Longevity & Legacy Portraits 2015. The Five-Dollar Man

Sir Wilfrid Laurier, 77

“For here [in Canada], I want the marble to remain the marble; the granite to remain the granite;
the oak to remain the oak; and out of these elements, I would build a nation great among the nations of the world.”

If you still have cash in your hand, you likely are passing on his legacy every time you rub your fingers on a Canadian five-dollar bill. Sir Wilfrid Laurier was Canada’s 7th Prime Minister for a remarkable fifteen years (1896-1911) and for all his face value on our currency, he is least remembered by thousands of people for his contribution to our nation building.

After reading the two volume set biography of John A. MacDonald by Richard Gwyn, I walked away with a strong sense of his colourful character of course, but also a reinforced appreciation of him as “Nation Maker”, as the second volume is titled. But as I finished that great historical read, my first thought was, why doesn’t Gwyn write Laurier’s story? On I went with the five-dollar man in my wallet.

Then recently, as Justin Trudeau became our 23rd PM, and immediately referenced Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s “sunny ways” quote, I couldn’t help but ask the question in a different way; “aren’t we due for an well written Bio on Laurier, as accessible to read as Gwyn’s Life and Times of MacDonald?” Perhaps it is because of my own French & English heritage, my love of Canada, and where we find ourselves in the world today, that I am encouraged to learn more about Laurier.

So, as we speak of longevity and legacy, the first step I knew I could take with that intent was to ask my great friend of 47 years for his insight on Laurier for this blog salute. As a colourful and inspiring Canadian history story teller, Richard McQuade’s Major Research Paper completed for his M.A. awarded in 1984 at York University was entitled, Full of Fury Signifying the End of Grittism: Laurier’s Liberals in the General Election of 1900 in Ontario.

You couldn’t get that level of specific focus without a fuller research and understanding of Laurier. And if you ever hear Richard (not the Gwyn) talk fluidly about Laurier (or any other Canadian historical character), you would swear he almost knew him personally. When I asked Richard (the McQuade that is) what he saw as Laurier’s major contribution to Canada that is still of great relevance to us today, here is a brief summary from some of his comments.

“Sir Wilfrid Laurier was the first Prime Minister to be born and raised in Quebec in a completely bilingual and bicultural setting. His mother was of Scottish origin, his father’s roots ran deep in Quebec. He was raised with an understanding and fluency in both founding languages and cultures, making him very much the ideal Prime Minister to lead Canada into the twentieth century.”

Laurier’s “…creation of a ‘Cabinet of all the talents’ which included some provincial premiers, showed that he understood that governing Canada was a delicate balancing act and could only be done successfully through compromise, not through alienating groups or pitting one group against another. This marked the ‘Sunny Ways’ of the Laurier Era.”

“Laurier was a ‘later’ Father of Confederation as well. It was through his immigration policies that Canada experienced a massive increase in population – almost doubling from about 4 million in 1896 to about 7 million by the eve of the First World War. His Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, promoted “The Last, Best West” across Europe by publishing pamphlets and posters, and showing off the riches of Canada, to prospective immigrants across the UK and Europe.”

Of course, there is so much more to tell, but you can begin to get the picture of Laurier’s foresight, leadership and intelligence. I suppose if Richard McQuade was to write that Bio, it could be titled “Laurier, Nation Builder”. As he said to me, “in conclusion, Sir Wilfrid Laurier had a profound impact on Canada and Canadians’ concepts of themselves as a nation. While we may not realize it, his legacy remains with us today.”

Laurier died in 1919 at the age of 77.

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