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The Liberal Leader: The Early Years (1887–96)
 

In June 1887 leader Edward BLAKE expressed his wish to resign his position and proposed Wilfrid LAURIER as his successor. Here is an excerpt from Blake’s biography:

“Given [Oliver] Mowat’s unavailability, [John] Cartwright’s unsuitability, and the need to bind Quebec to the party, his settling on Laurier as leader is not surprising, though it proved so to both Laurier and the party.”


While he was considering Blake’s proposal, Laurier confided to his friend Ernest PACAUD, owner and publisher of the Liberal daily newspaper L’Électeur, that, for financial and health reasons, he did not wish to become leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. The following excerpt from Laurier’s biography shows how Blake saw the man who would replace him:

“In [Blake’s] opinion the party needed a leader with integrity, sound judgement, and courage, one able to look at problems not from a racial or religious point of view, but strictly from the standpoint of the national interest, and one who could stir crowds, but also persuade Quebeckers to join the Liberal ranks in overwhelming numbers, an essential condition for taking power in Ottawa.”


On 18 June Laurier accepted the leadership of the Liberal Party. He imposed major changes on the party, notably with regard to its unity, organization, financing, and platform. James David EDGAR, chairman of the party’s parliamentary committee on organization, was one of the architects of the overhaul:

“Instead of the haphazard method of collection formerly used, Edgar proposed that subscribers pay a fixed annual amount over a three-year period, and that the funds so collected be subject to the control of Laurier and the parliamentary committee. [This was] a major step in the building of a truly national Liberal party.”


For Laurier, the reorganization of the Liberal Party had but a single aim: to take power and hold on to it. Thus, from his appointment as leader right up until he took power in 1896, Laurier sought those outside the party who were likely to secure him victory. For example, after a series of discussions in 1890–91, he succeeded in bringing into the Liberal fold the Conservative journalist Joseph-Israël TARTE, a tough political adversary:

“According to lawyer Antonio Perrault, Laurier said: ‘Tarte, why don’t you come with us? You are underrated in your party.’”


In Ontario Laurier recruited an experienced individual, Premier Sir Oliver MOWAT: 

“After some weeks of negotiation, it was announced on 4 May 1896 that Mowat had agreed to join the federal Liberals under Wilfrid Laurier. This was not the first time a federal Liberal leader had tried to entice him to Ottawa.… In order to secure Mowat, Laurier had arranged a privately funded life annuity for him and even entertained the idea of making way for him to become prime minister in the event of electoral victory.”


To experience, Laurier added youth. He saw in Rodolphe LEMIEUX, whose father he knew, someone who could anchor the party in a region where it was not politically strong: 

“In 1894 some Liberal voters from Gaspé came to meet [Lemieux] … and offered to nominate him as the candidate for that riding. After some coaxing, particularly by Laurier, he agreed to stand in this region, which had been fiercely Conservative ever since confederation. He finally ran his first campaign for the federal general election of 1896.… Elected on 23 June by a margin of 42 votes, he became the first Liberal mp for Gaspé.”


While overseeing the reorganization of the party’s finances and recruitment, he called a meeting: 

“Laurier convened a great national convention in Ottawa on 20 and 21 June [1893], attended by no fewer than 1,800 Liberals from all parts of the country except British Columbia and the North-West Territories. On the keynote of duality and under the distinguished chairmanship of Mowat, the convention brought forth a new program in which unrestricted reciprocity, watered down to satisfy Mowat and a number of other Liberals, was set in the context of developing the country’s natural resources and maintaining a customs tariff to generate revenue for Canada. The party, now officially ‘the Liberal party of the Dominion of Canada,’ gave thought to its organization and held out to Canadian voters, and especially to protectionists and industrialists, the prospect of an increasingly credible alternative.”


It was at this convention that the premier of Nova Scotia, William Stevens FIELDING, contributed to the drafting of the party’s new program, notably with regard to trade and tariff policy:

“Fielding's transfer to federal politics was not entirely unexpected, since well before 1896 Laurier had identified him as a potential political ally and had worked assiduously to involve him on the national scene. While preparing for the Liberal convention in June 1893 Laurier invited Fielding to a small gathering of friends to plot strategy. He also named the provincial premier first vice-chairman of the convention and chairman of the central resolutions committee, which was responsible, among other things, for initiating a new Liberal policy on trade and tariffs. During the convention the party changed its old program of unrestricted reciprocity with the United States [see Sir James David Edgar*] for a program of tariff reduction and a more modest measure of reciprocity, in an effort to rid itself of the taint of disloyalty and to calm the fears of business. In its new platform it promised to establish a revenue tariff, reduced ‘to the needs of honest, economical and efficient government,’ one that would promote freer trade, especially with Britain and the United States. Fielding played a large role in the drafting and adoption of the new policy.”


To learn more about Laurier’s political career as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, we invite you to explore the following lists of biographies.

 

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