlistment. Alas, it is true; it is only too true. It is deplorable, and, to me, as unintelligible as it is deplorable. It is true, alas, that there are in my province men of French origin who, when France is fighting the fight of heroism which stirs the blood of mankind, remain with their blood cold, who tell us: "No, we will not lift a finger to assist Britain in defending the integrity of France, but we want our wrongs to be righted in Ontario."

Wrongs or no wrongs, there is a field of honour; there is a call of duty.

Sir, I am not prepared to say that my fellow-countrymen of French origin have no rights in Ontario; but I am prepared to say this, and I want my words to be heard throughout the length and breadth of this land. Whether my countrymen have rights or no rights in Ontario, whether those rights are granted or denied, these considerations are no bar to the duty which the French-Canadians owe to themselves and to the honour of their race to come forward in their fullest numbers and take part in the great struggle that is going on today in the land of their ancestors for the cause of freedom, and of the civilization of mankind. . . .

A journal published in the city of Toronto, edited by a man of great ability, an eminent writer who has given himself the mission of being the foremost advocate of a closer bond of union for the British Empire [Mr. J. S. Willison, of the Toronto "News"], has within the last ten days, inaugurated a new programme, the first article of which is, "One language and one language only." Under the present circumstances, this means that only one language shall be taught in the schools of Ontario.

Sir, I wonder if this new theory for bringing about unity of the Empire is to be applied in Wales, . . . and in the Highlands of Scotland, or in Malta, or in Egypt, or in South Africa. Sir, if there is one thing which today stands to the glory of England—a feat unparalleled in the history of the world—it is that today on the battlefield in Flanders there are men who do not speak a word of English but who for England have come forward to fight and die. If the Britisher, when he went to India, to Malta, to South Africa, had implanted that new doctrine of "one language and one language only," and had suppressed the language of the peoples who had just passed under his dominion, do you believe, sir, you would have seen that great and noble spectacle which has astonished and is still astonishing the world? No, sir. It is because British institutions everywhere have carried freedom and respect for minorities that England is as strong as she is today.

I want to appeal to the sense of justice and fair play of the people of Ontario, and to their appreciation of British institutions—no more. Even if I am wrong—and I hope I am not—I am sure that a frank understanding between the majority and the minority in the province of Ontario, between the two great elements which compose the Canadian people, may force a solution of this troublesome question. Every man in the province of Ontario, every man in this room who comes from the province of Ontario, whether he sits on that side or on this side, is determined that every child in the province of Ontario shall receive an English education. To that, sir, I give my fullest assent. I want every child in the province of Ontario to receive the benefit of an English education. Wherever he may go on this continent I want him to be able to speak the language of the great majority of the people on this continent. I want it, I say, not only because it is the law of the province, but because of merely utilitarian considerations. No man on this continent is equipped for the battle of life unless he has an English education. I want every child to have an English education ...

Now I come to the point where I want to speak to my fellow-countrymen in the province of Ontario. When I ask that every child of my own race should receive an English education, will you refuse us the privilege of education also in the language of our mothers and our fathers? That is all that I ask today; I ask nothing more than that. I simply ask you, my fellow-countrymen, British subjects like myself, if, when we say that we must have an English education, you will say: "You shall have an English education and nothing else." There are men who say that in the schools of Ontario and Manitoba there should be no other language than the English language. But, sir, when I ask that we should have also the benefit of a French education, will you refuse us that benefit? Is that an unnatural demand? Is that an obnoxious demand? Will the concession of it do harm to anybody? And will it be said that in the great province of Ontario there is a disposition to put a bar on knowledge and to stretch every child in the schools of Ontario upon a Procrustean bed and say that they shall all be measured alike, that no one shall have the privilege of a second education in a single language?

I do not believe it; and, if we discuss this question with frankness, as between man and man, in my humble opinion, it can yet be settled by an appeal to the people of Ontario. I do not believe that any man will refuse us the benefit of a French education.

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.