The Funeral of Sir Wilfrid Laurier

22 February 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.”

Laurier portrait LAC 3441447

Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 3441447

He announced that with the consent of the family a State funeral would take place on Saturday, 22 February 1919, and that Laurier’s remains would lie is state in the Commons chamber from that evening (Thursday, 20 February) to 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 that 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, 16 February, 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 fifteen years, died that Monday afternoon (17 February) 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.

Laurier lying in state LAC 3365409

Sir Wilfrid Laurier lying in state in the temporary House of Commons Chamber. His desk is to the right. Victoria Museum, 1919, Library and Archives Canada 3365409.

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.

Laurier CBC

Grainy image taken from archival footage of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s remains dressed in his official Windsor uniform with the sash and insignia of a Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George. CBC Archives.

It was estimated that between 45,000-50,000 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 10am on Saturday, 22 February via Metcalfe Street, Wellington and Major Hill’s 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 11am. 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.

Laurier tomb, by SimonP, Wikipedia, Notre Dame Cemetery

Tomb of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Notre Dame Cemetery, Ottawa, taken by SimonP, Wikipedia.

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.

Sources:

Azzi, Stephen & Hillmer, Norman, 2016. “Ranking Canada’s best and worst prime ministers,” Maclean’s, 7 October.

Canadian Encyclopedia 2017. Wilfrid Laurier: “The Sunny Way” Speech, 1895, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/wilfrid-laurier-the-sunny-way-speech-1895.

House of Commons Debates, 1919. 13th Parliament, 2nd Session, Death of Right Hon. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, G.C.M.G. 20 February.

Ottawa Evening Citizen, 1919. “Condition of Sir Wilfrid Laurier Suddenly Stricken On Sunday Is Critical Rapidly Sinking This Afternoon,” 17 February.

—————————–, 1919. “Civic Half Holiday For Laurier State Funeral,” 18 February.

—————————–, 1919. “Sir Wilfrid Had First Attack On Saturday Night,” 19 February.

—————————–, 1919. “Lying-In State OF Sir Wilfrid Is Attended By Great Crowds Today,” 21 February.

—————————–, 1919. “Nation’s Final Honors To Sir Wilfrid Laurier; Great State Funeral Of Her Distinguished Son,” 22 February.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1919. “Rt. Hon. Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Death Is Expected At Any Hour,” 17 February.

—————————–, 1919. “Toronto Press Refers Feelingly To sir Wilfrid And Still Hopes For The Best,” 17 February.

—————————-, 1919. “State Will Crown Former Premier’s Career With Every Honor,” 18 February.

—————————-, 1919. “Main Desire of Sir Wilfrid Was Harmony Between The Two Races,” 18 February.

—————————-, 1919. “Sir Wilfrid Laurier,” 18 February.

—————————-, 1919. “Laurier’s Funeral Will Be Largest Ever Seen Here,” 19 February.

—————————-, 1919. “Papal Delegate To Be Celebrant,” 19 February.

—————————-, 1919. “Thousands OF Applications For Tickets From Persons Who Would Go to Service, 20 February.

—————————-, 1919. “The Official Programme For Funeral Of Former Premier,” 20 February.

—————————-, 1919. Visitors Pouring In By Every Train To State Funeral,” 21 February.

—————————, 1919. “People Throng Route Early To See Funeral,” 22 February.

————————–, 1919. “Protestants and Catholics Kneel Together In Church Before The Bier Of Laurier,” 24 February.

————————–, 1919. “Distinguished Men Follow Remains Of Laurier To Grave,” 24 February.

 

The Maxwell Challenge

22 February 1912

By the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century, the automobile was no longer the delicate, temperamental curiosity that it was just a decade earlier. In ten years, the internal combustion engine used in most automobiles had been largely perfected. The one-cylinder vehicle, common at the turn of the century, which was noisy, slow and rough to drive, had evolved into a multi-cylinder machine that was, according to the Ottawa Evening Journal, not only a “thing of beauty” but “whisks by you on the street to the tune of a quiet purr, suggesting the passing of a contented cat.” Luxuriously appointed, such cars could go 50 miles per hour compared to less than 20 miles per hour achieved by vehicles a decade earlier, assuming of course drivers could find roads that were not potholed and heavily trafficked by pedestrians and horses.

Carcartoon10-2-12Journal

Cartoon, The Evening Journal, 10 February 1912, artist unknown

For the majority of people, however, owing an automobile was a dream rather than a reality. Prices were high relative to incomes, especially during the years prior to the introduction of the assembly line that lowered production costs. In 1912, there were only 500 automobiles cruising the streets of the capital, up from a dozen ten years earlier. Demand was growing rapidly, spurred by the motor car’s many advantages over a horse-drawn vehicle. While the initial outlay for a car or truck was substantial, motor vehicles were more convenient, faster, and could carry heavier loads over longer distances, though winter motoring was problematic. Macdonald & Co., the concessionaire for Albion vans, advertised that the van “could do the work of six horses.” But the automobile’s appeal went far beyond the practical or the economic.  In 1912, the Journal summed up the automobile’s almost irresistible appeal. “To own a motor car and enjoy the numerous pleasures that such affords is to own a kingdom. The driver’s seat is a throne, the steering wheel a sceptre, miles are your minions and distance your slave.”

Hundreds of small automobile companies sprang up across North America and Europe to meet the burgeoning demand for cars and trucks. Even Ottawa sported its own automobile manufacturer—the Diamond Arrow Motor Car Company. At its peak, the firm employed as many as twenty mechanics at its plant located at the corner of Lyon and Wellington Streets, just a short walk from Parliament Hill, with a showroom at 26 Sparks Street. Sadly, the firm only produced cars from 1910 to 1912, and disappeared without a trace like so many of the small, craft-style producers, a victim of strong competition, high costs, and the inability to take advantage of economies of scale.

In mid-February 1912, Ottawa held its first automobile show, hosted by the Ottawa Valley Motor Car Association founded five years earlier. The show, which attracted thousands, was held in Howlick Pavilion at the Exhibition Grounds. (The Howlick Pavilion, also known as Howlick Hall or the Coliseum was knocked down in 2012 to make way for the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park.) Some 37 different automobile marques from Canada, the United States, and Europe were on display, ranging in price from an economical $495 to a princely $10,000. Some brands, such as Rolls-Royce, Ford, Oldsmobile and Cadillac, remain household names today. But most, like Jackson, Russell, Tudhope, and Hupp, are long forgotten except by auto historians and antique-car enthusiasts. Show goers were wowed by the latest advance in automobile technology, the self-starter. No longer did a car owner have to get out and manually crank the vehicle to get it started. The 1912 Cadillac also boasted electric headlights—a first in the motoring world. Up until then, car headlamps were filled with oil and acetylene, and had to be manually lit.

With a crowded field, dealers sought ways of standing out among their competitors. Messrs Wylie Ltd of Albert Street advertised that by buying a Tudhope, a Canadian-built vehicle, purchasers avoided the 35 per cent duty levied on the imported cars. Their advertisement argued that the $1,625 Tudhope should be compared “point to point” to imported cars selling for $2,300. The American-made Cutting, selling for $1,725, boasted of its “big, husky power plant;” the Cutting had participated in the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911.

CityHallOttawa

Old Ottawa City Hall, Elgin Street, date unknown, site of the first leg of the Maxwell Challenge, William James Topley/Library & Archives Canada, Mikan No. 3325359.

Mr F.D. Stockwell, the eastern Canadian distributor of Maxwell motor cars, manufactured by the United States Motor Company, believed action spoke louder than words. To prove the superiority of his automobile, he loaded his Maxwell touring car with twenty boys and drove it up the steps of Ottawa’s City Hall—a considerable feat given the number of steps and the sharp incline. He then drove the car through the deep snow surrounding the building, and pulled a standard car, allegedly twice the weight of his Maxwell, out of a hole. Leaving City Hall, he repeated his stunt on Parliament Hill, driving up the main walkway and up the steps leading to the front of the Centre Block. He again demonstrated the Maxwell’s ability to plough through deep snowdrifts—an important selling feature for cars at the time since few streets and highways were cleared of snow.

After a copycat repeated the stair trick within a half hour of Stockwell’s stunt, and another competitor called the Stockwell’s actions “cheap advertising,” Stockwell retorted that both had ignored “the snow tests.” He then issued the following challenge.

If there is a man in Ottawa selling a touring car from $1,000 to $10,000 (any standard stock touring car, 5 to 7 passengers, not a stripped chassis or runabout), who will drive his machine up the terrace at the City Hall through the snow bank (not doing the path cut through by the Maxwell) we will immediately deposit $100 against one or more cars depositing a like amount for a contest to take place immediately at the Parliament grounds, or anywhere there is a field of good, deep snow.

The proceeds of the bet would got to the charity of the winner’s choice.

Stockwell invited all of Ottawa to come and see who would “meet the Maxwell at the snow plow game.” While he conceded that there were other good cars, he noted that the Maxwell was the only car that for two consecutive years had completed the Glidden tour with a perfect score. The Glidden tour was an American long-distance, automobile, endurance event that began in 1905. The 1911 tour, held in October of that year, was 1,476 miles long from New York to Jacksonville, Florida. It was the most gruelling event up to that time, with the course running along treacherous roads and across streams. Recall this was long before the United States had constructed its inter-state highway system.

Maxwellad

Maxwell Car Advertisement, 1912 (U.S. market), History of Early American Automobile Industry, 1891-1929.

The gauntlet was thrown down at 12.30pm on Thursday, 22 February in front of the Ottawa City Hall. Only the Peerless Garage Company, located at 344-348 Queen Street, the distributor of Cadillac, arrived to pick it up. The judges of the challenge were: Mr R. King Farrow, Mr E. H. Code and Alderman Dr Chevrier. What transpired was not exactly what Stockwell, the Maxwell distributor, had in mind.

At City Hall, the Cadillac went first, easily going up and over the building’s terrace without stopping. Stockwell, the driver of the Maxwell, refused to do likewise, but instead shouted out to the other participant “Come up where we will find some real snow at the Parliament Buildings.” The challenge was immediately accepted. On Parliament Hill, the Maxwell went first, having the choice of where to drive. Unfortunately, the automobile had gone only a few yards before it got stuck in a snowbank. Then, it was the Cadillac’s turn. Starting approximately fifteen feet from where the Maxwell had began, the Caddy drove five to seven times further across the snow-covered lawn in from the Centre Block, thereby winning the $100 wager. The Peerless Garage Company donated its winnings in equal amounts of $25 to four Ottawa charities—the “Protestant Home for the Aged” on Bank Street, the “Protestant Orphans’ Home” on Elgin Street, the “St Patrick’s Orphans’ Home” on Laurier Avenue West, and the “Perely Home for Incurables” located on Wellington Street.

1912 cadillac

Advertisement, 1912 Cadillac, winner of the first Maxwell challenge, 22 February 1912, The Evening Journal, 23 February 1912.

Maxwell’s Stockwell immediately issued a second “Maxwell Challenge.” In a letter to the Evening Journal, he admitted that the Cadillac was a good car, and that “it proved a good snow plow, and was cleverly driven.” After adding that the Cadillac cost $600 more than the Maxwell, and that its wheels were two inches higher, Stockwell attributed the Maxwell’s loss to the “misfortune” of having run into a snowbank deposited by a plough before the car got to the open field. After being pulled off the snowbank, he said that the Maxwell had been able to pass the Cadillac that had foundered in deep snow, “its wheels suspended and running freely in the air.” Consequently, Stockwell claimed that the Maxwell was still the champion. He then sent a letter to the Peerless Garage asking for a rematch “on a course which will permit both cars to enter freely the open field, then let the best car win.” He then handed a $100 wager to the sporting editor of the Citizen newspaper, asking him as well as representatives of the Evening Journal and the Ottawa Free Press to act as judges. When the Cadillac representative refused the challenge, Stockwell upped the wager to $150 from him, against $125 from Cadillac, and set the date of the second challenge to the following Saturday afternoon, 25 February, to take place on the snow-covered lawns of Parliament Hill.

There was no sign of Cadillac that Saturday afternoon. With the field to himself, Stockwell demonstrated the proficiency of the Maxwell motor car in front of a large crowd of spectators. The Journal reported that the automobile entered the field near the foot of the main steps and slowly circled the field, ploughing gracefully through every ice and snow obstacle. “The Maxwell cut through the biggest drifts on Parliament Hill with consummate ease and was only forced to stop through a broken chain grip.” Stockwell then drove the car down the main walkway “amidst enthusiastic applause” from an appreciative audience.

So, who won the Maxwell Challenge? Clearly, the Cadillac won the first challenge. But, Maxwell achieved at least a moral victory through its subsequent, uncontested challenge match. However, in the highly competitive world of the automobile, Cadillac was the ultimate victor, becoming a North American synonym for luxury and success. The Maxwell, on the other hand, disappeared shortly after the First World War, a victim of the post war depression and large debts. The Maxwell Motor Car Company was purchased by Chrysler in 1921. The last Maxwell was produced in 1925 and was replaced by the Chrysler Four.

Sources:

71st Revival AAA Glidden Tour, 2016. History, 1904-1913, http://www.gliddentour.org/.

Bowman, Richard, 2016. Maxwell: First Builders of Chrysler Cars, http://www.allpar.com/history/maxwell.html.

Evening Journal (The), 1910. “First Made In This City,” 29 August.

—————————, 1912. “Ottawa, A Popular Motor Car Centre,” 10 February.

—————————-, 1912. Cutting Cars, 1912. “Gather ’round—Come Close—Listen!,” 10 February.

—————————-, 1912. “Motor Car Driving A Recreation In Ottawa,” 10 February.

—————————-, 1912. “A Maxwell Challenge, $100,” 21 February.

—————————-, 1912. “Stockwell Motor Company of Montreal Issued Challenge,” 23 February.

—————————-, 1912. “Cadillac Easily Defeats Maxwell,” 23 February.

—————————–, 1912. “Re that Automobile Competition, Maxwell Challenge No. 2, 23 February.

—————————–, 1912. “The Maxwell Challenge Was Not Accepted,” 26 February.

Macdonald & Company, 1912. “The Albion,” The Evening Journal, 10 February.

Messrs Wylie Ltd, 1912. “What does 35% duty add to the value of a Car?” The Evening Journal, 10 February.