Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

The Great Compromiser: A Splendid Quebec Writer Asks: Who Will Fight for Laurier's Canada?

Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

The Great Compromiser: A Splendid Quebec Writer Asks: Who Will Fight for Laurier's Canada?

Article excerpt

Wilfrid Laurier

Andre Pratte

Translated by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott

Penguin Canada

221 pages, hardcover

ISBN 9780670069187

The primary job hazard for laurier biographers has always been falling in love with their subject. It has happened to most of them to some degree, the most infamous example being that of O.D. Skelton, whose official two-volume biography in 1921 was so hagiographic that J.W. Dafoe, a devotedly Liberal journalist, was compelled to protest. For all his admirable qualities, Dafoe noted, it was important to remember that Sir Wilfrid had not been a saint, but "a man who had affinities with Machiavelli as well as with Sir Galahad"

In this welcome addition to the Extraordinary Canadians series, Andre Pratte, a well-respected Quebec journalist and federalist, presents us with the Sir Galahad version of Laurier. This is not the book for those who want to read an expose of the life and career of our seventh prime minister. Wilfrid Laurier contains no scandalous revelations, and although he does not shy away from criticizing his protagonist, Pratte is not primarily interested in topics such as Laurier's dubious electioneering, dishing of patronage or reckless railway policies. He does not wish to speculate about whether Laurier cheated on his wife, a subject that has preoccupied some historians. (He does subtly imply that no cheating occurred.) Nor does Pratte offer much more than caricatures of Laurier's political opponents, which is the book's largest weakness. The French Canadian nationalist Henri Bourassa comes off mostly as an ogre; the Conservatives of the later 19 th century are merely a party "spurred on by its extremists"; and when Pratte says simply, "Laurier was a practical man, and his adversaries were ideologues," he generalizes too readily. Laurier may be the enduring symbol of French-English cooperation in Canadian history, but he was not alone in promoting this ideal. Others, like Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau, a magnetic and similarly broad-minded Quebec politician, deserve better than the short shrift they receive from Pratte in this book.

This shortcoming is not insignificant, but it is understandable and easily excusable. Short biographies inevitably exalt their subjects above their contemporaries, simply because there is too little space to fully examine them all. More importantly, we can forgive Andre Pratte for writing such an admiring biography of Laurier because he has shown clearly that Laurier was a truly admirable man, one whose eloquence and vision should still serve as an inspiration to Canadians--and especially Quebeckers--who have grown indifferent to the broad-minded, inclusive Canadian nationalism that he championed.

Pratte has tried to achieve something ambitious and important here. This is not a nostalgic look at a well-loved historical figure, but the urgent sounding of an alarm. He does all he can to make the reader sense his own anxiety about the present drift of Canada. He writes passionately in the first person, asks the reader challenging questions and openly laments the growing indifference of Canadians toward politics. Pratte fears that the stirring battle that Laurier fought to keep Canada together is being lost, not because the enemies of national unity have the better argument, but because those who could defeat them, especially in Quebec, have stopped caring enough to try. And he hopes that by remembering Laurier in all his brilliance and complexity, Canadians will be encouraged to keep on trying.

To make his argument Pratte has not composed a blow-by-blow chronology, which would be impossible in 200 pages, but an extended reflection on Laurier's political beliefs and overarching vision of Canada. He structures seven slim chapters around discussions of the big issues--race, language, religion, foreign affairs--that Laurier wrestled with during his long public life. …

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