Looking Back On Laurier

As an award-winning editor and journalist at La Presse in Montreal, André Pratte knows politics inside out. Pratte’s biography of Canada’s first French-Canadian prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, has recently been published as part of Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series, just in time for a federal election. McGill News contributor Andrew Mullins spoke to Pratte about his new book, Laurier and Canadian politics then and now.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier, BCL1864

Laurier became prime minister at a time when the country was still very young. What does Canada have today thanks to his work?

He found the ways to forge a Canadian nationalism. The simple fact that he became prime minister in a way changed the country forever: both for French Canadians, who had not really thought that they had anything to do with the other provinces, and for English Canadians, most of them British. He very rapidly realized that if the country was to survive, you needed to unite both French and English Canadians. And religion at the time was even more important than language, so uniting Catholics and Protestants wasn’t easy.

How did he do it?

He found two ways to do this. The first was to make people realize that, whatever their differences, they were united by common principles: democracy, federalism, the rule of law, basic fundamental human rights. When he approached a problem, he would try to find a solution based on principles and values that applied to all Canadians. It was very original at the time, and he suffered political costs for that, especially in Quebec, because for the Catholic Church, an elected official who said he approached problems not as a Catholic, but as a British subject – that was quite revolutionary.

The second thing is that he realized that Canadians could unite over Canada’s role in the world. At the time Canada was a colony, and shortly after he became prime minister in 1896, he went to London for the Imperial Conference. The British wanted all colonies to participate more in the empire’s adventures in the world. And Laurier impressed both the British politicians and newspapers with his speeches, and he led the colonies by saying: we admire the British Empire and are happy to be part of it, but we don’t want to forge closer links. When he came back from the conference, for the first time, Canadians of all regions, languages and religions felt proud of a country called Canada.

So this two-pronged approach to what could unite Canadians is really Laurier’s legacy.

Why do you think Laurier and his accomplishments are largely forgotten today?

His legacy is not something that’s simple to remember or understand. John A. Macdonald built the Canadian Pacific Railway, and that is a major concrete achievement. Trudeau made the country officially bilingual, he is the father of our Charter of Rights – again, Laurier doesn’t have that kind of concrete legacy. Laurier’s legacy is really political. It’s more an attitude, a way of thinking about the country. And I think this is extremely important, but it may not be as simple to remember as something concrete.

What impact do you think his time at McGill had on him?

His father sent him to elementary school in English, so he knew English well enough to come to McGill and study law. What is striking is that he was chosen to read the valedictory address in French when he finished his studies in law. That is the first known speech by Wilfrid Laurier. There’s a paragraph I quote in the book where he says that the conflict between French and English Canadians is over. Which is very far from the reality. But in part because of his experience at McGill, where there were already French-speaking lawyers giving courses in law, Laurier had a very different experience than most French Canadians. He knew already that the English and Protestants were not the devil incarnate and had met and lived with some people from Scottish or Irish origin when he was a kid. So although he doesn’t mention it explicitly, you can’t help but think that the experience forged, at least in part, his view of the possibilities of Canada as a united country.

Are the days of what are called Laurier’s “sunny ways” – dialogue, patience, respect, compromise – long gone? Was that spirit of compromise simply an aberration in politics?

If you think that Canada is a viable country, you have to be a believer in compromise, because any federation is based on mutual compromise. But what is really striking about Laurier is that compromise for him is not only a political necessity, it’s who he is. His personality is based on compromise. Even the great nationalist leader, Henri Bourassa, who was his arch-enemy in Quebec, remained Laurier’s friend in the end. So compromise for him was not something negative, it was positive, and you could be proud of bringing two parties together to find a common solution. It’s exactly the opposite of his adversaries, be they the Orangemen or Bourassa’s nationalists. But even his adversaries had difficulty not being charmed by the sunny ways of Laurier.

John Ralston Saul writes in his introduction to your book that “power today is controlled by people who fear the sort of risks and innovations embraced by everyone in this series.” Are there risks and innovations in Laurier’s career that would not be taken today?

I don’t know if I would put it in terms of risk. What strikes me today is that there aren’t that many uniting figures. For instance, many people like to compare Laurier with Trudeau. And of course they share some common characteristics, but Trudeau was a divisive figure. He had a very clear view of where he wanted the country to go, and he displeased a lot of people with his way of running the country, even though we now admire him for the legacy he left us. Laurier was not like that. He really tried as much as possible to avoid conflict and be above the fray. The partisan quarrelling would go on, but he would try to find common ground. And if you look at politics now, and the greatest example is the way the Conservatives are doing it with Mr. Harper, their way of thinking is to try to divide Canadians.

And play them off against each other?

That’s right. There aren’t many leaders today that are able to bring Canadians together spontaneously and constantly as Laurier was able to do, and express this in the impressive and charming way that Laurier did.

Some people have asked me what Laurier would think of today’s electoral campaign. It seems clear that first of all he would have difficulty understanding how fast things are. Today, one political leader makes a statement at 8:35 am and at 8:36 am the other leader has to respond. In Laurier’s day, things were much slower. There were electoral campaigns where he did not travel in the western provinces at all, because it was too long a trip. Speeches were much longer. I’m not sure that we would be able to listen to a two- or three-hour speech today.

But I think he would be glad that Canada is what it is today, with a prosperous economy, and that, as in his time, we are welcoming thousands and thousands of people from across the world each year. He would be impressed by the fact that we are an officially bilingual country – in his time, this would be something unachievable.

At the same time, I think he would be sad that some of our divisions are still there, that many French Canadians still wish to go their separate ways, instead of participating in the Canadian federation. Laurier was a pragmatic leader, but he was also an idealist. He thought that, if not in his time, certainly a couple of decades afterwards, all Canadians – while remaining different in their culture, language and religion – would share a common Canadian nationalism that would be so strong there would be no threat of division like still exists today.

Campaigns back then could certainly get nasty, could they not?

That is something we tend to forget. Some of the things said about Laurier, and that some of the Liberals said about their opponents, were pretty tough. It was very easy to spread rumours and falsehoods about people. There were a lot of personal attacks. Some of Laurier’s adversaries had a great time portraying him as someone who didn’t have a child and so didn’t care about sending kids overseas to war.

And again, this is why Laurier is so different. He did not use personal attacks at all. He did not use populist statements or demagogic tactics. In his speeches, he reasoned with his listeners, quoting philosophers and British and American politicians. Even today, he would strike us as a very different politician. The difference in his time was even more spectacular, which is why French Canadians really made him a hero. Even if we’ve forgotten him now, at the time it was said that in every house in French Canada there was at least a photograph or drawing of Laurier. He showed French Canadians what they could be.

The conclusion of the book describes our present “sad political scene”, and a Canada in which the blank space left by Laurier’s death has never really been filled. At the same time, you write that a federation like Canada will always be a work in progress, and after the inevitable discouragement of that realization, you roll up your sleeves and get back to work.

It may be that when you spend three years on a project, you are prone to nostalgia. Obviously at the time Laurier was an extraordinary politician, but he still was a politician. My point was really that it seems to me that not many politicians today can express the Canadian ideal as well as he did. I don’t want to single out any individual, but when you look at the current campaign, it seems to me pretty clear that few Canadians are happy with the choice in front of them.

But I like to think that such a leader could arrive on the scene and create some enthusiasm for the Canadian experience. It seems to me that we should wish a leader could really inspire Canadians, whatever their region, culture, language or religion.

Like Barack Obama in the U.S.?

The parallel between the two – I didn’t write it in the book, because it seemed to me his career is too young, but there is a commonality there. For instance, the way Barack Obama speaks; this is not politics as usual. Each time he finds himself in a difficult position, he seems to rise to the occasion with a speech that is remarkable by how deep and thoughtful it is, whether you agree with him or not. He also seems to be a very pragmatic politician, which frustrates a lot of his fans. And this co-existence of both a great, principled leader and a very pragmatic one – there is a similarity with Laurier, it seems quite obvious to me now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.