I was out West last week, and spent some time at the University of Saskatchewan.
The U of S is celebrating its centennial this year, and the university archivist was kind enough to show me a host of old photos from the history of the place. One photo that I had seen before shows Wilfrid Laurier arriving at the new campus to lay the corner stone of the agricultural college, on July 29, 1910. A crowd is assembled to hear him speak, heads covered in all manner of Sunday-best hats, none of them of the cowboy variety.
When Laurier said that the 20th century would belong to Canada – this sounds so funny to our ears, doesn’t it? – he did not mean it as a joke. I don’t think he was engaging in hyperbole, or at least he was no more than icing the cake. He was talking about places like Saskatchewan: from almost zero population in the 1880s to half a million in little more than a generation. People widely assumed that Canada would have (at least) a hundred million people by now, and Canada (along with Australia) would be the centers of a globe-spanning, democratic, federal British Empire. And Saskatchewan – a kind of agricultural Silicon Valley of 1900, if you will – would be a key driver of the future.
You just have to look at downtown Sakatoon’s six-lane streets, the collegiate gothic U of S campus, the lovely European-feeling park hugging the riverfront of the city of the seven bridges, to feel the optimism. You have to understand that one day this was all open prairie, and almost the next day, as if it had been deposited there by aliens, was a fully formed, first world, British/European (‘the Paris of the Prairies’) city. One day the buffalo roamed and the next day, an entire province the size of most country had been divided up in quarter sections of grain fields. We think our world is all about sudden change, but the changes of that era were in many ways far more sweeping, ..
Anyhow, Canadian birthrates and immigration both plunged after the war, and the optimism of the country’s early years never returned, at least not in this particular form. As for the Empire, something that many of the young men who heard Laurier speak in 1910 would volunteer to fight and die for in 1914, it is had already been forgotten before I was born. The future never turns out as promised.
During my time at the U of S, I asked the archivist for a copy of Laurier’s speech. (In fact, I got two different copies; one is more like notes, and only a page long; the other, at two pages, seems to be a finished speech. They are similar, but not exactly the same, with the latter having more detail.).
Laurier opened with the following:
“Education is truly patriotism, for it is the best heritage which a people can have given them.”
He went on talk about the importance of education, but also the genius of a country that recognized talent above credentials, rank or inherited titles:
“If a man has not an education, he need not be discouraged. In this country a man can get things for himself; there are no grades here [I think he was trying to say that there is no aristocracy, no social grades]; all are equal. The university [graduate] has an advantage, but the man without need not be confined to the second rung. In this democratic country under the British Constitution, it is possible to attain the highest position without schooling.”
Something else Laurier said stuck me:
“Canada cannot afford to be behind the other races of the world; she is young, but she already has universities which are distinguished and of high rank in the world. There is no doubt that this university will be one of the world’s greatest.”
Did he mean that? I confess that I’m not an expert on Laurier, far from it. Maybe Laurier had a habit of engaging in hyperbole. But I tend to think that he meant it. And I tend to think his listeners believed him; they had, after all, just built this new place on the edge of the world, and they assumed that this was just the beginning of a limitless future. They had built it with their hands and felt it in their bones. Why wouldn’t they? Canada was a small and young country, but Laurier and his listeners had reason to believe that Canada – and the province of Saskatchewan and the University of Saskatchewan – would be big , dominant players on the world stage. That’s not the way Canadians talk anymore, our diminished expectations a concession to our reality.
But, it is worth remembering this wasn’t always our reality. Those weren’t always our expectations.