Read CHAPTER XIV - FIFTY YEARS OF UNION of The Day of Sir Wilfrid Laurier A Chronicle of Our Own Time , free online book, by Oscar D. Skelton, on

The Dominion of Canada’s first fifty years have been years of momentous change. The four provinces have grown into nine, covering the whole half-continent. The three million people have grown to eight, and the west of the wandering Indian holds cities greater than the largest of the east at Confederation. From a people overwhelmingly agricultural they have become a people almost equally divided between town and country. The straggling two thousand miles of railways have been multiplied fifteen-fold, forming great transcontinental systems unmatched in the United States. An average wheat crop yields more than ten times the total at Confederation, and the output of the mine has increased at even a more rapid rate. Great manufacturing plants have developed, employing half a million men, and with capital and annual products exceeding a thousand million dollars. Foreign trade has mounted to eight times its height of fifty years ago. The whole financial and commercial structure has become complex and intricate beyond earlier imagining. The changes, even on the material side, have not been all gain. There is many a case of reckless waste of resources to lament, many an instance of half-developed opportunity and even of slipping backwards. With the millionaire came the slum, and the advantages of great corporations were often balanced by the ’frenzied finance’ and the unhealthy political influence of those in control. Yet, on the whole, progress, especially in the last twenty years, has been unquestioned and rarely paralleled.

Political has kept pace with economic change. The far-flung Dominion is at last being welded into one, and a Canadian nationality is arising of a distinct character and with conscious unity. The average man thinks of himself no longer as first a citizen of Nova Scotia, Ontario, or Manitoba, an Englishman, a Scotsman, or an Irishman, but as first a Canadian. Provincial and racial jealousy, though not passed away, are less intense and less critical than in the days of old. There is less bitterness in party conflicts, less personal abuse, and more of the broader patriotism. Of jobbery and corruption and low political ideals there are unfortunately no less, but there is more conscious endeavour to grapple with and overthrow these foes. The Dominion has found its place in the family of nations, and has taken its full share in the transforming and upbuilding of the British Empire. Fifty years ago, merely colonies of Britain, looked upon by most men in the mother country as being about to break from the Empire to which they were now profitless, and to the rest of Europe scarcely a name! To-day, sending hundreds of thousands of men across the seas to fight shoulder to shoulder with Britain to maintain the unity of the Empire, the freedom of Europe and the world! History has few more striking transformations than this to show.

Even more striking, but less within the scope of this brief survey, were the changes in the life and thought, in the manners and the social texture of the nation. The growth of luxury and of restless change; the quickening pace of business and the accompanying shortening of the work-day and the work-week; the transformation effected by railway and steamship, by telephone and typewriter, by electric light and skyscraper; the coming of the motor-car, of bridge, and of society columns; the passing of cricket, the rise and fall of lacrosse, the triumph of baseball and hockey and golf and bowling, the professionalizing of nearly all sport; the increasing share of women in industry and education; the constant shift of fashion, the waxing and waning of hats and skirts; the readjustment of theological creeds and the trend towards church unity; the progress of medical science, the widening of university interests, the development of advertising and the transformation of the newspaper; all these and many more phases of the changing times bulked larger in the daily life of the people than the constitutional and political issues with which statesmen and politicians had to deal and which historians have to describe.

Even in the political and economic change no man and no party had a dominating share. The Canada of to-day is the creation of millions of hands, of the known or unknown few who toiled primarily for their country’s advancement, and of the many who sought their own private ends and made national progress as a by-product. Yet if statesmen are, on the one hand, not directly responsible for good harvests or bad, on the other, they are not ‘flies on the wheel.’ The powers confided to them are great for good or ill. They may hasten or retard material progress, and guide, if they cannot create, the current of national destiny. It is impossible to imagine what different course the Dominion would have taken had there been no Macdonald and no Laurier at the helm.

In Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s career four guiding principles, four goals of endeavour, have been steadily kept in view individual liberty, collective prosperity, racial and religious harmony, and growth to nationhood. The end in view was not always reached. The path followed was not as ruler-straight as the philosopher or the critic would have prescribed. The leader of a party of many shades of opinion, the ruler of a country of widely different interests and prejudices and traditions, must often do not what is ideally best but what is the most practicable approach to the ideal. Yet with rare consistency and steadfast courage these ends were held in view. Ever an opportunist as to means, Wilfrid Laurier has never been an opportunist as to ends.

The historic task of Liberalism the promotion, by negative and positive means alike, of individual freedom with full opportunity for self-development has been less urgent in Canada than in many other lands. Civil liberty Canadians inherited from their fathers overseas. Political liberty was the achievement of the generation before the Dominion was formed. Social liberty, the assuring for each man genuine equality of opportunity, has in great measure been ensured by the wide spaces of a virgin continent. What legislation is required to guarantee it further falls for the most part within the scope of the provincial legislatures; though one most important factor in securing equality and keeping open the door of opportunity, the free gift of farm lands to all who will, has been a federal policy. But in one important field, liberty of thought and discussion, the battle has had to be fought in our own day, and has been fought valiantly and well. In standing for the elementary rights of freedom of speech and political action, Sir Wilfrid Laurier braved the wrath of powerful forces in the Church he loved and honoured. He did not deny any church or any churchman the right to take a full part in political discussion. But he did deny any religious teachers the right to brandish for a political purpose the weapons of their spiritual armoury; and he urged the inexpediency, in the Church’s own interest, of endeavouring to build up a clerical party.

The promotion of the country’s economic welfare has been the chief task of every Canadian Government, and the one most in discussion. A tariff marked by stability and by moderate advances towards freedom of trade, a railway policy reflecting the new-found faith of Canada in its future, an immigration campaign that opened up the West and laid the foundation for mounting prosperity, and for a new place in the world’s regard, aid to farmer and fisherman and miner these were the outstanding features of the Canadian administration after 1896. Mistakes were made, errors of omission and commission, due now to lack of vision, now to over-confidence, but the accounting was not to be feared. ‘When I am Premier,’ declared Mr Laurier in the early nineties, referring to some dubious statistics used to prove that all was well with the country, ’you will not have to look up figures to find out whether you are prosperous: you will know by feeling in your pockets.’

No need of Canada has been greater, none has lain nearer Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s heart, than the lessening of misunderstanding and hostility between the men of the different races and tongues and creeds that make up the Dominion. It is a task which has been the more difficult because not merely was there a difference of races, but one race was of the same blood as the people of the United Kingdom and the other of its hereditary foe. It was always easy for politicians of the baser sort, or for well-meaning but rigid and doctrinaire extremists on either side, to stir up prejudice and passion. It was a statesman’s task to endeavour to bridge the gulf, to work for better feeling between Britain and France, to emphasize the future which all Canadians hold in common, to urge the men of each race to seek that knowledge of the other which is the first and longest step towards harmony. In training and temperament Sir Wilfrid Laurier was uniquely fitted for the task of interpreting each race to the other, and though it was a task that was never completed, he had the satisfaction of achieving a marked advance.

The share of Canadian statesmen in working out the unique political achievement which we call the British Empire has not yet been fully recognized. When the history of its upbuilding comes to be written, it may well be that the names of Baldwin and LaFontaine and Howe, of Brown and Galt, of Tupper and Blake, of Macdonald and Laurier, will stand, in this regard, higher than those of Peel and Disraeli, Gladstone and Salisbury, and even Durham and Elgin. Some in England opposed the grant of self-government, believing that it led to separation. Some, reconciled to separation, urged it. Canadians, though not always seeing the path clear, both demanded self-government and trusted it would make union all the firmer. It fell to Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s lot to carry out this traditional Canadian policy through an exceptionally critical era of development. He steadfastly asserted Canada’s right to full nationhood, and as steadily faced each new responsibility that came with added rights. He often incurred the hostility of ultra-imperialist and of colonialist alike, going too slow for the one and too fast for the other. Many autonomists failed to recognize how manfully and how effectively he had stood at the London Conferences for self-government, until at last practically all the Dominions swung into line. Many imperialists failed to recognize how hard he had struggled to bring Quebec into harmony with the rest of the Dominion on imperial issues and particularly on the naval question. A wise opportunism, that met each issue as it arose and dealt with it in the light of long-held principles, kept the nation advancing steadily and advancing abreast.