Penguin Canada, Toronto, 2011
235 pp., $26 hardcover
A double review with Canada 1911: The Decisive Election that Shaped the Country
by Patrice Dutil and David MacKenzie
Dundurn Press, Toronto, 2011
378 pp., illus., $29.99 paperback
Amid all the talk in recent months about the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the anniversary of an equally significant moment in our history has passed almost unnoticed: that of the “reciprocity election” of 1911. Fortunately, Patrice Dutil and David MacKenzie have marked the occasion by publishing Canada 1911, a study of the pivotal campaign in which one of our iconic prime ministers, Wilfrid Laurier, ran out of luck.
Laurier had won four consecutive majority governments, but by 1911 he was no longer able to reconcile the tensions pulling at the young nation. His Naval Services Bill would create a Canadian navy but put it at the service of Britain in time of war. For English Canadians, this was insufficiently loyal to Britain; for Quebeckers, it was too much so. At the same time, Laurier’s reciprocity agreement with the United States only deepened the suspicion that he wanted to pry the country loose from its relationship with Britain.
Laurier lost the election, of course, and Canada wound up with a Conservative government led by Robert Borden — “a government of, and for, English Canada,” write Dutil and MacKenzie. Borden’s paltry representation from Quebec set the stage for the conscription crisis of 1917 and the apparent eclipse of Laurier’s vision.
There is evidence, however, that it was already lost — and under Laurier’s own watch. André Pratte’s biography Wilfrid Laurier, part of Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series, unapologetically admires Laurier’s perfect “Canadianness” — his defence of the French language across the country coupled with his admiration for, and loyalty to, the British Crown.
Yet, what emerges is a portrait of a prime minister whose balancing act failed to achieve the ideal with which he is most commonly identified: Though he saw the West settled and the country’s economy modernized, Laurier was unable to secure full French-language, Catholic equality in the new provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. “He must have known that if he tried to go too far, he would divide not only the public but his own party,” Pratte writes. “Was he going to take that risk for a scattered minority that represented barely five per cent of the population of the Territories?” Perhaps Laurier was a realist — but the portrayal is not that of a prime minister we now think of as embodying the highest Canadian ideals.
Pratte may be forgiving of Laurier — he seems to shy away from the tough conclusion he knows is there — but his portrait is lovingly crafted and full of his subject’s humanity. This is the one element lacking in Dutil and MacKenzie’s election book: Though they are remarkably thorough in their research, their account lacks a glimpse of Laurier’s soul, or of Borden’s. Nor does it have the fast-moving pace of a gripping campaign yarn. Christopher Pennington’s The Destiny of Canada, about the 1891 election, is a much better read.
Still, the meticulous attention to detail makes Canada 1911 compelling. We meet a prime minister not quite ruthless enough to call an election early in the year. “The agreement looked spectacular at first glance and the Conservative opposition was disorganized and caught flat-footed,” the authors write. “But Laurier let the moment pass.” Then we see Laurier again pulled in two directions. “I am represented in Quebec as an ultra-imperialist in Ontario, while in Ontario I am represented as an anti-imperialist in Quebec,” he lamented. Laurier repeated this theme often, with the defensiveness of a doomed incumbent.
Followers of politics and history, particularly of election campaigns, will enjoy the reminders that complaints about superficial, cynical campaigns and empty rhetoric, so common today, are nothing new. In contrast, the lack of public-opinion polling data is striking: As the story unfolds, there is absolutely no sense of where the voters are going.
The authors end their account with a dry recitation of the results, province by province, but there’s a lesson here: Most Canadians cast ballots for the same parties they had supported in 1908; a small number of “switchers” actually determined the outcome, reminding us that the shaping of a people’s judgment can be subtle indeed.
The epilogue is the strongest section. Dutil and MacKenzie draw parallels with, and lessons for, the present day. Once again, we have a Conservative government in Ottawa where Quebec plays only a minor role. One might argue that Stephen Harper does not face the same crises as Borden — but who in 1911 foresaw the Great War? In their own ways, these books remind us how fragile the country once was and how its future is in constant motion.
— Jacques Poitras (Read bio)
Jacques Poitras is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC News in New Brunswick and the author of three books, including Imaginary Line: Life on an Unfinished Border.