English Canadians don’t really grasp and certainly failed to grab hold of what Laurier was doing with his leadership. Laurier is lionized in Canada as a – well, as an Important French Guy! But Laurier failed to make some critical innovations which cost lives and dignity for hundreds. Of course, these parts of Laurier’s cultural force are completely sandblasted off of the guy in favor of “he’s on the $5 bill so he must be important!”. Recall that the civil service of Canada is still a mess of patronage; with Laurier’s influence in distancing Canada from direct British rule, the effect was that the government of the day simply failed at its job. Badly.
Consider the Quebec Bridge disaster of 1907. You know, the first time Canada tried to build a bridge only to have it collapse. The failure of the Laurier-borne and created Quebec Bridge and Railway Company to study the faulty design that they had a company in New York design is a telling case. In the time from approval to accidentally ending 75 lives (including the lives of 33 Mohawk metalworkers), the government had taken a shorter bridge, said “yeah, that looks good”, fired the guy who was worried about the maths of the first design (you know, the one that was lengthened with as much care as one lengthens a picture in MS Paint), and eaten through two federal Cabinet ministers responsible for the project.
Jesus Christ, guys! Even the Navy got splashed with this confusion, with the HMCS Rainbow left unable to do much of anything after it first got to the West Coast because the boat’s captain didn’t know what he was allowed to do without the British Admiralty structure. Rainbow was however able to save Canada from following the law with the Kotagama Maru incident that we will definitely cover. The Niobe fared even better, running aground in 1911 before being damaged in the 1917 Halifax Whoopsiedoodle Kablooie and being retired. Truly an auspicious start.
Laurier of course encroached on Indian lands and contributed his piece especial to the genocide Canada had tended to. But even that feeds what was wrong with Laurier to my mind – he ably steered the Canadian state, but the Canadian state itself was and is a rickety unsteady morass of unsolved problems. Laurier failed to clean that up; he also failed to understand the implications of Canada’s profound instability when pulling towards greater sovereignty. He in essence committed the quintessential Dunning-Kruger by overestimating Canada’s ability to do things while underestimating the damage done by continued negligence.
But Laurier is a figure we can at least have a discussion on that doesn’t devolve to non-talk about grit and heart. Like any leader of consequence he left a legacy that is hard to simply slot into bad and good categories. And for that in the context of Canada I opted to leave Laurier out of the Crime Ministers list.