Wilfrid Laurier: A Canadian Statesman

(Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education — www.fee.org — and president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.)

Owing to where most Americans trace their ancestry from, we tend to know more European history than the history of our immediate neighbors, Canada and Mexico. We can name famous entrepreneurs and political leaders from across the sea but rarely one from next door.

One man we should get to know left office as Canada’s prime minister exactly 100 years ago. He’s the guy with the bushy hair on the Canadian $5 bill.

Wilfrid Laurier’s political resume is impressive: fourth-longest-serving prime minister in Canada’s history (1896–1911, the longest unbroken term of office of all 22 PMs). Forty-five years in the House of Commons, an all-time record. Longest-serving leader of any Canadian political party (almost 32 years). Across Canada to this day, he is widely regarded as one of the country’s greatest statesmen.

It’s not his tenure in government that makes Laurier an admirable figure. It’s what he stood for while he was there. He really meant it when he declared, “Canada is free and freedom is its nationality” and “Nothing will prevent me from continuing my task of preserving at all cost our civil liberty.”

A new think tank in Ottawa honors Laurier and another Canadian PM, John MacDonald, in its name: the MacDonald-Laurier Institute. Founders Brian Crowley, Jason Clemens and Niels Veldhuis have authored a new book, “The Canadian Century: Moving Out of America’s Shadow,” in which they explain the political principles and institutions that Laurier stood for: limited government, light taxes, fiscal discipline, free trade, private property and the rule of law.

At a time when others in the British Commonwealth had begun to emulate the welfare-state policies of Bismarckian Germany, Laurier had a better idea. Crowley, Clemens and Veldhuis write:

“Laurier’s objection to such schemes, like that of his Liberal colleagues, was one of principle: when people were expected to take responsibility for themselves and their famil[ies], they made better provision for their needs and directed their productive efforts where they would do the country and themselves the greatest good. When this natural necessity to strive was diluted by an easy access to the public purse, the ever-present danger was of the enervation of the individual and the stagnation of the progress of society.”

Canadians in his time appreciated Laurier’s sturdy character and his desire for goodwill and conciliation among the disparate cultures of Canada. Toleration and decentralized federalism became hallmarks of his long legacy in politics.

To help Canadians compete with the colossus to the south, Laurier hoped the country would rely on private enterprise and open markets. A key ingredient, he believed, would have to be a lower cost of government and a lower tax burden.

I now keep a Canadian five-dollar bill in my wallet just for those occasions when I meet a Canadian and the conversation turns to politics. We will lament the caliber of more recent politicians on both sides of the border but at least I can now point to Laurier’s picture and say, “We can do better, and indeed, you have.”