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Leader of the Opposition

In the general election of 21 Sept. 1911, the Liberals under Sir Wilfrid LAURIER were defeated. It was a dreadful day for the Liberal leader who, devastated but dignified, went back to being in charge of the official opposition after 15 years spent governing Canada.


The Election Campaign of 1911


It was partly because of his exasperation with the resistance to his reciprocal trade plan with the United States that Laurier decided to settle the question by triggering an election. Certain that he would win, the political veteran committed a strategic error:

“The election of 21 Sept. 1911 was a total disaster for Laurier. The two central issues – both major – were reciprocity and the navy, and they underpinned two concepts of the nation, one more continentalist and the other more closely linked to the British empire. Proud of his accomplishments in the previous 15 years, Laurier underestimated from the very outset the extent of his regime’s exhaustion.… Because of the issues involved, he became the target for furious opponents whose accusations, informed by nationalist ideology, all began and ended with the word ‘traitor.’ To Bourassa’s Nationalistes, joined in an outrageous alliance with Borden’s imperialists, he was a traitor to his country. To the imperialists and the foes of reciprocity, he was a traitor to Canada and the empire.”

Reciprocal trade with the United States, which was at the heart of the election campaign, gave rise to a debate in which supporters of economic protectionism and the link with imperial trade on one side and believers in a continental philosophy of trade on the other were opposed, as emphasized in the excerpt of the biography of the Liberal lawyer Zebulon Aiton LASH

“[Lash] was one of the leaders who drafted the manifesto ... that denounced the reciprocity agreement accepted by the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Essentially the opponents argued that Canada had achieved ‘unexampled prosperity’ under the National Policy, that this good fortune should not be jeopardized by a dubious agreement with the Americans, and that it was vital to maintain imperial trade. Anti-American and pro-British/Canadian sentiments pervaded the manifesto.”

Although secondary to reciprocal trade, the creation of a Canadian navy was the other issue in the campaign. The imperialist nationalists and the purely Canadian nationalists had locked horns over this matter and had been engaging in acrimonious debate ever since 1909 [see The Prime Minister: External Relations]. In Quebec the Liberal minister Rodolphe LEMIEUX, from whose biography the following text has been excerpted, confronted the journalist Henri BOURASSA, mentor of the Canadian nationalist movement:

“During the 1911 election campaign, Lemieux was constantly forced to confront an aggressive Bourassa – allied with the Quebec Conservatives under Frederick Debartzch Monk* – who compelled him to deal with the question of the navy that parliament had agreed to create under a law enacted in 1910. Thus, as the new minister of marine and fisheries, he had to win acceptance in Quebec for this Canadian navy. The struggle between these two former allies and friends, conducted in the press and at public meetings, reached a climax on 13 August in Saint-Hyacinthe before an estimated 30,000 people.”

To learn more about the election campaign of 1911, we invite you to explore the following lists of biographies.


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