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Reading: Roderick Stewart, Wilfrid Laurier: A Pledge for Canada, Lantzville, BC: XYZ Pub., 2002: a Review

Updated on June 18, 2013
Sir Wilfrid Laurier (left) and William Lyon Mackenzie King, 1915
Sir Wilfrid Laurier (left) and William Lyon Mackenzie King, 1915 | Source

A legacy of balance and concilation in a united Canada

Reading: Roderick Stewart, Wilfrid Laurier: A Pledge for Canada, Lantzville, BC: XYZ Publishing, 2002: a Review


This short book reads like a school textbook designed to engage the attention of high school students — a very laudable aim — and in fact the author, Roderick Stewart, taught history for many years at a number of high schools in Ontario.

The book about long-serving Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wildrid Laurier (1841-1919) is frankly excellent; it has been a long while since I have read such a clearly written, short book combining a realistic historical account with a simple and incisive explanation of the reasons behind what Laurier called 'a policy of true Canadianism, of moderation, of conciliation'.

Mr Stewart describes how treading a path of balance and painstakingly low-key moderation was a ruling passion for Sir Wilfrid, from his early years and provides the interesting insight that he was the son of a surveyor accustomed to broking deals between neighbours over land disputes.

Although I would ask, Who am I to define Canadian patriotism? as a Canadian I would be so (uncharacteristically?) bold as to say that there is an evident patriotic heartbeat which the author of this short biography shares with his subject, when he succinctly explains throughout the book why Sir Wilfrid Laurier pursued through his life a consistently moderate and conciliatory path. (Rather than being content with Parliamentary lobby automata, is it not still this path that Canadians can surely expect Parliamentarians to empathize with and pursue?)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier served as Liberal leader from 1887 until his death in 1919 and as Prime Minister from 1896 until 1911, and the writer explains the various challenges which commanded the attention of his leadership. This stood in contrast with several Conservative Prime Ministers since Sir John Macdonald's death in 1891, whose party seemed unable to decide what its relationship with the Orange Order and British Imperialism ought to be.

Sir Wilfred and Lady Zoë Laurier were far from militant secularists (indeed, Lady Zoë was deeply involved in religious charities). But the writer shows how the extremes of opposite influences in late 19th and early 20th century Canadian society — the Orange Order and ultramontane clergy — exercised a symbiotic relationship upon one another in terms of the political consequences which ensued from their extremism. Thus also, Sir Wilfred Laurier strove always to balance and conciliate tendencies to disrupt and divide. While the stances he took varied in detail in the various events to which he led the Liberals in responding, conciliation and moderation (1) were the watchwords which he consistently pursued, whether during the various events connected with Louis Riel, the Naval Crisis, or Conscription.

Interestingly, apart from in the timeline at the end of the work, Sir Wilfred Laurier's long-serving successor as Liberal leader, William Lyon Mackenzie King, is not mentioned in the book. This is a little odd, since the two men had much in common as regards their approach to many issues. In any case, the book itself can act as an able explanation of William Lyon Mackenzie King's view that success at what a Prime Minister prevents may be a greater legacy than the those of listed achievements.

A short book, but an excellent and (he gulps boldly) patriotic one...

January 21, 2013


(1) One could almost say that when Prime Ministerial successors as diverse as William Lyon Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Joe Clark and Jean Chrétien pursued a balanced path of moderation, it was to the extent that they respected the legacy of Sir Wilfred Laurier.

MJFenn is an independent writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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