Wilfrid Laurier was chosen as a leader of the federal Liberal Party of Canada in 1887. With the help of his personal following throughout the country, he gradually built up the party’s strength. He was also appointed minister of inland revenue in Alexander Mackenzie’s Cabinet.
He tried to unite his countrymen on significant issues, such as relations of the church with the state, the bicultural entente between French and English-speaking Canadians, and Canada’s association with the British Empire and US.
He became a national figure in 1885, when he delivered a moving plea of clemency for Louis Riel. His death sentence had provoked violent outbursts between the French Catholic nationalists and the Britannic groups of Ontario.
In a courageous move, Laurier charged the government with mishandling the rebellion. However, he didn’t condone Riel’s actions. He didn’t succeed in stopping the execution, but he established his reputation as a man of principle and high ideals.
He was made the leader of the Liberal Party in 1887, after which he started devoting himself to building a truly national party as well as to regain power gradually. He also gained the trust of the French Canadians, who started believing he would be more supportive of minority rights than the Conservatives.
On 23rd June 1896, he was chosen as the country’s new prime minister, over the Conservative Party’s Charles Tupper, and took charge on 11 July 1986.
As prime minister, he focused on accelerating the country’s development and implementing policies that would lead to unity throughout the nation. However, he did not champion the minority rights of the Catholics.
Over the years, he led Canada through a period of rapid growth and industrialization. In 1899, when the United Kingdom expected military support from Canada in the Second Boer War, Laurier decided to send a volunteer force instead of the militia, which the British expected.
He visited UK later on and took part in the 1902 Colonia Conference and the coronation of King Edward VII on August 9th. During his time in Europe, he visited France as well to negotiate on trade with the French government.
The naval competition between UK and Germany escalated in the early years of the 20th century. The British asked Canada for more money as well as resources for the construction of ships, which led to a heated political discussion in Canada.
Laurier tried to compromise, and advanced the Naval Service Act of 1910, which led to the creation of the Naval Service of Canada. It initially had five cruisers and six destroyers. At times of crisis, it would aid the British Royal Navy.
A controversy arose in 1911, when Laurier supported trade reciprocity with US. His minister of finance, William Stevens Fielding, had made an agreement which allowed free trade of natural products. Though this supported agricultural interests, it alienated many businessmen who strongly supported the Liberal Party.
Laurier was eventually defeated in the next election, and Robert Laird Borden from the Conservative Party became the new prime minister.
Family & Personal Life
Wilfrid Laurier married Zoe Lafontaine in Montreal, on 13th May 1868. She was the daughter of GNR Lafontaine and his first wife, Zoe Tessier. The couple had no children.
Laurier also had an affair with a married woman named Emilie Barthe. It is rumored that they also had a child together, Armand Lavergne.
Laurier died of a stroke on 17th February 1919, while he was still in office as the leader of the opposition. His funeral took place at the Notre Dame Cemetery.