Laurier: A Study in Canadian Politics by J. W. Dafoe


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Page 1

"Ne'er of the living can the living judge,
Too blind the affection or too fresh the grudge."

The limitation is equally true in the case of one like Sir Wilfrid
Laurier who, though dead, will be a factor of moment in our politics
for at least another generation. Professor Skelton's book is
interesting and valuable, but not conclusive. The first volume is a
political history of Canada from the sixties until 1896, with
Laurier in the setting at first inconspicuously but growing to
greatness and leadership. For the fifteen years of premiership the
biographer is concerned lest Sir Wilfrid should not get the fullest
credit for whatever was achieved; while in dealing with the period
after 1911, constituting the anti-climax of Laurier's career, Mr.
Skelton is avowedly the alert and eager partisan, bound to find his
hero right and all those who disagreed with him wrong. Sir Wilfrid
Laurier is described in the preface as "the finest and simplest
gentleman, the noblest and most unselfish man it has ever been my
good fortune to know;" and the work is faithfully devoted to the
elucidation of this theme. Men may fail to be heroes to their valets
but they are more successful with their biographers. The final
appraisement of Sir Wilfrid, to be written perhaps fifty years hence
by some tolerant and impartial historian, will probably not be an
echo of Prof. Skelton's judgment. It will perhaps put Sir Wilfrid
higher than Prof. Skelton does and yet not quite so high; an abler
man but one not quite so preternaturally good; a man who had
affinities with Macchiavelli as well as with Sir Galahad.

The Laurier of the first volume is an appealing, engaging and most
attractive personality. There was about his earlier career something
romantic and compelling. In almost one rush he passed from the
comparative obscurity of a new member in 1874 to the leadership of
the French Liberals in 1877; and then he suffered a decline which
seemed to mark him as one of those political shooting stars which
blaze in the firmament for a season and then go black; like Felix
Geoffrion who, though saluted by Laurier in 1874 as the coming
leader, never made any impress upon his times. A political accident,
fortunate for him, opened the gates again to a career; and he set
his foot upon a road which took him very far.

The writer made acquaintance with Laurier in the Dominion session of
1884. He was then in his forty-third year; but in the judgment of
many his career was over. His interest in politics was, apparently,
of the slightest. He was deskmate to Blake, who carried on a
tremendous campaign that session against the government's C. P. R.
proposals. Laurier's political activities consisted chiefly of being
an acting secretary of sorts to the Liberal leader. He kept his
references in order; handed him Hansards and blue-books in turn;
summoned the pages to clear away the impedimenta and to keep the
glass of water replenished--little services which it was clear he
was glad to do for one who engaged his ardent affection and
admiration. There were memories in the house of Laurier's eloquence;
but memories only. During this session he was almost silent. The
tall, courtly figure was a familiar sight in the chamber and in the
library--particularly in the library, where he could be found every
day ensconced in some congenial alcove; but the golden voice was
silent. It was known that his friends were concerned about his
health.

LAURIER AND THE RIEL AGITATION

The "accident" which restored Laurier to public life and opened up
for him an extraordinary career was the Riel rebellion of 1885. In
the session of 1885, the rebellion being then in progress, he was
heard from to some purpose on the subject of the ill treatment of
the Saskatchewan half-breeds by the Dominion government. The
execution of Riel in the following November changed the whole course
of Canadian politics. It pulled the foundations from under the
Conservative party by destroying the position of supremacy which it
had held for a generation in the most Conservative of provinces and
condemned it to a slow decline to the ruin of to-day; and it
profoundly affected the Liberal party, giving it a new orientation
and producing the leader who was to make it the dominating force in
Canadian politics. These things were not realized at the time, but
they are clear enough in retrospect. Party policy, party discipline,
party philosophy are all determined by the way the constituent
elements of the party combine; and the shifting from the Conservative
to the Liberal party of the political weight of Quebec, not as the
result of any profound change of conviction but under the influence
of a powerful racial emotion, was bound to register itself in time
in the party outlook and morale. The current of the older tradition
ran strong for some time, but within the space of about twenty years
the party was pretty thoroughly transformed. The Liberal party of
to-day with its complete dependence upon the solid support it gets
in Quebec is the ultimate result of the forces which came into play
as the result of the hanging of Riel.

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