By Arthur Milne
Canadians are pausing this year to mark the 175th anniversary of the birth of Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1841. As part of these celebrations all seven living past prime ministers wrote essays to honour the life and legacy of their illustrious predecessor. I collected these essays for my book Canada Always: The Defining Speeches of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, to be published this fall by McClelland and Stewart. Edited excerpts from the past prime ministers’ tributes to Laurier are found below.
Joe Clark, Prime Minister 1979-1980: Laurier evoked the future: “We do not want nor wish that any individual should forget the land of his origin . . . but let them still more look to the future . . . to the land of their children,” he once said. And he spoke of the challenge of connecting across the great physical distance of Canada: “. . . we all admit that the prosperity of this [country], past, present or future is undoubtedly connected with the question of transportation…” Both Sir John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier shared a mastery of their own time, a century and more ago, but are revered statesmen now because they sensed – and they prepared for – what this young country could become.
John N. Turner, Prime Minister 1984: Laurier was one of Canada’s greatest parliamentarians, perhaps the greatest in our history. Studying Laurier today reminds us that Parliament truly mattered in days gone by. Party discipline was not as strong, and the role of the MP – in caucus, committee, and in the House itself – was much more important than it is today. In allowing MPs to be diminished as we have, we diminish Parliament and, by doing so, Canada itself.
Brian Mulroney, Prime Minister 1984-1993: I’ve always been interested in the lengthy personal and professional relationship between Laurier and Macdonald. Laurier carefully watched the Old Chieftain for almost twenty years, learning the lessons of party leadership the entire time. Political differences aside, he saw how Macdonald crafted cabinets and held a disparate caucus together, navigating the ever-difficult issues of race, religion, and region in nineteenth-century Canada. The dream of every prime minister that has followed both Laurier and Macdonald is in fact the dream and challenge both these prime ministers first bequeathed Canadians: that Canada would one day live up to her full potential as a country.
Kim Campbell, Prime Minister 1993: I am particularly attracted by Laurier’s admiration for Lincoln, who is also a hero of mine. Laurier was well schooled in Lincoln’s speeches and read as many biographies of him as he could. There are many lessons both Canadians and Americans can learn from studying Lincoln and Laurier in our own time. Both were politicians who appealed to the “better angels” of their respective electorates, rejecting the politics of division. While proud and fierce partisans for sure, they would both reject much of the negativity that is a feature in North American politics today.
Jean Chrétien, Prime Minister 1993-2003: Laurier imagined Canada as a strong, independent country whose voice would be heard on the international stage, and the first modern nation to celebrate diversity, tolerance, and generosity. He built a country in this image through his four terms as prime minister. It’s often said that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. I know that as a Canadian, and as someone who has had the honour of serving our country in so many capacities, including its highest elected office, I thank fortune that Wilfrid Laurier’s shoulders were so broad and solid.
Paul Martin, Prime Minister 2003-2006: How many times did I hear my father tell the story that, as a scholarship student he somehow got a ride into Ottawa to be one of the thousands lining the streets for Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s funeral. Let there be no doubt that for all of his life my father remained a Laurier Liberal. And I, like my father, am proud to be a Laurier Liberal.
Stephen J. Harper, Prime Minister 2006-2015: One of the greatest privileges I had as prime minister was retracing Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s footsteps in travelling to London to honour a Queen on her Diamond Jubilee. While times had changed in world and Canadian politics, I still felt and heard the echoes of Sir Wilfrid’s Diamond Jubilee visit of so long before while I was in London in 2012. It was there, at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, that our Canada took her first steps, under Laurier’s gifted leadership, onto the world stage. Canada has remained on Laurier’s confident path ever since. Sir Wilfrid Laurier stands as one of our greatest prime ministers. He always will.
Arthur Milnes is a historian and political speechwriter. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.
For more information about Canada Always: The Defining Speeches of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, please contact Arthur Milnes at email@example.com. Where his schedule permits Milnes will be happy to speak to Canadian service clubs about Sir Wilfrid Laurier from late October until December 1, 2016.