From Laurier, A Gilded Age, and Its Unravelling

Laurier. Orange Line. Opened 1966.
Laurier. Orange Line. Opened 1966.

With the news that in preparation for the G8 summit later this month, the small town of Fermanagh in Northern Ireland has been decked out in the image of a sadly lacking prosperity, it is worth recalling a similar event from the nineteenth century, albeit at a different stage of the economic cycle.

The 1897 Colonial Conference was held at the mid-point of the huge economic boom called the Gilded Age. Following the Napoleonic Wars and the revolutions of 1848, Europe had enjoyed a period of relative peace with French imperial ambition restrained in favour of Britain and the emergence of a unified Germany. In the United States, restoration following the Civil War of 1661 to 1665 was well under way with a massive programme of railway building and new access to cheap labour – all the those freed slaves – in the industrial north. With enormous growth to the south and London’s imperial power at its height, Canada could only benefit from this apparent stability.

In Montreal, the boom led to the fabled wealth of the Golden Square Mile as the captains of Canadian industry built palaces on the hill above Sherbrooke between Parc and Côte-des-Neiges. When domestic life became too tiresome, there were new hotels to escape to, not least from 1912 the Ritz Carlton hotel. As Nick Carraway suggests in The Great Gatsby, Montreal was a perfectly reasonable redoubt when New York became too much to handle or the heat was on. For the wastrels of Manhattan and Long Island there was little difference; in 1900 the Bank of Montreal was equal in size to many of its counterparts on the New York stock exchange.

Cushioned by an apparently unending supply of dollar bills, the guests of the Ritz Carlton, could live oblivious to the poverty which surrounded them. In his history of Montreal, Paul-André Linteau writes that insecure employment meant that below the hill more than a quarter of the population was without regular employment and 10% lived in misery, all the more difficult as basic services of the new city were monopolies determined to extract the maximum profit from their assets.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in 1915. Wm. Nottman & Sons. Copyright: McCord Museum. To learn more, click on the image.
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in 1915. Wm. Nottman & Sons. Copyright: McCord Museum. To learn more, click on the image.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 would prove the boom and its inequalities too great to be sustainable, but even at its height, it was apparent that the stability was unravelling. The Empire had simply become too vast and too rich for Britain to either defend or sustain. To address this problem it called together the leaders of its richest colonies, Canada first among them, to celebrate the jubilee of Queen Victoria, determine the future of the Empire, and explore how the colonies could pay for its upkeep.

For Laurier, this was a tricky question. He saw Canada emerging slowly as an autonomous nation. Certainly this was possible in an imperial federation, but as well as having a nation to build, Laurier had to balance a loyalist constituency, which thought of themselves as British and balked at the weakening of any ties with the “motherland”, with the concerns of Quebec’s French-speaking majority, who were content with the protections of Empire but who would never rush to its defense, let alone pay for it.

The wrong answer risked the break up of Canada, and so in a beautiful speech to the Liberal Club of Great Britain, Laurier, newly knighted, elegantly fudged the question. “I am British to the core”, he declared reassuringly. He flattered the grandees of London’s Liberal elite that it would be the proudest moment of his life if he could see a Canadian of French descent affirming the principles of freedom in the parliament of Great Britain. And yet, “Colonies are born to become nations …. The first place in our hearts is filled with Canada”.

The truth of this statement would be tested when Britain realized the dangers that surrounded it and made its call to arms. For the moment though Laurier had a nation to build, and while it might live only in his rhetoric, the imperial federation died in the banal words he drafted before leaving London: “The relations between the United Kingdom and the self-governing colonies are generally satisfactory under the existing condition of things”, read the final motion of the Colonial Council.

Consulted for this post
André Pratte, Wilfrid Laurier. Trans. Phyllis Aaronoff and Howard Scott (Toronto: Penguin Books, 2011)

Paul-André Linteau, Histoire de Montréal depuis la Confederation (Montreal: Boréal, 2000)

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