Holding office for 15 straight years and winning four back-to-back elections, Sir Wilfrid Laurier served a longer unbroken tenure than any other prime minister in Canadian history, but his achievements are not always easy to summarize. Remembered primarily as the man who presided over Canada’s early 20th century economic boom, his administration ushered in an era of prosperity, peace, and stability, and ended the political turmoil that followed John A. Macdonald’s (1815-1891) death.
A ninth-generation Quebecer, Laurier served briefly in the cabinet of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie (1822-1892) before succeeding him as Liberal leader in 1887. From there, he would go on to unseat Conservative Charles Tupper (1821-1915) as prime minister in the country’s 1896 general election.
As PM, Laurier continued Macdonald’s nation-building agenda and actively promoted mass immigration to encourage settlement of Canada’s vast western territories. In 1905 two new provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, were created under his watch while a laissez-faire approach to managing the economy during the early years of the Industrial Revolution helped herald the growth of factories and business (libertarians in Canada continue to idolize the Laurier era as a golden era of capitalism). His proposal for free trade with the United States was a step too far, however, and cost him his bid for a fifth term in the bitterly anti-American election of 1911.
As the first French-Canadian to lead Canada, Laurier often struggled to overcome accusations that he was either a traitor (to the English) or a sell-out (to Quebec). Though his calm, compromise solutions to the divisive problems of his time, such as whether Catholicism should be taught in classrooms in the new provinces (the so-called Manitoba Schools Question), angered hardliners on both sides, Laurier’s belief that there existed a moderate common ground between French and English interests helped make him a lasting role model of Canadian tolerance.