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Wilfrid Laurier was summoned to form his first Cabinet in July, 1896. For eighteen years previous to that time the Liberals had sat in what one of their number used to call "the cold shades of Opposition." For half of that term Laurier had been leader of the party, confined to the negative task of watching and criticizing the administration of his great predecessor and of the four premiers who followed in almost as many years. Now he was called to constructive tasks. Fortune favored him by bringing him to power at the very turn of the tide; but he justified fortune's favor by so steering the ship of state as to take full advantage of wind and current. Through four Parliaments, through fifteen years of office, through the time of fruition of so many long-deferred hopes, he was to guide the destinies of the nation.
Laurier began his work by calling to his Cabinet not merely the party leaders in the federal arena but four of the outstanding provincial Liberals--Oliver Mowat, Premier of Ontario, William S. Fielding, Premier of Nova Scotia, Andrew G. Blair, Premier of New Brunswick, and, a few months later, Clifford Sifton of Manitoba. The Ministry was the strongest in individual capacity that the Dominion had yet possessed. The prestige of the provincial leaders, all men of long experience and tested shrewdness, strengthened the Administration in quarters where it otherwise would have been weak, for there had been many who doubted whether the untried Liberal party could provide capable administrators. There had also been many who doubted the expediency of making Prime Minister a French-Canadian Catholic. Such doubters were reassured by the presence of Mowat and Fielding, until the Prime Minister himself had proved the wisdom of the choice. There were others who admitted Laurier's personal charm and grace but doubted whether he had the political strength to control a party of conflicting elements and to govern a country where different race and diverging religious and sectional interests set men at odds. Here again time proved such fears to be groundless. Long before Laurier's long term of office had ended, any distrust was transformed into the charge of his opponents that he played the dictator. His courtly manners were found not to hide weakness but to cover strength.
The first task of the new Government was to settle the Manitoba school question. Negotiations which were at once begun with the provincial Government were doubtless made easier by the fact that the same party was in power at Ottawa and at Winnipeg, but it was not this fact alone which brought agreement. The Laurier Government, unlike its predecessor, did not insist on the restoration of separate schools. It accepted a compromise which retained the single system of public schools, but which provided religious teaching in the last half hour of school and, where numbers warranted, a teacher of the same faith as the pupils. The compromise was violently denounced by the Roman Catholic hierarchy but, except in two cities, where parochial schools were set up, it was accepted by the laity.
With this thorny question out of the way, the Government turned to what it recognized as its greatest task, the promotion of the country's material prosperity. For years industry had been at a standstill. Exports and imports had ceased to expand; railway building had halted; emigrants outnumbered immigrants. The West, the center of so many hopes, the object of so many sacrifices, had not proved the El Dorado so eagerly sought by fortune hunters and home builders. There were little over two hundred thousand white men west of the Great Lakes. Homesteads had been offered freely; but in 1896 only eighteen hundred were taken up, and less than a third of these by Canadians from the East. The stock of the Canadian Pacific was selling at fifty. All but a few had begun to lose faith in the promise of the West.
Then suddenly a change came. The failure of the West to lure pioneers was not due to poverty of soil or lack of natural riches: its resources were greater than the most reckless orator had dreamed. It was merely that its time had not come and that the men in charge of the country's affairs had not thrown enough energy into the task of speeding the coming of that time. Now fortune worked with Canada, not against it. The long and steady fall of prices, and particularly of the prices of farm products, ended; and a rapid rise began to make farming pay once more. The good free lands of the United States had nearly all been taken up. Canada's West was now the last great reserve of free and fertile land. Improvements in farming methods made it possible to cope with the peculiar problems of prairie husbandry. British capital, moreover, no longer found so ready an outlet in the United States, which was now financing its own development; and it had suffered severe losses in Argentine smashes and Australian droughts. Capital, therefore, was free to turn to Canada.
But it was not enough merely to have the resources; it was essential to display them and to disclose their value. Canada needed millions of men of the right stock, and fortunately there were millions who needed Canada. The work of the Government was to put the facts before these potential settlers. The new Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, himself a western man, at once began an immigration campaign which has never been equaled in any country for vigor and practical efficiency. Canada had hitherto received few settlers direct from the Continent. Western Europe was now prosperous, and emigrants were few. But eastern Europe was in a ferment, and thousands were ready to swarm to new homes overseas.
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The Canadian Dominion -by- Oscar D. Skelton