Welcoming 2019 & Remembering the Events of 1919

By Douglas Phillips

Welcome to 2019, a new year and the last of the decade.  One hundred years ago the world was emerging from the horrific First World War, and many of the decisions made in 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference are still reverberating today.

The effects of the deadly Spanish Flu in 1919 spread across the world claiming 50 million lives.  In Canada several events took place; the opening of the new House of Parliament Building in Ottawa, the death of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and across the Atlantic the Peace Conference began in Paris on the 18th January.

The Parliament Buildings

From 1841 to 1867 Parliament moved from city to city; Kingston, Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto – but the question of location was referred to Queen Victoria, and Ottawa, then known as Bytown, was chosen in 1857 as the new capital.  At the time it was a  rough and tumble lumber town with taverns and hotels.  The site chosen for the Parliament Building was a limestone outcrop overlooking the Ottawa River, on which stood a wooden barracks.


The Centre Block which houses the House of Commons and Senate Chamber is closing its doors in December this year for extensive renovations which are estimated to take ten years, with a cost of $3 billion.  Included is $860 million already spent on the West Block. In January the Commons will move to a newly refurbished West Block Centre Courtyard and the Senate will be in the Government Conference Centre across the street. The present building was completed in 1927 with the opening of the Peace Tower, which replaced the original Parliament building destroyed by fire on the 16th February 1916.   In the summer of 1916 work began on the foundations and three years later the offices of MPs and their staff where formally opened in 1920.


The building retained the high gothic look and feel of the original Parliament with many beautiful carvings, stained glass windows and marble floors. Visitors are always impressed when viewing Confederation Hall with its high fan vaulted ceilings.


The Centre Block has been the centre of our democracy for the last 100 years and during that time the country has witnessed 19 Prime Ministers, 15 male and 1 female who have held office.  It has witnessed wars, the Great Depression and the growth of a nation.  One person who never walked the hollowed halls was our 7th Prime Minister, Wilfred Laurier.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier 

Historians consider Laurier one of our country’s greatest statesmen.  He was the first Francophone to hold the office taking up the reins of Confederation from John A. MacDonald.  For 15 consecutive years his vision and leadership guided Canada into the nation we know today.  We see him everyday on the $5 bill with his portrait on the obverse since 1972.


He was born on November 20th, 1841, in Saint-Lin, Laurentide, a rural French farming community 60km north of Montreal.  His ancestors were some of the original settlers from northern France who had founded Montreal two centuries earlier in 1642.  His father Carolus was a local land surveyor and his mother, Marcelle was a reader of classic novels, who encouraged Wilfrid to read, but died when Wilfrid was seven.  His father married Adeline, a nurse who had looked after Marcelle in her final years.  His stepmother was a kind person who gave Wilfrid the same love and attention as the children she bore with Carolus.


His father encouraged him to learn English and he became bilingual at the age of ten.  He was then
sent to live with Scottish immigrants and attended school in New Glasgow, a village south of Saint-Lin. In 1854 at the age of thirteen he attended the College de L’Assomption, a Roman Catholic Boys School. Living away from home he grew up quickly and became self-reliant. Wilfred loved languages and became skilled in debating, relying on his memory and a few notes. These skills would serve him well in his career.


In 1861 he entered McGill University to study law and for the next three years he attended daily lectures and debates. He spent most of his evenings completing legal work for a local law firm. Graduating in 1864 he entered a law partnership, but the practice was not successful.  His health suffered due to working long hours, and his doctor suggested he move to the small town of L’Avenir in the eastern townships to edit a local paper and open a law office there.


In 1868 he married Zoe Lafontaine and they moved to Athabaska, where he won a seat in the 1871 Quebec Assembly Election.  In 1874 he resigned his seat and was elected to the House of Commons, serving in the Cabinet.  Chosen as leader of the Federal Liberal Party in 1887, he built a strong base in Quebec to win the federal election in 1896.  He held the office of Prime Minister until the 1911 election but was defeated by the Conservative Party lead by Robert Borden.


During his time in office he led Canada during a period of rapid growth and immigration, created the Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905, and separated the Yukon from the North West Territories.  Laurier gained greater autonomy from Britain, united French and English Canada, and dealt with the 1899 South African Boer War by sending a volunteer army instead of a full military support which Britain had requested.


Whenever an issue came before him, he always referred to the “Sunny Way” to take the heat out of an argument.  From his humble beginnings Laurier had a human touch and a warm smile. He was a Prime Minister who could relate to working people, but also deal with the monarchs he served.


While campaigning across the country on the bitter 1917 wartime election over conscription, his health problems took their toll on him and on the 17th February 1919, he died of a stoke.  Fifty thousand people lined the streets of Ottawa to see his funeral procession, from the Victorian Museum to the Notre Dame Cemetery where he is enshrined in a stone sarcophagus supported by nine mourning figures representing each province.

Remembering Wilfred Laurier

Some of the many places that honour Sir Wilfred Laurier:
• Wilfrid Laurier Native Historic Site birthplace,
  Saint-Lei Laurentide, PQ.
• Laurier House National Historic Site, Ottawa, ON.
• Laurier Museum, Victoriaville, PQ.
• Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, ON.
• Mount Sir Wilfrid Laurier, highest peak in BC.
• Various streets and schools in Quebec and Ontario.
By Act of Parliament November 20th each year is designated Sir Wilfred Laurier Day

Paris Peace Conference 1919

The First World War Peace Settlement that shaped a New World Order.  Leaders from the United States, France, Britain and Italy (the big four), and twenty-three other nations met for six months in Paris, redrawing the map of Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Far East, creating new countries. The League of Nations, now the UN was formed, and Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles on the 28th June 1919.  Canada, along with the other countries in the British Empire that contributed to the war effort and victory were signatures to the Treaty. The event is covered in detail in Margaret MacMillan’s prize-winning book “Paris 1919.’