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Canadian Confederation and its Leaders
Sir George E. Cartier



(1814-1873)

SIR GEORGE ETIENNE CARTIER sprang from stock whose roots were thrust deep in Canadian soil. His family, who, according to legend, were collateral descendants of Jacques Cartier, the discoverer of Canada in 1534, had lived in the St. Lawrence valley for nearly two centuries. Their later home by the Richelieu was on the great secondary highway of the ancient regime. Here settled in 1672 the officers of the Carignan-Salieres regiment, their light blue uniforms and courtly manners soon to give place to the homespun and the neutral tints of a pioneer life. Nearby Beloeil lifts its shadowy mass above a wide, flat landscape, and the Richelieu gurgles complain-ingly over the rapids at Chambly as if in distress for its lost prestige.

Such an atmosphere naturally created in a youth a strong love of French Canada, his homeland. Cartier was to Lower Canada what Brown was to Upper Canada, a leader devoted to the interests of his own people, and who upheld them even at the cost of alienating the neighboring Province. Brown roused Upper Canada into resentment against the French-Canadians. Cartier resisted Brown’s demands for representation by population until deadlock and coalition raised both above party warfare and Confederation resulted. While Brown declared the union of 1841 a failure and demanded its repeal, Cartier as firmly defended it and insisted on the maintenance of equal representation.

It is instructive to compare Cartier with a great French-Canadian of a later day. Cartier was fiery, impetuous, full of energy; Laurier is serene, dignified and quietly efficient. Cartier led his people to Confederation in face of powerful opposition, but supported by the clergy; Laurier led Quebec in 1896 for toleration, despite the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Cartier plodded patiently through a codification of laws and promoted the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway; Laurier inspired a great immigration policy to fill Canada’s waste spaces, and projected a second transcontinental railway to give breadth as well as length to the Dominion. Each was of Canadian stock of many generations, but each rose to the call of his time in his national and imperial duty. Cartier’s day ended just as Laurier’s sun appeared over the morning horizon.

After bitterly resisting Brown’s plan of representation by population because, he said, it would be unjust to Lower Canada, Cartier joined hands with Brown in 1864 for the greater union of the British North American colonies. For his vision and statesmanship he paid the usual price demanded by smaller minds. He was accused of inconsistency, but he replied that he did not regret his earlier decision. He was taunted with sacrificing his race, but he responded that he was safeguarding their nationality and their religion. He was opposed by influential men of both races in his own Province, until almost alone among the influential men, he carried the banner of union.

Fortunately for Confederation, it was favored by the Roman Catholic authorities. That most conservative influence now rallied to the side of British institutions, as against the dangers of American republicanism, just as it had rejected the overtures of Washington and D’Estaing during the American Revolution. Without Cartier’s influence Confederation could not have carried in Lower Canada, at least without delay, and without Lower Canada it could not have become a fact. Cartier was honestly a convert to union at the hand of A. T. Galt. That champion of Protestantism gave a powerful speech for union in 1858. Cartier, who soon thereafter become Premier of United Canada, was so impressed he asked Galt to join his Cabinet. Galt did so on condition that union would become a Cabinet question. Cartier kept his word, and in 1859 made the first definite step towards union by despatching a mission to England on the question, consisting of Galt, Ross* and himself. These delegates urged action by the Imperial authorities, but to their approaches the Maritime Provinces, save Newfoundland, responded that they were not yet ready to discuss the question.

A network of electric and steam railways now pierces the alluvial valley of the Richelieu, once the highway of blood-thirsty Iroquois, and the home of Madeleine de Vercheres and her brave pioneer compatriots. Walls of old stone windmills that creaked as they ground the habitants’ grain still dot the landscape.

It was here at St. Antoine that George Etienne Cartier was born on September 6, 1814. His grandfather, Jacques Cartier, was a man of some means, an exporter of wheat to Europe. The home was called “The House of Seven Chimneys,” and in it centred the social life of the community. Here gathered the thrifty, simple-living habitants and joined in folk songs, such as “A la Claire Fontaine,” luring, if weird, compositions that prevail to this day in Quebec, and constitute the only Canadian folk songs worthy the name. Cartier, even in his later years, had a good singing voice, and his own contribution to the music of his country, “O Canada, Mon Pays, Mes Amours,” written at the age of twenty, is still a popular song in his Province. Cartier’s father was a man of genial spirit and his mother a woman of intelligence and piety. They realized the advantages of education, and when George was in his tenth year he was sent to the Montreal College, where he remained for seven years, graduating in law in 1835.

At this time Lower Canada was aflame with the agitation for responsible government which culminated in the rebellion of 1837. The magnetic Papineau was the hero of hundreds of eager young minds. Cartier was soon to fall under his spell and take up the campaign against the conduct of the Governor and the Executive Council. Popular demonstrations against the authorities began in the spring of 1837, even the sedate Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine declaring:

*Louis Joseph Papineau, (1786-70), a tribune of the people in Lower Canada, whose agitation against executive tyranny resulted in rebellion in 1837, followed by an inquiry and the granting of responsible government.

“Everyone in the colony is discontented; we have demanded reforms and not obtained them; it is time to be up and doing.” The Sons of Liberty had attracted the impetuous support of Cartier in the 1834 elections, and he became the bard of the movement, composing the song, “Avant tout je suis Canadien” (“Before all I am a Canadian”). It will thus be seen that French-Canadian indifference to the outside world is of long duration. Cartier, however, lived to be a rigid constitutionalist and stout champion of British connection. Indeed, he never admitted his part in the rebellion of 1837 was due to antipathy to Britain, but rather to the tyrannical government which then prevailed in Canada. Dr. Wolfred Nelson became the militant head of the rebellion in Lower Canada. He was a Montrealer, of English origin, 6 feet 4 inches tall and generally popular. In the skirmishes on the Richelieu Cartier was his aide, and at the fight at St. Denis brought reinforcements across the river. When the uprising failed Cartier fled towards the American boundary and later to Plattsburg, N.Y., whence he returned a few years later when the “patriots” had been forgiven.

A man of Cartier’s ardent temperament was quick to attach himself to a worthy cause, and Papineau having ceased to b6 a political factor he allied himself in the early ’forties with Lafontaine, who, with Robert Baldwin, was called on to form a government—a responsible government—in 1848. This was, as F. D. Monk has said, “the blessed day of the birth of free government for our country, the true birth of our nation.”

Cartier was now 34 years old, a successful lawyer, and a man of boundless energy. He had already worked on the fringe of politics, and in 1848 was elected to Parliament for the constituency of Vercheres. He entered the Assembly the next year, in time for the bitter debates over the Rebellion Losses Bill, ending in the burning of the Parliament buildings at Montreal on April 25. Cartier took little part in this struggle, and he was not one of the signers of the manifesto favoring annexation to the United States which was prepared that year by prominent Montreal men in their Gethsemane of political disappointment. Responsible government had been secured, and the next reform sought was the abolition of seigniorial tenure. Cartier supported Baldwin and Lafontaine in this cause, which finally triumphed in 1854.

From then on, Cartier was almost steadily in office until his death. His law practice had given him a financial foundation and enabled him to live up to one of his beliefs that “property is the element which should govern the world.” The all but universal suffrage which prevailed in the United States was to him a matter of abhorrence. He joined the MacNab-Tache Government in 1855 as Provincial Secretary, and in 1857 became Lower Canada’s leader in the Macdon-ald-Cartier Cabinet. During this period of prosaic service Cartier, while not himself a great jurist, carried through the codification of the civil laws and laws of procedure of Lower Canada, a work of several years and of the utmost value in a country of diverse races. When this task was completed in 1864 Cartier rose like a weary Titan and said: “I desire no better epitaph than this: ‘He accomplished the civil code.” His effort to pass a militia bill providing for an active force of 500,000 to drill 28 days per year savored too much of militarism even in 1862, when Canada was threatened from the warring republic to the south. The Government was defeated on the issue and resigned.

In the great transportation movement of the day, the building of the Grand Trunk Railway, Cartier took an aggressive part, corresponding to that of Sir Charles Tupper with the Canadian Pacific a generation later, or of Sir Wilfrid Laurier with the Grand Trunk Pacific in 1903. In 1852 he presented two acts in the Legislature, one to incorporate the Grand Trunk Railway Company, to build between Toronto and Montreal, and the other to incorporate a company to construct a railway from opposite Quebec to Trois Pistoles, and for the extension of such railway to the eastern boundary of the Province. As early as 1846 he had been an ardent advocate of railway building, and in 1849 said, with vision:

“There is no time to be lost in the completion of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic road if we wish to secure for ourselves the commerce of the West.”

During the construction of the Grand Trunk the company’s credit on several occasions became dangerously low, and Cartier led in the agitations for aid. For several years he was the company’s legal adviser, but to criticism of this anomalous position for a Cabinet Minister he replied that the company was too poor to pay even a dividend.

Anyone familiar with lumbering operations in Canada knows the nature of a log jam. Timber dumped into a river floats down stream freely until it strikes an obstacle, when the logs pile up and make a blockade and seemingly hopeless confusion, only to be cleared when the “key log” is removed. The events leading up to the early ’sixties in Canadian politics may be likened to a log jam. Political cliques and the dominance of small issues, quarrels and jealousies between leaders, stagnation in public business—all these created a hopeless situation that called for decisive treatment. Men of outlook in all parties saw the solution in a revolution which would bring about the union of the British American Provinces. Where was the “key log” of this confused situation? It was found in the idea of a coalition which was proposed and realized in 1864. George Brown had been pressing for years for representation by population, as Upper Canada was increasing much more rapidly than her sister Province, but to all these appeals Cartier turned a stony heart.

“Has Upper Canada conquered Lower Canada?” he asked in 1858, and added, menacingly, “Lower Canada will adopt other political institutions before submitting to such a motion as that of the member for Toronto” (Brown). In 1861 Cartier admitted that Upper Canada had 400,000 to 500,000 more population than Lower Canada, and if that progressive increase continued, it might be necessary to modify the nature of the union, but a year later, in a fiery reply to a similar demand from Upper Canada, he said he and John A. Macdonald were in agreement on the question and they “demanded the support of this House to maintain that equality which is the only foundation of the union.”

Cartier’s obstinate rejection of Upper Canada’s demands made the finding of the key log in the legislative jam all the more urgent. It came when Brown offered to join with any government to put union on the legislative program. Cartier, the “little corporal” of Lower Canadian politics, the defender of the most conservative element in the two Canadas, the man who had gone to Ontario in 1863 to boldly challenge Brown and expound the French-Canadian viewpoint in the enemy’s country—Cartier laid down his arms and entered into the negotiations which resulted in the coalition government.

This resolution on the part of violent opponents to work together- for the common good, though an inspiring spectacle in the light of history, created astonishment and resentment among people who were too near great events to appreciate their significance. For the moment, however, the feeling of relief at the breaking of the deadlock overcame opposition, and the preliminaries to Confederation proceeded with despatch. The memorandum sent by Cartier and his colleagues to the Colonial Secretary in 1858 asking for Imperial sanction of union was the first practical step. This had been followed by Brown’s alternative plan to federalize United Canada by two or more local governments, with some joint authority to control matters common to both Provinces. When the issue was finally forced in 1864, Cartier’s importance was derived largely from his power in Lower Canada, though in framing the resolutions he was a weighty factor in securing a federal rather than a legislative union.

Sir Richard Cartwright, speaking in Parliament in 1881, acknowledged the services of Cartier in these words:

“I believe that, save one other man, he (Cartier) did more, he risked more, he sacrificed more to bring about Confederation than any other man in Canada. The only man who risked as much and sacrificed as much as he did was the late Hon. George Brown. To these two gentlemen, I believe, the Confederation of these Provinces was largely due, and I am bound to say that to both of them, in that respect, this country owes a great debt of gratitude.”

Cartier joined his Canadian colleagues in attending the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences in 1864. It is doubtful if any of them fully realized the full meaning of their mission as their steamer sailed into Charlottetown harbor that September morning, bearing Canadians to confer with the delegates from the Maritime Provinces. Before they returned, however, Cartier, speaking at a banquet, expressed the hope that there would result from their deliberations “a great confederation which will be to the benefit of all and the disadvantage of none.”

It is a part of the history of the period that the new idea was not quickly adopted, and, magnificent as was the vision of the eloquent promoters, years passed in the Maritime Provinces before union was sanctioned by the people. At the Halifax banquet a few days later Cartier reached a high note.

“We can form a vigorous confederation whilst leaving the provincial governments to regulate local affairs,” he said. “There are no obstacles which human wisdom cannot overcome. All that is needed to triumph is a strong will and a noble ambition. When I think of the great nation we could constitute if all the provinces were organized under a single government, I seem to see arise a great Anglo-American power. The Provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia represent the arms of the national body embracing the commerce of the Atlantic. No other will furnish a finer head to this giant body than Prince Edward Island, and Canada will be the trunk of this immense creation. The two Canadas extending far westward will bring into Confederation a vast portion of the western territory.”

Though the Premier of Canada, Sir E. P. Tache, presided at the Quebec Conference, Cartier was a more influential figure from Lower Canada. In forming the resolutions, Cartier’s master stroke, says John Boyd, his biographer, was in securing a federal instead of a legislative union, which would have swamped French-Canadian interests. His own view was for double chambers in the provinces, while Brown favored single chambers. As a consequence Ontario has a single chamber Legislature while Quebec followed Cartier’s idea.

The heavy artillery in the great Confederation fight in the Canadian Parliament in 1865 was soon brought into action. Macdonald, Brown and Cartier were early speakers, but they did not have it all their own way. Powerful debaters took the opposite view, though the union cause succeeded after seven weeks. Cartier’s speech was one of his greatest efforts. He spoke in French and occupied three hours. He defended his opposition to representation by population and said perpetual political conflict would have followed its enactment. On the other hand, he did not fear for French-Canadian interests under Confederation, even though in a general legislature they would have a smaller representation than all other nationalities combined. He saw dangers in the war then going on in the United States, and said: “We must either have a confederation of British North America or be absorbed by the American union.” The duties of defence, he pointed out, could not be freely carried out without a confederation.

Then followed a declaration showing the strong loyalty of the man who less than 30 years before had borne arms against the Canadian authorities:

“Is the confederation of the British North American Provinces necessary to increase our power and to maintain the ties which attach us to the mother country? As far as I am concerned I do not doubt it.” The rejection of the temptations of Washington in 1775, he showed, was “because the French-Canadians understood that they would preserve intact their institutions, their language and their religion by adhesion to the British Crown.” “If Canada,” he added, “is still a portion of the British Empire, it is due to the conservative policy of the French-Canadian clergy.”

Cartier went on to say—and it is a statement worth recalling in later days of racial differences—that the clergy of Lower Canada were favorable to Confederation. “Those of the clergy who are high in authority, as well as those in humbler positions, have declared for Confederation not only because they see in it all possible security for the institutions which they cherish, but also because their Protestant fellow-countrymen, like themselves, are also guaranteed their rights.”

All was going well for the union cause, but shadows lay ahead. The trouble makers for Cartier were A. A. Dorion, L. H. Holton, L. S. Huntington, Christopher Dunkin and other influential Lower Canadian members, from all wings of the Assembly, who strongly opposed Confederation. Dorion and Holton did not oppose the principle of union, but declared the time not yet ripe. Holton denounced the scheme as one which would “plunge the country into measureless debt, into difficulties and convulsions utterly unknown to the present constitutional system.” While he would not despair of his country, he looked, if union carried, for “a period of calamity, a period of tribulation, such as it has never heretofore known.”

Henri Gustave Joly opposed the scheme because he believed it would be fatal to French-Canadian unity, while others accused Cartier of having surrendered to George Brown, who was pictured as the inveterate enemy of the race. H. E. Tachereau of Beauce, although elected a Government supporter, opposed the union as “a death-blow to our nationality, which was beginning to take root on the soil of British North America.”

Public meetings in the Province followed, in an endeavor to rouse opinion against union, and in these Dorion was joined by L. A. Jette, afterwards Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec, L. O. David, now a Dominion Senator, and others. The opposition only confirmed Cartier in his determination. After the resolutions had been adopted in both Houses he joined Macdonald, Brown and Galt in a mission to England to discuss Confederation, defence, reciprocity and other matters. In a speech in London, he said:

“We desire the adoption of Confederation, not only to increase our prosperity and our strength, but also to be in a better position to participate in the defence of the British Empire.”

Another ministerial visit to England was necessary at the end of 1866 to frame the British North America Act, and on their return in 1867 Cartier in a speech at Montreal made public the important fact that the Canadian constitution had been approved and confirmed by the British Parliament in the form in which it was drawn by the delegates. This represented a long step in colonial self-government. Cartier said:

“The Canadians" said the English Ministers, ‘come to us with a finished constitution, the result of an entente cordiale between themselves, and after mature discussion of their interests and their needs. They are the best judges of what will be suitable to them. Do not change what they have done; sanction their federation.’ Yes, that is the spirit in which* England received our demand. We required her sanction; she gave it, without hesitation, without wishing to interfere in our work.”

During a visit to England in 1868 Cartier supplemented this declaration in a speech at the Royal Colonial Institute when he said:

“It is a great source—I will not say of pride—but a great source of encouragement, to the public men who then took part in that great scheme, that it was adopted by the English Government and by the English Parliament, without, I may say, a word of alteration.”

When Confederation honors werse bestowed in 1867 Cartier declined to accept the proffered C. B., declaring it to be insufficient and therefore a slight to him as a representative of one of the two great Provinces of Confederation. Considerable feeling was aroused in Quebec, and shortly afterwards, on the intervention of Dr. Tupper, Cartier was made a baronet. The irony of it was that he had to borrow the money needed to pay the fees in connection with the decoration.

The elections of 1867 confirmed Quebec in her acceptance of Confederation. Opponents of union main: tained their campaign before voting, but Cartier was strongly supported by the Roman Catholic ecclesiastics, both high and low, who threw the scale, as on previous occasions, in favor of British rule and against any danger of republicanism. Out of 65 seats in the Province the anti-unionists secured only 12. Cartier was now Minister of Militia and Defence in the first Confederation Cabinet, and was one of Sir John A. Macdonald’s most trusted colleagues. He was a potent force in the construction of the Intercolonial Railway, that much delayed highway, and contended for the adoption of the northern, or Bay de Chaleur, route, both for commercial and military reasons. His organization of the Canadian defence prevailed, with additions, until the outbreak of the great war in 1914.

Cartier accompanied William McDougall, a colleague, to England in 1868 when the negotiation for the purchase of the Hudson’s Bay territory, now comprising the great prairie Provinces of the West, from the Hudson’s Bay Company, was carried out successfully. Owing to McDougall’s illness, the bulk of the work fell on Cartier.

This was one of the last of the French-Canadian leader’s great undertakings. He had much to do with the legislation connected with the Pacific Railway scheme in 1872, and introduced the bill providing for grants of 50,000,000 acres of land and $30,000,000 in cash, but before it was implemented he had broken down with an attack of Bright’s disease and sought treatment by London specialists. In the election of 1872 Cartier suffered a crushing defeat by L. A. Jette, a rising young French-Canadian, whom he flouted by saying his conduct was “bold and foolhardy.” Cartier’s aggressiveness on this occasion, his trouble with the Church over a minor internal matter, and dissatisfaction over his supposed desertion of the Catholics of New Brunswick, when non-sectarian schools were established there, brought disaster. In the hour of his humiliation he was forced to accept the seat of Provencher in Manitoba at the hand of Louis Riel, the rebel leader of two years previous.

Cartier reached London in October, 1872, and was encouraged to believe he would soon recover. His letters to Sir John A. Macdonald and others were full of hope and even defiance. The old lion was cornered but not cowed. In April the Pacific Scandal storm broke at Ottawa, and its thunder and lightning reached the sick room in London. Cartier was politically seriously compromised by the charges. He had been an intimate of, and intermediary with, Sir Hugh Allan, head of the railway syndicate, who, as was proved in the inquiry, had contributed $350,000 to the Conservative campaign fund, and thousands of it had gone to Cartier’s war chest, though his personal honesty was never called in question. He could not leave for Ottawa; he could not meet the charges in London. He was marooned and condemned. He died on May 20, 1873, a brokenhearted man.

Among Cartier’s associates there was genuine sorrow at his passing, but party feeling at the climax of the scandal charges prevented crocodile tears from his political opponents. His body was brought to Montreal and given an imposing public funeral, after which his former colleagues had to return to their own defence.

There was pathos in the death of Cartier. He had given his life to the service of his country. For thirty-five years he had been in politics. Much of that time he had labored incessantly, at high pressure for long hours. Nature had gifted him richly for administrative work, and leisurely colleagues were ever ready to use him as a pack-horse. His body was the embodiment of nervous force and energy, his expression was one of vivacity and animation. The “little man in a hurry” was of medium height, strong and robust, of ruddy complexion, fastidious in dress and commonly wearing the Prince Albert coat affected by public men of his day. His courage was unbounded, his temperament dominating and absolute.

His wife, a daughter of Edward Raymond Fabre, of Montreal, a woman of piety and devotion to her family of three daughters, survived until 1898.

Cartier stands as the representative of the masses of Lower Canada at the critical hour of Confederation. A Catholic and strong champion of his race, he was tolerant and even popular with Protestants. His vision marked him a nation builder, his strategy enhanced his power as a parliamentarian, his faithful performance of prosaic routine earned the gratitude of a nation in its birth throes.


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