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Laurier and Queen's

Laurier and Queen's

[cover of Canada Always book by Arthur Milnes]

Queen’s is rightly known for our connections to Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s Father of Confederation and first prime minister who helped found the university in 1841. What are sometimes forgotten, however, are the connections the university had with Macdonald’s equally great rival – both are widely considered our nation’s two greatest prime ministers – Sir Wilfrid Laurier. It was, after all, Queen’s professor Oscar Douglas (O.D.) Skelton whose two-volume study of Laurier, Life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, published while Professor Skelton taught on campus, that helped cement Laurier’s legacy in the Canadian imagination.

In 1898, Laurier visited Kingston and Queen’s where he received a honorary degree in the presence of Principal Grant. And on the same day Queen’s became the first Canadian university to award an honorary degree to a woman, Lady Aberdeen, the spouse of Canada’s Governor General.

Like Queen’s itself, Laurier too was born in 1841 and his 175th birthday is being marked across Canada this fall, particularly around Sir Wilfrid Laurier Day, November 20, an official date on the Canadian calendar. In honour of the 175th anniversaries of both Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Queen’s, excerpts from Laurier’s Queen’s convocation address, delivered on October 18, 1898 at Kingston City Hall, are found below.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier: It was more than a pleasure to be reminded that I have the honour of being the youngest doctor of Queen’s University. It is always pleasant with a man who has reached the age I have reached to be reminded that, at all events, something yet is young, and my pleasure, I may say would be much better if, instead of being a young doctor, I had the happy privilege of being a young undergraduate. (Cheers) But it was a sad cause of regret to me when, in the month of April last, this great University of Queen’s did me the honour of conferring upon me the high title that I could not be presented here to accept it and to testify at once of sincere gratitude … Important duties (Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in the UK) imperiously claimed my presence elsewhere, but I have taken advantage of this first opportunity which offered to do now what I had not the pleasure of doing then, and to offer you, Mr. President and Chancellor, and Mr. Principal and members of the university, the deep and sincere expression of my gratitude.

May I be permitted to remind you that last year it was my privilege to be in England upon an important occasion (Applause) – an occasion which, I see, has not been forgotten yet, and nay, shall never be forgotten throughout the length and breadth of the British Empire. On that occasion it was my privilege, not so much in a personal degree, but my privilege as the Premier of the Dominion of Canada, along with my brother Premiers of the other colonies of the Empire, to receive the degree of LL.D. from those famous and ancient universities, Cambridge and Oxford. (Applause)

Now, Mr. Chancellor, it would be insincere on my part if I were to compare the young university of Queen’s to the old University of Cambridge or Oxford, and perhaps if we were to look at the mere intrinsic value of things one might be disposed to say that there was perhaps more value to a degree from Oxford or in a degree from Cambridge, but if I am to speak my own mind and the voice my own heart, I may say without hesitation that I cherish still more the degree from Queen’s than either that of Cambridge or Oxford. (Applause)

Student: We will give you another one!

Laurier: Certainly not because I love England less, but simply because I love Canada more. I need not tell you, because it is a thing which goes by itself that the impression caused by a visit to Oxford or Cambridge is very different to that caused by a visit to Queen’s. When you enter those famous walls, of which you have read so much, when you walk through those famous galleries, when you enter those centres of knowledge, science and art, the libraries of Cambridge or Oxford, you are privileged to see spots which have been consecrated by so many men who have helped to make the history of England famous the world over. When you are privileged to see the very place where Newton mediated, the very room where Macaulay worked, you are overpowered by a sense of respect, of reverence, almost of awe.

If I come to a young university like Queen’s … the impression is the same in one way, but different in another. We have not to look to the past: these universities of which I have been speaking are steeped in the past, we but we look to the future. We have no treasure of art to exhibit, but we may be tempted to say, like the Roman matron when she was showing her children, “these are our treasures.” Here is the hope of our country. Here are today the magistrates of the future, who will expound the laws of the country: here are the legislators of the future who will have to struggle to solve the problems which the ever-varying conditions of men always bring forth. Here are the scientific men who shall delve into the secrets of nature so as to force nature still better to serve the wants of man. What shall be the studies I shall not venture to say.

Pardon me to dilate for one moment upon a though which has been expressed a moment ago. Principal Grant has told you that you should learn the French language. In my own province again and again on occasions of this kind I have impressed upon the youth of Quebec the necessity of studying English literature and the English language. Now, this is a precept which we follow in the province of Quebec. Whatever else we do we try to speak the English language. We do not always succeed very well, but at all events, we manage to speak it more or less indifferently. And let me remind you, my own fellow countrymen, that you belong to a proud race. You belong to a country that is descended from the best of all the races of Europe. We are Canadians and the term Canadian does not apply either to one class or to one race or to one creed. Of course I agree in everything which was stated a moment ago by Principal Grant, woe to the man who would forget his origin, and still more woe to the man who would allow his origins to pass before the broad duties of Canadian citizenship …

Arthur Milnes, Artsci’88, a fellow of the Queen’s School of Policy Studies and accomplished public historian and speechwriter (most recently with then Prime Minister Stephen J. Harper), is editor of Canada Always: The Defining Speeches of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, published this fall by McClelland and Stewart. His last book, edited with Dr. Sarah K. Gibson, Canada Transformed: The Speeches of Sir John A. Macdonald, was a Canadian best-seller.

[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 4-2016]