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McVICAR, KATE – Volume XI (1881-1890)

d. 18 June 1886 at Hamilton, Canada West


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

The Prime Minister: External Relations

One item on the long list of challenges that Sir Wilfrid LAURIER had to confront was that of harmonizing the national and international aspirations of Canada’s two founding peoples. This challenge was fundamental to his vision of national unity, a subject that had preoccupied Canadians since at least the end of the 1880s, as recalled in the following excerpt from his biography:

“The problem was basically one of national identity. Some saw the nation as closely linked to the British empire, while others saw it as attached to the North American continent. But there was more to the conflict. A number of Protestant anglophones favoured an exclusively English-speaking and Protestant Canada. Fearing the strength and ambition of the Catholic French Canadians, which Mercier expressed so vigorously, they set out on a crusade against Canadian dualism. On the other hand, French Canadians, with the support of some anglophones, dreamed mainly of a bilingual and bicultural Canada. They too set out on a passionate crusade.”


Relations with the British Empire


Laurier sought to develop Canada’s autonomy on the international stage, first in relation to Great Britain, which in 1897 demanded a new framework for imperial relations, one that did not conform to the national aspirations of all Canadians:

“The situation with regard to the mother country was much more complex. Britain was trundling out a new imperialism centred on the incomparable virtues of the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’ and its duty to convert as many peoples as possible to its brilliant civilization.”


Even though the new British imperialism appealed to many English Canadians, it met with opposition, particularly among French Canadians. Laurier equivocated, attracting the attention of critics, as recalled in this excerpt from the biography of the political journalist John Stephen WILLISON:

“[In 1899,] Laurier was attacked as too imperialist in Quebec and as ‘not British enough’ in Ontario.”


Laurier’s ambivalent attitude gave rise to even more criticism when, at the beginning of the Boer War (1899–1902), he dithered about deploying military contingents to South Africa. The conflict put the prime minister in a precarious position, as attested in this excerpt from the biography of Hugh GRAHAM, a long-time imperialist and the owner of an influential Montreal newspaper, the Montreal Daily Star:

“[In] early October 1899 [Graham] had his staff send some 6,000 telegrams to public figures across the country to solicit messages urging the necessity of Canada’s involvement. He hoped the replies would railroad the reluctant Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier* into the war. With headlines such as ‘Our country must be kept British,’ which appeared on 11 October, the Star’s pro-empire position antagonized nationalists from the province of Quebec, such as politicians Joseph-Israël Tarte* and Henri Bourassa*. Many opposed what they considered to be an unjust colonial war; others deplored the fact that parliament and the electorate were not being consulted.… The Star’s campaign and Graham’s personal pledge to provide up to $1,000,000 of insurance for the Canadian volunteers of the first contingent sent to South Africa contributed greatly to Canada’s eventual involvement [see Laurier], but they also helped to widen the gulf between Conservatives and nationalists as well as between French Canadians and the rest of the country.”


The end of the Boer War in May 1902 temporarily eased tensions between English and French Canadians over relations between the mother country and Canada. However, British interference in Canadian politics and its impact on national unity forced Laurier to take a firmer stance towards Great Britain:

“At the outset of Laurier’s second term, political clarification was the order of the day. In imperial relations, he decided to remove ambiguities, keeping a close eye on his electoral base in Quebec where Bourassa’s impassioned speeches were stirring more and more unrest. At a colonial conference in the summer of 1902, he rejected proposals for an imperial council, the creation of an imperial navy, and commercial union. On 13 March 1903 he gave this clear summary of his views to the House of Commons: ‘The British empire is composed of a galaxy of free nations all owing the same allegiance to the same sovereign, but all owing paramount allegiance ... to their respective peoples.’ These words met with a rather cool reception from many imperialists, but Bourassa was overjoyed. He made peace with the prime minister, even though at the same time he became the mentor of the militant Ligue Nationaliste Canadienne, to which imperialism was anathema [see Olivar Asselin*].”


British imperialism again made a forceful return to Canadian politics as German naval power increased in 1909–10. This time, the Laurier government was under pressure from those who demanded that Canada provide assistance to maintain the naval supremacy of the empire as well as from those who were opposed. (The prime minister had already envisaged the creation of a Canadian navy in 1902 but had not pursued it.) Laurier, who wanted to preserve Canadian autonomy while affirming his faith in the empire, proposed a compromise. On 12 Jan. 1910 he introduced a bill in the House of Commons that became the Naval Service Act.:

“[The bill] created, under the authority of the Canadian government, a navy of five cruisers and six destroyers which would be able to fight where Britain was involved in conflict.… There was a fierce debate in the house.… [But] with a united party behind him [Laurier] won in the house on 20 April. He still had to parry attacks from outside parliament. They were vicious in English-speaking Canada, but in Quebec they became disastrous under Bourassa’s leadership. Bourassa, who had just begun publishing his daily Le Devoir, formed an alliance with [Frederick Debartz] Monk in the summer of 1910 and organized meeting after meeting to heap scorn on Laurier and his accursed navy.”


For more detailed information on relations between Canada and the British Empire, we invite you to explore the following lists of biographies.


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