Take hope, Lib­er­als

Les­son of his­tory is you 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.

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 and1911. First, it must study the re­sults. In1911, 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, top, and David MacKen­zie teach at Ry­er­son Univer­sity.

Their book, Canada 1911: The De­ci­sive Elec­tion that Shaped the Coun­try, was

pub­lished this sum­mer.


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