CityNews.ca, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in Ottawa's history.
February 22, 1919
It was the opening of the second session of the thirteenth parliament of Canada.
With traditional solemnity, the Governor General, the Duke of Devonshire, gave the speech from the Throne in the Senate Chamber in front of the combined Houses of Parliament. He laid out the upcoming agenda of the government, which included giving women the right to vote and sit in the House of Commons.
Afterwards, members of the Commons returned to the Commons chamber.
There, Sir Thomas White, the acting prime minister—Sir Robert Borden was in Paris attending the peace talks—rose and stated:
"Mr. Speaker, we meet today under the shadow of a great loss and a deep and widespread personal sorrow. The Right Hon. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, senior member of this House, has passed away, and an entire nation mourns his death.”
He announced that with the consent of the family a state funeral would take place on Saturday, February 22, 1919, and that Laurier’s remains would lie is state in the Commons chamber from that evening (Thursday, February 20) until the Saturday morning, and that Parliament would adjourn until the following Tuesday, “out of respect to and in honour of his memory.”
There had been no foreshadowing of the great man’s demise.
While Sir Wilfrid was 77 years of age, he was in apparent good health, and was looking forward to retirement. Less than a month earlier, at the Eastern Ontario Liberal Convention, he remarked that he was beginning to feel the “weight of years,” and that it was time to “pass the reins to a younger general and fight in the ranks.” To a journalist, he said that he was looking forward to “the serenity of his study,” working on his memoirs, and writing a constitutional history of Canada.
On Saturday, February 16, he attended a luncheon at the Canadian Club where he listened with interest to a speech on competing territorial claims of Serbia and Italy. After lunch, he took a streetcar to his office in the Victoria Museum on Metcalfe Street, Parliament’s temporary home since the disastrous fire that gutted the centre block on Parliament Hill three years earlier. There, he dictated some letters dealing with the upcoming new session of Parliament. As Leader of the Opposition, he would be taking a leading role in the upcoming debates.
While accounts vary, it appears that in the afternoon, after he had dismissed his secretary, Laurier experienced a fainting spell while he was alone in his office. He fell and hit his head, leaving a bruise. However, he quickly recovered and was well enough to take a street car to his home (now called Laurier House at the corner of Laurier Avenue and Chapel Street).
When his doctor, who had come calling that evening, noticed the mark, Sir Wilfrid made light of it, though he added that his left leg felt weaker than his right.
The following day, at about noon, Laurier was struck by a serious stroke that affected his entire left side. For a time, he rallied, and his doctors became cautiously optimistic that he might pull through. However, at midnight, he was struck by another cerebral hemorrhage and fell into a deep coma. Last rights were administered by Father Laflamme of the Church of the Sacred Heart.
Through the following morning he got progressively weaker. His wife, Zoé Laurier, maintained a vigil at his bedside.
Shortly before noon, the Governor General came to his residence, followed by Sir Thomas White, the acting prime minister. Meanwhile, messenger boys brought telegrams from across the country and from around the world expressing the hope for a speedy recovery.
It was not to be. Doctors informed family and friends that there was no hope. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who had been in public service for half a century and had been prime minister for 15 years, died that Monday afternoon (February 17) without regaining consciousness.
After Sir Wilfrid’s body was embalmed, he was laid in his home’s drawing room for family and close friends to pay their last respects. Laurier was dressed in his official Windsor uniform and on his breast was the insignia of a Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George. His casket was made of bronze with little ornamentation other than decorated corners and pallbearers’ rails. The interior was lined with white quilted satin with a white satin pillow for his head.
On the Thursday after the speech from the Throne, Laurier’s remains were taken without ceremony to the Victoria Museum where he was laid in state in front of the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons. A guard of honour comprised of members of the House of Commons stood watch. The chamber was decorated in mourning colours of purple and black.
On Laurier’s desk, which was also draped with black and purple cloth, was a large wreath, a tribute from members of the House. A black carpet marked the path for the mourners to file past Laurier’s bier.
The Commons chamber was filled with floral wreaths, crosses and pillows from provinces, cities and private citizens. The Syrian community of Montreal sent a large urn with white and purple ribbons, the premier and government of Saskatchewan a basket of sweet peas.
The Ottawa Press Club’s wreath bore the number “30” signifying in newspapermen’s jargon that Laurier’s “story” was over. The Montreal City Council sent a floral tribute seven feet high and five feet wide. So many flowers were sent that Ottawa florists were hard pressed to fill all the orders.
It was estimated that between 45,000 and 50,000 people filed past Laurier’s bier during the 36 hours he laid in state in the Commons chamber. At times as many as 2,000 persons per hour said their adieux to the fallen leader.
People of all ages and all stations paid their respects, including soldiers on crutches, and mothers who held their children high so that they might be able to say in the future that they saw Laurier.
When the time came for the doors to the Commons chamber to close, thousands were still outside of the Museum.
Laurier’s funeral was held in Notre Dame Basilica. The original plan was for a requiem mass to be celebrated at the Church of the Sacred Heart, the church were Sir Wilfrid and Lady Laurier attended just a short walk from their home. But owing to the numbers wishing to attend, the service was moved to the much larger Basilica. Even so, two days before the funeral more than 5,000 people had applied for tickets to the 2,000 available seats.
Thousands of people poured into Ottawa to get a glimpse of the funeral procession and to be a part of history.
Special trains and extra carriages were laid on from Toronto and Montreal by the CPR and the CNR. Scarcely a room could be found in Ottawa’s hotels that weekend.
Public buildings, including the Post Office and the East Block on Parliament Hill, were decorated in the colours of mourning. The window of the Ottawa Electric Company near the corner of Sparks and Elgin Street displayed a portrait of Sir Wilfrid, “heroic in size,” which was illuminated at night.
The funeral procession left the Victoria Museum for the Basilica at 10 a.m. on Saturday, February 22, via Metcalfe Street, Wellington Street and Major's Hill Park. Despite strong wind and snow, thousands of men, women and children lined the route to pay their last respects.
The Ottawa Evening Journal opined that “no funeral in Canadian history, and few, we believe at any time in any country, has presented such a spectacle of national affection and grief.” A civic half day holiday was declared, and all government offices were closed. Shops, stores and industry stopped to allow people to honour the memory of Canada’s dead statesman.
Two-thirds of Ottawa’s police force were on duty just to control the crowds and keep the street clear.
Laurier’s coffin was borne to the Basilica in a black and silver hearse drawn by four black horses. (Click here to view archival footage of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s funeral.) The cortege consisted of officiating clergy, eight Dominion Police pallbearers, ten sleighs of floral tributes, honorary pallbearers, who included Sr. Thomas White, the Governor General, Lieutenant Governors General, senators, members of Parliament, judges, civic officials, service organizations and the general public.
The funeral service began at 11 a.m. The interior of the Basilica was draped in black, purple and gold. His Excellency, Monsignor Di Maria, the papal delegate, was the celebrant. Archbishop Mathieu of Regina, a friend of Sir Wilfrid, delivered an oration in French while Rev. Father John Burke of the Paulist Order spoke in English.
After the service, the funeral cortege made its way to Notre Dame Cemetery for the interment. After a brief ceremony, Laurier’s bronze casket was placed in a steel box and lowered into the ground. His grave site was later marked by a stone sarcophagus with nine mourning women, representing the nine provinces of Canada at the time.
Today, Sir Wilfrid Laurier is widely recognized as one of Canada’s greatest statesmen. His image appears on Canada’s $5 bill. Wilfrid Laurier University is named in his honour. In a 2016 survey of scholars conducted by Maclean’s magazine, Laurier placed second after Mackenzie King and above Sir John A. Macdonald as Canada’s greatest prime minister. During his premiership, the first by a Francophone Canadian, Canada experienced rapid economic and population growth, and saw the creation of two new provinces—Alberta and Saskatchewan. Sir Wilfrid is, however, best known for bringing together English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians—his main desire throughout his political life.
It was his speech in 1895 that the expression “sunny ways” first came into the Canadian political lexicon. In the context of the vexed political problem of the Manitoba Schools Question, Laurier proposed to deal with the issue through the “sunny way” of negotiation and compromise. Today, the expression “sunny ways” has become associated with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who often invokes the spirit of Laurier in his public appearances.
Despite Laurier’s sunny ways, his admirable efforts to unite English and French Canadians, and his economic and political successes, Laurier’s career has its dark side. It was during his tenure as prime minister that the Chinese poll tax was increased from $50 to $100 in 1900, and to $500 in 1903—an amount far out of reach of most Chinese immigrants. Black immigration, notably from the United States, was essentially banned on the ostensible grounds that Canada’s weather was too severe for black immigrants. The rights of Canada’s indigenous peoples were also trampled in the rush of white settlers to “open” Canada’s west. While such racist behaviour was standard fare in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is much harder to overlook today. Laurier’s reputation, like that of his illustrious predecessor, Sir John A. Macdonald, has suffered as a consequence.