History

A REBEL AT HEART?

A YOUNG WILFRID LAURIER PUSHED FOR QUEBEC SOVEREIGNTY

SUE FERGUSON,D’ARCY JENISH July 1 2001
History

A REBEL AT HEART?

A YOUNG WILFRID LAURIER PUSHED FOR QUEBEC SOVEREIGNTY

SUE FERGUSON,D’ARCY JENISH July 1 2001

A REBEL AT HEART?

History

A YOUNG WILFRID LAURIER PUSHED FOR QUEBEC SOVEREIGNTY

BY SUE FERGUSON AND D’ARCY JENISH

SUE FERGUSON

D’ARCY JENISH

Historian Paul Stevens uses a modern analogy to illuminate the point of his current research. “If we were to go into a coma for 30 years and wake up to find Lucien Bouchard prime minister, we’d be bewildered,” he says.

“We’d want to know what happened.

How does a spokesperson for Quebec sovereignty become prime minister?” That dream sequence, he argues, is precisely what unfolded in the nations early days and the prime minister in question is Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Historians have overwhelmingly portrayed Laurier as a hero of Confederation and one of Canada’s greatest leaders—an assessment shared by Stevens, who has written two books on the country’s first francophone prime minister. But he does take exception to the facility with which his colleagues have passed over some of Lauriers more controversial views.

Those stridently Quebec nationalist positions are spelled out in black-andwhite in the pages of Le Défricheur, an organ of the Parti rouge, the Lower Canadian forerunner of the federal Liberal party. Laurier edited the newspaper in Arthabaskaville, Que., from December, 1866, until March, 1867, during which time John A. Macdonald, George-Etienne Cartier and other prominent politicians were in London putting the final touches on the British North America Act, which ushered the new Dominion of Canada into existence on July 1.

In ferociously anti-union editorials, Laurier, then a 25-year-old McGill University law graduate, was arguing Quebec should sever its ties with Britain and the other colonies, and pursue

independence instead. In one such screed, he warned: “In this Confederation, we will struggle a hopeless minority. Instead of being engulfed and inundated peacefully, slowly, cleverly, we will be forced to surrender unconditionally.”

“From the moment of Confederation, there will be fighting, division, violence, war, anarchy,” Laurier warns on Dec. 27, 1866. Then on Jan. 17, 1867, there is this salvo aimed at Quebec advocates of the Canadian union: “When you have achieved Confederation, you will have armed yourselves with an eggshell to stop a bullet.”

Strong stuff, says the 61-year-old York University history professor Stevens, and completely at odds with the dominant image of the Quebec politician first elected prime minister 105 years ago this month. But in the pre-Confederation period—some seven years before he entered federal politics—Laurier possessed a distinct voice in a broader Quebec chorus of opposition to Confederation. His Le Défricheur, which means tiller of the soil, served an agricultural setdement 100 km southwest of Quebec City.

The paper appeared once and sometimes twice a week in the early 1860s, and rarely ran more than four pages. It carried social notices and tips for farmers before the Rouge leaders asked Laurier, one of their most talented members, to take control. He moved from Montreal and turned the paper into an organ for his political views, which, regarding separation, went far beyond Rouge policy. Laurier edited about 18 issues, penning all the content while simultaneously estab-

lishing a law practice. But his editorial stance—including attacks on authority and specifically on the church’s attempt to influence voting—incurred the wrath of the local clergy. Not only did priests warn their parishioners against reading the paper, Zoé Lafontaine—Lauriers future wife and a devout Catholic—pressured him to end his public feud with the church. Laurier obliged, and folded the operation.

In a forthcoming biography of the former prime minister, Stevens argues that Lauriers brief stint as an editorial rabble-

rouser was an important phase in the development of his political thinking. Several previous biographers, he says, have underestimated this aspect of his career, in part, because they were misled by a false claim in the first account of Laurier s life, published in 1903. Biographer John Willison, then-editor of the Toronto Globe, wrote that copies of Le Défricheur had been destroyed in a fire. In fact, as a doctoral student at the University of Toronto in the mid-1960s, Stevens found a letter to Willison from a researcher who had tracked down a complete set of the newspapers. He discovered that the Globe editor had simply refused to pay the owner’s asking price of $ 150. Lauriers official biographer, Queens University political economist O. D. Skelton, accepted Willison’s account of the fire in his 1921 book and, says Stevens, “the legend of the missing papers began.”

Hoping that copies of the newspaper might surface, Stevens advertised in a number of Quebec newspapers. Within days, a lawyer from Drummondville called, saying his family had kept some issues, now stored in his attic. It turned out to be what the historian believes is a complete set of Lauriers Le Défricheur and the lawyer mailed a microfilm of the material to Stevens, gratis.

But at least one Laurier biographer questions the relevance of the editorials. Réal Bélanger, a historian at Université de Laval in Quebec City and author of the 1986 work Wilfrid Laurier: quand la politique devient passion (When politics becomes passion) says Quebec historians have long known of Lauriers initially hostile views towards Confederation, but have not seen them as significant to the rest of his life’s work. Like his Rouge comrades, Bélanger points out, Laurier accepted Confederation as soon as it occurred. “Maybe not with joy,” says the Quebec historian, but “it was in line with his personality to go along with what was a fait accompli.” Bélanger also says that, later as prime minister, Laurier did not take his own early views very seriously, expressing amusement at “these first thoughts of his youth.”

Stevens, however, maintains that Lauriers early views shaped much of his political agenda for the next four decades. He adds that Laurier, rather than being the grand conciliator between French and English Canada, saw national unity as tantamount to “a strategy by which Quebec would survive.” Confederation, according to Stevens, “changed the rules, but the problem for Quebec in Lauriers eyes was still survival.”

Previous biographers have downplayed Lauriers early thinking about Confederation, Stevens claims, because they started from the premise that Laurier was a symbol of national unity. Skelton, for one, published in the wake of the conscription crisis, which badly divided Frenchand Englishspeaking Canadians. Joseph Schuil, who published an important English-language biography in 1965, wrote in the midst of the Quiet Revolution. “They were looking,” says Stevens, “for an example of a French-Canadian who could make the country work.” It appears that history, like politics, can serve fickle masters. G3