Sir Wilfrid Laurier & the Romance of Canada

384 pages,
ISBN: 0773759166

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Chainless Mind & Satin-Edged Lapels
by David Donnell

Wilfrid Laurier was the first francophone or Canadien prime minister of Canada. He had considerable style and flourish, but he does not summon up anything like the immediate and palpable quality of John A. Macdonald, or like the absolute freight-load with which Mackenzie King comes down on us: benign diplomacy, mother-fixation, the visits to Hull, and the dog. (People talk a great deal about the dog; it's amazing that Michael Ondaatje has never written a poem about King's dog.)
The Wilfrid Laurier we encounter as a young man in Laurier LaPierre's comfortable biography doesn't look much like the man we see on the five-dollar bill. This is a fairly personal and domestically conscious life; in its pleasantly written 400 pages, Sir Wilfrid Laurier & the Romance of Canada doesn't offer us a Pugwash think-tank of insight into Laurier as a strategist or thinker. A large part of the pleasure of reading this book comes from LaPierre's sense of the period, his ability to focus on characters, and the excellence of his writing. Politics aside, this is a very well-composed book.
LaPierre gives us some poetic quotations from Laurier's speeches, but does not offer much to illuminate his advocacy of the French Canadian cause, apart from a quite interesting reading of his feelings about Louis Riel and the North-West Rebellions. Instead, LaPierre communicates his themes in other ways. For example, he uses the phrase le sens du pays whenever possible, to get across to us his belief that Laurier was a nationally involved prime minister, in a from-sea-to-shining-sea sense. (Another phrase LaPierre repeats a great deal is projets de pays.) Laurier did have some sens du pays, but what we gather from this book is that his principal sense of the country lay in his ability to read the people around him, and to translate the French Canadian cause into political ideas and parliamentary speeches. He was an attractive figure in the Ottawa of the 1890s, was an exceptionally good speaker in the House of Commons, and did a great deal to heal or smooth over French-English rifts and bruises in the years after Macdonald.
His flamboyance, his satin-edged lapels, elaborate linen, extended collars, expensive cravats (imported or not, I'm not sure): all that comes through very well in this book. You can visualize the man, sense the weather, and sense the conflict. Laurier's capacities as a speaker-we're in the last cultural period before radio and World War I-also come through. It's distinctly moving to hear him quote from Byron's "The Prisoner of Chillon": "Eternal Spirit of the chainless mind!/ Brightest in dungeons, Liberty thou art!"; this was in the Commons in 1886 after the flawed judicial decision to hang Riel, not for rebellion, they said, but for the murder of Thomas Scott. It was a long speech, possibly ninety minutes or more, one of the great speeches of the period. It's difficult to be realistic about the 1890s without entering into statistics on child labour and supplying photographs of regional farm crews eating their thick sandwiches and drinking large mugs of local beer. Laurier, by contrast, is famous for saying that "Canada has been the inspiration of my life," that this country has been "as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day." He was a better speaker than Pierre Trudeau and sartorially he was grander. But historians must find the poetic image of Canada as those two biblical pillars unintelligible.
This is a beautifully written book, attractive, intimate, and warm-not so much an informative political biography as a national romance. But as for LaPierre's constant hints that Wilfrid Laurier was a major figure in the economic and structural development of the country, alas, this just isn't true. Compare him to Macdonald, who organized the process of Confederation, who brought into being the North-West Territories (most of our future West and North), who established a coast-to-coast trans-Canada railway: the largest single undertaking of its kind in the world, a project that brought murmurs of interest and admiration from as far south as Washington and as far east as Germany and England. Macdonald strung together, like an extraordinary string of beads, a sequence of hotels, teletype operators, and national police constables across the enormous West; and he argued for and implemented a policy of protective tariffs that allowed Canadian industry to accumulate wealth and employment under its own control.
The rendering here of Laurier is first-rate (accompanied by a few of his foibles), and so are the sketches of the lovely and supportive wife, Zoe, and the law partner's wife, Emilie, about whom there is some amusing speculation. LaPierre is extremely good on the 1890s, and his prose is almost edible. Sir Wilfrid Laurier & the Romance of Canada doesn't tell us much about who we are now, but it does tell us a great deal about who we used to be before world wars and television.

David Donnell's most recent book of poetry is Dancing in the Dark.


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