Laurier Becomes the First French Canadian Prime Minister Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Wilfrid Laurier’s oratory made him a hero in Quebec and earned him a national reputation among Liberal Party members. In 1887 he was chosen opposition leader in Parliament, and, nine years later, he defeated Sir Francis Tupper to become Canada’s first French Canadian prime minister.

Summary of Event

Wilfrid Laurier’s rise to political prominence during the 1880’s and 1890’s benefited from growing French Canadian discontent with their position in the Dominion of Canada. In 1864, Quebec proponents of confederation claimed the confederation agreement provided for provincial autonomy in cultural and religious matters while protecting the rights of minorities. Quebec would maintain its established French language and the Roman Catholic Roman Catholics;in Canada[Canada] religion while respecting the practices of its Protestant and English-speaking minorities. Protestant English-speaking provinces would extend similar protection to their French-speaking and Catholic minorities. In the eyes of many Quebecers, the execution of Louis Riel Riel, Louis [p]Riel, Louis;execution of in 1885 and passage of the Manitoba Manitoba;Second Riel Rebellion Schools Act in 1890 violated that agreement, demonstrating that neither the federal government nor English-speaking provinces considered French and Catholic minorities equals within the nation. Canada;Laurier era Laurier, Sir Wilfrid Canada;Liberal Party Liberal Party (Canada) Quebec;and Canadian Confederation[Canadian Confederation] [kw]Laurier Becomes the First French Canadian Prime Minister (July 11, 1896) [kw]First French Canadian Prime Minister, Laurier Becomes the (July 11, 1896) [kw]First French Canadian Prime Minister, Laurier Becomes the (July 11, 1896) [kw]Canadian Prime Minister, Laurier Becomes the First French (July 11, 1896) [kw]Prime Minister, Laurier Becomes the First French Canadian (July 11, 1896) Canada;Laurier era Laurier, Sir Wilfrid Canada;Liberal Party Liberal Party (Canada) Quebec;and Canadian Confederation[Canadian Confederation] [g]Canada;July 11, 1896: Laurier Becomes the First French Canadian Prime Minister[6155] [c]Government and politics;July 11, 1896: Laurier Becomes the First French Canadian Prime Minister[6155] Blake, Edward Bowell, Sir Mackenzie Riel, Louis Tupper, Sir Charles

In 1885, Riel Riel, Louis [p]Riel, Louis;second rebellion had led an armed rebellion to support land claims by his French-speaking followers. He was captured, tried for treason, convicted, and hung on November 16, 1885, despite serious questions whether he was sufficiently sane to be responsible for his acts. Quebecers, who doubted that an English-Canadian would have been treated as Riel had been treated, celebrated him as a martyr who died defending French minority rights. In a March, 1886, debate concerning Riel’s execution, Laurier achieved national renown in the Liberal Party through a speech in which he mounted a powerful attack on the conservative government, accusing it of bringing on rebellion by ignoring the legitimate grievances of Riel’s followers.

Edward Blake Blake, Edward , the leader of the parliamentary Liberals, had used Laurier as a major party spokesman in his unsuccessful 1887 election campaign against John Alexander Macdonald Macdonald, Sir John Alexander [p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];election of 1887 . After his defeat Blake had resigned and persuaded the Liberals to choose Laurier as his successor, claiming that a French Canadian as head of the party could unite Canadians. Laurier’s highly visible position on the national scene helped Liberals become dominant in Quebec, despite opposition from Catholic bishops who viewed liberalism as a heretical and revolutionary doctrine.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

(Library of Congress)

When the Liberal government of Manitoba Manitoba abolished French as an official language in the province, ended funding of church-run schools, and established in its place a state-financed nondenominational school system, Laurier faced an almost impossible dilemma. The 1870 act organizing the province had guaranteed equal rights to English-language Protestant schools and French-language Catholic schools. Quebecers believed mandatory nondenominational English-language schools were, in effect, Protestant schools designed to destroy French Canadian culture and Catholicism. They demanded that the federal government intervene to restore the 1870 act’s provisions.

Laurier sympathized with his fellow Catholics but could not offer open support without splitting his party. Not only was Manitoba Manitoba governed by Liberals, but also many Ontario Ontario;and Canadian Federation Liberals, whose support was vital to Laurier’s continuance as leader, sympathized with Manitoba. Laurier temporized and refused to take a stand, claiming that responding was the responsibility of the Conservative government. Macdonald was as cautious as Laurier and referred the entire matter to the court system.

Manitoba’s actions intensified the increasingly contentious ethnic and religious tensions in late nineteenth century Canada. Growing immigration steadily reduced the French presence in the country, arousing French Canadians’ fears that they were an increasingly embattled minority. Few immigrants to Canada came from France or Belgium, the flow of English-speaking newcomers increased, and those from other European countries preferred to learn English rather than French.

As the century progressed, racist ideas encouraged by social Darwinist Social Darwinism philosophies assured Anglo-Saxons they were the top of the evolutionary ladder, while all other linguistic and ethnic groups were inferior. The preference for learning English by immigrants from the Ukraine and Hungary appeared to validate this view, raising questions over the propriety of using public funds to teach what was believed an inferior language: French. Extremists asserted that, as part of the British Empire British Empire;and Canada[Canada] , Canadians should use only English. Proponents of this view formed a so-called equal rights association, whose definition of “equal rights” required ending all legal or constitutional provisions granting French equal rights with English, or Catholicism equal rights with Protestantism. Young Quebecers reacted by joining nationalist groups and demanding that the federal government protect French rights in Manitoba.

Conservatives were no more eager than was Laurier to address an issue that threatened to split their party between British Empire loyalists, who called for complete cultural uniformity in Canada, and French and Catholic party members. The Manitoba schools question remained in limbo while it shuttled back and forth between the Canadian courts and the British Law Lords, then the final court of appeal on Canadian legal matters. When the Law Lords in January, 1895, finally ruled that Ottawa had the power to reverse the Manitoba act, the issue could no longer be avoided.

Mackenzie Bowell Bowell, Sir Mackenzie , a weak prime minister, dithered and lost support of his cabinet; Sir Charles Tupper Tupper, Sir Charles took over the Conservative leadership. On January 21, 1896, arguing that Parliament had an obligation to fulfill promises made to French Catholics, Tupper presented a remedial bill that would force Manitoba to honor the 1870 act. Although the Quebec hierarchy called on Laurier to support the bill, he refused to do so, asserting that as a member of Parliament he had to consider the national interest, not just those of Catholics, and claimed that compromise was still possible, despite six years of stalemate. Acting as a partisan opposition leader determined to thwart Conservative initiatives, Laurier used every possible obstructive tactic to keep Tupper from bringing his bill to a vote before the current parliament’s scheduled end on April 26. Tupper was forced to withdraw his bill and call an election for June 23, 1896.

Tupper was confident of victory. Quebec’s bishops instructed the faithful to vote only for supporters of the remedial bill. Tupper Tupper, Sir Charles expected Quebec voters would follow their bishop’s directive and vote Conservative, and he also believed Protestant voters would reject a Catholic candidate for prime minister. He proved mistaken in both suppositions. Laurier asked Quebec voters whether they trusted a fellow French Canadian or an English Protestant to protect their interests, and they responded by ignoring the bishops and voting 3 to 1 for Laurier. Except for a few Protestant clergymen who predicted eternal damnation for anyone helping elect a Catholic prime minister, most provinces divided their votes. The Quebec landslide thus gave Liberals a secure majority in the new Parliament, making Laurier the first French Canadian prime minister. He took office on July 11.


Sir Wilfred Laurier moved to ease ethnic and religious hostility by accepting an agreement that ratified most acts of the Manitoba government. The school system would remain nondenominational, and teaching would be conducted in English. Catholics were permitted to have religious instruction for thirty minutes at the end of each school day and, if parents of ten students whose native tongue was not English requested it, there could be classes in a language other than English. This latter provision, however, was dropped in 1916 when the possibility of German classes infuriated wartime chauvinists. French Canadian nationalists were deeply disappointed and Quebec’s bishops angrily protested Laurier’s compromise, arguing that it abandoned Catholic rights. The country, however, mostly accepted his resolution of the controversy.

With the Manitoba school question out of the way, Laurier concentrated on national problems involving trade, tariffs, and railroads. He would prove to the country over the next fifteen years that a French Canadian prime minister could provide effective leadership for Canada.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mann, Susan. The Dream of a Nation: A Social and Intellectual History of Quebec. 2d ed. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002. Describes rising Quebec nationalism in the 1890’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morton, Desmond. A Short History of Canada. 3d rev. ed. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1997. A concise narrative puts the 1896 election in critical perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neatby, H. Blair. Laurier and a Liberal Quebec: A Study in Political Management. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973. Analyzes Laurier’s political activities in Quebec.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schull, Joseph. Laurier: The First Canadian. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1965. A detailed biography, very favorable to Laurier.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Silver, A. I. The French-Canadian Idea of Confederation, 1864-1900. 2d ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. Describes increasing French Canadian disillusionment with the idea of confederation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spigelman, Martin. Wilfrid Laurier. Rev. ed. Markham, Ont.: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2000. Brief, mostly laudatory biography of Laurier.

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Categories: History