Seeking an Identity
Home Radio Television CBC Learning
CAPH banner left CAPH banner centre CAPH banner right
The Great Transformation
Seeking an Identity
Header 3 Header 4 Header 5
History Home
Seeking an Identity
Canada struggles to find its voice amid division at home and conflict overseas

"I do not pretend to be an imperialist. Neither do I pretend to be an anti- imperialist. I am Canadian first, last and all the time." - Wilfrid Laurier

Read these indepth articles about
Seeking an Identity


Politics of Compromise
Wilfrid Laurier is the master of conciliation but his luck eventually runs out
Questioning Ties to Britain
As the British Empire goes to war, Canadians debate their allegiance to the Crown
The Boer War
Canada gets its first taste of battle when it fights with Britain in South Africa
French Canada's New Voice
Outspoken politician Henri Bourassa helps shape a new French Canadian nationalism
Horror of Modern Warfare
Canadians soldiers are front and centre during some of the first gas attacks during the First World War
"In Flanders Fields"
A Canadian soldier writes a haunting poem about the tragedy of war
At the start of the 20th century, Canada was a young country trying to define itself at home and on the world stage.

Spirit of compromise
Dominating the political scene was Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, Canada first francophone leader. He was a charming, shrewd politician who believed he could smooth over Canada's many divisive issues with a spirit of diplomacy. Laurier had opposed Confederation as a young man but now he was the greatest advocate of a united Canada.

Nicknamed the "Great Conciliator," Laurier led the country from 1896 to 1911. He rarely strayed from the middle ground in dealing with issues that ranged from the Manitoba School Crisis to the question of free trade with the United States.

French and English divide
But even Laurier's spirit of diplomacy was sorely tested when it came to French and English relations. During this era, a young French Canadian politician named Henri Bourassa emerged as the prime minister�s greatest adversary.

Bourassa came to embody a new French nationalism, which maintained that French culture should be on equal footing with English culture throughout the country. He also believed Canada should be as independent from Britain as possible.

Ties to Britain
Canada's relationship with the mother country was a key issue during Laurier's tenure. In 1899, young Canadian men marched off to war in South Africa in aid of Britain. And a few years later, Britain came calling again for assistance prompting the creation of the Canadian navy.

Canada's support of Britain imbued a sense of pride and confidence in English Canada. But in French Canada, the ties to Britain underscored Quebec�s feelings of isolation from the rest of the country.

In 1910, Henri Bourassa quit politics, founded the newspaper Le Devoir and led a fierce struggle against Laurier's naval bill, blaming him for Canada's involvement in all imperialist wars to come.

In 1911, the reign of the "Great Conciliator" ended. Laurier had been unable to mend the great divide but Canada's identity was stronger. French Canada and English Canada had starting to find their own voices � although not the united one that Laurier had sought.


top of page


Last Topic:
Age of Prosperity

Current Topic:
Seeking an Identity

Next Topic:
A Land of Many Cultures

Age of Prosperity
Canada experiences explosive growth as it enters the 20th century
read more...

A Land of Many Cultures
Newcomers ignite a population explosion and alter Canada's cultural landscape
read more...

A Demand for Change
Women demand the vote and Canadians fight for reform amid the emerging industrial age
read more...

Wilfrid Laurier Biography
National Library of Canada and National Archives of Canada

The South African War
Canada's Military Legacy, National Defence

history home | explore the episodes | biographies | teacher resources | bibliography | games and puzzles | sitemap | contact us
cbc home | tv episode summaries | merchandise | press releases | behind the scenes | audio/video

copyright � 2001 CBC