Bill Waiser

Asked for bread, given a stone; the 1910 Farmers’ Siege of Ottawa

It was supposed to be a triumphant tour.

In the summer of 1910, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier embarked on a gruelling, two-month rail tour of western Canada.

Officially, the visit would give the prime minister the chance to see first-hand how the region had changed so dramatically during his time in office. The more likely explanation, though, was that Laurier was genuinely worried about the rumblings coming from the farm community.

And there was good reason.

Saskatchewan had grown so fast that the 1911 national census would reveal the province to be the third most populous in the dominion, behind Ontario and Quebec, and would require more seats in the House of Commons.

Farmers’ votes would matter in any future election.

The prime minister’s special five-car train entered Saskatchewan on July 19, 1910. Wherever the 69-year-old Canadian leader stopped — 13 major speeches in just 19 days — he was warmly greeted by throngs of well-wishers.

The crowds never wavered. All wanted to hear, if not see, the man whose administration had been largely responsible for settling the prairie west.

Laurier used these public meetings to talk about how the province’s diverse settlers were building a greater Canada. But once the formal addresses and presentations were over, the prime minister was politely but firmly questioned about the Liberal government’s agricultural policies.

Farmers demanded transportation improvements, lower freight rates, better grain handling facilities — but, most repeatedly and vociferously, the scrapping of the protective tariff. The prime minister fended off the criticism as best he could, especially pointed reminders about his past support for free trade.

In Lanigan on July 23, the meeting took on a chill when David Rose, a farmer delegate, told the prime minister that farmers wanted “straight conversation.”

“We would like to see a little more being done than you have been doing,” he lectured.

It was just as testy in Saskatoon six days later. At a meeting with a grain growers’ delegation, John Evans bluntly reminded the prime minister: “In 1896 you promised to skin the bear of Tory protection. Have you done it? If so, I would ask you what you have done with the hide.”

Reporters travelling with Laurier suggested in their stories that the Saskatchewan Grain Growers’ Association, through its constant petitioning, had hijacked the tour. Whether Laurier felt this way, he gave no indication. Nor was it clear whether he was prepared to do something about the tariff — at the expense of alienating the Canadian business community.

The tariff question, however, would not go away. Nor would Western farmers.

In December 1910, at the request of the Canadian Council of Agriculture, 500 delegates from the prairie provinces descended on the capital to force the federal government to deal with agricultural issues.

The group met first in the Ottawa Opera House on Dec. 15 to discuss strategy and draw up the “Farmers’ Platform.” The next morning, they marched en masse up Parliament Hill and crammed into the House of Commons, filling both the chamber floor and galleries.

Delegates sat wherever they could, including the seat of the prime minister. Several cabinet ministers had to perch on the speaker’s dais. It was the first and only time in Canadian history that a delegation of this size had occupied the House of Commons.

The farm leaders, including Saskatchewan’s E.A. Partridge, addressed various concerns, but dwelled mostly on the tariff for four hours. As one delegate quipped, they were there to “talk turkey.”

But Laurier offered little in response. The delegates were then shuffled off to see the governor general at a Rideau Hall reception.

It was a bitter ending, especially given the distance that many had travelled to take part in the meeting, in several cases at their own expense. One disillusioned delegate told a local newspaper: “We have asked for bread, and you (Laurier) gave us a stone.”

Less than six weeks later, the federal government announced that the United States wanted to negotiate a reciprocity (free trade) agreement. Prime Minister Laurier believed he had found the issue that would serve as the capstone to his 15 years in office.

But the Liberals — and with them, reciprocity — were defeated in the 1911 general election. Farmers moved one step closer to independent political action.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier (greeting twins) made a special prairie tour in 1910 to shore up western support for the Liberal party.
Photo Credit: Saskatchewan Archives Board (R-B1866)

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers