The 1869 Métis uprising in Red River had deeply divided Canadians along religious and linguistic lines. Five years later, the election of Louis Riel as a member of Parliament (MP) prompted a debate about whether the House of Commons should allow Riel to take up his seat there. Wilfrid Laurier — by this time a federal MP in the new Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie — stood firmly on Riel’s side. Laurier had little personal sympathy for Riel. Politically, however, he used Riel and the Métis cause as a way of staking out the moderation and pragmatism that would become a hallmark his career. On 15 April 1874, he issued this stirring defence of Riel in the House of Commons.
As the country’s first francophone prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier worked tirelessly to strengthen and unify the fledgling country and build bridges between its French and English citizens — in spite of the ill will this often brought from his fellow Québécois. Unity and fraternity were ideals that governed his life, as he told a group of young Canadians on 11 October 1916 (sentiments borrowed by Jack Layton at the end of his life).
On 1 September 1905, Wilfrid Laurier spoke before an audience of some 10,000 people in Edmonton, the newly minted capital of Alberta, which had just joined Confederation along with Saskatchewan. It had been 11 years since he’d last visited Edmonton, and he remarked that so much had changed in that time. He noted the growth of cities in the West, as well as the development of industry and transportation, agriculture and trade there. “Gigantic strides are made on all sides over these new provinces,” he said. It was a crowning moment of a movement — to colonize the West — and Laurier was there to thank the immigrants and settlers who had made that possible. Though the Laurier government’s immigration policies championed the arrival of some and barred the landing of others, his comments on acceptance in this speech served as a better model to follow.
Remembered for his liberal ideals, Wilfrid Laurier was also a skilled political manipulator. He used his oratory on the campaign trail, both to savage his opponents, and to shamelessly pluck the heartstrings of Canadian voters. He did both in this speech delivered while campaigning in Toronto on 14 October 1904 at Massey Hall. He first defends his eight-year record in power by comparing his government’s “minute” and “trivial” mistakes with the “mountain of iniquity” that the Tories built while in power for some 24 years. He then sounds the trumpet of patriotism, uttering a version of his most famous line (delivered in different ways, in several speeches that year) that the 20th century would belong to Canada.
By 1877, Wilfrid Laurier was a rising political star in Québec, although his profile outside his native province was not yet established. On 26 June 1877, Laurier spoke to members of Le Club Canadien in Québec City on the risky topic of liberalism — deemed a radical threat at the time to Québec’s conservative elites and to the Roman Catholic Church. Laurier disarmed such fears by stating clearly what Liberals held dear: political freedom, respect for the Crown, the continuance of Canada’s democratic institutions and religious tolerance. The speech was a master stroke. Overnight, Laurier created space in Québec for the Liberal Party and became, for the first time, a national figure.
The Manitoba Schools Question involved a struggle over the rights of francophones in Manitoba to receive an education in their mother tongue and their religion, constitutional rights that had been revoked by the provincial government of Thomas Greenway in 1890. Wilfrid Laurier’s solution to the problem followed what he called the “sunny way” — the way of negotiation, diplomacy and compromise — rather than forced legislation. He first used the term 8 October 1895, when he was leader of the opposition, in a speech he delivered in Ontario. The sunny way is a reference to one of Aesop’s Fables, in which the wind and the sun compete to see who can motivate a man to remove his jacket. The sun shines down, pleasantly and patiently, and the wind blows with bluster. The sun ultimately wins the day, proving that patience and enticement are more effective than force and coercion. After coming to power in 1896, Laurier settled the Manitoba Schools Question with sunny ways — but the politically expedient settlement his government achieved came at a steep price: the sacrificing of French language minority rights in Manitoba.
As a young lawyer, Wilfrid Laurier deeply opposed the idea of Confederation. Like the Parti rouge members he associated with in Canada East (formerly Lower Canada), he once described any union of the British North American colonies as “the tomb of the French race and the ruin of Lower Canada.” After 1867, however, Laurier accepted Confederation, and would spend the rest of his life passionately praising his new country — and the legal protections of its Constitution — for allowing French and English to live and thrive peacefully side by side in a single state. On 10 November 1871, as a newly elected member of the Québec provincial legislature, he articulated his freshly acquired admiration for Canada by speaking on what would become his favourite subject.
Kay MacBeth (née MacRitchie) was the last player to join the Edmonton Grads, a women’s basketball team James Naismith, inventor of the game, considered “the finest basketball team that ever stepped out on a floor.” At 95 years old, MacBeth is also the last surviving Grad, a club that played from 1915 to 1940. In those 25 years, the Grads accumulated a record that is quite possibly beyond parallel. Over the course of some 400 official outings, the Grads lost only 20 games. The Grads were both national and world champions who often defeated their opponents by lopsided scores. MacBeth played for the Grads in 1939–40. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.