Sir Wilfrid Laurier's Compromises

Questions to ask yourself:

Was the 20th Century to be the Century of Canada?

How far should Canada go in supporting the British Empire or asserting its autonomy?

What you will be able to do:

Indicate the change in government that occurred in 1896.

Describe the changes made to Canadian immigration policies between 1896 and 1911, and determine the consequences of those policies.

Explain Laurier’s compromises, especially as concerns the Boer War, Manitoba Schools Issue, and the Naval Bill.

"Have you ever looked at the picture on a $5 bill? It’s of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Is it possible that quite near you there’s a museum, a historical site, a street, a school, a school board, or a Metro station with the name Wilfrid Laurier or even just Laurier? His name is a part of so many places, buildings, and organizations because Sir Wilfrid Laurier did many important things for Canada.

Wilfrid Laurier was Canada’s first Francophone prime minister. He was prime minister from 1896 to 1911. He became head of the Liberal Party in 1887 and stayed head until his death in 1919. His ability to speak both French and English helped make him popular throughout all of Canada."

This short overview video text and video is available on our Societies and Territories site here

Sir Wilfrid and the Extremists - Where Laurier Stands by James Fergus Kyle - Bibliothèque et Archives Canada. Public Domain via https://commons.wikimedia.org

Engage students ideas:

Search maps in your local area to find different organizations, streets, parks, etc. that called Wilfrid Laurier, or even just "Laurier". Discuss reasons why these places are named after people, and what people would have to do to have a place named after them!

View the above image "Where Laurier Stands by James Fergus Kyle" (Wikipedia version). Remember that Laurier, a Francophoe, was also a completely bilingual leader of the whole of Canada. Discuss the different groups and individuals involved in the image, and possible reasons for accusing Laurier of being too British or not British enough.

Overviews of the period: The Last Years of Macdonald

“The lease of power which Macdonald obtained in 1878 lasted until his death in 1891. … During these years, the Liberals strove to find a battle-cry that would drive the Conservatives from power. In 1882, they directed their attack chiefly against the government's policy in building the Canadian Pacific Railway […] In 1887, they attacked chiefly the policy of the government in regard to the North-West Rebellion of 1885 […] In 1891, the chief plank in their platform was an attack on the National Policy , which had not produced all the results prophesied from it, and the advocacy of "unrestricted reciprocity" with the United States. […] But the Liberals were handicapped by their leaders. Edward Blake , who succeeded Alexander Mackenzie in the leadership of the Liberal party in 1880 was a statesman, but no politician; and while Wilfrid Laurier , who succeeded him in 1887 was both a statesman and a politician, he had no chance before 1891 of commending himself to the English-speaking provinces.” Source: Political History of Canada By W. Steware Wallace in 1948 via Canada, Political History - Canadian political history

Overviews of the period: Quebec Rejection of the Conservatives

“Macdonald was effective as a leader in large part because he had strong co-leaders in Quebec whom he treated as partners and confidantes. The first of these, of course, was George-Étienne Cartier (1814-73), without whom it is unlikely that Quebec would have agreed to Confederation. [...]

[...And] “Quebec was incensed by Ottawa’s treatment of the Catholic-French Métis community since the Red River uprising. The failure to create a French/English society in the West, the subsequent marginalization of the Métis population, the heavy-handed performance of centralist federal politicians, and Ottawa’s apparent disregard for the Quebec economy was all read as a long trail of broken promises.” Source: 4.2 John A. Macdonald’s Canada at https://opentextbc.ca

What was Canada like? An overview

View the above overview and more information in greater detaila via the Sir Wilfrid Laurier: Education Guide PDF ➦ and on the main Sir Wilfrid Laurier Education Guide ➦ website.

Exploration idea:

Read more about the end of the John. A. Macdonald era and about the state of Canada during Laurier's first years in parliament and first election.

Laurier and “Moderate Liberalism” on the rise.

“In his long ascent to power, Laurier tried to adapt his moderate liberalism to the taste of the electorate. His first campaign showed the practical nature of the future prime minister of Canada:

“To the local Catholic clergy, who called him a Rouge and a revolutionary obsessed with liberty, Laurier responded with a balanced platform addressing the current major election issues. It touched on education, colonization, and agriculture, for which funding had to be increased, on the abolition of the Legislative Council, and on industrial development, the cure for the scourge of emigration.” Source: Sir Wilfrid Laurier – Dictionary of Canadian Biography


His "passive reaction" to the Manitoba school crisis proves key to winning

“In March 1890, the same month that the Manitoba legislature abolished French as an official language of the province, it passed two bills amending the province’s laws on education: An Act respecting the Department of Education and An Act respecting Public Schools. [...] The Act respecting the Department of Education eliminated the two sections of the Board of Education so that there would be only one and created a Department of Education. The Act respecting Public Schools eliminated the denominational school districts — the French language remained, but not the Catholic religion. If Catholics, most of whom were francophone, wanted to continue to be educated in their religion, they would now have to fund their own schools, in addition to paying taxes for public schools.”

[Though conservatives attempted to solve the problem by legislating some relief to the Catholic population, Laurier objected, mostly in order to avoid confrontation with protestant voters.] He offered a more "sunny way — achieving a solution through diplomatic negotiations rather than imposing one through legislation."

Source: Verrette, M., Manitoba Schools Question (2016). In The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Wilfrid Laurier arborant le drapeau Libéral sur la citadelle de Québec. © Domaine public / Revues d'un autre siècle, no. 3584 / Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec

What is Liberalism?

Change in government in 1896: Laurier Elected!

“The year 1896 was a turning point for the British Dominion’s social, economic and political development. The election of Wilfrid Laurier, the first French Canadian to hold office as Prime Minister of Canada, followed the next year by the election of a Liberal government in Québec, heralded the rise of Liberalism.”

QEP program, page 46


“In the federal election, the Liberals defeated the Conservatives with 118 seats to 88. Wilfrid Laurier became Canada's first French-Canadian prime minister and marked a turning point in Canadian politics after years of Conservative Party rule.” Source: Sir Wilfrid Laurier Timeline at Canadian Encyclopedia

Address presented to Sir Wilfrid Laurier on his return from Halifax Source: Le Monde illustré, Vol. 14, no 704 (30 octobre 1897), p. 425 Public Domain via collections.banq.qc.ca/

Exploration idea:

Assign groups the tasks of researching the issues and one of the major party's platforms. Include in the task the objective of determining how and why that party lost or won the election. Go around the class with each group summarizing their findings and also reflecting on and adding to what the previous groups said. Time permitting, this sort of exploration could include an advertisement or poster production, or even an imagined speech by a local candidate for that party. Indeed, options for including local history could be an essential goal to exploring the political scene before and during, and just after the 1896 election!

Laurier focuses on the Economy!

Just before the turn of the century, as Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberal party took power, Canada was on the verge of a boom. Economic prospects were good, and Canada was open for foreign investment. Instead of abruptly changing course, Laurier put into place policies that would see through John A Maconald’s National Policy. The first thing that Laurier did was to abandon his campaign for reciprocity with the United States, and instead left the tariffs on American imports in place, protecting Canadian manufacturers and ensuring a lower price for Canadian goods in the marketplace. Secondly, Laurier embraced the building of railways. One transcontinental railway wasn’t enough, Laurier promised two more lines across the country and had plans for more railway lines. Finally, Laurier appointed his most able minister, Clifford Sifton, to the Ministry of the Interior. Sifton was tasked with launching an aggressive campaign to attract immigrants to Canada. Source: Matt Russell.

"The completion of construction of Canada's first transcontinental railway, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) on November 7, 1885, preceded a tremendous economic expansion and immigration boom in western Canada during the late 19th and early 20th centuries"

Source and image source: National Transcontinental Railway

A Quick Immigration overview

"The 1871 Census enumerated approximately 600,000 foreign-born individuals (16.1% of the total population), the majority of whom were from the United Kingdom and Ireland, followed distantly by the United States, Germany and France.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Canada's borders expanded and the country encouraged an influx of immigrants to settle in the Prairies, British Columbia and the territories. As a result, the foreign-born population rose significantly—especially up to the beginning of World War I— to nearly 2 million people in 1921. At that time, immigrants were mostly from the British Isles, but the proportion of immigrants from other European countries—mainly Eastern Europe—rose, which altered the ethnocultural profile of various regions."

Source: Welcome to Canada - 150 years of immigration

Image source: RECITUS via LEARN's The Prairies in 1905, a plain to settle on! under /by-nc-sa/

Source: RECITUS via LEARN's A highly diversified population under /by-nc-sa/

Laurier's Focus on Immigration and a (British) West

“In 1896, Wilfrid Laurier and his government set up an immigration incentive system to populate Canada and the western provinces in particular. To that end, the government offered premiums to European agents to increase the number of immigrants settling in the country. Minister Clifford Sifton travelled the world to find immigrants who would radically change the face of Canada then… and even today!

The results of the initiative were very positive. From 1901 to 1911, more than 900 000 foreigners came to Canada. The massive immigration, basically targeting the Prairies, increased farming production and national harvests. With greater available manpower, farming activities grew. The country’s economy benefited greatly from this massive immigration.”
Source: MVC - Sir Wilfred Laurier - Father of Modern Canada: Great Period of Immigration in Canada | Visionary Man


“Though the approach had been haphazard in the past, Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal leadership in 1896 made great strides to boost immigration. They had a great product to sell: more than 100 million acres of fertile land lay unbroken and ready for habitation.

In 1899 the federal Immigration Branch of the Department of the Interior published a document entitled Western Canada, which became the template for Canada West. Designed by Rand McNally under the Immigration Branch’s direction, the publication mainly targeted settlers to relocate to the three Prairie provinces; most of the articles, covers, and photographs focused on farming the plains (each issue also offered a section on British Columbia that emphasized fruit and berry growing as well as mixed farming).” Source: Selling the Prairie Good Life


"On 1 September 1905, Wilfrid Laurier spoke before an audience of some 10,000 people in Edmonton, the newly minted capital of Alberta, which had just joined Confederation along with Saskatchewan. It had been 11 years since he’d last visited Edmonton, and he remarked that so much had changed in that time.

“We want to share with them our lands, our laws, our civilization. Let them be British subjects, let them take their share in the life of this country, whether it be municipal, provincial or national. Let them be electors as well as citizens. We do not want nor wish that any individual should forget the land of his origin. Let them look to the past, but let them still more look to the future. Let them look to the land of their ancestors, but let them look also to the land of their children. Let them become Canadians… and give their heart, their soul, their energy and all their power to Canada.” "
Source: Laurier, Wilfrid. "Wilfrid Laurier: Let Them Become Canadians, 1905". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 13 July 2017, Historica Canada

"With the creation of Manitoba, only a very small portion of the Prairies had become a province... As the population grew, people felt that they were not always being heard by the federal government ... In 1905 - 35 years after the creation of Manitoba—the government of Wilfrid Laurier acquiesced to the wishes of the population and created two new provinces, Saskatchewan and Alberta. They had the same boundaries then as they do today.

Source: RECITUS via LEARN - Three provinces becoming organized – Societies and Territories under by-nc-sa

Immigrants Skipping Rope Aboard the S.S. EMPRESS of Britain, on Route

Image source: Canada. Mines and Resources Department / Library and Archives Canada / C-009660. via Source: MVC - Sir Wilfred Laurier

1909 Canada West magazine cover.

Image source: Wikipedia Public Domain version but also via "Selling the Prairie Good Life" at canadashistory.ca/

Source: RECITUS via 800,000 people under by-nc-sa

Black Immigration to the Prairies

"The Canadian government encouraged a great wave of western colonization and immigration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, a number of exclusionary immigration policies were in place during this period (see also Chinese Head Tax, Komagata Maru, Restriction of Japanese Immigration). [...] "Though the exact number of Black immigrants during this period is not known, about 1,500 Black Americans immigrated to Canada between roughly 1905 and 1912, arriving mainly from Oklahoma and settling in Saskatchewan and Alberta. [...] Though few Black immigrants entered the country, Canadians reacted to those who did with racial prejudice (see Racism). They also demanded that authorities stop further Black immigration."

Source, video and more information at Yarhi, Eli. "Order-in-Council P.C. 1911-1324 — the Proposed Ban on lack Immigration to Canada". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 26 February 2020, Historica Canada.

What was the role of government?

"At the same time, the Canadian federal government was implementing the Dominion Lands Act, which created cheap homesteads to encourage settlers to move out west—despite the Indigenous groups already inhabiting much of the land. The act advertised the Canadian prairies as “the last best west” and drew in droves of Eastern Europeans, Scandinavians, and French homesteaders. Advertisements also landed in newspapers across the United States, where African Americans, largely from Oklahoma, Alabama, and Texas, caught wind of Canada’s “promised land.”

Source: The Forgotten History of Amber Valley, Canada's Northernmost Black Settlement, by Marina Wang

[However,] "In 1911, Wilfrid Laurier signed a decree formally prohibiting Black immigration to Canada. For diplomatic reasons, racism was never formally named in the law. However, this did not deter Immigration Canada from deploying a vast dissuasion campaign targeting black Americans attempting to cross the border. Doctors were paid to pronounce the medical exams of aspiring African-Canadians failed, and agents spread the idea that our winters are incompatible with the constitution of the Black race." Source: Black Immigrants by Emilie Nicolas broadbentinstitute.ca

Image source: Library and Archives Canada. “Orders in Council – Décrets-du-Conseil.” RG2-A-1-a, volume 1021, PC 1911-1324, 12 August 1911 via https://pier21.ca/research/immigration-history/order-in-council-pc-1911-1324

Chinese Immigration continued too - In spite of Laurier’s Government continued policies?

"The Chinese head tax was enacted to restrict immigration after Chinese labour was no longer needed to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Between 1885 and 1923, Chinese immigrants had to pay a head tax to enter Canada. The tax was levied under the Chinese Immigration Act (1885). It was the first legislation in Canadian history to exclude immigration on the basis of ethnic background. [...] Despite these anti-Chinese immigration laws, the Chinese population in Canada increased from 4,383 to 39,587 between 1881 and 1921."

Source: Chan, Arlene. "Chinese Head Tax in Canada". The Canadian Encyclopedia


“In 1902, the Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier appointed a Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration, whose report stated that the Asians were "unfit for full citizenship ... obnoxious to a free community and dangerous to the state."[9] Following the Royal Commission's report, Parliament voted to increase the Chinese head tax to $500 dollars, which temporarily caused Chinese immigration to Canada to stop.”


[... However, Chinese willing to pay the head tax continued to enter Canada. And anti-Asian riots occurred in Vancouver in 1907 and other places in North America. ]

Source: Chinese Canadians - Wikipedia

Source: Chinese immigration certificates

© Government of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/R1206-178-X via thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/

Laurier and compromises on other issues: The Schools Question continues

“Eventually, the schools question gave rise to a debate that once again occupied the Laurier administration for a long time. Under the North-West Territories Act, 1875, a public school system was implemented which allowed religious minorities (Catholic or Protestant) to establish separate schools independently financed through taxation. From 1901 on, it could be said that the separate schools were under the control of the Northwest Territories government. The first version of the laws of 1905 seemed to introduce a separate Catholic school system. Following recriminations from many influential members of Parliament within the Liberal government, among them Clifford Sifton, who resigned in 1905, Laurier arrived at a compromise.”

Source: Alberta and Saskatchewan (1905) - Library and Archives Canada

Map of Manitoba in 1890. The red circles represent Protestant Schools, and the blue circles represent Roman Catholic Schools.

Image by Wyman Laliberte via larger versions at https://www.flickr.com/ Distributed under creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Canadian Troops for South Africa - Laurier's Boer War Dilemma

“Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier had to overcome several domestic concerns in order to approve Canada's involvement in the South African conflict. In the past, he had been reluctant to commit troops to imperial operations, but English-speaking Canada strongly supported Canadian involvement in South Africa. At the same time, Quebec was equally determined in its resistance to such a commitment. Henri Bourassa, the influential French-Canadian nationalist, led the opposition to Canadian involvement, objecting to the use of Canadian soldiers to satisfy British imperial ambitions. He claimed that the British stood to gain the vast mineral wealth of the Transvaal and Orange Free State from a victory in South Africa, while Canada would gain nothing.


Laurier fashioned a compromise solution that he hoped would be acceptable to both French and English Canadians. Canada would raise, equip, and transport a volunteer force, but the British government would assume full responsibility for the contingent once it had arrived in South Africa. For many English Canadians, Laurier's solution was insufficient, while many French Canadians continued to object to any Canadian involvement in the Boer War.”Source: Canadian Troops for South Africa-Laurier's Dilemma: 1899-1900

Boer War Era Postcard (c. 1899-1900). [Image combination retrieved from Begbiecontestsociety.org Copyright unknown but presumed in Public Domain]

Taxes for British ships

Once the Royal Navy decided to build its own battleships in large numbers, the British government agreed to request money from the Dominions to help finance this costly project. Australia and New Zealand agreed to the request, and many British Canadians expected Laurier's Liberal government to follow suit although they generally accepted that an indigenous navy was a better long-term solution as opposed to regular contributions to the British Admiralty. However, French-Canadian nationalists led by Henri Bourassa and others were opposed to Canada having any involvement with Britain's naval problem. This put Laurier in a very tough position, as the Canadian public was extremely divided."


Laurier's compromise:

Laurier's compromise was the Naval Service Act, which was introduced in January 1910. It set up the Department of Naval Services, which would operate a small Canadian Navy. Canada's navy was to be controlled by Ottawa, but during times of war it could be put under British control. Under this new Act, Canada was to construct a naval college that was capable of training Canadian naval officers. This Naval College was constructed in 1910 in the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. It also proposed under the Act that Canada would order the construction of five cruisers and six destroyers in order to create its own navy.[


Source: Wikipedia.or… Naval_Service_Act

A comic representing the "Tin-pot Navy."

Presumed under public domain via http://anewcanadiancentury.blogspot.com/2015/01/article-two-canadian-identity.html

For a general tour of Laurier's achievements:

Note to teachers that many related additional resources are available in our main Document Collection here - The Liberal Era - Changes and Laurier’s compromises

See also the related Student task - How far should Canada go in supporting the British Empire or asserting its autonomy?

# - Laurier's Liberal Era - Immigration Policies and Laurier Compromises

Note too that you can also scan through the program sections on Migration flows in our QEP Black Presence tracing document here for resources related to Black Presence during this time period and social phenomenon.