Sunny Ways: Canada’s first Francophone prime minister

Even during his time at McGill, where he earned a Law degree in 1864, Wilfrid Laurier’s passion for bringing people together was clear.

Chosen to deliver his graduating class’s valedictory speech, the charismatic Francophone addressed his mostly Anglophone audience in French, advocating passionately for the principles that would become his national legacy: “conciliation, harmony and concord among the different elements of this country of ours.”

Laurier developed an interest in politics during his university years, and following a brief stint practicing law he delved into a political career – first as a member of Quebec’s Legislative Assembly in 1871, and then as a federal Member of Parliament three years later. Laurier was named Liberal Party leader in 1887 and won the 1896 federal election with a message of unity and compromise remembered to this day in his historic “Sunny Ways” speech, which bore much in common with his valedictory remarks more than three decades earlier. Laurier was Canada’s seventh prime minister, and the first Francophone to serve in this role.

André Pratte, La Presse journalist and Laurier biographer, notes that “the simple fact that he became prime minister in a way changed the country forever: both for French Canadians, who had not really thought that they had anything to do with the other provinces, and for English Canadians, most of them British. He very rapidly realized that if the country was to survive, you needed to unite both French and English Canadians.”

Today, Laurier is remembered for overseeing the integration of Saskatchewan and Alberta as Canadian provinces, creating Canada’s navy, helping establish Canada as a major player on the world stage, and fostering national unity at a time when religious, cultural and other debates threatened to tear the country apart.