The Political Suicide of Laurier

The day of November 21, 1841 was a very special day for Canada, even though most Canadians didn't even know that at the time. That day marked the birth one of Canada's most successful Prime Ministers and statesman. Wilfred Laurier would be remembered for successfully bringing Canada from the nineteenth century into the twentieth century. Laurier would also be remembered and revered for by his successors for successfully balancing the interests of both English and French Canadians. It was precisely the ability of balancing these interests that allowed Laurier to hold the Prime Minister's office for fifteen years.
While in office, Wilfrid Laurier, on the seventh of June of 1897, "[Queen] Victoria created him a Knight Grand Cross in the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George."[1] Laurier would also create the Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 and "the Canadian West became a major world wheat producer."[2] However, all of this political success would come to an end on September 21, 1911 when a general election, called by Laurier, would result in the defeat of the Liberal Party. The defeat was mainly as a result of Laurier's success at balancing the political interests of both the English and the French over the remaining animosity from the Boer War, the Reciprocity agreement of 1911 and the Naval Act. Laurier lost the federal election of 1911 because of the conflicting interests of the English and French Canadians.
The remaining animosity from the Boer War would also lead the Wilfrid Laurier Government to political defeat. This is because Laurier would run into a similar English and French difference in interests as later he would on in the Naval Service Bill and the Reciprocity Agreement of 1911. The Boer war was fought, as Oscar Douglas Skelton writes in his book The Day of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, was over “the strife [that is] unavoidable between a primitive, pastoral people [(South Africa)] and a cosmopolitan, gold-seeking host [(Great Britain)]”.[3] On October 9th of 1899 Great Britain, lead by Prime Minister Joseph Chamberlain declared war on the Boers of South Africa.[4] Canada would be drawn into this conflict because of its imperial connections with Great Britain that it still maintained. This presented a political problem for Laurier. The problem is best described by Alvin Finkel and Margaret Conrad in their book the History of the Canadian Peoples:
When Britain declared war against Dutch settlers – called Boers – in South Africa in 1899, many Anglophone Canadians felt it was their war too. Laurier faced enormous pressures to send a Canadian contingent to South Africa, not only from imperialist minded English Canadians, but also from the commander of the Canadian militia the British Colonial Secretary, [and British Prime Minister Joseph Chamberlain].[5]
Laurier was forced to consider this pressure and that he must act, however, he also felt opposition mainly from the French-Canadian Nationalists who thought of the war as being only ‘England’s conflict’.[6] Therefore, Laurier knew that if he were to survive politically beyond the next general election, he would have to find a good political compromise.
Laurier required a compromise to this situation because of the differences  in political ideologies between the two language groups in Canada. This conflict split the Liberal Party. On one side Laurier had Henri Bourassa and other French-Canadian Nationalists who refused to let Canada become involved in the conflict because the Boer War had nothing to do with Canada’s interests.[7] On the other side Laurier found the English Canadian Liberals who, if Laurier refused to act, would find themselves in political trouble in their English dominated ridings.
The imperialist cause was of no interest to this war, considering that it was thought the Great Britain on its own would be able to defeat the Boers. Oscar Skelton provides a good analogy of what many saw the conflict to be, “In the phrase of a fervent Canadian imperialist, it seemed if a hundred-ton hammer was being used to crush a hazel-nut.”[8] One must also consider the faith that much of the British Empire had in “Britain’s naval and military might”.[9] In fact, as Skelton writes, “public opinion in Canada anticipated a ‘promenade’ to Pretoria,’ and was only afraid that the fighting would be all over before our men arrived”. This quick defeat was expected by the everyone in Canada. However, the Jubilee festivities of the British monarch only increased the imperial sentiment. Therefore, English Canada was ready and willing to help the ‘mother country’.
French Canadians, lead by Henri Bourassa, were simply not interested in seeing Canada taking part in the conflict overseas. This is because they saw the similarities between the Boers and the French-Nationalist cause. This was because, like the French, the Boers were “fleeing the clutches of an aggressive world empire”.[10] The French, therefore, considered themselves to be in a society that was being oppressed by the English interests. This belief would only be furthered with the introduction of both the Reciprocity Agreement of 1911 and Laurier’s Naval Service Act. The French Canadian view of the Canadian government being to English would only accumulate over time with the introduction of the Naval Act and the Reciprocity agreement of 1911.
Wilfrid Laurier was stuck in a situation that appeared to have no answer. This is because no matter what position he assumes, one language group would be upset with him. However, Wilfrid Laurier would surprise his critics by taking his usual “middle of the road”[11] approach that he would become famous for. Laurier proposed that only voluntary enlistment would be necessary. Voluntary enlistment would appease the French Canadians because they would not be forced into Conscription for what they saw as ‘England’s War’. However, Laurier’s solution would also appease the English because they were able to support the ‘mother country’ if they wished.
Laurier also proposed to pay the costs on transporting the voluntarily enlisted troops to the conflict and equip them. Laurier, however, refused to pay the volunteers. “On the grounds that the effort would cost little financially, he refused to debate the issue in the [House of] Commons”.[12] This was because the offers of service were only considered to be from individuals to England and not in response to the pleas for assistance from England to the Government of Canada. This is supported by British Prime Minister Chamberlain who issued a “dispatch…expressing thanks for individual offers of service, and stating that four units of one hundred and twenty-five men each would gladly be accepted, to be equipped and sent to Africa at their own…cost”.[13] These actions by Laurier would appease the French because of the fact that it was viewed that Canada had little to no involvement in the ‘England’s war’. The agreement of the British, as mentioned in Chamberlain’s dispatch, to assume the costs of outfitting the enlistments and assuming military command over the enlistments would further support Laurier’s argument for not recalling parliament.[14] Laurier thought he had a successfully achieved a compromise.
Laurier, in the eyes of his critics, had failed them. Henri Bourassa was furious with Laurier’s position on the war. He “resigned from the House of Commons in 1899 to protest the Liberal Party’s policy on the war”.[15] In Quebec, Bourassa would speak out against Laurier’s government for sending the troops overseas to fight a foreign war. Even Opposition leader Sir Charles Tupper attacked Laurier’s solution while in Quebec calling him “an advocate of Imperialism”[16]. However, Tupper’s response was expected, because later on at a speech in Toronto, Tupper would “convince his hearers that Sir Wilfrid was ‘not half British enough’”.[17] This may have been an attempt to gain political points by Tupper for the general election in November of that year.
English Canada also responded to Laurier’s refusal to re-convene parliament in order to send troops.[18] English Canadians responded privately with a number of solutions. This included Lord Strathcona who funded an entire contingent to be sent overseas. Also, “in Montreal Margaret Polson Murray launched a patriotic organization of women, the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE), to support war effort”.[19] Therefore, English Canada believed that the Government of Canada had failed to satisfy the plea of Great Britain to send assistance. This view of failure was maintained despite the fact that British Prime Minister Joseph Chamberlain had formally sent a thank you letter to the Government of Canada for their assistance.
The Boer war would only have lingering effects during the election of 1911. However, the war set the stage for the continuing conflicting interests of the English and French that Laurier would have to contend with when making key political decisions. The Naval Act and the Reciprocity agreement would only build on the resentment that was building on both the English and the French sides of the conflict of ideologies.
Perhaps the best example of the conflict of interests between English and French Canadians is the Reciprocity Agreement of 1910. This was the second time that reciprocity had come up in less than twenty years. "During the election of 1891, the Liberal platform of unrestricted reciprocity with the United States proved unpopular and the Conservatives won again."[20] The loss of the election of 1891 should have foreshadowed to Laurier that this was a politically touchy issue for many Canadians. However, he thought he could easily please both sides like he had done so many times before with other issues.
Laurier's Government was looking for a political agreement that would stun the Conservatives going into the election of 1911. Laurier saw the reciprocity agreement with the United States was the perfect opportunity. The United States Congress had passed the Payne-Aldrich Tariff in 1909 in order to protect the American products from unfair tariffs in foreign countries. As Oscar Douglas Skelton writes, the Payne-Aldrich Tariff of 1909 was very unpopular in Canada because under the:
tariff system of maximum and minimum schedules was adopted, the maximum designed to serve as a club to compel other nations to yield their lowest rates. The president was directed to enforce these higher duties against all countries which had not agreed by April 1910 to grant concessions demanded.[21]
Canadian farmers called on the Laurier Government to solve the tariff issue with the United States because "the farmers were hard hit by the tariff...because of it they had to pay more than American farmers did for everything they purchased. Yet when selling their grain on the international market they had to compete with those very same American farmers."[22] Also any grain or produce that they managed to sell to the United States was affected by the tariff.
It was obvious to Laurier that his government must have acted then now in order to appease the voters in the upcoming election of 1911. Therefore, he accepted an invitation from United States President William Howard Taft for a conference in Albany, New York on March 30th of 1909. At the end of the Conference, as Raymond Tanghe writes, it was agreed that the United States would "reduce [the] tariffs on Canadian products -- notably pulpwood, paper, minerals, cereals, farm products and fish -- and Canada would grant easier entry to some manufactured articles in return."[23] Laurier thought this was the best deal that could ever be negotiated for Canada. The deal was so good that "neither the negotiators nor Laurier had the slightest doubt [the agreement's] passage through Parliament."[24] Laurier thought the treaty would bring the Liberals success going into the next general election. However, this would not be so once the Conservatives were able to sway the public's response.
Conservative Leader, and future Prime Minister, Robert Borden was initially stunned by the deal. However, Borden charged that the treaty had been too hastily put together, and it lacked the force of a treaty because it left each party to terminate it, placing Canada at Washington's mercy.[25] Borden and the Conservatives managed to delay the passing of reciprocity agreement until Laurier was scheduled to attend the Coronation of King George V and the Imperial Conference. This forced Laurier to delay the passage of the trade agreement until he returned from Great Britain. While Parliament was adjourned for the Coronation, the Tories were able to sway the public's interest against the bill. As Martin Spigelman writes, the Conservative Party utilized the threat of Canada's amalgamation with the United States:
The Conservative Party lead by Robert Borden and efficiently organized by the former Liberal Clifford Sifton, successfully exploited the strong anti-Americanism evident in the country. Canadians...had fought in 1775 and in 1812 for a distinct country; Canadians, led by John A. Macdonald, had devised a National Policy and a tariff system to ensure and to perpetuate Canadian independence. Now...all might be lost. The Laurier Liberals with their continentalist approach, were threatening the very existence of Canada.[26]
Therefore, when Laurier returned from the Coronation and the Imperial Conference, the Public Opinion was turned against him. This did not bode well for Laurier in the election of 1911 as the Conservatives would accuse Laurier of selling out the Dominion of Canada to the Americans.
The Naval Service bill would also lead the Laurier administration to defeat in the general election of 1911. In 1908, England and Germany had become embroiled in an intense battle for naval supremacy. England called on the colonies and the Dominions to send them the necessary funds in order to fund the building of warships for the British Navy. English Canada responded that:"the mother country...was in real danger and needed the aid which Canada could afford to give".[27] However, the French Canadian response was not supportive of England's proposal. As Martin Spigelman writes, "[the French Canadian response] was one of alarm and fierce opposition. The French Canadians wanted greater Canadian independence and argued that contributions to an imperial navy would drag the country into an European power struggle and perhaps war."[28] The Union Nationale Party, lead by former Liberal Henri Bourassa, played this ideology to the people of Quebec. However, Laurier continued trying to please both English and French Canadians like he had successfully done so many times before. However, Laurier realized that he was caught in the middle of a serious political problem nearing a federal election. Laurier realized that if he refused to send the money required by England, the Liberals would lose the majority of his seats in English Canada and most importantly, the province of Ontario. However, Laurier also understood that if he sent money to England, he would lose the support of Quebec that he also desperately needed.
In response to England's demand, Laurier sent a five-point plan off to England saying what Canada's contribution would be. Raymond Tanghe outlines this plan in his book Laurier: Architect of Canadian Unity:
1. Recognition of Canada's duty to play a larger role in its own defense;
2. Rejection of financial contributions to the Exchequer as a satisfactory solution;
3. Acceptance of greater defense responsibilities to relieve Britain as a burden;
4. Organization of a Canadian Navy in conformity with the views of the Admiralty;
5. Loyal Canadian cooperation in maintaining the honor and integrity of the Empire.[29]
This response to England, Laurier thought, would appease both English and French Canadians. The response would appease English Canadians because it still committed Canada to supporting England. However the response also pleased French Canadians because it did not send money to England and the navy would be used for Canada's own defense.
Pleased with the above response, Laurier introduced the Naval Service Act on January 12, 1910. The Naval Service Bill, Laurier thought, would appease both English and French Canadians. The Naval Service Bill, as described by Alvin Finkel and Margaret Conrad, "proposed that a Canadian that, in times of war, could be placed under imperial control. There would be no direct contribution to the British Admiralty."[30]
Wilfrid Laurier also included the following clause, that "Canada would develop her own naval reserves and its own naval college...provided that in time of war and with Parliament's consent, Canada's naval resources could be placed under imperial control."[31] By placing the control of the navy under the Canadian Government, Laurier thought, that it would appease the French who wanted Canada to be an independent country. The clause of being able to place the Canadian Navy under control of the Admiralty would appease the interests of English Canadians in defending the mother country. Therefore, he thought he had satisfied political interests of both the English and the French at the same time.
The Bill also provided for the building of a Canadian Navy. As Raymond Tanghe writes, the "Naval Service Act provided for a fleet of five cruisers and six destroyers to be built in English shipyards at a cost of $11,000,000. Maintenance would run at $3,000,000 a year."[32] Laurier’s government also purchased "two aging cruisers, the Rainbow and the Niobe,"[33] from Great Britain. Laurier thought this would be a good compromise for both English and French Canadians.
The Bill, however, became a heated debate between the Laurier government, Robert Borden’s Conservative Party, and Henri Bourassa’s Union Nationale. The Canadian Navy was deemed by English Canadians, as being a 'tin-pot navy', "quite inadequate, and [English Canadians] called upon the nation to send Britain the cash equivalent of the ships in Canada should have had without delay."[34] However, the Quebec Nationalists saw the navy as a "continuing vassalage to England...they thought it useless to create a Canadian fleet of warships."[35] Laurier was disgusted with these opinions and responded in frustration with a speech to all Canadians:
I am branded in Quebec as a traitor to the French, and in Ontario as a traitor to the English. In Quebec I am branded as a Jingo, and in Ontario as a Separatist. 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. I have had before me as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day a policy of true Canadianism, of moderation, of conciliation. I have followed it consistently since 1896, and I now appeal with confidence to the whole Canadian people to uphold me in this policy of sound Canadianism which makes for greatness of our country and of the Empire.[36]
These remarks would not be enough to save Laurier from the wrath of the polling booth in the general election of 1911.
The general election of 1911 was a hard fought battle between the Conservatives and the Liberals. However, the campaign was riddled with problems for the Liberals. The Liberals had to battle both the French and the English sides of the country. As Raymond Tanghe writes, "Ontario proclaimed that they were sacrificing the Empire to the United States"[37] over the reciprocity agreement. While "Quebec Nationalists howled that they were sacrificing Canada to the Empire"[38] over the Naval Service Act. These two fronts would prove to be too large of an obstacle for Laurier and his Liberals. The Borden Conservatives and Bourassa Union Nationale united in order to remove the Laurier's Liberals from office. Union Nationale Leader Henri Bourassa would continuously harp on the fact that Laurier's Naval service bill could lead to conscription in the future to Quebec. While Robert Borden condemned the naval service bill as being an inefficient bill that did not contribute to the need of the Empire from Ontario and the rest of English Canada.
The results of the election, as expected, were very disheartening to Laurier and the Liberals. As Raymond Tanghe writes, "the Conservatives won, taking forty-five new seats, chiefly in Ontario and Quebec where the campaign had been concentrated."[39] The overall results for all of Canada was the Laurier Liberals “won only eighty-seven ridings [while] the Conservatives took 134 seats”.[40] This would be a severe blow to a seventy year-old Laurier who was forced to hold the title as the "Leader of the Official Opposition" in the House of Commons once again. It was because of his political compromising that cost him the election. The decisions on the Naval Service Act, the Boer War and the Reciprocity Agreement is what cost Laurier the Office of the Prime Minister despite coming up with the best compromise with both sides interests in mind.
These two bills coupled with the remaining animosity from the Boer war had compiled themselves over time are what caused the downfall of the Laurier administration. However, we should not blame Laurier for trying to balance the interests of the country. Wilfrid Laurier’s eventual successor, William Lyon Mackenzie King would eventually become the longest serving Prime Minister in Canada. While in office King had to face the conscription crises during the Second World War. Quebec did not want Conscription viewing the war as European problem while English Canadians were supporting Conscription. King compromised by allowing voluntary enlistment and to leave the topic of Conscription until the very last moment when the fall of Great Britain seemed imminent. This satisfied both the English and French for the longest time. We must applaud, however, Laurier for trying to balance the interests of both the English and French Canadians for as long as he could because he kept the country united for such a long time. However, Laurier just happened to be in office when the conflicting interests of the English and the French would clash over imperial and domestic matters. We should not remember Laurier as person who failed to meet the expectations of the country, but as a Prime Minister who tried his best to find a compromise suitable for the two dominant language groups in Canada.

Primary Sources
Pacaud, Lucien, ed. Sir Wilfrid Laurier: Letters to my Mother and Father. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1935.
Skelton, Oscar Douglas. Life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Volume II. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1965.
"The Right Honourable Sir Wilfrid Laurier: Speech to the House of Commons--November 29, 1910." Canada's Prime Ministers. On-line. Internet. 16 March 1999. Available:
Secondary Sources
Behiels, Michael. “Laurier, Bourassa, Borden and the Imperial Question.” University of Ottawa. Ottawa, 21 October 1999.
Behiels, Michael. “The ‘New Imperialism’: Colonialism or British Canadian Nation.” University of Ottawa. Ottawa, 12 October 1999.
Belanger, Real. "Laurier, Sir Wilfrid." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1988.
Brown, Robert Craig, and Ramsay Cook. Canada a Nation Transformed 1896-1921. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1994.
Dafoe, John Wesley. Laurier: A Study in Canadian Politics. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 1968.
Finkel, Alvin, and Margaret Conrad. History of the Canadian Peoples, 1867 to Present. 2nd ed. Toronto: Copp Clark Ltd., 1998.
Keshen, Jeff. "Imperialism and Nationalism--1870-1914." University of Ottawa. Ottawa, 12 January 1999.
LaPierre, Laurier L. Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Romance of Canada. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing co. Limited, 1996.
"Sir Wilfrid Laurier." CNEWS. 12 Sept. 1997. On-line. Internet. 16 March 1999. Available:
"Sir Wilfrid Laurier." The Prime Ministers of Canada. 1994. On-line. Internet. 16 March 1999.
Skelton, Oscar Douglas. The Day of Sir Wilfrid Laurier: A Chronicle of Our Own Times. Glasgow: Brook & Company, 1916.
Spigelman, Martin. The Canadians: Wilfrid Laurier. Don Mills: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1978.
Tanghe, Raymond. Laurier Architect of Canadian Unity. Trans. Hugh Bingham Myers. Montreal: Harvest House, 1966.


[1] LaPierre, Laurier, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Romance of Canada (Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited, 1996) 242.
[2] "Sir Wilfrid Laurier," CNEWS.  12 Sept. 1997. (Internet:



[3]Skelton, Oscar Douglas, Life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1965) 184-185.


[4] Ibid., 185.


[5] Finkel, Alvin, and Margaret Conrad. History of the Canadian Peoples, 1867 to Present. 2nd edition. (Toronto: Copp Clark Ltd., 1998) 62.



6Finkel and Conrad, 62.


[7] Ibid.,62.


[8] Skelton. The Day of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. 187.


9Ibid., 187.


[10] Conrad and Finkel 62.


[11]Behiels, Michael.  “The New Imperialism: Colonialism or British Canadian Nation.” University of Ottawa.  Ottawa, 12 October 1999.


[12] Finkel and Conrad 62.


[13] Skelton The Day of Sir Wilfrid Lautier 189.


[14]Ibid., 189.


[15]Finkel and Conrad 62.


[16] Skelton.  The Day of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. 194.


[17]Ibid., 194.


[18] According to Oscar Douglas Skelton, in his book The Day of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, “British precedent required the consent of parliament for waging war” (194).


[19] Finkel and Conrad 62.


[20] Sir Wilfrid Laurier," CNEWS.


21Skelton The Day of Sir Wilfrid Laurier: A Chronicle of Our Own Times. 260.


[22] "Sir Wilfrid Laurier," The Prime Ministers of Canada 1994. (Internet:


[23] Tanghe, Raymond, Laurier: Architect of Canadian Unity. Trans. Hugh Bingham Myers. (Montreal: Harvest House, 1966) 76.


[24] Ibid, 76.


25Tanghe, 76.


[26] Spigelman, Martin, The Canadians: Wilfrid Laurier (Don Mills: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1978) 49.

[27] Spigelman  35.


[28] Ibid, 35.

29 Raymond Tanghe 71-72


[30] Tanghe 71-72.


31 Finkel and Conrad 64.


32 Tanghe 72.


33 Spigelman 36.





[34] Tanghe 72.


[35] Ibid, 72.

[36] Skelton The Day of Sir Wilfrid Laurier 142.


[37] Tanghe 78.


[38] Ibid, 78.


[39]Ibid, 79


[40]Finkel and Conrad  65.