When incoming prime minister Justin Trudeau spoke in French at the beginning of his victory speech last night, he made reference to Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the "sunny ways" approach.

"Sunny ways my friends. Sunny ways," Trudeau told enthusiastic supporters in Montreal. "This is what positive politics can do."

To Dalhousie University history professor Shirley Tillotson, it was a "brilliant" remark.

When Laurier became prime minister in 1896, Tillotson says there was a highly acrimonious dispute in Manitoba over French-language Catholic schools. The Protestant majority was attempting to eliminate the separate schools. It was a battle over minority language rights and education.

Laurier created an approach he called "sunny ways" in an attempt to dial back some of the bad blood.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir Wilfrid Laurier used to the term 'sunny ways' during the crisis over French-language education in Manitoba. (Government of Canada)

"I was really happy to hear [Trudeau] make a reference to that — Laurier's success in finding a way out of this destructive conflict in Manitoba, one that had drawn in people from all over the country in hostility to each other," Tillotson told CBC Radio's Mainstreet.

She says Trudeau was referencing Stephen Harper and the niqab.

"[Trudeau] was talking about how religion can be so divisive a force and Laurier's success in finding a way to respect people's religious differences in ways that would bring Canadians together," Tillotson says.

"That moment was one in 1896-97 when part of Canada's reputation for being a country that knows how to do compromise in the face of intensely-felt conflict. Laurier is one of the people who creates that image of our Canadian political culture."

Tillotson says although Laurier's sunny ways approach did find a solution to the dispute, it was short-lived.

French-speaking Catholics were able to keep their separate schools where the population levels warranted it, however families had to pay extra. And by 1916, the compromise was dead and the separate schools were closed.

"There's no question that these problems in public life are chronic, they're difficult, it's part of the human condition," says Tillotson. 

"What you want are political systems that emphasize the processes of solving those problems and bringing people together, rather than taking this very dark part of humanity and using it for power politics,"