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From the archives

The (Other) October Crisis

A new book revisits one of Canada’s most traumatic and telling moments

Model Behaviour

A Haida village as seen in a windy city

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

The Great Compromiser

A splendid Quebec writer asks: Who will fight for Laurier’s Canada?

Christopher Pennington

Wilfrid Laurier

André Pratte, translated by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott

Penguin Canada

221 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9780670069187

The primary job hazard for Laurier biographers has always been falling in love with their subject. It has happened to most of them to some degree, the most infamous example being that of O.D. Skelton, whose official two-volume biography in 1921 was so hagiographic that J.W. Dafoe, a devotedly Liberal journalist, was compelled to protest. For all his admirable qualities, Dafoe noted, it was important to remember that Sir Wilfrid had not been a saint, but “a man who had affinities with Machiavelli as well as with Sir Galahad.”

In this welcome addition to the Extraordinary Canadians series, André Pratte, a well-respected Quebec journalist and federalist, presents us with the Sir Galahad version of Laurier. This is not the book for those who want to read an exposé of the life and career of our seventh prime minister. Wilfrid Laurier contains no scandalous revelations, and although he does not shy away from criticizing his protagonist, Pratte is not primarily interested in topics such as Laurier’s dubious electioneering, dishing of patronage or reckless railway policies. He does not wish to speculate about whether Laurier cheated on his wife, a subject that has preoccupied some historians. (He does subtly imply that no cheating occurred.) Nor does Pratte offer much more than caricatures of Laurier’s political opponents, which is the book’s largest weakness. The French Canadian nationalist Henri Bourassa comes off mostly as an ogre; the Conservatives of the later 19th century are merely a party “spurred on by its extremists”; and when Pratte says simply, “Laurier was a practical man, and his adversaries were ideologues,” he generalizes too readily. Laurier may be the enduring symbol of French-English cooperation in Canadian history, but he was not alone in promoting this ideal. Others, like Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau, a magnetic and similarly broad-minded Quebec politician, deserve better than the short shrift they receive from Pratte in this book.

This shortcoming is not insignificant, but it is understandable and easily excusable. Short biographies inevitably exalt their subjects above their contemporaries, simply because there is too little space to fully examine them all. More importantly, we can forgive André Pratte for writing such an admiring biography of Laurier because he has shown clearly that Laurier was a truly admirable man, one whose eloquence and vision should still serve as an inspiration to Canadians—and especially Quebeckers—who have grown indifferent to the broad-minded, inclusive Canadian nationalism that he championed.

Pratte has tried to achieve something ambitious and important here. This is not a nostalgic look at a well-loved historical figure, but the urgent sounding of an alarm. He does all he can to make the reader sense his own anxiety about the present drift of Canada. He writes passionately in the first person, asks the reader challenging questions and openly laments the growing indifference of Canadians toward politics. Pratte fears that the stirring battle that Laurier fought to keep Canada together is being lost, not because the enemies of national unity have the better argument, but because those who could defeat them, especially in Quebec, have stopped caring enough to try. And he hopes that by remembering Laurier in all his brilliance and complexity, Canadians will be encouraged to keep on trying.

To make his argument Pratte has not composed a blow-by-blow chronology, which would be impossible in 200 pages, but an extended reflection on Laurier’s political beliefs and overarching vision of Canada. He structures seven slim chapters around discussions of the big issues—race, language, religion, foreign affairs—that Laurier wrestled with during his long public life. In so doing he explores the major political battles of the era, from the hanging of Louis Riel to the Manitoba schools question to the conscription crisis. This is not easy in so short a space, but Pratte is a splendid writer, and this is a captivating, nuanced, thought–provoking assessment of how Sir Wilfrid grappled with the issues of his times.

The place of Quebec within Canada was always a central concern for Laurier, and so it is for Pratte. He is sympathetic to the difficulties that the prime minister faced in a country that was then far more sharply divided along “racial” and, especially, religious lines than it is today. Laurier was (and still is) pilloried by critics for promoting in principle, but failing to defend in practice, the French language and Roman Catholic faith outside of Quebec. Pratte acknowledges that Laurier’s famous “sunny ways,” his preference for negotiating with intransigent provinces rather than using federal powers of coercion, did little to prevent the inexorable decline of French-speaking minorities across English-speaking Canada. Some readers will be surprised to learn that Laurier did not go to the barricades for even the concept of official bilingualism, for example. But what, Pratte asks, was the alternative? Respecting provincial autonomy was a principle that had to be upheld if Confederation was to survive—Quebeckers, Laurier argued, had to recognize that as well as anyone—and forcing the full rights of the minority on the majority would only breed resentment and trigger future conflicts. Pratte, like Laurier, contends that without goodwill and sacrifice on both sides, the relationship of the majority and minority in Canada could not (and even today, cannot) be remedied simply by legislative action. As he wisely does throughout the book, here Pratte allows Laurier to explain himself:

There were among us narrow-minded people who shouted, “No compromise; all or nothing.” How absurd! When a minority declares that it will … demand everything and will accept nothing less … How can one not see that the majority will itself accept that doctrine, and will apply it without remorse to those who proclaim it?

Above all else the book is a defence of Laurier’s magnanimous and always pragmatic political style. Pratte sees it as essential that Laurier did not hold grudges and did not resort to personal attacks, appealing instead to the intelligence and sense of fair play of his opponents to win them over to his position. Here Pratte plainly laments the coarseness and bitterness of modern Canadian politics:

Wouldn’t it be preferable, wouldn’t it be more Canadian, to debate without using extreme language, making personal attacks, or imputing motives? “The next time you are in town, dear friend, come and see me and we’ll talk about it,” Laurier often wrote to his adversaries. Canada would be better off today if we were more willing to listen to each other.

Even more important was Laurier’s capacity for bringing people together, the most vital characteristic of any prime minister. “Compromise is the key to Laurier’s entire career as a public figure,” Pratte contends. He makes a persuasive case that it has been the great conciliators in Canadian history, not the demagogues, who have displayed the most political courage: “Without compromise, there is no marriage, no social life, no federalism—and no Canada. And those people, past and present, who have sought and worked out compromises should be seen not as weak, much less as traitors, but as the builders of our country.”

Most readers, certainly most Canadian federalists, will find little to disagree with in that statement. What will they think of the book as a whole? Most likely they will find it engaging and inspiring, but also troubling. “Laurier personified the Canadian vision,” Pratte writes. True enough. Alas, he reminds us, “the blank left by Laurier’s passing was never filled.” That too is true, and for Canadians who worry for the future of their country, it is a sobering thought.

Christopher Pennington teaches history at the University of Toronto Scarborough and is the author of The Destiny of Canada: Macdonald, Laurier and the Election of 1891 (Penguin, 2011).