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An Admirable Liberal

By: Michael Taube
October 13, 2017

he centrist Liberal Party has ruled for more than two-thirds of the Canada’s political history. While Conservatives have had prime ministers to be proud of, there are Liberal prime ministers that we can—and should—admire for their intelligence, ability and patriotism.

One notable example is Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1841–1919), a classical liberal, by and large, who recognized the importance of low taxes, economic growth, and individual rights. Canada’s prime minister from 1896 to 1911, he was the first in that office to propose reciprocity, or free trade, with the United States. A proud nationalist, and an even prouder nation-builder, Laurier respected traditional institutions, and wanted to preserve Canada’s historical bond with Great Britain.

Historian Arthur Milnes’s book, Canada Always: The Defining Speeches of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, collects some of the seventh prime minister’s finest words and thoughts. Milnes, a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper (several years after my tour of duty), has a distinctly good eye for scintillating opinion. This treasure trove of Laurier’s views on politics, philosophy, and economics shows why he was a powerful figure, always worth listening to.

Milnes invited an impressive cast of characters—prime ministers, provincial premiers, political strategists, journalists/media personalities, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, and former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair—to add their analysis and thoughts after each speech. The book also includes afterwords written by two former Canadian prime ministers, Jean Chretien (Liberal) and Harper (Conservative). By bringing the subject matter closer to home, and providing a better understanding of Laurier’s influential hand and far-reaching political vision, these additions are extremely helpful to readers not conversant with Canadian history and politics.

“Laurier’s life and career is a story of confidence, national optimism and success,” writes Milnes in the Introduction. “But it is also one of a Canadian leader continually buffeted by racial and religious intolerance from French and English, Protestant and Catholic.” This high-stakes, emotional tug-of-war was one that no Canadian politician, of any political persuasion, could have avoided. Fortunately for his countrymen, Laurier tackled this problem, which defined his career and his country, head on.

The book’s first section presents a young politician well on his way to becoming a master orator. Laurier’s 1874 House of Commons speech arguing against Louis Riel's expulsion from Parliament, is a fine example of this. Riel was a politician, Metis leader, co-founder of the province of Manitoba, and leader of two rebellions against the Canadian government, who was finally executed for treason in 1885. He was controversial, and remains so in Canada today.

“I have not the slightest prevention and, on the other hand, I have no predisposition whatever in his favour,” declared Laurier. Yet, based on his respect for voters and the democratic process, he didn’t support Riel’s removal: “It is quite true that the object in view is to protect the honour and purity of this House; but it is equally true that the effect might be to deprive one of our fellow citizens of what rightfully belongs to him, to strip the Member for Provencher of his title and privileges as a Member of this House, and to rob the county of Provencher of the services of the man whom it has chosen as its representative.”

In another intriguing early speech, given in 1877 in Quebec City, Laurier discussed his preference for Liberal versus Conservative principles. In his view, the “principle of Liberalism is inherent to the very essence of our nature, to that desire of happiness with which we are all born into the world, which pursues us throughout life and which is never completely gratified on this side of the grave.”

Yet he is not afraid to criticize fellow liberals and praise conservative opponents, a rarity in today’s polarized society. “Both are susceptible of much good, as they are also of much evil.” The Conservative, “who defends his country’s old institutions, may do much good, as he also may do much evil, if he be obstinate in maintaining abuses, which have become intolerable.” In contrast, the Liberal “who contends against these abuses and who, after long efforts, succeeds in extirpating them, may be a public benefactor, just as the Liberal who lays a rash hand on hallowed institutions may be a scourge not only for his own country, but for humanity at large.”

The book’s second section deals with Laurier’s time as Liberal party leader. An 1894 speech stands out for its fiscally conservative (or 19th-century liberal) position on tariffs and taxation. Laurier didn’t object to the fact that “the tariff has enriched the manufacturers,” but rightly decried manufacturers going “to Ottawa and forc[ing] the Government to levy taxation upon the people, not for the necessities of revenue, but in order to put money in their own pockets.” He also noted that “[n]o sane man will deny that it would be an infinite blessing if we had the freedom of the American market,” although he remained disappointed that “the same political heresy” existed on both sides of the border during the reciprocity debate in the 1891 federal election, which he ultimately lost.

Laurier's political rivalry with Conservative John A. Macdonald―Canada’s first prime minister―didn’t stop him from eulogizing Macdonald as “Canada’s most illustrious son, and in every sense Canada’s foremost citizen and statesman.” He called Macdonald's death a “great national loss”: “Sir John Macdonald now belongs to the ages, and it can be said with certainty, that the career which has just been closed is one of the most remarkable careers of this century.”

Many profound speeches during Laurier’s lengthy stay as Canadian prime minister are collected in the book’s all-important third section. For instance, Laurier’s 1898 tribute to the late British prime minister William Gladstone depicted his fellow Liberal as an “orator, a statesman, a poet, and a man of business. As an orator he stands certainly in the very front rank of orators of his country or any country, of his age or any age.” In an 1899 speech about Canada, England, and the U.S., Laurier noted that while Canadian-American relations were “good,” “brotherly” and “satisfactory,” “they are not as good, as brotherly, as satisfactory as they ought to be.” Speaking directly to President William McKinley, he asked if “we are sometimes too prone to stand by the full conceptions of our rights, and exact all our rights to the last pound of flesh?” Laurier’s hopeful patriotism is displayed in a 1904 speech in Toronto: “the twentieth century shall be the century of Canada and Canadian development. … Canada shall be the star towards which all men who love progress and freedom shall come.”

Even after his defeat by Robert Borden and the Conservatives in the 1911 federal election, there was plenty of fire left in Laurier’s belly. The book’s fourth section deals with the final thoughts of the Old Chieftain, as Laurier was often called, between defeat and his death. In a 1916 speech in London, Ontario, Laurier denounced patronage as “an ubiquitous, omnipresent, omnivorous rover, devouring anything, everything in which there is any public money.” He noted its “voracious insatiable appetite,” resembling “a plague.” Laurier also quipped in the House of Commons in 1914 that, while future Conservative prime minister Arthur Meighen may have been “a clever rhetorician, he is still cleverer a sophist. There are few men inside this House or outside it who can clothe fallacies and paradoxes with more fitting garments than can the Honourable Gentleman.”

Canada’s Liberals and Conservatives are united in their admiration of Laurier’s intelligence, skills, and wit. Chretien described him as a “secular saint in our household,” “tireless champion of national unity,” “pioneer of Canadian independence” and an “avatar of Canadian values.” Harper called him a “ground-breaking political innovator” who championed “low taxation and government economy,” had a “passionate belief in parliamentary government and her institutions, such as the monarchy,” and recognized “[p]olitics was his calling, craft, and profession. And he was a master.”

Laurier was that rare political beast, who appealed to both sides of the ideological spectrum, albeit it for different reasons. Thanks to Milnes’s superb book, this description will forevermore be the Old Chieftain’s lasting legacy in Canada and beyond.