Read CHAPTER V - LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION, 1887-1896 of The Day of Sir Wilfrid Laurier A Chronicle of Our Own Time , free online book, by Oscar D. Skelton, on

Dark days Sectional discontent Railway monopoly Exodus and stagnation

The outcome of the elections was an intense disappointment to Edward Blake. His health, too, was failing, and this increased his despondency. He decided to give over to other hands the leadership of his party. Early in June 1887, two months after the new parliament assembled, he definitely and firmly refused to hold the post longer.

Who was to succeed him? For the moment the leadership was put into commission, a committee of eight being nominated to tide matters over. The Ontario Liberals had always been the backbone of the party, and among them Sir Richard Cartwright and David Mills stood pre-eminent in experience and ability. Yet it was neither of these veterans whom Mr Blake recommended to the party ‘caucus’ as his successor, but Wilfrid Laurier; and on the motion of Sir Richard Cartwright, seconded by Mr Mills, Mr Laurier was unanimously chosen as the new chieftain.

It was with much difficulty that Mr Laurier was induced to accept the leadership. On both personal and political grounds he hesitated. He had his share of ambition, but he had never looked for more than success in his profession and a place in politics below the highest. It was not that he underestimated the greatness of the honour; on the contrary, it was his high sense of the responsibilities of the post that gave him pause. He was not of strong physique, and he knew that the work meant ceaseless strain and pressure. Though his profession now gave him an ample income, he was not a rich man, and much if not most of his law practice would have to be abandoned if he became leader; and parliament had not yet awakened to the need of paying the leader of the Opposition a salary.

On political grounds he was still more in doubt. Would Canada, would the one-time party of George Brown, welcome a leader from the minority? The fires of sectional passion were still raging. In Ontario he would be opposed as a French Canadian and a Catholic, the resolute opponent of the Government on the Riel question. And though it might be urged that the pendulum was swinging toward the Liberals in Quebec, while in Ontario they were making little ground, the irony of the situation was such that in Quebec he was regarded with suspicion, if not with open hostility, by the most powerful and aggressive leaders of the Church.

Yet the place he had won in parliament and in the party was undeniable. His colleagues believed that he had the ability to lead them out of the wilderness, and for their faith he accepted. At first he insisted that his acceptance should be tentative, for the session only; but by the time the session ended the party would not be denied, and his definite succession to the leadership was announced.

The Canada of 1887, in which Wilfrid Laurier thus came to high and responsible position, was a Canada very different from the land of promise familiar to young Canadians of the present generation. It was a Canada seething with restlessness and discontent. The high hopes of the Fathers of Confederation had turned to ashes. On every hand men were saying that federation had failed, that the new nation of their dream had remained a dream.

At Confederation men had hoped that the Dominion would take high place in the Empire and among the nations of the world. Yet, twenty years later, Canada remained unappreciated and unknown. In Great Britain she was considered a colony which had ceased to fulfil the principal functions of the traditional colony, and which would probably some day go the way of all colonies: in the meantime the country was simply ignored, alike in official and in private circles. In the United States, in those quarters where Canada was given a thought at all, curious misconceptions existed of her subordination to Great Britain, of her hopelessly Arctic climate, and of her inevitable drift into the arms of the Republic. Elsewhere abroad, Canada was an Ultima Thule, a barren land of ice and snow, about as interesting and important as Kamchatka and Tierra del Fuego, and other outlying odds and ends of the earth which one came across in the atlas but never thought of otherwise.

Twenty years earlier glowing pictures had been painted of the new heights of honour and of usefulness which the new Dominion would afford its statesmen. The hard reality was the Canada of gerrymanders and political trickery, of Red Parlor funds and electoral bribery. The canker affected not one party alone, as the fall of Mercier was soon to show. The whole political life of the country to sank low and stagnant levels, for it appeared that the people had openly condoned corruption in high places, and that lavish promises and the ‘glad hand’ were a surer road to success than honest and efficient administration.

Sectional discontent prevailed. That the federation would be smashed ‘into its original fragments’ seemed not beyond possibility. We have seen that a racial and religious feud rent Ontario and Quebec. Nova Scotia strained at the leash. Her people had never forgotten nor forgiven the way in which they had been forced into Confederation. ‘Better terms’ had failed to bribe them into fellowship. A high tariff restricted their liberty in buying, and the home markets promised in compensation had not developed. In the preceding year the provincial legislature had expressed the prevalent discontent by flatly demanding the repeal of the union.

Manitoba chafed under a thirty-five per cent tariff on farm implements, and complained of the retention by the Dominion of the vacant lands in the province. And her grievances in respect to transportation would not down. The Canadian Pacific Railway had given the much desired connection with the East and had brought tens of thousands of settlers to the province, but it had not brought abiding prosperity or content. The through rate on wheat from Winnipeg to Montreal was ten cents a bushel more than from St Paul to New York, an equal distance; and, from the farm to Liverpool, the Minnesota farmer had fifteen cents a bushel the advantage of his Manitoba neighbour. Local rates were still heavier. ’Coal and lumber and general merchandise cost from two to four times as much to ship as for equal distances in the eastern provinces.’

Why not bring in competition? Because the Dominion Government blocked the way by its veto power. In the contract with the Canadian Pacific Syndicate a clause provided that for twenty years the Dominion would not authorize a competing road between the company’s main line and the United States border running south or southeast or within fifteen miles of the boundary; it was provided also that in the formation of any new provinces to the west such provinces should be required to observe the same restriction. It was urged by the railway authorities that foreign investors had demanded a monopoly as the price of capital, and that without the assurance of such a monopoly the costly link to the north of Lake Superior could never have been built. The terms of the contract did not bar Manitoba from chartering railways: the Dominion had indeed no power to forbid it in advance, and it was explicitly stated by Sir John Macdonald at the time that Manitoba was not affected. Yet when Manitoba sought to charter one railway after another, the Dominion disallowed every act and repeatedly declared that it would use its veto power to compel Manitoba to trade with the East and by the Canadian Pacific Railway. A more effective means of stirring up ill-feeling between East and West and of discouraging immigration to the prairies could hardly have been devised.

Against these conditions Manitoba protested as one man. The Winnipeg Board of Trade denounced the policy of ’crushing and trampling upon one hundred thousand struggling pioneers of this prairie province to secure a purely imaginary financial gain to one soulless corporation.’ Every Conservative candidate for the House of Commons in the province pledged himself to vote for a motion of want of confidence if the Macdonald Government persisted in its course. The Conservative administration of the province was overthrown because it did not go fast or far enough in the fight. At last, in 1888, Ottawa gave way and bought off the Canadian Pacific by a guarantee of bonds for new extensions. After some further negotiations the Northern Pacific was brought into Canada; and if this did not work all the miracles of cheap rates that had been expected, Manitoba at least knew now that her ills were those which had been imposed by nature and geography and not by her sister provinces.

It was not only in Manitoba that economic depression prevailed, though nowhere else were the grievances so concrete and so irritating. Throughout the Dominion the brief gleam of prosperity which dawned with the eighties had vanished. After the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway stagnation was everywhere the rule. Foreign trade, which had reached a total of $217,000,000 in 1873, was only $230,000,000 in 1883 and $247,000,000 in 1893; these were, however, years of falling prices. Bank discounts, the number of tons of freight moved, and other records of general business activity showed creeping progress and sometimes actual falling back. Homestead entries had risen to nearly seventy-five hundred in 1882, when the construction of the Canadian Pacific was bringing on the first western boom, but a great part of these had been cancelled, and up to the middle nineties entries averaged fewer than three thousand a year in the whole vast West.

The movement of population bore the same melancholy witness. Even the West, Manitoba and the North-West Territories, grew only from 180,000 in 1881 in 250,000 in 1891, whereas Dakota alone grew from 135,000 to 510,000 in the same period. The Dominion as a whole increased at less than half the rate of the United States, and Sir Richard Cartwright had little difficulty in establishing the alarming fact that in recent years one out of every four of the native-born of Canada had been compelled to seek a home in the Republic, and that three out of every four immigrants to Canada had followed the same well-beaten trail. There were in 1890 more than one-third as many people of Canadian birth and descent in the United States as in Canada itself. Never in the world’s history, save in the case of crowded, famine-stricken, misgoverned Ireland, had there been such a leakage of the brain and brawn of any country.

Perhaps no incident reveals more clearly the stagnation and lack of constructive courage of this period than the break-down of the negotiations carried on in 1895 for the entrance of Newfoundland, then still more nearly bankrupt, into Confederation, because of the unwillingness of the Canadian Government to meet the financial terms Newfoundland demanded. For the sake of a difference of fifty thousand dollars a year the chance to round out the Dominion was let slip, perhaps never to recur. Ten years later fifty thousand a year looked small. To each generation the defects of its qualities; in one prudence degenerates into parsimony, in another courage runs wild in extravagance.