The Promise of Canada
Chapter 1 A Tapestry of Peoples George-Étienne Cartier and the Idea of Federalism
In our own Federation we will have Catholic and Protestant, English, French, Irish and Scotch, and each by his efforts and his success will increase the prosperity and glory of the new Confederacy. . . . I view the diversity of races in British North America in this way: we are of different races, not for the purpose of warring against each other, but in order to compete and emulate for the general good.
—George-Étienne Cartier, Confederation Debates (1865)
Everyone acknowledges that Canadian Confederation has been a great success, and those who had the greatest doubts about the venture are now ready to confess that the plan was a wise one.
—Globe (Dominion Day, 1877)
Let’s start with one of the most famous images in Canadian history: the photograph taken in September 1864 of the Fathers of Confederation on the steps of the lieutenant-governor’s mansion in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
If I didn’t know what this old-fashioned picture recorded, I’d give it barely a glance. Our public institutions are full of similar compositions—a bunch of men standing in front of a sturdy classical building. They could be school trustees or railway engineers. It is an excruciatingly exclusive image: a blur of white-haired, bearded patriarchy, with not a woman, non-white person, or Indigenous Canadian in sight. That was official Canada 150 years ago.
But I do know that this particular photo records a momentous event. Those men had just invented a new country called the Dominion of Canada. There were still plenty of details to work out, and it would be another thirty months before the British North America Act would be signed on the other side of the Atlantic. Yet these twenty-three sombrely clad lawyers, farmers, and merchants, from five British colonies, had listened carefully to each other and reached consensus. No wonder they decided it called for a commemorative picture. Today, there would be lights, video cameras, and reporters on the spot. Back then, in the cozy little island capital, there was one local photographer with a cumbersome camera that laboriously captured images on glass plates.
When I look more closely, I see interesting dynamics in this image. Most of those posed on the porch—provincial premiers, cabinet members, opposition leaders—radiate the self-assurance of powerful men. However, at least a third of them are looking not at the camera but at the figure who is dead centre in the group: John A. Macdonald, who had just used his extraordinary negotiating skills to broker an agreement. The man who would now become the first prime minister of post-Confederation Canada draws
all attention to himself as he sprawls on the steps in the nonchalant pose of a matinee idol. Very clever, John A.
However, my eye is also caught by another figure, standing to Macdonald’s right and sporting a stylish tailcoat, a well-groomed shock of white hair, and an air of private triumph. This is George-Étienne Cartier. “As bold as a lion” is how Macdonald himself described his elegant French-Canadian colleague. Macdonald even admitted, “But for him Confederation could not have been carried.”1
Without question, John A. Macdonald had the original vision that a country like Canada could exist. But it was the brains and quiet persistence of George-Étienne Cartier that turned the vision into reality.
Astute and elegant, George-Étienne Cartier ensured that French-Canadian interests would be protected within the new Dominion.
George-Étienne Cartier, a shrewd Montreal lawyer, is the man we have to thank for making Canada a federation. Unlike the “Mother Country,” as his contemporaries called Great Britain, the Dominion of Canada would not be a unitary state with one central government. Instead, the new Dominion would be designed with two levels of government: a federal government in Ottawa, to handle matters that affected the whole federation
(relations with Westminster, interprovincial railways, and trade), and a more local government in each province that joined up. Unlike British counties, French départements, or even American states in the late nineteenth century, Canadian provinces would have an extraordinary degree of control over their own affairs. By pushing such a federal system, Cartier ensured that Quebec would join the Dominion. French-speaking Canadians living in the new province of Quebec were reassured that they would run everything that was essential to the survival of their culture. His major challenge was to find the right partner to help him achieve his goal. He found such a partner in Macdonald, the charismatic lawyer from Kingston, Ontario. At Charlottetown, Cartier’s idea was the most crucial component of Macdonald’s vision.
One hundred and fifty years later, the federal system that Cartier envisaged is the basic building block of Canada’s uniqueness. It is Cartier that we can thank for developing the government structure that in our country’s early years allowed two very different groups of immigrants—the French who had started settling the St. Lawrence Valley three centuries earlier, and successive waves of British who had scattered elsewhere, particularly after the mid-eighteenth century—to live alongside each other. That same federal structure has helped Canada absorb endless new stresses: dramatic expansion across the continent, a troubled relationship with Indigenous peoples, demands from regions that felt ignored, shifting economic patterns, surges of immigrants from every corner of the globe.
In any discussion of what has shaped the character of our country—not just the structure of Canadian government, but the pluralism and tolerance for difference that are still hallmarks of Canada—Cartier’s contribution forms the bedrock. That is why I decided that his vision for Canada should kick off my exploration of this country’s enduring potential.
Over the course of the past century and a half, Cartier’s reputation has been overshadowed by that of John A. Macdonald, “the man who made us,” according to Macdonald’s biographer Richard Gwyn. When Cartier is remembered at all, it is as Macdonald’s sidekick. In my hometown, Ottawa,
we have the Macdonald-Cartier International Airport and the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge. In George-Étienne Cartier’s own province of Quebec, nationalists have tried to eradicate him from collective memory. But if he shaped Canada, what shaped George-Étienne Cartier? Who was this enigmatic figure in the Confederation photograph, who started his adult life as a rebel and ended it as a British baronet with a valet, a country estate, and a coat of arms?
Quebec’s Richelieu River is modest compared with the great rivers flowing through the Canadian landscape, such as the St. Lawrence, the Fraser, and the Mackenzie. The Richelieu, rarely more than half a kilometre wide and not particularly deep or fast-flowing, reminds me of a European waterway, with oaks and weeping willows along its banks and plenty of evidence of human habitation. These days, heavy traffic flows in and out of nearby Montreal along autoroutes, leaving the river to pleasure boats and fishing enthusiasts. From the water, I glimpse the silver steeples of churches and houses with the steeply sloping roofs that characterize Quebec rural architecture. Behind them stretch fields planted with corn and soybeans.
George-Étienne Cartier was born on the fertile banks of this river on September 6, 1814, in the village of Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu. Today, a bronze bust of him stands here on a granite plinth, surrounded by red impatiens flowers; the inscription reads, “Cartier: Son Village Natale, La Patrie Reconnaissante.” The bust features mutton chop whiskers and a truculent expression—every inch a senior statesman. But when he was growing up here, the community knew him first as a rambunctious little boy, and then as a young man with attitude. Only his family’s status protected him from several cuffs on the ear.
George-Étienne was the seventh of eight children of a grain merchant, who claimed (on scant evidence) that he was a descendant of the Jacques Cartier, the great French navigator who in 1534 became the first European to map the Gulf of St. Lawrence. George-Étienne’s family was probably not quite so venerable, but it undoubtedly had deep roots in North American
soil: his great-grandfather, Jacques Cartier I, left Europe for Quebec City, New France’s most important city, in 1735. The Cartiers built up a lucrative grain business, then moved it closer to the rapidly expanding commercial city of Montreal. Their life in the bucolic Richelieu Valley was comfortable and privileged. Compared with most of their Saint-Antoine neighbours—farmers and tradespeople—the Cartiers were important and worldly. They lived like country squires in a large stone house, and when guests arrived, the brandy flowed and the tables groaned. Youngsters raised in such comfortable circumstances acquire a sense of entitlement.
Known as the House of the Seven Chimneys, the Cartier mansion was a landmark for boatmen on the nearby Richelieu River and had its own private wharf.
But George-Étienne would also have been aware of the battle-scarred history of his region. Originating in Lake Champlain and flowing north into the St. Lawrence River, the Richelieu River had been an important trade route for centuries. Before Europeans arrived, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), Wyandot (Huron), and Algonquin peoples regularly paddled along its length. Because the river teemed with bass, sturgeon, and pike, they named it Masoliantekw, which means “water where there is plenty of food” in the local Abenaki tongue. Once French and English traders showed their
faces, it also brimmed with conflict. The river’s strategic position between New France and New England meant that it was frequently the site of murderous clashes between French and Haudenosaunee, and French and English. The scuffles subsided only after the 1759 defeat by the British of the Canadiens (as inhabitants of New France were known) on the Plains of Abraham.
When George-Étienne and his brothers paddled upriver, they saw the ruins of several forts, both French and English, scattered among the willow trees and prosperous farming communities. However, they rarely caught sight of the region’s Indigenous inhabitants. Depleted by disease and hunger, most had retreated west. Local Mohawks kept to themselves in their communities at Kanesatake, on the Ottawa River, and Kahnawake, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence opposite Montreal.
For the small boy, the solid stone house in Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu and his extensive network of uncles and cousins were his whole world. There were plenty of diversions for a wealthy family like the Cartiers—dances and balls in each other’s mansions, contacts with fellow merchants in Boston and New England. However, Lower Canada (as Quebec was then known) was a small enclave in a larger backwater far from any power centres. In the year of his birth, the combined population (not including Indigenous people) of all the British colonies on the North American mainland was only about five hundred thousand, of whom perhaps three hundred thousand were French-speaking. Unlike the Cartiers, most colonists spent their days tilling the land, logging the forests, fishing the rivers and oceans, or shipping furs, grain, and logs; Montreal, which was now the largest city in British North America, had only twenty thousand residents. Compared with the booming republic to the south, with eight million citizens and big ambitions, British North America was poor, backward, and isolated. Only Halifax in Nova Scotia, with its British military base, and Quebec City, with its wealthy Roman Catholic seminaries and cathedral-basilica, offered any competition to cities like Boston or Philadelphia.
Nevertheless, Lower Canada was rich in tradition: as well as a larger population, it boasted more history and culture, and a higher birth rate,
than any of the other impoverished British colonies—Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Upper Canada (today’s Ontario). George-Étienne’s father, Jacques Cartier III, filled his son with pride in his people. Although he named the son born in 1814 George after the reigning British monarch, King George III (on the birth certificate, the name is spelled in the French style, Georges), he loved to belt out voyageur paddle songs and point to the sturdy survival of Lower Canada’s habitants. And there was no shortage of village elders who reminisced about the old days, when their region was part of New France, owing allegiance to Paris and enjoying wine exported from French ports such as Le Havre and La Rochelle.
To a small boy, the rhythms of Canadien rural life must have seemed timeless. However, dramatic changes lay just over the horizon. Imperial power brokers in Westminster were losing interest in British North America. In their view, the North American colony was important only as a source of masts for the Royal Navy and as a dumping ground for demobilized soldiers and destitute Irish peasants. As the costs of maintaining troops and separate colonial governments in each colony rose, enthusiasm for these distant, frozen lands fell.
When he was ten years old, Cartier’s life changed abruptly: he was shipped off to the care of the most powerful institution in Lower Canada, the Roman Catholic Church. He was too young to recognize it at the time, but his political indoctrination had begun.
George-Étienne and his brother Damien were enrolled at the Collège de Montréal, run by the Sulpician Fathers, the dominant religious order in Quebec after the Jesuits were expelled in 1762. The college was the pre-eminent seat of learning for French-speaking boys in Lower Canada. Although it has changed dramatically since George-Étienne entered its doors, it is still considered one of the best high schools in Montreal. The two Cartier youngsters would spend the next six years within the college’s forbidding stone walls and tightly disciplined routines. Their teachers, all born and trained in France, gave them a superb classical education in language, science, religion, and music. The college bridged the two solitudes of Quebec
society, since it catered to the sons of the English-speaking as well as French-speaking merchant class. As a result, Cartier emerged from his years there with a strong sense of linguistic duality as well as a sturdy old boys’ network. He also absorbed a firm commitment to the idea of “survivance de la race”: the Canadiens must fight to protect their language, their culture, and their church. They must resist any attempt to drown them in a sea of Protestant English. That lesson became the lodestar of George-Étienne’s approach to public life. It would, in turn, shape the country that we live in today.
After graduating from the college, what next? For the fifth son of a good Canadien family, there was only one course: the law. In 1831, just before his seventeenth birthday, Cartier began studying for the bar in Montreal with Édouard-Étienne Rodier; he would be called to the bar four years later. Rodier was another Collège de Montréal graduate who was already a member of the Legislative Assembly in Quebec City, the capital of Lower Canada. Cartier also found a niche within the influential network of college alumni who hung out in the taverns and coffee shops around Montreal’s Place Jacques-Cartier. This band of well-educated, French-speaking Quebecers chafed at the power of the Château Clique, a group of unelected and predominantly English-speaking politicians in Quebec City. The clique’s patronage machine excluded them from government jobs. As one of the young firebrands told an English visitor, “I can show you a hundred young men of family, with cultivated and honourable minds, absolutely running to seed for want of occupation.”2
If I had time-travelled back to one of those smoky taverns, would I have picked George-Étienne Cartier as the man to watch? Was he obviously a leader who would influence the emergence of British North America as it cut most of its ties with Westminster? No. At age twenty he was unimpressive. About five feet six inches tall and oddly shaped, with an enormous head and short limbs, he was awkward, belligerent, and prone to interrupting others. Everybody acknowledged that he was clever and likely to go places; a fastidious dresser (in later life he favoured striped pants and a silk hat), he kept his thick dark hair neatly cut and brushed straight back from
his wide brow. But he had a tiresome manner and a screechy voice. Others in the room had more gravitas.
However, George-Étienne Cartier’s fundamental commitment to his fellow Canadiens was already established, and Confederation was still a long way down the road. He would spend the next few years deciding how best to protect the interests of French-speaking Canadians. He would learn to curb his tongue and his tendency to annoy people.
The stirrings of nationalism in Lower Canada were as intoxicating to French-speaking romantics in Cartier’s day as they would be to Quebecers in the second half of the twentieth century. George-Étienne Cartier was soon branded a radical because he was active in the Patriote movement. The fiery Patriotes demanded that the emerging French-speaking elite should replace the autocratic Château Clique. At this stage, young Cartier’s most notable contribution to the noisy Patriote meetings in Montreal taverns was the chest-thumping patriotic songs he composed, with titles like “O Canada, Mon Pays, Mes Amours” and “Avant Tout Je Suis Canadien.” The name “Canada,” at this point in our history, referred only to present-day Quebec.
Resentment against unelected British officials exploded in both Upper and Lower Canada in the autumn of 1837. In Lower Canada, several hundred ardent Patriotes organized themselves into a paramilitary force they called Fils de la Liberté, which came to blows with British troops in the Richelieu Valley, Cartier’s home turf. In Upper Canada, the red-haired, reckless William Lyon Mackenzie led a march of rebels down Yonge Street. Both uprisings were summarily defeated.
George-Étienne Cartier had participated in several of the Richelieu Valley clashes. Learning that a price had been put on his head, he went into hiding near Saint-Antoine. Six of his fellow Patriotes were hanged; others were exiled to Bermuda or Australia. Soon there were rumours that Cartier was dead, and an obituary in a Quebec City paper mourned the loss of “a young man endowed in the highest degree with qualities of heart and mind and before whom a brilliant career opened.”3
In fact, he had fled to Vermont to avoid capture by British troops.
And that was the end of our pugnacious young lawyer’s fling with revolutionary fervour. Whether it was the shock of being officially declared a traitor, fears for his future in the law, or the dawning awareness that an American-style revolution was not going to happen, the reason for his change of direction is unclear. But Cartier now adopted a different course. However, to the exasperation of British authorities, he loved to brag about his days “as a rebel.”
Cartier quietly reappeared in Montreal in the summer of 1838. From now on, the clever young lawyer focused on two goals. The first was to achieve non-violent change that would give Lower Canada a degree of self-government. The second was to become a successful corporate lawyer.
The obstacles to the first goal multiplied immediately after the 1837 uprising. On the advice of Lord Durham, a British grandee sent across the Atlantic to quell colonial unrest, the Westminster government reorganized the political map. It merged the provinces of Upper Canada and Lower Canada into one colony with a single legislative assembly serving both English- and French-speaking Canadians. The intent was clearly to assimilate the French.
Cartier and his fellow Patriotes had to find a way for their region to survive as an autonomous, French-speaking nation within North America. Some of the rebels floated the notion of union with the United States. But there was already a chilling example of what had happened to a French-speaking society in the great Republic. By the 1840s, the former French colony of Louisiana had lost most of its unique francophone culture. In 1870, Cartier would express a strong opinion on American attitudes: “Individually, the Americans are good neighbours, but as a nation, there are no individuals who are less liberal towards other peoples, except the Chinese.”4
For the next few years, Cartier kept his head down and concentrated on his second goal: getting rich. He had his grandfather’s savvy mercantile instincts; he could see that if Montreal was going to remain the most important city in British North America, it needed to become a hub in the rapidly spreading network of railways. So he acquired property and promoted railways.
As early as 1845, he invested in the railroad that would link Montreal to the ice-free harbour of Portland, Maine, to ensure that western produce would be routed through Montreal rather than an American hub. When the railroad was bought out by the Grand Trunk Railway, he became the GTR’s solicitor. His stocky figure might be seen swaggering around railyards in Point St. Charles to inspect newly laid tracks and freight cars loaded with grain.
At the same time, he made it his business to become tight with English-speaking entrepreneurs like Alexander Galt and J. J. C. Abbott, and he was welcomed at their social events such as the Saint James’s Club ball. (However, I don’t think he went overboard with eagerness to merge into the Scots elite: there is no evidence that he sported a kilt at the fancy St. Andrew’s Ball.) Hugh Allan, the Scots shipping magnate and banker, began to use the services of this hard-nosed young French lawyer as a fixer, a lobbyist—the francophone lawyer with influence in both church and government circles. But Cartier also kept close ties with the Roman Catholic Church: he was the Sulpicians’ lawyer too.
Despite his growing respectability, Cartier remained in constant communication with his former Patriote comrades, especially Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, another Patriote turned moderate reformer. LaFontaine had struck up a powerful alliance with the Upper Canadian reformer Robert Baldwin; Cartier became “his propagandist and arm-twister.”5
In 1848, thirty-four-year-old Cartier yielded to pressure from his former comrades and took the plunge into politics. He ran for the Legislative Assembly of the united Province of Canada in a by-election in the Richelieu Valley riding of Verchères, which included his hometown of Saint-Antoine. He took his seat under the banner of the Liberal-Reformers—a Lower Canada coalition that despite its name was in fact conservative and was known as les bleus. The bleus would demonstrate that Lower Canada (now officially called Canada East) could enjoy the benefits of commerce, education, and agricultural reform without threatening the pillars of French-Canadian society: the Roman Catholic Church, the Montreal business community, and the habitants’ almost spiritual connection with the land.
Even the most impulsive firebrands simmer down with time, especially if they find other ways to reach their goals. Over the next few years, the honourable member for Verchères became an agile player in a complicated bilingual political arena. He travelled regularly to Toronto and Kingston and mingled comfortably with English Canadians who never set foot in Montreal. He was impatient, full of himself, and short on charisma, but people listened to him because he had a string of successes to his name. Thanks to his efforts, the educational and judicial systems of Canada East were strengthened, and all its residents, whatever language they spoke, were subject to the French Civil Code. Soon Cartier was acknowledged as a leader of Canada East’s bleus.
At the same time, Cartier pursued his business interests. He manoeuvred himself into the chair of the legislature’s all-important Railway Committee while continuing to act on behalf of railway companies. (Before the adage “No conflict, no interest” was coined, he was a skilled practitioner.) And he learned to hold his tongue when necessary. The leading Upper Canadian Reform politician George Brown, publisher of the Toronto Globe, repeatedly mouthed off against Roman Catholic Canadiens, and he allowed his newspaper to rant, “Rome is blindness. Rome is intolerance. Rome is despotism.”6
Cartier did not react in public.
Most important, Cartier struck up a partnership that would become, in the words of his biographer Alastair Sweeny, “the most significant relationship in Canadian history.”7
In 1855, he had joined a Conservative cabinet that also included John A. Macdonald, the Scots-born Tory lawyer from Kingston, who was English Canada’s craftiest politician. Each man swiftly recognized a kindred spirit; together, they could help each other achieve not only personal ambitions but also an incredibly bold long-term dream: a viable state in the northern half of the continent.
The partnership of John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier proved sufficiently sturdy to overcome language, religious, and legal tensions.
Such a dream seemed ridiculous to many of their contemporaries. Canada was divided between French and English, Catholics and Protestants, Maritimers and central Canadians (the continent’s Indigenous inhabitants
did not even feature in the debate). How could this strange agglomeration of peoples ever be fashioned into a nation? Yet Cartier and Macdonald pursued the dream because, for different reasons, neither of them liked the alternatives.
What a pair they were: the wild-haired, charming Scots pragmatist, always ready with a quip or a compliment, and the dapper, abrasive French Canadian who worked fourteen hours a day and was a bit of an autocrat. They had much in common: they were both tough-minded operators who preferred men’s company to women’s, who often drank to excess (although Cartier rarely went on binges), and who enjoyed each other’s sense of humour. And they were both consummate politicians, with complementary skills. In the Legislative Assembly, Cartier would labour until after midnight to assemble the facts and claims required to push an argument, then hammer it home in his grating, high-pitched voice. A critic described his speeches as “horrible, incomprehensible, untranslatable and unrepeatable.”8
One lasted for fourteen hours: seven hours in English, followed by seven hours in French. Macdonald would rely on Cartier’s careful preparations,
but then he would take over and prove himself the ultimate people manager, cajoling colleagues with compelling reasons or quiet bribes.
Macdonald needed Cartier because of the votes he controlled in the assembly: he was the most important politician from the largest demographic group (Macdonald referred to the Canadien members as his “sheet anchor”). Cartier needed Macdonald because he was one of the rare English-speaking Canadians who appreciated, as Sweeny points out, “the justice as well as the political advantages to be found in Cartier’s demands for the French Canadians.”
The Cartier-Macdonald alliance was consummated when the two became joint premiers in 1857. But even their sturdy partnership could not save the uncomfortable amalgam of the future Ontario and Quebec from a roller coaster of legislative crises: six different ministries were upended in the six years leading up to 1864. How could the British colony achieve the social stability and economic expansion it desperately needed?
Schemes of federation for the British colonies had been floating around for years. The United States had adopted a federal system of government more than half a century earlier, but this example didn’t inspire confidence since the country had lately been locked in a brutal civil war. For the previous three years, battlefields had been littered with thousands of bloody corpses as the southern Confederacy fought the Union (composed of northern states) over the degree of autonomy it should be allowed, particularly in its treatment of slaves.
Nevertheless, Cartier realized a federation might achieve his own long-held goal: to protect the interests of French Canadians. The need for a bold step was growing urgent: with thousands of immigrants from the British Isles, particularly Ireland, moving into unsettled British land, Canadiens were being outnumbered by Upper Canada’s swelling population. Macdonald began as a total skeptic about such a federal system of government but then took a closer look at it when he, in turn, realized that a federation might be the solution to his own challenge: to prevent British North America from becoming an outpost of the United States.
However, such a dramatic political reorganization could take place only
if the colonial secretary in faraway London approved. So Cartier travelled across the Atlantic in 1858 to make the proposal. The colonial secretary brushed off the notion, saying that he needed evidence that the smaller Atlantic colonies wanted such a system. But Cartier loved the trip: the sophistication of the capital’s tailors, doctors, libraries, and social life appealed to his tastes. He announced with gusto, during an audience with Queen Victoria, that a Lower Canadian was “an Englishman who speaks French.”9
Although Canadien chauvinists might interpret this as cringing deference, for Cartier himself it was a bold statement that French Canadians were entitled to all the same rights as Englishmen.10
It also reflected his innate conservatism. In his view, a monarchy was far preferable to the republicanism that characterized Paris. Back home, Cartier impressed Upper Canadians with his unabashed anglophilia: he was a passionate monarchist who named his third daughter Reine-Victoria and believed that the Conquest in 1763 had saved Lower Canada “from the misery and shame of the French Revolution.” (Then and now, these statements are anathema to Quebec nationalists.)
The year 1864 was crucial, for Cartier and for the future country of Canada. By June of that year, politicians from all sides—even the intemperate George Brown—had had enough of constitutional deadlock. A ministry that called itself the Great Coalition was formed. It was a remarkable compromise since it included Macdonald, Cartier, and Brown. Better still, the three leaders undertook to “bring in a measure during the next session for the purpose of removing existing difficulties by introducing the federative principle into Canada.” Moreover, the leaders were thinking big. They made a bold commitment that went beyond the borders of their own colonies. They were prepared to explore “such provisions as will permit the Maritime provinces and the North-West Territories [the area that would eventually become Manitoba and northern Ontario] to be incorporated into the same system of government.”11
Federation was a gamble. George Brown crowed to his wife that “French Canadianism would be entirely extinguished.” Cartier’s opponents in his
own province regarded the “federative principle” with deep suspicion and derided him as a spokesman for railway interests and the dupe of Upper Canadians who would “throw him aside like a worn-out towel.”12
Cartier’s confidence remained undented. He waved aside others’ concerns, and when a colleague reproached him for acting alone, he shrugged: “That is quite correct, I do not consult anybody in making up my mind.”
His alliance with Macdonald promised a solution to the problem he had wrestled with since the 1837 Patriote rebellion: how to guarantee the preservation of French language and culture within British North America. He anticipated that Montreal, with its booming industrial sector and powerful English-speaking population, would become the centre of the new country. He ignored his critics and marshalled all-important support from the future Quebec for this bold new idea. He knew that the Canadiens could make a federal system work to their advantage if they stuck together.
So far, I’ve explored the influences that shaped George-Étienne Cartier’s political career. But there is another side to this man that I’m determined to bring in here, not least because it shows how clever he was at juggling different interests. It is also an irresistible piece of historical gossip, of which there is too little in Canadian history (not because we don’t do scandal, but because Canadian historians—unlike those elsewhere—often regard it as unimportant).
Cartier had a complicated private life. Two years before he entered politics, he made a strategic marriage. His bride was a pretty eighteen-year-old named Hortense Fabre, who was the daughter of a successful Montreal publisher, printer, and bookseller. Fabre père had been a fellow rebel in 1837 but now held the powerful position of mayor of Montreal. The wedding at the Sulpician Church of Notre-Dame was a notable social event, and the Quebec newspapers reported that the couple had left for a three-week honeymoon in New York and Washington. The Cartiers would have three daughters: Josephine, Hortense, and Reine-Victoria (who died as an infant).
Perhaps the marriage was doomed from the start. Hortense was deeply
religious, rather prim, and utterly bourgeois. By now her husband, fourteen years her senior, was a self-assured and wealthy man who liked to throw his weight around. For all his public discretion, in private he often picked fights. (He once fought a duel.) His wife’s pursed lips and angry reproaches drove him into the boisterous company of his male friends. Soon Cartier was spending all his evenings working late or going to his club, rather than returning to his silent, stuffy mansion on Montreal’s Notre-Dame Street. Much more fun to entertain his friends at raucous parties! “Mr. Cartier sang or croaked after dinner,” harrumphed an unfriendly dinner companion, “and made every one he could find stand up, hold hands, and sing a chorus. The wretched servants brought in tea, and he pushed them away till after his song was over. He pushed one on his arm lightly, and I saw the servant rubbing his arm much annoyed, and looking like a dog with a trodden-on tail.”13
In his later years, in his Ottawa house on Metcalfe Street, he threw the best stag parties, which were enjoyed by John A.’s son Hugh John Macdonald.14
Yet George-Étienne Cartier liked women: he once admitted to the governor general’s sister that he adored “les activités de la coeur.” Women liked his flirtatious manner, and at official balls, he was a popular dance partner. In the early 1860s he embarked on a love affair with Luce Cuvillier, the daughter of a Montreal businessman whom Cartier had met through politics. Soon Cartier’s colleagues were uncomfortably aware that the bleu leader had a mistress—and this was no lighthearted fling.
Today, the Cartier-Cuvillier relationship would be catnip to the paparazzi. Luce Cuvillier had real shock value. Eleven years older than Madame Cartier, Cuvillier was educated, unconventional, and far more sophisticated than her lover’s wife. Widely read, she particularly admired the French writer George Sand (the pen name of Aurore Dupin). In imitation of Sand, she smoked cheroots and wore trousers in the privacy of her country home. Cartier and his mistress flaunted their liaison: they travelled around together in complete disregard of the Victorian proprieties. Journalists often reported that Monsieur Cartier’s wife had not accompanied him to this or that event, but that Mademoiselle Cuvillier was among the other guests.15
Luce Cuvillier was a spirited, intelligent woman with little time for bourgeois convention.
Yet the affair never grew from a topic of gossip to a public scandal.
Newspapers of the day got more excited by partisan invective than by personal peccadilloes. For nineteenth-century Canadians, let alone Roman Catholic Montrealers, divorce was impossible, sanctioned by neither church nor state. But George-Étienne Cartier’s double life reflects more than the straitjacket of contemporary mores and religion. It shows how he could juggle competing interests—a skill, subsequent prime ministers would discover, that was crucial to success within Canadian politics. (Think of William Lyon Mackenzie King’s artful compromise on an explosive issue such as conscription in the Second World War.) Just as Cartier combined devotion to francophone interests with loyalty to the British monarchy, so he balanced convention and inclination.
Events moved with stunning rapidity after June 1864, once George-Étienne Cartier, John A. Macdonald, and George Brown had formed their Great Coalition and committed themselves to exploring the idea of federalism.
A remarkable aspect of this story is that the Fathers of Confederation had few models to follow. The only countries that had established two-level systems, with one central government plus several regional ones, were Switzerland and the United States. British North Americans had watched the American Civil War sap British North America’s fragile economy and spawn fears of American expansionism.
In London, the colonial secretary had declared that he was sympathetic to the idea of regional consolidation in Britain’s American colonies—as long as any scheme had the consent of all concerned. (By now, the British government was impatient to withdraw its expensive red-coated battalions from Canada. The Times sniffed, “Our colonies are rather too fond of us, and embrace us, if anything, too closely.”16
) Then the Great Coalition leaders heard that the four Maritime provinces were planning a conference to discuss Maritime union. They decided to crash the party, and they sat down in the cabinet offices in Quebec City to draft proposals for a federal constitution.
On Monday, August twenty-ninth, in the warmth of a summer’s evening, George-Étienne Cartier made a formal farewell to his wife and daughters and joined Macdonald, Brown, Galt, Hector Langevin, and William McDougall on board the Queen Victoria, a Canadian government steamer. As the ship weighed anchor and proceeded downstream, the gaggle of politicians watched the silver steeples, curved roofs, and well-tilled land of the Île d’Orléans slip by. By dawn on Thursday, the Queen Victoria had traversed the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the red ochre bluffs of Prince Edward Island were in sight. The following day, in the island’s legislative building, George-Étienne Cartier rose to present the case for a federal union.
Cartier’s arguments overwhelmed his deficiencies as a speaker. He explained to Maritimers that he supported the federal system because it split the united Province of Canada into two, returning its two original components, Upper and Lower Canada, to their pre-1841 state. This meant that French Canadians could preserve their nationality because they would have their own provincial legislature. The canny Maritimers listened carefully and realized that this system would suit them fine, because each of the other British North American colonies would also get its own legislature,
under the federal umbrella. Maritimers had made it plain that they would resist any attempt to absorb their small colonies into a unified Canadian state; in fact, they weren’t even prepared to join together into a Maritime union. (To this day, the idea is unacceptable.) But Cartier’s proposal was a solution that would work for them too, because it would preserve their provincial autonomy.
There were a few more hours of discussion, and deals to be made about financial arrangements for railways and tariffs. But by Friday afternoon the thirty-three delegates were enjoying a champagne lunch on the Queen Victoria, now nicknamed “the Confederate Cruiser.” And in no time at all, Cartier broke into his song: “O Canada, Mon Pays, Mes Amours.”17
The details would be hammered out in Quebec City a month later. Macdonald, the skilful manager of discussion, took the lead here, allegedly drafting fifty of the seventy-two resolutions that would become clauses in the British North America Act. George Brown, an impulsive fountain of ideas, kept interrupting, then retreating. Cartier stayed silent, knowing that he controlled enough votes to ensure that his agenda was never derailed.18
Macdonald was keen on establishing a strong central government and giving very limited powers to the provinces. However, Cartier would not let his colleague dilute federal principles or the status of the French language. He successfully ensured provisions guaranteeing the official use of French in Parliament, the federal courts, and the courts and legislature of Quebec, as well as the continuance of Quebec’s Civil Code.19
He also ensured important constitutional guarantees to Quebec’s English-speaking minority for schooling and political representation.
In 1867, the British North America Act sailed through the Westminster Parliament, and the Canadian Confederation became a legal entity.
In London, Cartier crowed with delight. “We have founded a great empire which will extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean; we intend that all that immense territory will be well governed and governed not merely as a selfish principle as applied to us, but in order to add to the power and to the prosperity of the Mother country.”
But there was a further challenge for the wily Montreal lawyer. He had
to sell the deal to his fellow French-speaking Canadians in what would soon be called Quebec. He had to persuade them that Confederation was the key to the preservation of their unique identity, not the first step in its gradual dissolution. How did he succeed? A crucial element was support for the new Dominion from Quebec’s Roman Catholic Church. But Cartier also developed a subtle argument. In a speech in Montreal he made no mention of the “Mother Country,” and he quietly introduced a concept that at the time, in any of the European nation-states (let alone the United States), would be considered bizarre if not revolutionary. He distinguished between political and cultural nationality, arguing that “the establishment of a federal government will strengthen the culture that is dear to us. A federal government is the only system in which the survival of French Canada will be secure.”20
On July 1, 1867, French- and English-speaking Canadians celebrated the birth of the Canadian Confederation with bonfires and parties. But were they celebrating the same thing? In the new province of Ontario, George Brown’s Globe told its English-speaking and largely Protestant readers, “With the first dawn of this gladsome midsummer morn, we hail the birthday of a new nationality.” Meanwhile, in Quebec, the editor of La Minerve, a strong supporter of Cartier’s, declared that Confederation had achieved autonomy for Lower Canada’s French-speaking residents. On July 1, La Minerve observed, “In giving ourselves a complete government we affirm our existence as a separate nationality.”
What an incredible juggling act! Cartier had achieved his goal and ensured that the new country of Canada was a political unit in which different peoples could cohabit and protect their own culture. In time, this would become a template for federalism beyond Canadian borders—a political system in which political and ethnic nationalisms could coexist without necessarily overlapping. Other British colonies, such as Australia and South Africa, drew lessons from the Canadian experience as they moved towards independence.
Cartier cared only about the language, laws, political institutions, and culture of French-speaking Canadians in Lower Canada: French-speaking
Canadians elsewhere in the new Dominion would not enjoy the same protections. But in the Confederation Debates, Cartier explicitly spoke of “a political nationality” in a speech that has an astonishingly modern ring of inclusivity, even if the groups mentioned don’t seem particularly diverse today. He argued that the “idea of unity of races was utopian—it was impossible. Distinctions of this kind would always appear. . . . In our own federation we should have Catholic and Protestant, French, English, Irish and Scotch, and each by his efforts and his success would increase the prosperity and glory of the new confederacy.”21
The concept of Canadians sharing a political nationality but not necessarily a culture was now “part of Canada’s DNA,” as Macdonald’s biographer Gwyn put it.22
The newborn Dominion of Canada had teething problems. Before those whiskered patriarchs had even left Charlottetown, Newfoundland had walked away from the whole idea of Confederation. Prince Edward Island refused to sign the deal. New Brunswick nearly went AWOL before the vote at Westminster. Nova Scotia tried to secure the repeal of the union after it had taken place. As the journalist Blair Fraser wrote a hundred years later, “The fight for Canadian independence was never directed against the British. It was always a running fight among Canadians.”23
But in the end, Confederation stuck . . . and grew. In retrospect, it seems solid from the start. Yet for all the biblical magnificence of its name, the new Dominion of Canada would be unrecognizable to twenty-first-century Canadians.
First, it occupied only a third of present-day Canada: it reached from the Atlantic Ocean to just beyond the Great Lakes. Newfoundland had opted to remain an independent British colony. Most of the vast area between the border of Ontario and the Pacific Ocean, home to thousands of peoples from various Indigenous groups, was an uncharted wilderness that belonged to the Hudson’s Bay Company, which made the HBC about the largest landowner in the world. Beyond the HBC’s string of fur forts across its territory, and perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, was the British
colony of British Columbia, which wasn’t even invited to send representatives to Charlottetown. The only way to reach the distant British colony was to travel, by rail and wagon, through the United States.
Next, the new Dominion had only a tenth the population of our country today: the combined population of Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island was three and a half million. Most people were dirt poor. Ottawa, the federal capital, already had its splendid Gothic Parliament Buildings, but they looked wildly out of place. They towered above a boisterous and smelly lumber town of 20,000 inhabitants who complained incessantly about the bitter winter cold and the suffocating summer humidity. The rest of the Dominion’s cities—Halifax, Saint John, Quebec City, Montreal, Kingston, and Toronto—had poor drainage, few amenities, and only a handful of buildings of any style. Even the largest (Montreal, with 115,000 residents) was swept regularly by smallpox and typhoid epidemics. The only type of facility of which there was a surfeit was taverns—lined with spittoons and serving rotgut liquor and home-brewed beer.
Most of us cannot imagine a world with no automobiles, telephones, electric devices—let alone airplanes, computers, Internet. So by our standards, the Canada of 1867 was a stark, silent, and lonely country. The wail of steam engines was starting to be heard in more populated areas in Canada, and entrepreneurs were eagerly stringing the first telegraph wires between buildings, but travel and long-distance communication were difficult. Most of the Dominion’s residents preferred to stay put rather than travel by wagon or carriage over primitive, unlit roads (unpaved in the countryside, cobblestoned in cities) to other provinces. Canadians remained strangers to each other.
Who were their neighbours in this vast new land? Over a hundred thousand of the residents of the northern half of North America were invisible to the Canadians enumerated in the 1861 census. As immigrants continued to arrive and settle in populated areas or push westward into the prairies, Indigenous peoples including Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, and dozens of other groups found themselves squeezed to the margins, while
northerners like Inuit and Innu were ignored altogether. The Fathers of Confederation had made no provision for them, except to identify “Indians” as a subject of federal, not provincial, jurisdiction. Only the Royal Proclamation of 1763 afforded them some protection, in its declaration that Indians should not “be molested or disturbed” on their historic hunting grounds.
Those Canadians enumerated in the census—immigrants themselves, or descendants of European immigrants to North America over the previous three centuries—lived narrow, hardscrabble, and often illiterate lives. Four out of five of them were settled on isolated farms and in villages, usually in dirt-floored one-room shacks. The men spent long days planting, harvesting, fishing, or working in the lumber industry; the women worked equally long hours, raising and feeding families and looking after hens, pigs, and vegetable gardens. Winter was a time of hibernation: flour mills and lumber mills shut down when the freeze-up started. Prosperous farmers might enjoy visiting each other, sleigh bells jangling as they sped over smooth ice roads to feasts of carefully preserved pork, fruits, and vegetables. For the less successful, winter could be a killing time. In January 1872, the Montreal Gazette reported two children frozen to death in a wretched slum one bitterly cold night.24
Religion was central to most people’s lives, and churches (Roman Catholic or Protestant) were usually the focus of community activities.
Nevertheless, the new Dominion was on the cusp of change. Soon education would be made compulsory in most provinces, and public health programs would reduce the incidence of diseases like typhoid, smallpox, and diphtheria. Rapid industrialization would fuel the growth of cities and incomes (though the economy grew in fits and starts, and a major depression hit North America in the 1880s and 1890s). But there would be no sense of shared identity until the following century: British North Americans clung to their self-images as Islanders, Nova Scotians, New Brunswickers, Canadiens, or Upper Canadians. In 1867 the Maritime provinces were separated from Quebec and Ontario by forested wilderness: there were no road or direct rail links. Only the St. Lawrence River gave a direct
connection; when most of that mighty waterway was frozen during the winter months, Maritimers could reach central Canada only by travelling through Maine. Since most residents of the eastern seaboard boasted deeper roots in North America than Ontarians, they regarded English speakers in central Canada with chilly skepticism. Meanwhile, Newfoundland turned its back on the new Dominion and continued as a self-governing British colony, with its own House of Assembly. In 1907 it proudly acquired new powers as the Dominion of Newfoundland and claimed equal status with the Dominion of Canada.
The term “Dominion” had a lovely biblical ring, but it was still a wobbly idea. In 1867 the Dominion of Canada was not an independent country: Britain remained “the Motherland.” Canada had no say in its foreign affairs; they would remain in British hands until the 1931 Statute of Westminster. The Dominion was united by neither language nor ethnic homogeneity: it was cobbled together out of English-speaking and French-speaking peoples, with hundreds of Indigenous groups living on its fringes. And it had a large and hungry neighbour waiting for Confederation to fall apart. “When the experiment of the ‘Dominion’ shall have failed, as fail it must,” stated the New York Times soon after the British North America Act had been proclaimed, “a process of peaceful absorption will give Canada her proper place in the Great North American republic.”25
The truth was that the central government was almost irrelevant to most people’s lives. Citizens expected little from the new federal government in Ottawa: municipalities provided most policing; provincial governments administered most laws; people looked to churches and service clubs for charity. There was only one national symbol in the Dominion, and that was a symbol that resided elsewhere. In parlours across Canada, you would likely find a picture of Queen Victoria—dumpy, unsmiling, but a crucial part of Canadian federalism. Loyalty to the distant monarchy was a defining difference between Canadians and Americans.
What could knit together this sprawling transcontinental country? After John A. Macdonald’s skilful leadership through constitutional negotiations in Charlottetown, Quebec City, and London, he was the Crown’s
inevitable choice to form the new nation’s first government. Macdonald’s closest ally, George-Étienne Cartier, became Canada’s first minister of militia and defence. However, Cartier held on to the chairmanship of the all-powerful Railway Committee. Since his earliest years as a Montreal lawyer, Cartier had understood that economic growth was possible only if markets were linked together by railways; now he set to work to build the railways that would glue the whole Dominion together. He had remained in London after the British North America Act received royal assent in order to arrange financing for the Intercolonial Railway.
Cartier was back in Canada for the first celebration of the new Dominion on July 1, 1867. But he was in a foul mood. Governor General Lord Monck had announced that the new prime minister would receive a knighthood, becoming Knight Commander of the Bath, while Cartier along with five others would be awarded the lesser honour of Companion of the Bath. Cartier bluntly declined to accept, on the grounds that it was an insult to French Canadians. Sir John A., as Macdonald was now universally known, needed Cartier’s support too much to shrug this off as a temporary outburst. Within months, thanks to Macdonald’s intervention, Cartier leapfrogged over his colleague in rank: he was created a baronet. This gave him the title “Sir,” which could be handed down to any male heirs. (Not much comfort to the father of daughters only, but Cartier was far too much of a Victorian conservative to question archaic British rituals.)
By now Sir George-Étienne Cartier was the smartly tailored, silver-haired figure of the iconic Charlottetown Conference photograph: he had been in elected politics for more than two decades, and like anyone who has been so powerful for so long, his success outshone his arrogance. The prime minister depended on him heavily: Cartier often replaced Macdonald as prime minister when the latter was either on official business elsewhere, on an alcoholic binge, or sick. Sir Stafford Northcote, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, noted in 1870, during a prolonged Macdonald absence due to gallstones, that Cartier “was behaving remarkably well at the present crisis, taking the whole responsibility of negotiations upon himself, but refusing to supplant Macdonald. . . . Other ministers had asked
Cartier to take the Premiership, but . . . he had refused to do so, and had kept the Cabinet together.”26
When he was awarded his baronetcy, Cartier had chosen as his motto “Franc et sans dol” (“frankness without deceit”), and that is how he struck others. Observing the bluff French Canadian at dinner one night, Northcote admired his manner. “He has the happy quality of being always thoroughly well satisfied with himself, and this makes him very good humoured with other people. But he is much more than good humoured. He has the great merit of being thoroughly honourable and loyal. Everyone says that once he has given his word, he is quite sure to keep it if he can.” (Northcote also noted, “The misfortune is that being very sanguine he sometimes makes promises which he cannot perform.”) Lady Macdonald, usually a harsh critic of her husband’s colleagues, echoed this assessment: she called Cartier “the fairest of men. He always seems to me full of life and pleasant chattiness but extremely egotistical.” But she also recognized that, unlike her husband, he was not a popular favourite; despite his being respected for his moral strength, “qualities which please are wanting.”27
With the British North America Act firmly secured, the Montreal lawyer threw himself into the nation-building project with a vigour at least as forceful as his boss’s. Like Macdonald, Cartier recognized that if Canada was to survive, it had to stretch beyond its present boundaries, to cross the prairies and the Rocky Mountains until it occupied an unbroken line from Atlantic to Pacific. And the former rebel also knew that only the survival of the fledgling nation would guarantee the sure survival of the French-Canadian people; otherwise, both French and English Canadians would tumble into the North American melting pot.
Control of the West was the first challenge, particularly in the face of American expansionism. With the end of the Civil War in 1865, politicians in Washington looked north with barely concealed greed. The admission of Nebraska as the thirty-seventh state in the Union in 1867 was immediately followed by the American purchase of Alaska from the Russians. This
put the squeeze on the vast lands in the North and West of North America—more than a quarter of the continent—that had been granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company two centuries earlier.
Which Canadian politician hurried over to London in October 1868 to negotiate the acquisition of these lands from the HBC? George-Étienne Cartier. Everybody wanted the deal to happen, so Cartier held his bulldog instincts in check as he met the new colonial secretary, Lord Granville, whose suave manner had earned him the dangerous nickname “Pussy.” The Hudson’s Bay Company handed over its territory in return for the handsome sum of £300,000 and about one-twentieth of the land. Canada now stretched to the foothills of the Rockies, and Cartier had not yet finished. He returned in triumph to Canada and presented the deal he had made to Parliament with the words “The British North America Act will soon apply to a chain of provinces extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I hope we shall no longer hear of annexation.”
The only problem was that nobody had consulted the inhabitants of this vast acquisition. The Canadian government made a clumsy attempt to occupy the new western territories and quickly ran up against armed resistance from the French-speaking Métis of Red River, offspring of European voyageurs and Indigenous people. Their leader was twenty-four-year-old Louis Riel, a tall, curly-haired, charismatic man. Like Cartier, Riel had been educated by the Sulpician Fathers in Montreal, and he hero-worshipped the leader of the Quebec bleus. There is no evidence that Cartier and this intense young warrior ever met. Nevertheless, Cartier certainly sympathized with Riel’s complaints on behalf of the Métis people: that their territory was being overrun by English-speaking Upper Canadians, that their farms were being surveyed and broken up for the new settlers, that their rights and Catholic religion were not being respected.
Louis Riel, educated, like Cartier, by the Sulpician Fathers in Montreal, fought to protect Métis rights and land.
Thanks to Cartier’s intervention, a settlement was negotiated that created the new territory of Manitoba, in which the Métis were guaranteed land, the rights of both English and French were recognized, and a political and administrative system analogous to that of Quebec was put in place. The settlement allowed Cartier to tick off two of his concerns: it secured a
Canadian presence on the Red River, and it offered a congenial new area of settlement for Quebecers. But it left one dangerous, dangling thread: the fate of Louis Riel himself.
During the Riel-led uprising of 1869–70, an obstreperous surveyor from Ontario named Thomas Scott had been involved in clashes between Métis and Canadian militia. Scott was captured by the Métis, and after a travesty of a trial, Louis Riel authorized his execution. Protestant Ontario rose up in rage against the Métis leader, demanding his arrest for murder. Cartier knew that such an arrest, followed by a trial, had the potential to inflame a vicious English-French, Protestant-Catholic battle, and he quietly arranged for the tempestuous young leader to go into exile. Memories of his own rebellious youth must have resonated with the silver-haired statesman. For the rest of his life, he pressed the British government to grant an amnesty to Riel, as he himself had been unofficially pardoned after the 1837 Patriote rebellion.
There was still one more leap to be taken in the Canadian march westward:
the giant step over the Rocky Mountains. Here again, Cartier was the man who made it happen.
In June 1870 a delegation from New Westminster, capital of the tiny colony of British Columbia, came to Ottawa for a meeting in the Privy Council chambers. There they found Sir George-Étienne Cartier, “in his shirtsleeves, hard at work”; he gave them a warm welcome and pressed glasses of sherry on the three delegates.28
The delegation told the acting prime minister that the three-year-old federal government was welcome to extend its control right across the continent. However, there were conditions. Ottawa must assume the colony’s crippling debt of over $1 million, undertake a public works program, build a carriage road, and begin construction of a transcontinental railway.
This was quite a package of demands. But to the delegates’ amazement, they got all they asked for and more: Cartier urged them to ask for a railway to be begun in two years and completed in ten. The British Columbians were astonished by Ottawa’s pledge to lay the 4,345-kilometre line in so short a time. Macdonald, recuperating from ill health in faraway Prince Edward Island, might have given a similar welcome to the delegation, but it was Cartier, with his deep commitment to the country’s steel spine, who made the extravagant offer.
On July 20, 1871, British Columbia formally entered Confederation as its sixth province. Macdonald and Cartier had solidified their dream: a Canada that stretched from coast to coast. “Before very long,” Cartier prophesied, “the English traveller who lands at Halifax will be able within five or six days to cover half a continent inhabited by British subjects.”29
To head off anger in Ontario at the cost of this deal, the government announced that the railway would be built not by government but by a private company to which it would give subsidies and land grants. In the spring of 1872, Cartier introduced a bill into the House of Commons to authorize the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway with the exultant cry “All aboard for the West.”
The British Columbia deal was Cartier’s finest hour. From then on, his luck began to run out. Ill health and tangled railway politics would sap both his energies and his reputation.
Cartier had relied on Sir Hugh Allan, the flamboyant and ruthless shipping magnate who was an old friend from his days as a successful Montreal lawyer, to organize and head the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. Allan could expect to make millions of dollars from the CPR contract, but he was also expected to show his gratitude. During the 1872 elections it emerged that, in expectation of receiving the CPR contract, Allan had funnelled large sums into Conservative Party funds. Cartier had been the conduit: he himself had received $85,000. For the first time in his life, he suffered the humiliation of defeat in his Montreal East constituency. Within weeks he sailed for England (ironically, on one of Sir Hugh Allan’s steamers) to get treatment for a chronic kidney condition that had been bothering him for some months.
Between 1881 and 1884, about 15,000 Chinese labourers were brought to Canada to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. They were paid half the regular wages—and given the most dangerous jobs—but the railway was finished on time.
Cartier left Sir John A. to deal with the outrage that the patronage deals and slippery electoral financing triggered. The uproar caused Sir John A.’s
defeat at the polls and kept him out of power for five years. But in the end, Cartier would shoulder much of the blame for the Pacific Scandal, allowing Macdonald to emerge tarnished but vigorous. In 1878 the Kingston lawyer was back in office, ready to continue the weighty task of making the Dominion of Canada a national as well as a constitutional reality.
As a biographer, I am always sad to say goodbye to my subjects. I try not to be an advocate so much as a mediator between their times and ours, but I have found it hard not to morph into George-Étienne Cartier’s champion. He himself watched his role in the creation myth of Canada being belittled when he was not awarded a knighthood at Confederation. Over the years, Cartier’s significance has faded while Macdonald’s importance has been hammered into the boilerplate of Canadian history.
Why has this happened? Confederation launched Macdonald’s remarkable career as prime minister, an office he would hold for nineteen of the next twenty-four years. But Cartier, his indispensable partner in the Confederation project, was by his side for only six years after the 1867 celebrations. Cartier’s single-minded zeal for a federal system has been progressively forgotten. There are two thorough biographies of him in English, by Alastair Sweeny and Brian Young, but both were written more than thirty years ago and have been unable to halt the slow fade. And Quebec’s francophones are ambivalent about Cartier’s achievements. His unabashed devotion to the monarchy, the British Empire, and London doesn’t sit well with modern Quebecers. Even defenders within his own province are apologetic. “When we judge him,” wrote J.-C. Bonenfant in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, “we must place him in his time and avoid condemning him in the light of the events that have taken place in the last 100 years, and that he could not reasonably have foreseen.”30
Moreover, I have to admit that John A. Macdonald was the more attractive personality, and his charisma resonates down the years. Without Macdonald’s exceptional negotiating skills, plus that easy charm, the path to Confederation would have been rockier. Unlike his co-premier, Cartier
lacked that quality that was as important in politics 150 years ago as it is today: likeability. Macdonald sheathed his ruthlessness; Cartier was brutally tough. He held many views that are anathema today: he opposed frequent elections, the secret ballot, and universal suffrage, and he would have been appalled at proposals to give the vote to either women or Indigenous Canadians.
Yet within his own lifetime, Cartier’s significance was acknowledged by his peers. At a Montreal banquet in November 1866, Cartier’s colleague Thomas D’Arcy McGee gave an effusive toast to him. The Irish-born poet and politician, who was one of the first to embrace the notion of a Canadian nationalism and who had played a crucial role during the Confederation debates, observed that “one of the main obstacles to [Confederation] has arisen from the conflict, real or imagined, between racial interests, religions and languages, existing in Canada today.” McGee then went on to say, “And this conflict could not have been avoided except by the utmost firmness, and a great deal of mutual liberality, and by a large amount of impartiality in the administration of the country, and it is above all to the Hon. Mr. Cartier that we are indebted for the happy consequences of this enlightened and far-seeing administration.”31
Eight months after Cartier sailed for England, he was dead of Bright’s disease. When Macdonald received the news by telegram on May 20, 1873, he wept. Then he entered a crowded House of Commons and took his seat next to Cartier’s empty desk. As the House fell silent, Macdonald wearily rose to his feet. “Mr. Speaker, I have a painful duty to fulfill to this House. I have received a telegram . . . which I will read to the House. ‘Sir George Cartier had a relapse last Tuesday and he died peacefully at six o’clock this morning. His body will be sent by Quebec steamer on the 29th.’ ”
The prime minister paused for a few seconds, then said, “I feel myself quite unable to say more at this moment.” Sobbing uncontrollably, he placed his right arm on Cartier’s desk and buried his head on his left arm, while his whole body shook with grief.32
Macdonald was never able to find another Canadien partner with whom he could work in such equilibrium and mutual trust, and Canada
was the poorer for it. Cartier left many what-ifs behind him. If he had remained in charge of railway policy, would there have been more control over the proliferation of small, money-losing lines that sapped shaky local economies? If he had been alive in 1885, would he have saved Louis Riel from the gallows and prevented the profound alienation of French Canadians from the Conservative Party? If he had been at Macdonald’s side throughout the 1870s and 1880s, would his fellow Quebecers have felt more confident that their voices counted within the federal government?
Hard to know. But George-Étienne Cartier confirmed Quebec’s role at the heart of Confederation and guaranteed the survival of its laws, language, and customs. “Je me souviens” on Quebec licence plates has many implications, but without Cartier there might have been nothing to remember. And for succeeding generations, Cartier’s vision of Canada as a country whose citizens share a secular identity that transcends but does not crush religious and ethnic identities would have an even more powerful impact. It has become a key element within the pluralist Canada of today.