The Francophone Schools Crisis
Upon his arrival in the House as Prime Minister, Laurier faced the debate on the preservation of Catholic schools in Manitoba left behind by the Conservative government.
During the campaign of 1896, Wilfrid proposed his sunny ways for the first time. Indeed, he spent the electoral campaign defending a possible compromise based on reason rather than on emotion. He opposed the legislative path that had brought down the previous government, while simultaneously satisfying Francophones.
The expression, sunny ways, is now a hallmark of Laurier’s time in power. During a speech in 1896, he used Aesop’s fable of The Wind and the Sun as a metaphor for the political mess between Ottawa and Manitoba. In the fable, the wind and sun argue over which was stronger and might make a traveller remove his coat first. In the fable, the hot rays of the sun are more effective than the blowing wind.
When he became Prime Minister, Laurier had the opportunity to end the debate and impose himself as a conciliator. It was in this context that Laurier quickly travelled to Manitoba to negotiate an agreement. The Laurier-Greenway Compromise was signed on November 16, 1896. It did not foresee the re-establishment of separate schools, but school boards would have to provide Catholic, Francophone teachers if a petition was presented and duly signed by a precise number of parents.
Several historians have glorified Laurier, stating that he found the only realistic solution to a dangerous crisis. However, his compromise led to many reactions. The Catholic Church campaigned aggressively against Laurier. In addition to losing its grip on the instruction of children in their mother tongue, the Catholic Church’s influence on its flock would wane. Laurier defended himself as follows:
“To me, the salvation of the French race is not in isolation, but in struggle. Let us give our children the best education possible. Let us put them on an equal footing with those of the other race, and let us give them the legitimate pride they will feel in such a struggle. That way lies salvation. That way lies autonomy.”
This was one of the many battles that Laurier’s government would wage to protect minorities.