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The First World War

Laurier, Leader of the Opposition (1911–19)

Shaken by his defeat, but determined to dislodge the Conservatives, Sir Wilfrid LAURIER, now leader of the official opposition, conceived a strategy to regain power:

“Instead of quitting politics ... [Laurier] decided to stay on and play his full role to the limit of his strength. His aim was to drive out the Conservatives as quickly as possible, since their program, with its reformist and imperialistic tendencies, threatened to destroy what he had achieved. To the surprise of many, he immediately made a splendid start by redoubling his efforts, and he soon restored life to his party.”

Laurier regrouped the Liberal Party, particularly by using the rhetorical and organizational talents of his mps. Among these mps were Frank Broadstreet CARVELL and William PUGSLEY, an excerpt of whose biography follows:

“In opposition Pugsley and his New Brunswick colleague Frank Broadstreet Carvell became the twin persecutors of Robert Laird Borden*’s government. While ‘Fighting Frank’ Carvell’s weapons were anger, vitriol, and the heavy blows of a broadsword, Pugsley’s were the deft, surgical probings of a master courtroom lawyer, always calm, courteous, and reasonable but tactically brilliant and deadly. During the 1913 debate over Borden’s Naval Aid Bill, Pugsley masterminded a 72-hour continuous attack against the proposal.”

Using these tactics, Laurier and the Liberals dealt a harsh blow to the Conservative government:

“Although he suffered a few reverses, Laurier saw an increase in his own popularity and that of his party. Once again the golden stairway to power appeared on the horizon.”

With increasing hope of regaining power in the short term, Laurier and the Liberals maintained pressure on the Conservative government. However, with the outbreak of the Great War in Europe in the summer of 1914, the political order changed, as Laurier’s biographer points out:

“World War I soon crushed these fine hopes and shattered the two most important foundation-stones of Laurier’s career: national unity and the unity of the Liberal party. From 1914 to 1918 he lived through the worst ordeals of his life. At the outset of this terrible war there was no hint of such results. Throughout the country English-and French-speaking Canadians alike, under stress and in a highly emotional state, agreed on almost everything, from voluntary service in the armed forces to the dispatch of material assistance to embattled Britain. In tune with his fellow Canadians, Laurier renounced partisan politics and even proposed a truce between the parties. He loyally supported Borden in the commons and participated in a series of recruiting meetings to stimulate the war effort. People rallied around their leaders, one of whom, the 72-year-old Laurier, displayed a sense of duty and a boundless energy that were a constant source of astonishment.”

That sense of duty was, however, severely tested. Still concerned with preserving national unity, Laurier was apprehensive about the negative effects of maintaining Regulation 17 (which restricted use of the French language as a means of instruction and communication to the first two years of elementary teaching in Ontario) in the midst of war. Another reason for the anxiety was the Canadian government’s desire to introduce military conscription. The following excerpt from the biography of the Canadian nationalist Henri BOURASSA summarizes the issue:

“As the champion of the minority in Ontario, [Bourassa] made their cause that of all French speakers in North America, even putting it ahead of the struggle in Europe. He manifestly had an impact on francophones, who, subject to other influences as well, had virtually stopped enlisting. When Borden proposed conscription in May 1917, the province of Quebec was on the brink of violence.… [Bourassa] could have taken over the province at a stroke, as Laurier and Borden feared.”

Regulation 17 and conscription caused ruptures in Canadian politics, especially among Liberal mps. At Laurier’s request, one of them, Ernest LAPOINTE, introduced a motion concerning Franco-Ontarian schools in the House of Commons:

“During the First World War, Lapointe solidified his position in the party. Laurier selected him to present to parliament in May 1916 a significant motion requesting that the Ontario government reconsider its Regulation 17, which restricted the use of French as a language of instruction in the province's schools [see Sir James Pliny Whitney*]. In addition to worrying about linguistic matters, French-speaking minorities were also disturbed because they thought that the legislation would limit access to a Catholic education. The motion divided the major political parties: 11 western Liberals voted against it while 5 Quebec Conservatives supported it.” 

Confronting this dilemma and the explosive political situation in Quebec, Laurier saw his mps tear each other apart over the issue of conscription. Liberals who had once been unfailingly loyal abandoned their leader. Carvell, one of the most fervent supporters of conscription, was one of them:

“Conscription was another matter and here Carvell dramatically broke with his leader and his party. ‘I look upon it as our duty to send all the men that we possibly can, in order to make this war the success that the whole civilized world is praying that it will be.’ He categorically dismissed any notion that, as the Liberal party proposed, a referendum be held before conscription was implemented. ‘There is not a stronger democrat in Canada than I am; there is no man who, under ordinary conditions, has greater faith in the people than I have. But I am constrained to come to the conclusion that we are at war, and this is not an ordinary political matter; it is a question of life or death for civilization.’”

Other Liberal mps, such as William Stevens FIELDING, whose biography is quoted below, left their leader because of conscription. 

“Fielding might easily have accommodated himself to Laurier's generous criteria for individuals to retain caucus membership: oppose conscription and the Union government; support conscription but oppose the Union government; or run as independent Liberals. But he chose to follow the majority of his party, hoping, perhaps, to play peacemaker and power-broker once the war ended. Whatever popularity his vacillating strategy may have gained him in the rest of Canada, it won him no favour in his native province or in Quebec.... Moreover, Nova Scotian Liberals, like their Quebec colleagues, would not forgive Fielding his desertion of the old chief....”

For more detailed information on Laurier’s political career as leader of the official opposition after 1911, we invite you to explore the following lists of biographies.


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