Vision and Anxiety of the Prime Ministers of Canada

By Morton, Desmond | Canadian Speeches, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview

Vision and Anxiety of the Prime Ministers of Canada


Morton, Desmond, Canadian Speeches


Throughout the 130 years since Confederation, the prime ministers of Canada have been inspired by a common vision, and troubled by a common anxiety. The vision has been the greatness of Canada; the anxiety has been the threat to that vision from tensions arising over different languages and cultures. In this speech, an eminent historian recalls words of the nation's prime minister that reflect this hope and anxiety -- hope and anxiety that have been a constant thread in the fabric of Canada. In his presentation, professor Morton was assisted by a distinguished Canadian actor, R.H. Thompson, who read the excerpts from the prime ministerial speeches. The speech, in Toronto on September 30, 1996, launched the Toronto Canadian Club's centennial series, "Canada in the 21st century."

This afternoon we invite you to listen to some of Canada's prime ministers. Where did they believe Canada was going? What wisdom did they offer their time and ours? What sort of people were they, these men now gone, who shaped their future and our present?

We remember best, perhaps, the golden-tongued Laurier, seventh prime minister and the first French-speaking Canadian to hold our highest political office, a man of such breadth of vision and such courage that he remained a hero, even among those who had come to disagree with him. Early in 1904, at the Canadian Club of Ottawa, he tried out the phrase he would reiterate throughout that election year: "The nineteenth century was the century of the United States," he declared. "I think we can claim that it is Canada that shall fill the twentieth century." By mid-October, at Massey Hall, Sir Wilfrid Laurier had perfected the phrasing that would go down in our history books.

I tell you nothing but what you know when I tell you that the nineteenth century has been the century of the United States development. The past hundred years has been filled with the pages of their history. Let me tell you, my fellow countrymen, that the twentieth century shall be the century of Canada and of Canadian development. For the next 75 years, nay for the next hundred years, Canada shall be the star towards which all men who love progress and freedom shall come.

To those, sir, who have life before them, let my prayer be this: remember from this day forth, never to look simply at the horizon as it may be limited by the limits of Province, but look abroad over all the continent... and let your motto be: "Canada first, Canada last, and Canada always." (1)

Laurier could boast of a booming economy, belated beneficiary of Klondike gold, North America's "Last, Best West," and the National Policy of his Tory predecessor. Scottish-born, a Kingston lawyer, politically bred in the savage religious and racial rivalries of the 1840s and 1850s, John A. Macdonald had learned that any relationship with the French depended on respect: "Treat them as a nation and they will act as a free people generally do -- generously. Call them a faction, and they become factious." In old age, he declared:

I have no accord with the desire expressed in some quarters that by any mode whatever there should be an attempt to oppress the one language or to render it inferior to the other; I believe that it would be impossible if it were tried, and it would be foolish and wicked if it were possible. (2)

As prime minister, Sir John A. had a strategy of nationhood, with a great transcontinental railway to bind regions together; immigration to populate the land, and a National Policy of creating opportunities.

We must, by every reasonable means, employ our people, not in one branch of industry, not merely as farmers, as tillers of the soil, but we must bring out every kind of industry, we must develop the minds of the people and their energies. Every man is not fitted to be a farmer, till the soil; one man has a constructive genius, another is an artist, another has an aptitude for trade, another is a skillful mechanic--all these men are to be found in a nation, and if Canada has only one branch of industry to offer them, if these men cannot find an opportunity in their own country to develop the skill and genius which God has gifted them, they will go to a country where their abilities can be employed, as they have gone from Canada to the United States. …

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