Politics of Compromise
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Politics of Compromise
Wilfrid Laurier is the master of conciliation but his luck eventually runs out
Nicknamed the "Great Conciliator," Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier led Canada into the 20th century by approaching the countrys many divisive issues with a spirit of diplomacy.
Wilfrid Laurier was Canada's first francophone Prime Minister. Nicknamed the "Great Conciliator," Laurier rarely strayed from the political middle ground as he governed the country from 1896 to 1911. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
Wilfrid Laurier was Canada's first francophone Prime Minister. Nicknamed the "Great Conciliator," Laurier rarely strayed from the political middle ground as he governed the country from 1896 to 1911. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

"If there is anything, to which I have given my political life," he said in the House of Commons, "it is to try to promote unity, harmony, and amity between the diverse elements of this country. I shall not deviate a line from the policy that I have traced out for myself."

And Laurier rarely strayed from the middle ground as he governed the country from 1896 to 1911. He ushered in one of the greatest periods of change in the Canadas history. Industrialization flourished, immigrants flooded in and French Canada embarked on a new nationalism.

Laurier set the tone for his government during his first year in office as he tackled the thorny Manitoba school crisis. The provincial government had abolished separate Roman Catholic schools and French language rights in 1890. Successive federal Tory governments had avoided dealing with the political landmine.

Within months of becoming prime minister, Laurier reached an agreement with Manitoba Premier Thomas Greenway. Teaching in French would be provided where numbers warranted in a single public school system. French separate schools were not restored and French lost its status as a language equal to English.

It was a compromise that immediately crushed the aspirations of French Canadians.

Archbishop Adélard Langevin in St. Boniface had led the fight for French rights in the West. To him, the agreement was a betrayal.

"Today is the saddest day of my career as a Bishop. It is with a broken heart that I stand before you. I protest with all my strength against the use of that word: Agreement ... Instead of negotiating with us, the government dealt with those that oppressed us."

Lauriers leanings toward a political middle ground was often at odds with the views of French Canada, embodied in outspoken Quebec federal and later provincial politician Henri Bourassa:

"Upon his arrival at the gates of Paradise, Mr. Laurier's first action will be to propose a 'honourable compromise' between God and Satan."

Bourassa felt the prime ministers diplomacy was too often a reflection of weakness rather than a grand, unifying vision.

But for the most part it worked for Laurier. And the strategy managed to keep him in power in an often-divided country.

But after more than a dozen years in office, Lauriers luck began to run out. In 1910, as tensions escalated in Europe, Laurier tabled The Naval Services Bill in the hopes of pacifying English Canadians who insisted the country offer help to Britain. The bill called for the creation a navy but with war ships operated by Canadians and only available to Britain in an emergency.

Lauriers new navy found little support in the country. English Canada accused him of skimping on the plan and creating a "tin pot navy" that would be out-of-date before it was launched. And French Canada saw it as another example of the Dominion bowing to its imperial mother country.

Things didnt get any better for Laurier when he tried to reach consensus in a limited free trade deal with the United States in 1910. Laurier agreed to reciprocity (special trade privileges) for natural resource products like lumber. The move, he calculated, would please farmers, but not threaten Canadian business leaders who opposed free trade of manufactured goods.

The compromise failed. Business leaders feared even limited reciprocity would open the doors for more trade with the U.S. and eventually force free trade in manufactured goods. The agreement also raised old fears among some Canadians of economic and finally political absorption by the United States.

That same year Laurier went to the polls hoping for a fifth straight election victory. He spoke to a crowd in Saint John about his political woes:

"I am accused in Quebec of having betrayed the French, and in Ontario of having betrayed the English ... In Quebec I am attacked as an Imperialist, and in Ontario as an anti-imperialist. I am neither ... I am a Canadian. Canada has been the inspiration of my life."

In the fall of 1911, his Liberals were voted out, and Conservative Sir Robert Borden, a Halifax lawyer, became the country's eighth Prime Minister. The reign of the "Great Conciliator" had ended.

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