Canada 150: Wilfrid Laurier and Canada's Hidden History of Classical Liberalism


Renowned Canadian political scientist, Gad Horowitz, argues that Canada’s political identity has the “Tory Touch”. This is the idea that Canadians have always preferred a modern version of 19th century Toryism as our government’s guiding philosophy, one of communitarian values rather than individualism. Horowitz and others (like Charles Taylor) have suggested that these communitarian values are what separates our political identity from that of the United States. Accordingly, any political movement that seeks to undermine these communitarian values is treated as alien or, even more damningly, “American”. However, this attitude has obscured the role played by laissez-faire liberalism in the formation and development of our country, especially as championed by the Liberal Party during the leadership of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Laurier’s classical liberalism (or Whigism) distrusted federal government overreach and attempted to develop a country based on the values of commercialism and individual liberty. Despite the arguments of political scientists like Horowitz and Taylor, classical liberalism is a significant part of Canada’s political heritage.

Post-Confederation, not unlike today, Canadian politics was consumed by how Anglo and Franco Canadians could co-exist within one major polity. Given the significant differences between these two linguistic and religious communities, it is remarkable that most Canadians at the time were eager for the new union to succeed. Laurier argued that this was only possible because of the fine heritage of British liberalism. He argued that the individual rights given to all British citizens, regardless of language or religion, were the most important reason why Franco Quebeckers and English Canadians had no reason to fear being oppressed by one another, and thus could be optimistic about the union’s future. Accordingly, Laurier defended individual and provincial rights as Canada’s best hope for continued unity.  He also took care to avoid situations where political issues were divided on purely linguistic lines. Laurier believed that individualism was the long-term antidote to this sort of partisanship.

Laurier was a passionate advocate of reciprocity with the United States and laissez-faire economics. On two occasions, 1891 and 1911, he championed the cause of reciprocity with the United States only to be defeated in general elections by the combined weight of Conservatives, industrialists, and British imperialists. Despite his defeat on the issue at the polls, he continued to argue that reciprocity with the United States was the best way to ensure Canadian prosperity and individual freedom. As Leader of the Opposition, his laissez-faire beliefs led to him to oppose the Macdonald government’s policy of providing financial relief to the Canadian Pacific Railway. Laurier supported the project, but believed that the state should have as minimal a role in the economy as possible. Accordingly, the Canadian Pacific Railway should have been permitted to fail or succeed on its own merits, free of government interference.

Laurier’s spirit of laissez-faire economics and skepticism of government intervention was bequeathed to the new west, which began to be significantly settled under Laurier’s administration. His government initiated a liberal and far-reaching immigration plan that invited potential settlers from all over the world. Accordingly, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities came to Canada for freedom and prosperity. This passion for individual rights, freedom, and opportunity that brought people from all over the world to settle in the Canadian prairies has lingered on to this day, creating a political culture that is more comfortable expressing its preference for individual values than central or eastern Canada.

The election of 1917 saw Laurier again defend the rights of the individual citizen against government overreach. He argued feverishly against the Borden government’s policy of introducing conscription to support the war effort. Although he favoured continuing the fight, Laurier argued that the conscription bill was gross government coercion upon the rights of the individual citizen. Unfortunately, his stance on conscription proved unpopular in English Canada leading to his defeat in the election. However, his principled defense of individual rights held the government to account and ensured that the war did not become an excuse for any further steps toward totalitarianism.

Although it may not fit nicely into the traditional prism through which Canadian brokerage politics is viewed, classical liberalism has always been at the forefront of Canadian democracy.  Sir Wilfrid Laurier is proof of this heritage. It is not an “alien” or “American” influence that undermines our Canadian identity, but a significant part of our culture that has influenced Canadian politics from the settling of the west to modern free trade agreements.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier believed that Canada would be the dominant force on this continent if it embraced individual and commercial liberty, as it would (if nothing else) spare the budding country the divisive tensions of the identity politics that had consumed pre-Confederation politics. If our country had followed Laurier’s advice, we likely would not have had the constitutional battles and politics of separatism that defined recent Canadian political history. We would also have governments less focused on interfering in the lives of citizens, giving us more freedom and prosperity. It is incumbent upon those who believe in individual rights and commercial liberty to channel the spirit of Wilfrid Laurier and to create a Canada that is more liberated, prosperous, and united.

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