This Week in History


Happy 175th Birthday, Sir Wilfrid Laurier!

This story was initially published in 2000

For the week of Monday, November 14, 2016

On November 20, 1841, Wilfrid Laurier was born in Saint-Lin–Laurentides, 45 km north of Montréal. Influenced by his father, who was mayor of the community, Laurier took an early interest in politics. In 1896, he became the country’s first French-Canadian prime minister.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier
© LAC / C-001971

After earning a law degree from McGill University, Laurier set up a practice in Arthabaska, Québec in 1867. He involved himself in regional politics by promoting Liberal policies and defending French-Canadian rights. In 1871 he won a seat in the provincial legislature. He resigned three years later, was elected to the House of Commons in 1874 and eventually named Leader of the Opposition. Promoting national unity in a time of cultural conflict, this talented orator worked hard to establish a positive Liberal party image. Finally, in 1896, he was elected prime minister and was knighted the following year.

The 15 years of Laurier’s government were distinguished by prosperity and growth. New railways were commissioned, among them the Grand Trunk Pacific and the National Transcontinental. Immigration expanded and led to the creation of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905.

Laurier campaigning, 1908
© LAC / C-000932

Although Canada’s economic situation was looking up, Laurier’s popularity began to wane as issues of national unity intensified. Laurier’s support in Quebec dropped when he failed to ensure the educational rights of the French-Catholic minority in the new provinces. Then in 1910, he proposed to provide Great Britain with five cruisers and six destroyers ready to fight anywhere in the world. French-Canadians believed that this number was excessive; English-Canadians believed it to be insufficient. Finally, one year later, Laurier presented a policy of unrestricted free trade with the United States. Industrialists were angered by what they saw as a betrayal, while the Conservative party claimed it was an insult to Great Britain. To solve the issue, Laurier called a general election and suffered a bitter defeat.

Following this loss, Laurier’s party leadership also declined. During the conscription crisis, most of the English Liberal members left to join Borden’s pro-war Union government. Laurier remained leader of the divided opposition until his death on February 17, 1919.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier served the longest unbroken term in office as prime minister. He was designated a National Historic Person in 1938. His life is interpreted at several venues including, Laurier House National Historic Site of Canada in Ottawa, Wilfrid Laurier House National Historic Site of Canada in Victoriaville, and Sir Wilfrid Laurier National Historic Site of Canada in Ville-des-Laurentides.

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