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1919: The death of Sir Wilfrid Laurier

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Sir Wilfrid Laurier may look stern in his official portraits, but when he died in 1919, newspapers spoke of his warm smile, his sense of style and his "sunny ways." Even though he'd lost a bitter election two years before, the former prime minister was mourned across the country with 50,000 people crowding Ottawa streets for his funeral. In a 1966 CBC Radio interview, Senator Grattan O'Leary recalls Laurier.
• On Feb. 16, 1919, Sir Wilfrid Laurier was at a Saturday luncheon at Ottawa's Canadian Club when he had a stroke and collapsed. He took the streetcar home. Laurier was getting dressed for mass the next day when he had a second stroke. While he lay in bed, he had a third and final stroke, telling his wife Zoé, "c'est fini." He was 77.

• On its front page the next day, the Toronto Globe called Laurier "Canada's greatest son," adding that he was, "the exponent of the 'sunny ways,' the smile, the words of encouragement, the unfailing atmosphere of those things that make for happiness in life."

• Flags were lowered to half-mast across Canada. On Thursday, Feb. 20, Parliament met for its first session since the First World War ended. Because of Laurier's death, the Globe said, "instead of rejoicing there is sorrow."

• On Feb. 20, Laurier's body was moved to the Victoria Memorial Museum -- temporarily used for Parliament after the buildings burned down in 1916 -- until his funeral on Saturday. Thousands of people came to pay their respects. The Globe wrote, "disabled soldiers recently returned from Flanders' Fields hobbled on crutches." Prime Minister Robert Borden couldn't attend the funeral because he was in Paris helping to draft the Treaty of Versailles to end the war.

• Laurier, Canada's seventh prime minister, held the office for 15 years, from 1896 to 1911. He was first elected in 1871 to the Quebec Legislature and then, in 1874, to the House of Commons. Laurier led the Liberal party from 1887 until his death. As prime minister he created Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 and a costly second transcontinental railway.

• Laurier was born in St. Lin, Que., in 1841 and graduated from McGill College in 1864. He then became a lawyer and soon joined Quebec's Liberal party in denouncing plans for Confederation. Many believed it would mean the end of French Canada.

• While at McGill, Laurier had met Zoé Lafontaine, a piano teacher. They married in 1868. Laurier famously had a close friendship with his law partner Joseph Lavergne's wife Émilie. There were rumours Laurier had fathered the couple's son, Armand Lavergne.

• Clifford Sifton, Laurier's minister of the interior from 1896 to 1905, recalled, "I was not Sir Wilfrid Laurier's colleague for eight years without finding that he is, despite his courtesy and gracious charm, a masterful man set on having his own way, and equally resolute that his colleagues shall not have their own way unless this is quite agreeable with him."
 
• Laurier reluctantly took the title Sir in 1897 while in London for Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee, the 60th year of her reign. Although Laurier had turned down the knighthood, the preparations were made anyway. Laurier accepted so he wouldn't seem rude.

• In a 1904 speech Laurier said, "the nineteenth century was the century of the United States. I think we can claim that Canada will fill the twentieth century."

• Laurier expected Canada's population, over 8 million in 1919, to hit 60 million by 2000. As it turned out, the 2000 population was about 30.6 million.

• When Zoé Laurier died in 1921, she left the couple's home to Mackenzie King, who became leader of the Liberals after Laurier's death. In his diaries King admitted he had held seances there and would speak to the dead, including Laurier, his political mentor.
 
• Michael Grattan O'Leary (1888-1976) joined the Ottawa Journal in 1911 as a reporter. He became a senator in 1962. The Journal went out of business in 1980.
Medium: Radio
Program: Project '66
Broadcast Date: April 17, 1966
Guest(s): Grattan O'Leary
Host: Peter Stursberg
Duration: 1:12
Photo: Library and Archives Canada / C-015568

Last updated: October 24, 2014

Page consulted on October 24, 2014

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