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Friday, October 22, 2010

Wilfrid Laurier: A Canadian Statesman

Owing to where most Americans trace their ancestry from, we tend to know more European history than the history of our immediate neighbors to the north and south, Canada and Mexico. We can name famous entrepreneurs and political leaders from across the sea but rarely one from right next door.

Last May in a casual dinner conversation with Canadian libertarians in Vancouver, I named the better presidents and prime ministers, respectively, of the United States and Great Britain. It suddenly occurred to me that I couldn’t name a single Canadian counterpart.

So I asked my dinner friends, “Among Canada’s political leaders, did you ever have a Grover Cleveland or a William Ewert Gladstone, a prime minister who believed in liberty and defended it?”

One name emerged, almost in unison: Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Embarrassed by my ignorance, I had to admit I had never heard of him. Never mind that he’s the guy with the bushy hair on the Canadian five-dollar bill; I just never noticed. Now that I’ve done a little research, I’m a fan.

Laurier’s political resume is impressive: fourth-longest-serving prime minister in Canada’s history (1896–1911, the longest unbroken term of office of all 22 PMs). Forty-five years in the House of Commons, an all-time record. Longest-serving leader of any Canadian political party (almost 32 years). Across Canada to this day, he is widely regarded as one of the country’s greatest statesmen.

It’s not his tenure in government that makes Laurier an admirable figure. It’s what he stood for while he was there. He really meant it when he declared, “Canada is free and freedom is its nationality” and “Nothing will prevent me from continuing my task of preserving at all cost our civil liberty.”

A new think tank in Ottawa honors Laurier and another Canadian PM, John MacDonald, in its name: the MacDonald-Laurier Institute. Founders Brian Crowley, Jason Clemens, and Niels Veldhuis have authored a new book, The Canadian Century: Moving Out of America’s Shadow, in which they explain the political principles and institutions the great Laurier stood for: limited government, light taxes, fiscal discipline, free trade, private property, and the rule of law.

At a time when others in the British Commonwealth had begun to emulate the welfare-state policies of Bismarckian Germany, Laurier had a better idea. Crowley, Clemens, and Veldhuis write:

Laurier’s objection to such schemes, like that of his Liberal colleagues, was one of principle: when people were expected to take responsibility for themselves and their famil[ies], they made better provision for their needs and directed their productive efforts where they would do the country and themselves the greatest good. When this natural necessity to strive was diluted by an easy access to the public purse, the ever-present danger was of the enervation of the individual and the stagnation of the progress of society. “If you remove the incentives of ambition and emulation from public enterprises”—by which he meant the economic undertakings of individuals and businesses, not state enterprises—Laurier said on the subject in 1907, “you suppress progress, you condemn the community to stagnation and immobility.”

Born in Quebec in 1841, Laurier rose in popularity in spite of his expressed belief in the separation of church and state. The province’s Roman Catholic bishops urged voters to steer clear of him but he built a firm base of local support. The people appreciated his solid character and his desire for goodwill and conciliation among the disparate cultures of Canada. As prime minister he worked to keep the country together by keeping the central government small. Toleration and decentralized federalism became hallmarks of his long legacy in politics.

Relying on Markets

To help Canadians compete with the colossus to the south, Laurier hoped the country would rely on private enterprise and open markets. A key ingredient, he believed, would have to be a lower cost of government and a lower tax burden in Canada than in the United States. He made it clear, in the words of Crowley, Clemens, and Veldhuis, “that people who came to Canada from south of the border or beyond the seas would find in the Dominion a society of free men and women where everyone was expected to work hard, and where, if they did so, they would keep more of the fruits of their labours than anywhere else, including the United States of America.”

Laurier never achieved the degree of free trade his conscience supported, but against powerful opposition he pushed Canada away from high protectionist tariffs. He wanted lower duties aimed more to raise revenue than to favor certain industries or regions at the expense of others. He made progress on some other fronts as well. He proposed balanced budgets as a way to keep Canada’s debt low and manageable. His policies opened the door for an explosion of immigration. Half a million hard-working immigrants rushed to Canada during his tenure, building a strong economy and a melting pot of countless cultures in the process.

Laurier’s record was not perfect from a libertarian perspective. For example, he supported subsidies to transcontinental railroads, a major departure from his otherwise pro-enterprise, limited-government philosophy. But as twentieth-century Canadian prime ministers go, he clearly stands apart and above. My friends in Vancouver don’t believe any PM since Laurier did as much for liberty as he did.

I now keep a Canadian five-dollar bill in my wallet just for those occasions when I meet a Canadian and the conversation turns to politics. We will lament the caliber of more recent politicians on both sides of the border but at least I can now point to Laurier’s picture and say, “We can do better, and indeed, you have.”

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is