The Secret to Laurier's Success: Political Leadership During Tough Times

Bruce Yaccato recently wrote for the National Post comparing the leadership of Justin Trudeau with that of old Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier.  “Layabout to legend,” he wrote of both, explaining that if Laurier could turn himself a country lawyer to one of our greatest Prime Ministers, so too could Justin Trudeau go from teacher to leader of the country.  Yaccato’s piece has some good points, but spends little time actually explaining why Laurier was a good political leader.  What allowed Laurier to lead his party 30 years and serve as Prime Minister for 15 of them?

Laurier indeed begin his career on a dubious note.  Attending law school in Montreal in 1862, one of his professors was Toussaint-Antoine-Rodolphe Laflamme, a famous radical Rouge, when being a left-wing liberal (rouge) in Quebec was a dangerous thing.  Laflamme was a part of the Institut Canadien and Laurier soon joined and served as Vice-President.  He joined the Liberals of Lower Canada and spent the middle years of the 1860s attacking the plans for a Canadian Confederation. He and other Rouges argued that it gave too much power to Ottawa and would lead to the annihilation of French Canadians.  Their attacks accomplished little, and Laurier eventually went off to become the “country lawyer” in the small town of Arthabaskaville.

He eventually changed his mind on Confederation and went into politics. After a few years in provincial politics in Quebec, which he found dull and spent his time listening and watching the politicians around him.  He joined the federal Liberals in 1874 and was elected by virtue of the Pacific Scandal and the corruption of the government John A. MacDonald.  His promotion from provincial to federal was quick, and he soon began to make a place for himself. Laurier began to understand and communicate his vision of Canadian liberalism. 

In a famous speech on political liberalism in 1877, Laurier marked himself as a politician on the way up. He declared that ““Liberal Catholicism is not political liberalism.”  This was an important distinction to make in Quebec of the 1870s.  The Catholic Church had much influence in the province and they distrusted the brand of European liberalism that denounced the Church’s control over society.  Liberal Catholics were pushing for the Church to have less power and deconstructing the powerful social role the Catholic Church had built for itself in places like France.  European liberalism meanwhile was the ideology that had once inspired the young Laurier as a Rouge in the 1860s, but now he understood the necessity of compromise.  He looked instead to the brand of political liberalism of England and its Prime Minister, William Gladstone. Liberalism in Canada, he proclaimed, could advocate for individual rights, democratic government, without taking power away from the Catholic Church in Quebec.  It was a compromise, to be sure, but it was the first step in winning over the province for the Liberal party and the first sign of moderation that would aid Laurier throughout his career.

By 1887, after another loss to the MacDonald Conservatives, Laurier was chosen as Liberal leader.  He remained leader until his death in 1919, serving the Liberal Party for an astonishing 32 years out of 44 as a Member of Parliament. He was the first French Canadian leader of a federal political party and, after a tumultuous and failed campaign in 1891 where he advocated for Free Trade with the United States, in 1896 Laurier became the first French Canadian Prime Minister.

Throughout his 15 years as Prime Minister, Laurier often offered compromise and moderation in the face of opposition and extremism.  This did not necessarily make him many friends, but it assured election victory after election victory.  He won majorities again in 1900, 1904, and 1908, until finally losing in 1911.  He successfully navigated difficult political issues like the Boer War, the Alaskan Boundary dispute, British demands that Canada provide a Navy in its competition with Germany, and the settlement and establishment of the Northwest – Alberta and Saskatchewan.

When he finally did lose in 1911, his compromise had perhaps gone too far.  Laurier again proposed Free Trade with the United States, and in English Canada he was attacked mercilessly for the policy. In French Canada, nationalistes like Henri Bourassa attacked his creation of a Canadian navy that would be at Britain’s beck and call.  Robert Borden won the election, but Laurier still had eight years as Opposition Leader ahead of him and continued to lead the Liberal party through the First World War.

Many of Laurier’s opponents did not understand historian Blair Neatby’s point that  “compromise was a means to an end, not a principle.”  Laurier compromised on issues like religion in Quebec, participation in the Boer War, creating a Canadian navy, because he sought national unity above all else (and Liberal electoral success). He believed that only under careful stewardship could Canada become an autonomous nation, with its two French and English speaking peoples united together as Canadians first and foremost.  Compromise between the two was a means of leading them to the same place without civil war erupting first. 

Laurier was a great leader because he was able to understand and respect the personal convictions of other people, even when he disagreed with them. He was able to make compromises within the political sphere that should not have worked as well as they did, but Laurier could make people agree, or at least, not disagree.

Even in the midst of the conscription crisis of the First World War, when the country was the closest it had ever come to dividing and breaking apart, Laurier was able to fashion a strong Liberal party that would survive the war.  Conscription was introduced in 1917 and Prime Minister Robert Borden fashioned a coalition government in order to lead a unified country.  Laurier could not support conscription, as it was wholeheartedly rejected by Quebec, and refused to join.

As a result many English Canadian Liberals abandoned him in favour of conscription to join Robert Borden’s Union Government in 1917. An election was planned for December 1917 between the Unionists (Borden Conservatives and pro-conscription Liberals) and the Laurier Liberals.  It was one of the most bitterly fought and rancorous electoral contests in Canadian history.  But Laurier did not hate those Liberals who had left him to support conscription.  He understood that they too suffered from having to leave him and the Liberal party over their principles. To a loyal English Canadian [Liberal] he even defended their action:

Yesterday it was Pardee and today it will be Graham! Graham and Pardee, as dear to me as my own brothers! Do not, however, think hard of them for I do not. They have behaved all through most honourably, and there is not and there will not be any loss of friendship between us. The pain is not less acute on their side than on mine, and I know only too well the difficulties that face them.

Here is the crux of Laurier’s leadership. He never turned away a potential ally, nor despised a political foe for following their principles.  He understood the difference between a good person, who believed something different from him, and a bad one.  If there is any element of Laurier’s leadership that Justin Trudeau (or any political leader today) should strive to emulate, it is his compassion for a principled stand. Political debate was exactly that: a debate, a disagreement, and an opportunity to understand another point of view.  Not a die-hard contest where any weakness ought to be exploited and magnified.  Many politicians today could use this valuable lesson.