Read CHAPTER III - FIRST YEARS IN PARLIAMENT of The Day of Sir Wilfrid Laurier A Chronicle of Our Own Time , free online book, by Oscar D. Skelton, on

In the Provincial Legislature In federal politics The Mackenzie government The Riel question Protection or free trade The Catholic programme Catholic liberalism The clergy in politics Political liberalism In the administration

Less than five years had passed after Wilfrid Laurier came to Arthabaskaville, a boyish, unknown lawyer-editor, when he was chosen by an overwhelming majority as member for Drummond-Arthabaska in the provincial legislature. His firmly based Liberalism, his power as a speaker, his widespread popularity, had very early marked him out as the logical candidate of his party. On many grounds he was prepared to listen to the urging of his friends. His interest in politics was only second, if second it was, to his interest in his profession. The ambition to hold a place in parliament was one which appealed to practically every able young lawyer of his time in Quebec, and, thanks to the short sessions of the provincial assembly and the nearness of Arthabaska to Quebec, membership in the legislature would not greatly interfere with his work at home. Yet his health was still precarious, and it was with much hesitation and reluctance that he finally consented to stand for the county in 1871, at the second general election since Confederation. Though ill throughout the campaign, he was able to make a few speeches, and the loyal support of his friends did the rest. His opponent, Edward Hemming, a barrister of Drummondville, had been the previous member for the riding. At the close of the polls those were still the days of open voting it was found that, while the Liberal party in the province was once more badly defeated, Wilfrid Laurier had won his seat by over one thousand majority.

When the legislature met at Quebec in November, there was a lively interest on both sides of the chamber in the young man of thirty who had scored such a notable victory. At that time the legislature had an unusually large number of men of first rank in eloquence and parliamentary ability, including Cartier, Chapleau, Cauchon, Holton, and Irvine. All these except Chapleau were also members of the House of Commons, since at that time no law forbade dual representation, and the standards were relatively high. The Government under Chauveau, the prime minister, was too firmly entrenched to be shaken by any assaults from the Opposition leader, Henri Joly de Lotbiniere, and his scanty following. In the criticism, however, the member for Arthabaska took a notable part. He did not speak often, but when he did his remarks were fresh and constructive. In the debate on the Address he scored the Government for its backward educational policy, urged active steps to check the exodus of French Canadians to the mills of New England, praised the ideals of British Liberalism, and called for a truce in racial and religious quarrels. In a later speech he presented the keenest constitutional criticism yet made of the system of dual representation, showing that it tended to bring the provinces too completely within the orbit of the central power and confuse local with federal issues. Three years later, it may be noted, the system was abolished.

The vigour and yet moderation of these first efforts, so aptly phrased and so admirably fitted to the peculiar requirements of parliamentary speaking, the grace and flair of the orator, gave the member for Arthabaska at a stroke high rank in the party. He was very soon urged to seek the wider opportunities of federal politics. Ottawa, it was clear, would make much greater demands upon his time than Quebec, yet his health was now improving. Accordingly he determined to make the change, and in the general federal elections of 1874 he was returned for Drummond-Arthabaska by a majority of two hundred and thirty-eight.

In 1874 the Liberal Government at Ottawa, under Alexander Mackenzie, seemed assured of a long term of office. It had been given an overwhelming majority in the election just concluded; its leaders were able and aggressive; and the Opposition was still crushed by the indignation which followed on the exposure of the Pacific Scandal.

Yet there were many weaknesses in its situation, which time was to make clear. The Government’s forces were not closely united: the only bond holding together several of the groups which made up the majority was that of common opposition to the late administration. Many stragglers on the flanks were waylaid and brought back into their old camp by that arch-strategist, Sir John Macdonald. The question of leadership was not fully determined. In Ontario Edward Blake divided allegiance with Alexander Mackenzie, and Blake’s inability to make up his mind definitely to serve under Mackenzie greatly weakened the party. In Quebec the situation was even more serious. Dorion was the man whose constructive ability, admirable temper, and long years of fighting against heavy odds marked him out as chief, but family and health considerations determined him to retire to the quieter if not less heavy labours of the bench. Fournier soon followed. Laflamme, in whose office Laurier had studied, was hardly a man of sufficient weight. Holton, leader of the small group of English Liberals in Quebec, was also in very poor health. To fill the gap Mackenzie summoned Joseph Cauchon, a former Conservative who had left his party on the Pacific Scandal; a man of great ability, active in the campaign for Confederation, but weakened by an unfortunate record of corruption in earlier days, a record which his Liberal opponents of those days had painted in startling and unforgettable colours.

These difficulties were, however, not insuperable; and doubtless the party would have drilled into working cohesion under definitely acknowledged leaders, had it not been for two more serious sources of weakness. The first of these was the commercial depression which fell upon Canada, in common with the rest of the world, in 1873, and made it possible for an Opposition, itself most courageous in promises, to hold the Government responsible for all the country’s ills. The other was Mr Mackenzie’s high-minded but mistaken idea of his duty. Somewhat lacking in imagination though he was, Alexander Mackenzie had in him the stuff out of which party leaders are made. He was a man of vigour and ability, a hard-hitting debater, a thoroughgoing democrat, and he had a well-earned reputation for downright frankness and unswerving honesty which could easily have rallied the country’s trust and affection. But while prime minister he gave to the details of departmental administration the care and thought and time which should have gone in part to his other duties as leader in constructive policy and chieftain of the party. He failed to keep in touch with public opinion, and so was caught unawares.

In spite of these drawbacks the Mackenzie administration left a notable record. It passed the law which introduced voting by ballot and required all elections, in a general contest, to be held on one day. It brought forth the Scott Act, which proved a useful if not a final measure of temperance reform. It established the Royal Military College and the Supreme Court of Canada. It pushed the Pacific Railway forward steadily, if somewhat slowly, as a government work. Had the stars been favourable, the Government might well have thought itself secure on its record of legislative progress and administrative efficiency.

The questions which roused most debate both in parliament and in the country were the Riel Amnesty, the National Policy, and, in Quebec, the perennial issue of the relations of church and state. These may be noted in turn, particularly in so far as Mr Laurier took part in the discussions.

For nearly twenty years the Riel question in its various phases bedevilled Canadian politics and set race against race and province against province. Had it been only the resistance offered by the Red River settlers to Canadian authority which was in question in the seventies, time would soon have brought understanding and forgetfulness. That the half-breed settlers had just grievances, that the Canadian authorities bungled badly their first experiment in national expansion, all would have admitted. But the shooting in cold blood of Thomas Scott, an Orangeman of Ontario, by the order of Louis Riel, lit fires of passion that would not easily die. And politicians fanned the flames for party ends. Neither party was guiltless. At the outset in Ontario the Liberals played to the Orange gallery, while in Quebec they appealed to French prejudices. Sir John Macdonald could attack Blake for frightening Riel out of the country and beyond the reach of justice, by offers of reward for his arrest, at the very time that Macdonald himself was paying Riel out of the secret service funds to keep away from Canada.

During the Mackenzie administration the question twice gave rise to full-dress debates. Early in 1874 Mackenzie Bowell moved that Riel, who had been elected a member for Provencher, should be expelled from the House; Holton moved an amendment that action be deferred until the committee, then inquiring into the whole matter, reported; while Mousseau demanded immediate and unconditional amnesty. In the debate that followed Mr Laurier made his first parliamentary speech in English. He supported Holton’s amendment, while making it clear that in his view of the evidence the country had been pledged to amnesty by the action of the former Government. It was a forceful and well-reasoned argument, in both its felicitous phrasing and its moderate tone an appropriate introduction to the parliamentary career which was just beginning. Again in 1875, when Mr Mackenzie moved that full amnesty be given to all concerned in the rebellion save Riel, Lepine, and O’Donoghue, and that the former two be pardoned, subject to five years’ banishment, Mr Laurier defended this reasonable compromise against both the Quebec extremists who demanded immediate pardon and the Ontario opponents of any clemency whatever.

Protection was an even more fertile topic of debate in these and following years. It was only recently that it had become a party issue. Both parties had hitherto been content with the compromise of ‘tariff for revenue, with incidental protection,’ though in the ranks of both were advocates of out-and-out protection. In Ontario the Canada First movement, which looked to Blake as its leader, had strong protectionist leanings, and in Quebec the Parti National, under which name the Rouges had been reorganized and made ultra-respectable, were of the same tendency. But Mackenzie was a staunch free-trader, while the Liberals from the maritime provinces were opposed to any increase in the tariff on the many things they consumed but did not produce. Accordingly, after much hesitation, the Liberals in 1876 declined to raise the tariff beyond the existing average of seventeen and a half per cent. At once the Conservatives, who, it was alleged, had been prepared to advocate freer trade, came out for protection. On this question Laurier was more in agreement with Blake than with Mackenzie. In early years he had been influenced by Papineau’s crusade for protection, and believed that in the existing crisis an increase in the tariff to twenty per cent would aid the revenue and would avert a demand for more extreme duties. Time proved, however, that the appetites of protectionists could not so easily be appeased; and all wings of the party presently found themselves in harmony, in resisting the proposals to set up extremely high barriers.

But it was on the vexed question of the relations of church and state, and particularly of the Catholic hierarchy and the Liberal party in Quebec, that Mr Laurier gave the most distinctive service. This question had become more acute than ever. In 1870 the ultramontane element in the Roman Catholic Church had won a sweeping victory by inducing a majority of the Vatican Council to promulgate the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. There followed a wave of ultramontane activity throughout the world, and not least in Quebec. Bishop Bourget’s hands were strengthened by Bishop Lafleche of Three Rivers, and by other prelates and priests of perhaps less relentless temper; while a cohort of journalists, in Le Nouveau Monde, La Vérité, Le Journal de Trois Rivières, and other papers, devoted themselves whole-heartedly to the ultramontane cause. On the other hand, Archbishop Baillargeon of Quebec and his successor, Archbishop Taschereau, the priests of the Quebec Seminary and of Laval University, and the Sulpicians at Montreal, were disposed to live at peace. They would all have denied sympathy either with Gallicanism or with Catholic Liberalism, but they were men of tolerance and breadth of sympathy, very doubtful whether such militant activity would advance the permanent interests of their Church.

There broke out a violent struggle between the two political parties in 1871, with the issue of the Catholic Programme. This famous document was a manifesto prepared by a group of editors and lawyers, who, in their own words, ’belonged heart and soul to the ultramontane school’ Trudel, Desjardins, M’Leod, Renault, Beausoleil, and others and was drawn up by A. B. Routhier, then a lawyer in Kamouraska. It sought to lay down a policy to govern all good Catholics in the coming elections. The doctrine of the separation of church and state, the document declared, was impious and absurd. On the contrary, the authorities of the state, and the electors who chose them, must act in perfect accord with the teachings of the Church, and endeavour to safeguard its interests by making such changes in the laws as the bishops might demand. To secure this end the Conservative party must be supported. When two Conservatives or two Liberals were running, the one who accepted the Programme was to be elected; where a Conservative and a Liberal were opposed, the former would be supported; if it happened that a Conservative who opposed the Programme was running against a Liberal who accepted it, ’the situation would be more delicate’ and Catholics should not vote at all.

This frank declaration of war on the Liberal party, this attempt to throw the solid Catholic vote to the Conservatives, at once aroused violent controversy. Bishops Bourget and Lafleche announced that they approved the manifesto in every point, while Archbishop Taschereau and the bishops of St Hyacinthe and Rimouski declared that it had not their authorization.

The Liberal party was sorely pressed. In the emergency some of its moderate members determined to throw off the incubus of their anti-clerical traditions by reorganizing and renaming the party. So in 1871 Louis Jette and other leading Quebec Liberals undertook to secure a fresh start by organizing the Parti National, and the result of the following elections gave some ground for hope. ’This evolution of the Liberal party,’ declared Bishop Lafleche later in a memorial to the Cardinals of the Sacred Congregation, ’had the success expected from it; it made a number of dupes not only among our good Catholics but even in the ranks of the clergy, who had hitherto been united against the Liberal party.... It is from this development that there dates the division in the ranks of the clergy on the question of politics.’

But this prudent step did not avert the wrath of the now dominant ultramontane section. In 1873 a brief pastoral was issued by all the bishops condemning Catholic Liberalism in vague but sweeping terms. Two years later another joint pastoral, that of September 22, 1875, went into the whole question elaborately. Catholic Liberalism, that subtle serpent, was again denounced. The right of the clergy to intervene in politics was again upheld, whether in neutral matters in which they, like all other citizens, should have a voice, or in matters affecting faith or morals or the interests of the Church. In the latter case the clergy should declare with authority that to vote in this or that way is a sin, exposing the offender to the penalties of the Church. In a letter issued a year later Archbishop Taschereau modified these pretensions, but the assault went on. Regarding the identity of the Catholic Liberals in question both pastorals were silent, but not silent were many of the clergy who interpreted them to their flocks. The cap fitted the Liberal party and its chiefs, they averred, and good Catholics must govern themselves accordingly.

This determined attempt of a section of the clergy to use the influence they possessed as spiritual guides to crush one political party aroused the most moderate sections of the Liberals to counter-attacks. The election law of Canada, copied from that of England, forbade the use of undue influence in elections, and undue influence had been said to include use by ecclesiastics of their powers to excite superstitious fears or pious hopes. Baron Fitzgerald had declared in the Mayo case in Ireland, in 1857, that the priest must not use threats of punishment here or hereafter, must not threaten to withhold the sacraments or denounce voting for any particular candidate as a sin. The Liberals of Quebec had no desire to deny the priest the same rights as other citizens enjoyed, of taking part in the discussion of any political question whatever, and using all the powers of persuasion to secure this end. But, they insisted, for a priest to threaten eternal punishment was as much a case of undue influence as for an employer to threaten to dismiss a workman if he would not vote for a certain candidate, and as just a ground for voiding an election. The matter was pressed to a decision in appeals against candidates returned in two federal by-elections, in Chambly and Charlevoix, and in one provincial election, in Bonaventure. In these instances the proof of open partisanship and open use of ecclesiastical pressure was overwhelming. ‘The candidate who spoke last Sunday,’ declared one priest in Chambly, ’called himself a moderate Liberal. As Catholics you cannot vote for him; you cannot vote for a Liberal, nor for a moderate Liberal, for moderate is only another term for liar.’ ’The Church has condemned Liberalism, and to vote against the direction of the bishops would be sin,’ declared another. ’The sky of heaven is bleu, the fire of hell is rouge,’ another more pointedly urged. ’I was afraid,’ one witness testified, ’that if I voted for Tremblay I should be damned.’ In defence it was urged that, in the first place, the civil courts had no authority over ecclesiastics, at least for acts done in their spiritual capacity, and, in the second place, that the Church had a right to defend its interests against attack, and that in using to this end all the powers at its disposal it was employing no undue influence. Judge Routhier, the author of the Catholic Programme, upheld these contentions in the first trial of the Charlevoix case, but the Supreme Court, in judgments delivered by Mr Justice Taschereau, brother of the Archbishop, and by Mr Justice Ritchie, denied the existence of any clerical immunity from civil jurisdiction, and found that the threats which had been made from the pulpit constituted undue influence of the clearest kind. Accordingly they voided the election. Their action met with violent protests from some of the bishops, who, when Judge Casault in the Bonaventure case followed this precedent, sought, but in vain, to have him removed by the Sacred Congregation from his chair in the law faculty of Laval. But in spite of protests the lesson had been learned, and the sturdy fight of the Liberals of Quebec for the most elementary rights of a free people had its effect.

It was when matters were at this acute stage that Wilfrid Laurier came forward to do for his province and his country a service which could be accomplished only by a man of rarely balanced judgment, of firm grasp of essential principles, of wide reading and familiarity with the political ideals of other lands, and, above all, of matchless courage. Rarely, if ever, has there been delivered in Canada a speech of such momentous importance, or one so firmly based on the first principles with which Canadian statesmen too rarely concern themselves, as that which he addressed to Le Club Canadien, a group of young Liberals, in Quebec City in June 1877.

The subject of the address was Political Liberalism. The speaker cleared away many misunderstandings. Liberalism did not mean Catholic Liberalism; it had nothing to do with opinions on religion. Nor did it mean Liberalism of the type still prevalent on the continent of Europe, revolutionary, semi-socialist, openly anti-clerical; the type which had been given brief currency by the young men of twenty who thirty years before had lent the Liberal party an undeserved reputation for anti-clericalism. No, the Liberals of Canada found their models and their inspiration in the Liberalism of England, in the men who had fought the battles of orderly freedom and responsible self-government against privilege and selfish interest. As to the Church, no true Liberal wished to deny its officers the right which every citizen enjoyed of taking a part in his country’s politics; they had opposed, and would continue to oppose, every attempt of politicians in clerical garb to crush freedom of speech by spiritual terrorism. The right of ecclesiastical interference in politics ceased where it encroached upon the elector’s independence. Any attempt to found a Catholic party was not only a crime against the country but was bound to injure the Church itself; it would lead inevitably to the formation of a Protestant party among the majority. On individual freedom alone could a sound national political system be built up, just as on colonial freedom alone had it been possible to build up a lasting imperial system.

The speech was received with enthusiasm throughout the country. Its renunciation at once of anti-clericalism and of ultramontanism, its moderation and its fearlessness, rallied Liberalism to its true standard and marked out clearly the lines within which party and priest alike should act in the interests of church and of country. It was a master-stroke both for freedom and for harmony.

We are to-day sometimes prone to overlook the services of those who in England or in Canada fought for us the battles of political freedom. We tend to forget the services of the political leaders of the thirties and forties who won freedom from class and racial domination, the services of the leaders of the sixties and seventies who won freedom of thought and speech against heavy odds. It has taken a European war to make us realize how precious are those liberties, how many great peoples are still without them, and the height of our debt of gratitude alike to those who won them for us in the past, and to those who preserve them for us in the present.

A few months after this historic address Wilfrid Laurier entered the Mackenzie Cabinet as minister of Inland Revenue. He had been thought eligible for ministerial rank ever since his first entry into the House, and might have had a portfolio in 1876 had it not been that he objected to serve along with Cauchon. The appointment of Cauchon as lieutenant-governor of Manitoba now having cleared the way, Mr Laurier accepted the office and appealed to his constituents for re-election. The tide of opinion had latterly been running strong against the Government, but the great personal popularity of the new minister was deemed an assurance of victory. The Conservatives, however, threw themselves strenuously into the fight, and, much to their own surprise, won the seat by a majority of twenty-nine. The result was due in part to the over-confidence and inactivity of the Liberals, but on the whole it was the handwriting on the wall a token of the prevailing sentiment against the Government which was shortly to sweep all before it. Another seat was speedily found for the new minister, in Quebec East, and he entered upon a brief year’s tenure of office. Though under no illusion as to the failing strength of the Government in the country, he loyally did his best both in the administration of his department and in the campaigning for the party until the debacle came in 1878.