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Take Hope Liberals

Posted on September 26, 2011

The September 19, 2011 issue of the Toronto Star posted an opinion piece by Patrice Dutil and David Mackenzie likening the current Liberal turmoil with the loss in 1911 of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal Party of Canada. Their message is that this is a lesson, and the lesson from this loss shows that we can survive:


One hundred years ago this Wednesday, Canadian men (1911 was the last election in which women did not vote) went to the polls to decide on one of the most dramatic and pivotal campaigns in our history. The Liberals, led by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, went down to a resounding defeat after more than 15 years in power.

Editorial cartoon from the Newton McConnell collection c. 1911

The Liberals were devastated, and few could see much of a future for the party. The cartoonist Newton McConnell published a biting cartoon following the campaign that depicted a man “in the year 2211” examining bone specimens under a jar labelled “Ontario Liberal: This species is supposed to have become extinct about the year 1911” at the office of the Canadian Archives in Ottawa. The same cartoon could be published today, with nothing but an update.

How can the party ensure that McConnell’s vision does not ring true a hundred years from now?

It should learn the different lessons of 2011 and 1911.

First, it must study the results. In 1911, the Liberals lost six cabinet ministers, but could take solace in the fact that they had won the popular vote with 47.7 per cent of the tally. The Conservatives under Robert Borden picked up 44.6 per cent of the vote, and the Nationaliste movement took 6.5 per cent of the vote (it took 13 seats and 26.7 per cent of the ballots in Quebec). Strengthened by the Nationaliste pledge to support him, Borden was catapulted to power.

The Liberals won a great deal of support because they had good ideas and they campaigned on a daring platform: Reciprocity with the United States and a Canadian navy that would serve Canadian purposes under Canadian governance. These were innovative policies that ultimately proved the Laurier Liberals right as most Canadians eventually grew to accept that free trade with the United States and having a Canadian navy was acceptable. This was not done in 2011.

Second, the Liberal electoral machinery has to be revamped. In 1911, Laurier himself was caught flat-footed and unready for his own election call. During the first few weeks of his campaign, he was looking for candidates in Ontario and in Quebec, and cajoling others who wished to leave. Party flyers were left on shipping docks in Ottawa because they had simply been forgotten. In 2011, many areas were poorly served by the Liberal organization. Only now is the party learning to streamline its expenses and improving its networking and fundraising. In both contests, the Liberals were poorly captained in Ontario, parts of Quebec, and British Columbia.

Third, it must address Quebec. Rethinking the approach to that province is as critical now as it was in 1911. One hundred years ago, at a time when a serious arms race pitted Britain and Germany and when many foresaw war with the Kaiser, the issue was Canadian involvement in foreign affairs. In Quebec, reciprocity took a back seat to the issue of “Laurier’s Navy.” The Laurier government had created a navy to defend Canada, but had left indications that should Great Britain need support in time of war, Canada would fulfil its duty. Enraged by this policy, Henri Bourassa, the founder of Le Devoir, mobilized Quebec’s nationalists and made a deal with Borden. Where Nationalistes would run, no Tory would contest the election.

Bourassa campaigned furiously against the Laurier Liberals in Quebec and succeeded in undermining their hold on the province. Bourassa, who began his career as a Liberal, had essentially broken from the party over Canada’s participation in the South African War and in 1911 he was convinced that Laurier’s naval policy would lead to the conscription of young French-Canadians to fight in future British wars. Laurier could have been far clearer about how the navy would be used to convince Quebecers. He assumed they would follow his lead. Many did not. The same thing could be said about 2011.

Today’s Quebec is more focused on income security and getting the tools to survive economically as well as culturally. Today’s Liberals need to focus on what has made them popular in particular areas of the country and relearn how to build a political platform that is daring, but that meets the needs of all Canadians. Like Laurier, they need a bold vision for the future of Canada. But they must also learn from Laurier that there is danger in being arrogant or in proposing policies that have not had time to root in the consciousness of Canadians. They must remember to be relevant: Canadians in 1911 were prosperous as never before and many were wary of taking a chance on better trading terms with the United States if this meant that Canadian manufacturing would be threatened. Today’s Canadians are not all that different.

Fourth, never underestimate the politics of fear. In Quebec, Bourassa played that sensitive chord, pointing to a dark future where Quebec’s youth would be drafted as cannon fodder for the wars of the Empire. In English Canada, the Tories played on fears that reciprocity spelled the end of Canada, and in particular of its attachment to Britain. Of course, the politics of fear did not convince the majority. Most people voted for the party they had supported previously. But the politics of fear made a difference where it counted: in British Columbia and Ontario, and in Quebec.

Clearly, the Liberal party did not expire in 1911 and emerged as one of the most successful political organizations in the western world. It did so because successive leaders like King, St. Laurent, Pearson, Trudeau and Chrétien learned the lessons of 1911.

Future leaders should not forget them.

Patrice Dutil, and David MacKenzie teach at Ryerson University.

Their book, Canada 1911: The Decisive Election that Shaped the Country, was published this summmer.

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