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Canada and the Empire, Laurier

Joseph Papineau, Prominent American politicians, Robert Borden, Henri Bourassa, bright prospects

Prime Minister Macdonald died in office in 1891, and his Conservative Party was swept from power in 1896. The new prime minister was Wilfrid Laurier, a charming, cultivated Quebec lawyer who liked to say “sunny ways” were better than stormy conflicts. Laurier shrewdly took over popular Conservative policies, including the National Policy tariffs and strong imperial ties. His prediction that “the 20th century belongs to Canada” summed up the bright prospects of his early years in office.

Even with a French Canadian prime minister, imperial sentiment thrived in Canada at the turn of the 20th century. Since Confederation, Britain’s political empire and its economic power in the world had grown greatly. Many British Canadians believed it was Canada’s destiny to help fund that empire. When the South African War, or Boer War (1899-1902), broke out, the imperialists were eager for Canada to fight alongside Britain. Laurier’s decision to support only limited, mostly volunteer participation by Canadians annoyed imperialists, but it also provoked nationalist opinion in Quebec, now led by Henri Bourassa.

Bourassa, a grandson of Louis-Joseph Papineau, advocated a pan-Canadian, bicultural nationalism. Threatened by the growing imperialism of British Canada, he broke with Laurier’s Liberals and came to express French Canadian opposition to the policies of the English-speaking majority. In the Manitoba Schools controversy of 1896, Laurier had accepted Manitoba’s renunciation of guarantees made to its French population in 1870. Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces in 1905 on an English-only basis. Immigration was expanding the use of English, not French, in Canada, and “equal rights” campaigners opposed any protection for French minority communities in Canada. Such events reinforced Quebec’s sense that only in Quebec was the French language and culture respected. Imperialists, meanwhile, found Laurier insufficiently imperial. In 1910 they denounced his decision to build a small Canadian navy instead of contributing to Britain’s Royal Navy.

Laurier’s Liberal Party returned to its free-trade roots in 1911, when the United States proposed mutual cuts in tariffs and customs duties, known as reciprocity. The election that followed was a disaster for Laurier. Prominent American politicians hailed reciprocity as a step to the annexation of Canada. Concern over American ambitions reinforced imperial sentiment among British Canada. With his free trade denounced as a threat to jobs and to the empire, Laurier was rejected in British Canada, even as Bourassa undermined his base in French Canada. The Conservative Party won the 1911 election, and Robert Borden became prime minister.

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