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Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1906 (CP)
Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1906 (CP)

Jeffrey Simpson

Where's Laurier when you need him? Add to ...

An election offers as good a time as any, and a better time than most, to remember when political men could be giants.

On Feb. 22, 1919, an estimated 100,000 people in a small backwater capital called Ottawa lined the streets and gathered at Notre Dame Cemetery for the state funeral of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. He had first been elected to the House of Commons in 1874 and, with the exception of one election, remained there until his death. He led the Liberal Party from 1887 to 1919, and was prime minister from 1896 to 1911.

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Laurier's face adorns the $5 bill. Streets, schools and other buildings are named for him. But in a country where history is so little known, casually taught and poorly understood, who can say they know the deeds and setbacks of this man?

No definitive biography of Laurier has ever been written. A professor at York University set about doing so decades ago but never produced the opus. Meantime, other books appeared, some better than others. Now, as part of Penguin's Extraordinary Canadians series, André Pratte, editorial page editor of La Presse, has provided a lovely, brief biography of Laurier.

It's a fine match: a Quebec writer of discernment, fair-mindedness and quiet passion offering a long sketch of a prime minister who never stopped loving Canada, despite all the heartbreak, disappointments and even calumnies he endured in its defence.

Mr. Pratte, a federalist, understands, as only a francophone Quebecker can, the hardships in that province faced by those who defend Canada as an ideal rather than a mere instrumentality. Today, apart from Mr. Pratte, only a handful of francophones will do so.

So it sometimes was with Laurier, who often found himself pilloried in Quebec for the compromises he accepted while being lashed outside the province by British imperialists, Orangemen and various other voices of anti-Catholic and anti-French intolerance.

If we think governing Canada today is difficult, the challenges are nothing compared with those that beset Laurier and his contemporaries in a country with bitter internal divisions, a tiny role in the world, searing conflicts over French-language schooling, immigration much vaster than today's levels, imperial wars and conscription.

Laurier was not an economist (although he tried and failed to convince the country of free trade with the United States). Saintly though he sometimes was, he understood the black arts of patronage and pork-barrelling, all of which gets scarcely a mention in what, in fairness, is a short book. (Laurier's fixer in Quebec, Joseph-Israël Tarte, coined the phrase "elections are not won by prayers.")

Laurier's greatest strength lay in the art of compromise. As Mr. Pratte deftly observes, "If Canada still exists today, it is because there have always been Canadians who felt that Laurier was right, that compromise is not surrender or cowardice, but rather daring and courage."

In this era of wedge politics, targeted tax cuts and slapdash spending promises, it's painful to realize, through Mr. Pratte's retelling, that Laurier's Big Canada vision has all but disappeared.

In this age of televised attack ads, 10-second clips and Tweets, it's also painful to read about a leader who, as described by Mr. Pratte, "appealed to his listeners' emotions, certainly, but above all, to their intelligence. He reasoned with them, quoted authors, talked about history and referred to precedents. He avoided insulting his adversaries and instead referred to the most noble ideas and values."

His life's work was trying to bring francophones and anglophones together in a tolerant country. In this hour of mangled language, who can't be unmoved by these words? "When the hour of final rest comes, when my eyes close forever, if I may pay myself this tribute, this simple tribute of having contributed to healing a single patriotic wound in the heart of a single one of my compatriots, of having thus advanced, as little as may be, the cause of unity, concord and harmony among the citizens of this country, then I will believe that my life has not been entirely in vain." Amen.

 

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