Owing to where most Americans trace their ancestry from, we tend to know more European history than the history of our immediate neighbors to the north and south, Canada and Mexico.
We can name famous entrepreneurs and political leaders from across the sea but rarely one from right next door.
A few years ago at a casual dinner conversation with Canadian friends in Vancouver, I named the better presidents and prime ministers of the United States and Great Britain. It suddenly occurred to me that I couldn’t name a really good Canadian counterpart.
So I asked my friends, “Among Canada’s political leaders, did you ever have a Grover Cleveland or a William Ewart Gladstone, a prime minister who believed deeply in liberty and defended it?”
One name emerged, almost in unison: Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Embarrassed by my ignorance, I had to admit I had never heard of him. Never mind that he’s the guy with the bushy hair on the Canadian five-dollar bill.
I just never noticed. Now that I’ve done a little research, I’m a fan.
Laurier’s political resume is impressive: the longest unbroken term of office of all 22 Canadian prime ministers (1896–1911). Forty-five years in the House of Commons, an all-time record. Longest-serving leader of any Canadian political party –malmost 32 years. Across Canada to this day, he is widely regarded as one of the country’s greatest statesmen.
It’s not his tenure in government that makes Laurier an admirable figure. It’s what he stood for while he was there. He really meant it when he declared, “Canada is free and freedom is its nationality” and “Nothing will prevent me from continuing my task of preserving at all cost our civil liberty.”
Laurier stood for: limited government, light taxes, fiscal discipline, free trade, private property and the rule of law. He resisted the temptations of a costly welfare state, noting once that “If you remove the incentives of ambition…you suppress progress, you condemn the community to stagnation and immobility.”
Born in Quebec in 1841, Laurier built an early and firm base of local support. The people appreciated his solid character and his desire for goodwill and conciliation among the disparate cultures of Canada. As prime minister he worked to keep the country together by keeping the central government small. Toleration and decentralized federalism became hallmarks of his long legacy in politics.
To help Canadians compete with the colossus to the south, Laurier hoped the country would rely on private enterprise and open markets. A key ingredient, he believed, would have to be a lower cost of government and a lower tax burden in Canada than in the United States.
Laurier pulled Canada away from high protectionist tariffs. He proposed balanced budgets as a way to keep Canada’s debt low and manageable. His policies opened the door for an explosion of immigration. Half a million hard-working immigrants rushed to Canada during his tenure, building a strong economy and a melting pot of countless cultures in the process.
I now keep a Canadian five-dollar bill in my wallet—adorned with Laurier’s image—just for those occasions when I meet a Canadian and the conversation turns to politics.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education. He writes about exceptional people, including many from his book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org