By Michael MacDonald
One hundred and seventy-five years ago, the Right Honourable Sir Wilfrid Laurier was born in the parish of Saint-Lin, Lower Canada (modern day Saint-Lin–Laurentides, Quebec). Laurier is generally regarded as one of Canada’s greatest prime ministers and was Canada’s longest consecutively serving prime minister.
Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a wealth of records which reveal many stories of Laurier who is well-known for his desire to build an autonomous Canada that included both English and French cultures, his belief in the separation of church and state, his opposition to conscription, his support in Quebec, and his meticulous wardrobe and charismatic presence.
One does not need to be an academic to find these fascinating records regarding Laurier; one just needs to search out some of these gems using LAC’s database for archival documents, Archives Search. A search for “Wilfrid Laurier” will result in over 60,870 records and more are continually being added.
Even more documents and information can be found on LAC’s web pages such as First Among Equals (or the children’s version), Prime Ministers’ Fonds, Laurier House, and our thematic guide to the South African War, to name just a few. (For a listing of general resources on politics, see Politics and Government.)
While there are obviously far too many documents to highlight, below are four examples of lesser-known topics concerning Laurier, which can be researched through our website.
Laurier, the military man
Many people think of Laurier as being anti-military as he was against conscription and the forced recruiting of armed forces for imperial wars such as the Second Boer War and the First World War. However, many don’t realize that not only did Laurier serve in the militia, but so did his father and grandfather.
Commission papers of Carolus Laurier on the left and Charles Laurier on the right (MIKAN 4929180 and 4929179)
Charles Laurier, Sir Wilfrid’s grandfather, was commissioned as a captain in the Terrebonne Militia Division in 1825; Carolus Laurier, Sir Wilfrid’s father, was a captain in the 3rd Battalion of Leinster in 1847; and Laurier received the Canada General Service Medal as a Lieutenant in the Arthabaskaville Infantry Company in 1870 during the Fenian Raids.
Laurier, the nation builder
Laurier was the first francophone prime minister who brought the Liberals to power by establishing support in his home province of Quebec.
One of the first issues Laurier dealt with when he became Canada’s seventh prime minister was the Manitoba Schools Question. Laurier defeated the earlier proposal that public funds should not be used for Catholic schools and proposed the compromise that public funds could be used where there were enough Catholic students to warrant it. Laurier was especially pleased with the compromise he was able to strike, and referred to his efforts as “sunny ways” (voies ensoleillées)—a slogan which you may recognize, as it has been regularly used by the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau and his government today.
It was also Laurier’s government that in 1898 established the Yukon as a distinct territory from the Northwest Territories, and in 1905 created the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. As you can see from the maps below, Canada looked very different in the map created circa 1906 than the one circa 1897.
On the left, Canada’s territorial divisions, circa 1906 (MIKAN 4153332), and on the right, a political map of Canada, circa 1897 (MIKAN 4153334).
Laurier, the man with a $1000 smile
While we are all familiar with Laurier’s image on the Canadian five-dollar bill, did you know that Laurier used to be on the thousand-dollar bill? Laurier’s image was used on the thousand-dollar bill for the first bank note series issued by the Bank of Canada in 1935 (see below for sample images), and again for the 1937 series. In 1954, the Bank of Canada’s third bank note series included Queen Elizabeth II’s image on every bank note and replaced Laurier’s image on the thousand-dollar bill. Laurier’s image was placed on the five-dollar bill in 1986 and has remained there since. While it may seem like a “demotion,” the thousand-dollar bill ceased to be printed and was withdrawn from circulation in 2000, whereas the five-dollar bill is seen by more Canadians than any other. It is also interesting to note that other than Queen Elizabeth II, only Laurier has enjoyed the prestigious honour of having his image on the Canadian thousand-dollar bill.
A draft version of the thousand-dollar bill on the left, and the final version on the right (Bank of Canada).
While the above images are taken from the Bank of Canada’s website, LAC holds other sketches that were proposed for the thousand-dollar bill, as well as miscellaneous correspondence on this subject in our Sir Wilfrid Laurier fonds, and other collections.
Laurier, the elusive
While it is understandable that there are fewer films of Laurier than many other prime ministers simply because he was prime minister from 1896 to 1911, it is quite surprising how very little footage appears to have survived. It was a long-time researcher of LAC’s holdings who told me that when he used to come for his regular visits in the 1980s, he was shown the footage below by a former archivist who claimed that it was the only footage of Laurier that LAC held. While a more exhaustive and time-consuming search would be needed to confirm the number of films, a preliminary search certainly confirms that there are indeed very few films.
The next time you watch a documentary concerning Laurier, pay close attention to how little actual film footage is included, and how producers have used photos. For now, enjoy this very short clip which has only 6 seconds of Laurier, followed by his state funeral. The Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC) production of “Did You Know? – The History of Wilfrid Laurier” contains the same footage starting at 3 minutes and 14 seconds into the recording.
In addition to LAC’s YouTube channel, which has a small sampling of LAC’s videos, you can conduct searches for other audiovisual material using our Film, Video and Sound Database
A Sunny Legacy: Celebrating Sir Wilfrid Laurier (Exhibition)
Sir Wilfrid Laurier – Canada’s 7th Prime Minister
Sir Wilfrid Laurier fonds
Michael MacDonald is an archivist in the Political Archives area of the Science, Governance and Politics Division at Library and Archives Canada.