Sir Wilfrid Laurier became Canada’s seventh prime minister in 1896, serving in that role until 1911, the longest unbroken term to date. He was a strong supporter of individual liberty and decentralized federalism. He left a complex legacy that holds a variety of meanings to those impacted by decisions made under his leadership.
As the first French-Canadian prime minister, Laurier was invested in compromise between Francophone and Anglophone nationalism. He is credited with promoting Western expansion, for supporting the construction of transcontinental railways, and for his statecraft in solidifying early Confederation — Alberta and Saskatchewan joined Confederation during his time as prime minister.
To Indigenous people, the expansion of white settlement in Western Canada meant policies of austerity and the expropriation of land. Four years after Laurier came to power, Treaty 8 was signed by the Crown and First Nations of the Lesser Slave Lake area. It was the largest treaty by area in Canada and promised annuities in exchange for the surrender of land, but issues arose almost immediately. The government fell behind on payments of money and the provision of supplies and medical care.
In 1907, Dr. Peter Bryce, chief medical officer of the federal Department of the Interior and Indian Affairs, submitted his Report on the Indian Schools of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories to Laurier’s government, describing the unhealthy conditions and very high death rates of residential schools in the Prairies. The unpublished but leaked report prompted calls for residential school reform that Laurier’s and subsequent governments largely ignored.
Laurier’s government instituted policies to discourage African American, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian migration to Canada. In 1902, the Head Tax on Chinese immigrants was doubled to $100, and in 1908 the Immigration Act was amended to curtail the migration of British Indians. Laurier also negotiated a limit to Japanese emigration to Canada, and in 1910 introduced a more restrictive immigration law to reduce Black settlement, at a time when Blacks were fleeing racial terror and racial segregation enforced by Jim Crow laws in the Oklahoma territory.
Laurier also actively supported the expansion of British imperialism on the African continent through his involvement in the South African War between 1899 and 1902, a conflict between the British Empire and Afrikaner settlers of Dutch descent over land that today falls within the borders of South Africa. Laurier’s government contributed 8,000 volunteers and $3 million to organize, clothe, equip, and transport these volunteers in what would be Canada’s first overseas battle.
As the predominant politician of his time, Laurier’s influence was felt for much longer than his tenure as prime minister. He was leader of the Liberal Party from 1887 to 1919 and served 45 years in the House of Commons. He championed Canada’s autonomy within the British Empire and was also known as a “continentalist,” who believed in building a relationship with the United States to enhance Canada’s independence and competitive strength.
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