Holding office for 15 straight years and winning four back-to-back elections, Sir Wilfrid Laurier served a longer unbroken tenure than any other prime minister in Canadian history and is often considered the country’s second-most iconic historic leader after John A. Macdonald (1815-1891). Remembered primarily as the man who presided over Canada’s early 20th century economic boom, his administration ushered in an era of prosperity, peace, and stability that ended the political turmoil that followed Prime Minister Macdonald’s 1891 death.
A ninth-generation Quebecer, Laurier served briefly in the cabinet of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie (1822-1892) before succeeding him as Liberal leader in 1887. From there, he would go on to unseat Conservative Charles Tupper (1821-1915) as prime minister in the country’s 1896 general election.
As PM, Laurier continued Macdonald’s nation-building agenda and actively promoted mass immigration from Europe to encourage settlement of Canada’s vast western territories. In 1905 two new provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, were created under his watch while a laissez-faire approach to managing the economy during the latter years of the Industrial Revolution helped herald the growth of factories and business (libertarians in Canada continue to idolize the Laurier era as a golden era of capitalism). His proposal for free trade with the United States was a step too far, however, and cost him his bid for a fifth term in the bitterly anti-American election of 1911.
As the first French-Canadian to lead Canada, Laurier often struggled to overcome French accusations that he was disloyal to the English, and English accusations that he was a sell-out to the French. Though his calm, compromise solutions to the divisive problems of his time, such as whether Catholicism should be taught in the schools of the new provinces, or whether Canadian troops should fight in British colonial wars, angered hardliners on both sides, Laurier’s belief that there existed a moderate common ground between French and English interests helped make him a lasting role model of Canadian tolerance.