Answers from Historians Christopher Moore and Réal Bélanger

What is the actual birthdate of Sir John A? -Harvey Haber from Toronto, Ont.)

Christopher Moore: 

January 11, 1815. January 11, 1815. January 11, 1815.  Say it lots of time, and maybe we’ll convince ourselves. Because in fact there is some uncertainty. John A and his family always celebrated January 11 as his birthday. On January 11, 1885, thousands of Montrealers turned out to celebrate his 70th birthday with a torchlight parade and a great head of Sir John in blazing fireworks.  But the official registration of births in Glasgow records January 10, 1815 as the birthday of John Alexander Macdonald.  Errors easily creep into routine documents like birth registrations, and one might think the family would know the right date. So January 11 seems like the day to commemorate – but there remains that asterisk on it.  

I have heard wonderful stories about the wife of Sir John A. Macdonald and would be interested in knowing more. Also, was Laurier married and what do you know about his wife? (Gerri Thorsteinson from Winnipeg, Man.) 

Christopher Moore: 

He had two wives, and they are both interesting people in their own right.  Most people agreed John A. was not the easiest of husbands for either of them. He was always working, he was prone to drink, and he had that easy social charm that neither of his wives really shared. He married Isabella Clark in Kingston in 1843.  They had a son who died, aged one, and another who lived.  But Isabella became an invalid with a mysterious crippling complaint, and she died in 1857.  In the midst of the Confederation negotiations in 1867, Macdonald married Agnes Bernard of Barrie, Ontario, the sister of his private secretary.  They had a daughter, Mary, who was developmentally handicapped. Lady Agnes was a true Victorian: often rather stiff and austere and at her best on formal occasions, yet also capable of flights of invention and delight and a lively writer about her experiences. After his death she was named Baroness Macdonald of Earnscliffe, and she lived until 1920. There is a biography: Agnes by Louise Reynolds, published in 1979.  

Réal Bélanger:

Wilfrid Laurier and Zoé Lafontaine got married in Montreal on May 13, 1868, at the Cathédrale Saint-Jacques, and under very special circumstances. They had been in love with one another at least since 1861-1862, the time that they met in Montreal. At that time, they were both rooming at the house of Séraphin Gauthier, who was soon to become a doctor.  Laurier was not a very healthy person (he believed he had tuberculosis) and as such did not dare to ask Zoé to marry him.  Zoé was a young piano teacher, an excellent musician, quite pretty, somewhat quiet, timid and retiring. They got along well together, and spent their time at the Gauthier house sharing in music, song and political discussions.  But when Laurier, having passed the bar, found himself obliged, for health reasons, to move to Bois-Francs on November 18, 1866, they saw a lot less of one another. Laurier constantly thought of Zoé, and she never forgot him either. However, since a marriage proposal did not seem forthcoming, Zoé had started to see Pierre Valois, a young doctor. The two of them even discussed marriage: Pierre and Zoé planned to marry in May 1868, at the same time as one of Séraphin Gauthier’s daughters.  But Zoé had trouble hiding the love that she still felt for Laurier. In the spring of 1868, she became depressed.  On May 12, 1868, Doctor Gauthier wrote urgently to Laurier, strongly suggesting that he come to Montreal as quickly as possible in order to deal with ‘a very dire situation’. As soon as Laurier arrived at Doctor Gauthier’s on May 13, the doctor gave him a quick physical and told him that he was not ill with tuberculosis, but rather with chronic bronchitis, nothing more.  And so Laurier and Zoé got back together. That very evening, they got married.  Zoé was the most loyal, charming and attentive wife for Laurier.  She was not an intellectual; she preferred animals, plants and day-to-day home life, etc. They did not have any children.  The only real difficulty in their relationship occurred starting in 1878.  At that time, Laurier began a somewhat ambiguous relationship with Émilie Lavergne, the wife of Joseph Lavergne, one of the associates in his law firm.  He gradually fell in love with her:  she was more intellectual than Zoé, more curious, more interested in politics and its workings; and like Laurier, she adored literature. She conquered his heart.  Unconfirmed rumour had it that Armand Lavergne, the son of Joseph and Émilie Lavergne, was in fact Laurier’s son.  Needless to say, Zoé was not very happy with this situation: she became more and more angry and resentful of this relationship that lasted more than twenty years. But she would have forgiven Laurier.  Zoé always behaved with great dignity in Laurier’s political life and she never caused him any harm in this respect. Looking at the collective political actions of her husband, one could assume that Zoé was at times a wise and valued counsel, presenting certain causes to him, including those of the destitute and of charitable organizations. When the great man died, she was at his bedside. She died on November 1, 1921.

What was the first act of parliament or bill passed into law by Sir John A. Macdonald and his government? (Thomas Barclay from Ottawa, Ont.)

Christopher Moore: 

It’s not so easy to say.  The first session of the first Parliament of Canada met from November 6 to December 21, 1867.  It passed a great many bills, but all were given royal assent simultaneously on December 21, so it is hard to pick one “first.”

The first substantial business of Parliament was the Speech from the Throne. It was debated and passed at the start of the session. As in every new Parliament, however, the very first vote in the Commons and the Senate was for the election of a Speaker for each house. James Cockburn became the first speaker of the House of Commons
Many of the bills Parliament passed in that first session in 1867 were needed to organize the business of the new government and parliament: “supply” (which meant authorizing money for the government’s expenditures), plus bills about members’ salaries, the naming of committees, the administration of oaths, the printing of statutes, and the shaping of a national postal system, customs tariffs, and so on.

As far as new matters of national policy, however, two government initiatives of 1867 stand out. John A Macdonald’s government won parliamentary approval to raise and spend 3 million pounds sterling for the building of the Intercolonial Railway from the St. Lawrence to Nova Scotia. And the government saw through an address to the Queen urging that the North-West Territories and Rupert’s Land be brought into the Canadian Confederation.  Building railroads and bringing the country together --  lasting themes of Macdonald and of Canada, both addressed in the very first Parliamentary session.

How did he make Canada autonomous within the British Empire? (Albert Wells from Oshawa, Ont.)

Réal Bélanger:

In order to truly understand the answer that follows, we need to establish a few general points regarding Canada’s situation in the British Empire. In 1896, when Laurier became Prime Minister, Canada was a colony of the British Empire. More precisely, it was a Dominion of the Empire.  Politically, that meant that the Canadian government could do as it wished in terms of internal policy (it was therefore autonomous in that regard) but it was not free to act in terms of foreign policy, which was dominated by the mother country, master of the Empire.  In other words, the Canadian government could not control its international policy. Gaining autonomy as part of an Empire thus signified, among other things, achieving greater freedom in elaborating and implementing Canada’s external policy. As Prime Minister between 1896 and 1911, Laurier worked on this, all the while trying to maintain the level of autonomy that Canada already had in the context of the Empire. It must be said that, while Laurier was quite enamored with British institutions, he would in his own convictions prefer to expedite independence for Canada, as he overtly mentioned in 1892. But he knew that, given the times, this would be impossible. It’s also necessary to realize that at the very moment that Laurier became Prime Minister, England was implementing an aggressive imperialist policy, spearheaded by Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. The principal agenda included the imperial federation as well as a political, military and economic federation, in sum, a consolidation, if not a unification of the Empire. In this context, Laurier’s work would be to maintain as much as possible of the existing autonomy that Canada enjoyed and to resist Chamberlain’s policies and elevate Canada’s status in the Empire, with the eventual goal of independence. In practice, Laurier had almost always refused to align himself with Chamberlain’s intentions. This was most evident at the Colonial or Imperial summits held in London, even though Laurier did make certain concessions, such as accepting Canada’s participation in the Boer War in 1899. Indeed. such was the case at the Colonial summit of 1897 : Laurier himself drafted and ensured the ratification of a proposal eliminating any possibility of modifying ‘current political relations between Great Britain and the autonomous colonies’. He thereby even refused any participation of the colonies in imperial decisions that involved contribution to defence of the Empire. He did it again in 1902, to the stupefaction of Chamberlain and the English Imperialists, during another key Colonial summit.  Peremptorily avoiding any thorough integration of the Empire, Laurier categorically rejected the idea of an Imperial council in favour of a series of periodic conferences; he opposed the creation of an imperial navy and supported the future development of a Canadian warship fleet to defend our coastline; and he resisted any type of commercial union because he claimed to be satisfied with a policy of imperial protection. In the Canadian House of Commons, he explained his thoughts thusly on March 13, 1903: The British Empire ‘is made up of a multitude of free nations governed by a single monarch, but who, first and foremost, answer to themselves’. These and similar words and actions during the Colonial and Imperial summits were what crystallized Canada’s autonomy. He adopted the same stance during an Imperial congress in 1907, at which time he went so far as to affirm that the colonies themselves should negotiate their commercial treaties with other countries. And that was not all. In 1910, to carry out his 1902 promise and show Chamberlain that Canada was becoming stronger and more developed, he created a small navy of warships for Canada. England was in desperate straits at the time, because it was worried about losing its naval supremacy to Germany. Laurier objected to any monetary contribution to the mother country and concentrated on his own navy, which would protect his country’s coastline. Symbolically, this policy was important, in spite of the setbacks it caused him in Quebec, where he was viewed as overly imperialistic. In 1911, the Canadian government went on its own to negotiate a reciprocal trade agreement with the United States. This agreement did not take the form of a formal treaty but rather that of legislation that each country enacted. This policy, which was never officially ratified, caused the downfall of Laurier’s regime in the general election of September 21, 1911. It did however mark another step forward in Laurier’s government’s plan to gain more autonomy for the country. We could also  say that the establishment of a Foreign Affairs ministry in 1909, modest as it initially was, but requested by the Governor-General himself, followed a similar logic. And all the while that he was working on developing Canada’s autonomy within the Empire after 1896, Laurier also spent much time and effort in reinforcing and developing Canada at home, within the national boundaries. The objective was clear: the more powerful Canada became, the more important its place would be in the Empire. Supported by his minister Clifford Sifton, he put the West on the political map, added two provinces to Confederation (Alberta and Saskatchewan), promoted industrialization in Quebec and Ontario, had a transcontinental railway built, and saw the population of the country grow from 5 371 315 in 1901 to 7 206 643 en 1911. In this way, he finished the work of John A. Macdonald by stating loud and clear that the 20th century was Canada’s century. All of Laurier’s accomplishments and all of the stands he took served to reinforce Canada’s autonomy and help it to receive greater recognition as a nation in 1911.

Christopher Moore:

Well, it was not just him.  Canada acquired a large measure of autonomy in 1847-8, when the colonies established the principle that their appointed governor had to do what the elected Canadian legislatures decided for them.  At that time, Macdonald was an opposition backbencher -- and not very supportive of that change.  Macdonald was a connoisseur of power all his life; he was willing to leave some things to the British authorities if that meant he could get his way more effectively by lobbying British officials than by the struggles of Canadian politics.  In fact, some constitutional scholars argue complete autonomy for Canada had to await an agreement called the Statute of Westminster, implemented in 1931. Others point to patriation of the constitution in 1982 as the final step.

But just by the way he personified Canada from 1867 to his death in 1891, John A. Macdonald instilled the idea of an autonomous Canada making its own way in the world. He took Canada in the directions he thought it must follow, even when the British government disapproved. He taught Canada and the world what a Canadian prime minister and a Canadian government could be.

I would like to know if Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s wife, Zoe Lafontaine was related to Sir Louis Hippolyte LaFontaine, the first Prime Minister of the Province of Quebec.  Any information would be appreciated. Thank you.  (Dianne LaFontaine from Whitby, Ont.)

Zoé Lafontaine was the daughter of Godefroy-Napoléon Lafontaine (sometimes also written as ‘Godfrey-Napoléon’ or even ‘Godefroi-Napoléon’ or ‘Napoléon-Godefroi’ Lafontaine) and Zoé Lavigne (the genealogist Jean-Jacques Lefebvre is mistaken when he refers to her as Zoé Tessier). Up until now, none of the main biographers of Wilfrid Laurier, including Oscar Douglas Skelton and Joseph Schull, who obviously looked into the life of Zoé Lafontaine, makes mention of any immediate familial link between Zoé Lafontaine and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine. My personal research on Wilfrid Laurier has not found any such link either. Jean-Jacques Lefebvre, who traced the Laurier family genealogy, and who was familiar with that of the LaFontaine family as well, does not link Zoé to L-H LaFontaine. All of Laurier’s biographers introduce Zoé Lafontaine at the time when Laurier started to quietly court her around 1861-1862.  Laurier was at the time living in Montreal with Séraphin Gauthier and Zoé, who taught piano to Gauthier’s children, was also living there with her sick mother.  Godefroy-Napoléon seems to have left them to fend for themselves. According to documents of the era, the Lauriers never mentioned a family link between Zoé and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine. At the pinnacle of his career, Laurier made several famous speeches and at times he evoked the memory of the great LaFontaine. But on none of these occasions did he refer to a familial link between his wife and the politician.  Zoé died on November 1, 1921. To prove a complete absence of familial relationship between these two people, we would have to trace the genealogy of Zoé and that of Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, an endeavour which goes beyond the scope of this answer. If we did so, perhaps we would find a distant common ancestor for these two people. The research remains to be done.

Please allow me to clarify that Prime Minister Laurier’s first name is not ‘Wilfred’ but rather ‘Wilfrid’.  This is a common misconception seen in English Canada.

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