The Heady Days of the Laurier Era.

In the early 20th century Sir Wilfred Laurier, one of our longest serving Prime Ministers, famously announced: “The twentieth century shall be the century of Canada. . . . For the next hundred years, Canada shall be the star towards which all men who love progress and freedom shall come.” Whether you feel that Laurier was on the mark or not, at the time of this renowned speech in 1904, Canadians were very optimistic about the future.

A Raphael Tuck & Sons postcard showing the Canadian Wheat Arch, erected in Whitehall (London, England) to honour Edward VII’s coronation in 1902. Note the “Free Homes for Millions” ad.

One of the main reasons for the country’s optimism was the enormously successful campaign to lure immigrants to Western Canada and the economic prosperity that soon followed. No doubt taking advantage of the worldwide interest in the Canadian West triggered by the discovery of gold in the Yukon in 1896, Laurier’s government embarked on an ambitious advertising campaign in Europe and America to populate this vast, near empty region. Homesteaders were offered 160 acres of free western farmland provided the land was worked and permanent residences were established on it.

“Homes for Millions in Canada” are advertised in this King’s Printer (government) postcard targeting Uncle Sam in 1903. This postcard is one of a series of 12 cartoon-type cards primarily focusing on immigration from the USA.

"Thousands of Settlers are Moving to Canada" 1903 postcard.

The immigration campaign was an unqualified success. During the Laurier era (1896 to 1911), the population of the west increased from 300,000 to 1.5 million inhabitants. One of the results, of course, was that in 1905 the Districts of Athabasca, Assiniboia, Saskatchewan and Alberta became the Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Canada was truly growing from “sea to sea.”

One of the most significant statistics, directly resulting from the influx of homesteaders, was the increase in Canada’s annual wheat production from approximately 7.5 million bushels in 1896 to 75 million bushels in 1911! As impressive as this tenfold increase sounds, a 1903 immigration booklet issued by the Honourable Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior and Laurier’s immigration bulldog, boldly predicted that: “Western Canada will, within 10 or 15 years produce from 800 millions to one billion bushels of grain.”  As shown below, the postcards of the period soon began trumpeting Canada as “The Empire’s Granary.”

A wonderful Millar & Lang (Glasgow) patriotic postcard of “Canada, The Empire’s Granary.”

Laurier was definitely putting Canada “on the map” and we were maturing as a nation in the process. Although most of the country still maintained a fierce loyalty to Britain, distinctly Canadian symbols such as the maple leaf, beaver, and North West Mounted Police (i.e., the Mounties) slowly began to take precedence over Union Jacks and other British symbols on our postcards. And why not? How could anyone downplay the significance of these nation-building events:

  • With Clifford Sifton at the immigration helm, Laurier fulfilled John A. MacDonald’s vision of filling up the empty west. In 1900 alone, Sifton sent out over one million pamphlets, in addition to special postcards and posters, extolling the advantages and virtues of western settlement.
  • From 1899 to 1902 the Canadian contingents distinguished themselves in the Anglo-Boer War. Colonels Otter, Lessard and the legendary Mountie, Sam Steele, became household names. (Over 7,000 Canadian troops were sent to South Africa to support the British Army.)
  • The Militia Act of 1904 opened the top appointment of our defence forces to Canadian officers for the first time in our history.
  • Saskatchewan and Alberta became provinces in 1905.
  • The Royal Canadian Navy was created in 1910.
  • And finally, in 1911 Laurier negotiated a reciprocity (free trade) agreement with the Americans that gave the farmers in the West unfettered access to US markets, while still maintaining the tariffs that protected central Canada’s manufacturers from the burgeoning American colossus. Our independence from Britain, at least commercially, was growing.

A Christmas patriotic postcard from Vancouver with beavers, maple leaves, and wilderness scene in “The Land of the Maple.” (This is a fine example of postcards that would have a city or town added to the front as needed)

Ironically, the 1911 reciprocity agreement, although a great deal for Canada, led to Laurier’s downfall. Opposition from business groups, boards of trade and the pro-British media (see Figure 5) grew until he was forced to call an election over the issue.

This Brigdens Ltd. (Toronto) anti-reciprocity postcard, taken from a newspaper cartoon lampooning the agreement, shows an overwhelmed Canadian producer in a boxing ring with a giant American foe.

The net result of the 1911 election was that Laurier’s majority government was defeated (unlike the majority government in 1988 that brought in the current Canada-US free trade agreement, and the GST!). Sir Robert Borden, leader of the opposition Tories, formed the next government. The Laurier era was over.

Although Laurier’s reign came to an end in 1911, his 15 year uninterrupted term in office, and long list of nation-building accomplishments, makes him one of Canada’s greatest Prime Ministers. Fortunately for collectors, his (and Canada’s) achievements are wonderfully documented in the postcards of the day.

About Mike Smith

Michael J. (Mike or “MJ”) Smith is an RMC graduate (Class of ’77) and ex-naval officer who has been an avid collector of Canadiana for most of his life. His current passion is collecting, researching and writing about Canadian antique postcards.

In January 2003 Mike authored The Canadian Patriotic Postcard Checklist 1898−1928, which is a full colour handbook listing darn near every Canadian patriotic postcard published in that eventful 30-year period. The books that followed include:

  • December 2006: The W.G. MacFarlane Picture Postcard Handbook 1902−1910
  • August 2007: The Warwick Bros. & Rutter Picture Postcard Handbook 1903−1912
  • May 2009: The McCoy Printing Company Picture Postcard Handbook 1900-1910 (coauthor Bill Angley)
  • November 2010: The W.G. MacFarlane Picture Postcard Handbook 1902-1910 Second Edition
  • February 2011: Warwick Bros. & Rutter Postcard Gems 1903-1912 (coauthor Bill Buchanan)
  • Planned for September 2011: The Stedman Bros. Picture Postcard Handbook 1906-1914

For more information on Mike’s postcard books, check the following website:

http://www.postcard-directory.com/mikesmithbooks/index.htm

 

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