- Sir Wilfrid Laurier
- Laurier in History
Laurier: The Master of His Administration
Sir Wilfrid LAURIER’s control of his government helped him face the challenges that confronted him. He demanded unwavering solidarity from his ministers and mps:
“[Laurier] never allowed a minister to thwart his plans. He could then become firm, abrupt, and willing to sacrifice his best men for the sake of his goals – cabinet solidarity and the integrity of his government, to which he clung tenaciously. For 15 years only one person held the reins of power in Ottawa.”
Joseph-Israël TARTE, minister of public works and Laurier’s Quebec lieutenant, deviated from the course set out by his leader. He paid the price, as this excerpt from Laurier’s biography shows:
“There was also a need to clarify [Laurier’s] authority over his cabinet colleagues: specifically, he had to bring into line Joseph-Israël Tarte, his right-hand man in Quebec and the vaunted representative of the moderate Conservatives in the ministry. While Laurier was travelling in Europe in the summer of 1902, Tarte had campaigned publicly for stronger protectionism. This behaviour was a direct affront to the prime minister, and on his return to Canada in mid October he took swift and vigorous action. Despite Tarte’s importance in Quebec, he demanded his resignation.”
Henry Robert EMMERSON, minister of railways and canals, exhausted Laurier’s patience:
“In addition to his difficulties with alcohol, Emmerson acquired the reputation of a womanizer.... His frequent and lengthy absences from the commons drew criticism, and in 1906 Laurier lost his patience. He wrote out in his own hand a pledge for Emmerson to sign that he would ‘never ... again taste wine, beer or any other mixed or intoxicating liquor’ and that he would provide the prime minister with an undated and signed letter of resignation to be used should he fail in his promise. The firm writing of Laurier is followed by the shaky signature of Emmerson.
“His departure from the cabinet was not long delayed.”
Laurier considered ministerial solidarity and the honesty of his administration to be vital. While never personally accused of wrongdoing, he led a government that was not immune to scandal and controversy. The Conservatives made methodical attacks on the Liberals’ integrity:
“[Robert Laird] Borden and his Conservatives in 1906 undertook systematically to destroy this enfeebled cabinet. They waged a relentless campaign against the gross corruption of ministers and their departments, harping on the slogan, ‘wine, women, and influence peddling,’ in a campaign that reached fever pitch in 1908.”
Among the Conservatives’ favourite targets was the minister for militia and defence, Sir Frederick William BORDEN:
“The first [controversy] centred on the New Brunswick Cold Storage Company Limited’s receipt in 1907 of a large subsidy.... Although the company was administered by one of Borden’s sons-in-law, Borden was its principal shareholder; he was also a close personal friend of the minister of agriculture. As a result of the public exposure he reluctantly divested himself of his interests, at least formally.
“The second personal controversy surfaced during the 1908 election in which he was opposed by a coalition of Conservatives and moral reformers.... They attacked him on patronage and on his alleged marital infidelities and overfondness for alcohol.…”
In a hurry to put an end to the whole controversy, Laurier sought to restore order to the administrative practices of his government, as the following excerpt from the biography of his minister of agriculture, Sydney Arthur FISHER, attests:
“By 1907 Laurier’s administration faced accusations of patronage and corruption from the opposition. A royal commission on the civil service, appointed that year, revealed negligence, confusion, and inadequacies. The government decided to act, and Fisher piloted important legislation through the house the following year to establish the Civil Service Commission. Michel Gordon La Rochelle and Adam
Despite these corrective measures, Laurier, according to his biographer, did not succeed in achieving the anticipated effect:
“[Laurier] appointed commissions of inquiry that identified a number of irregularities, and put through remedial laws such as the one on the civil service and the one on elections, which cleaned up party financing. On the whole, however, his reaction seemed rather belated, even timid. The leader and his demoralized party saw their star fading because of this unpleasant situation which left many Canadians perplexed.”
For more information on Laurier and his administration, we invite you to consult the following lists of biographies.