Sir George-Étienne Cartier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier (1814-1873) was a Canadian statesman who led French Canada into the federation of British North America in 1867.

George-Étienne Cartier was born in Saint-Antoine, Lower Canada, on Sept. 6, 1814. He studied at St Sulpice College, Montreal, in preparation for a legal career. Called to the bar in 1835, he was immediately caught up in the political struggle of the French-Canadian patriotes against the English-dominated executive of Lower Canada. As an ardent supporter of the reform cause led by Louis-Joseph Papineau, Cartier fought in two of the sharpest encounters of the short-lived rebellion of 1837: the battles at Saint-Denis and Saint-Charles. The wholesale defeat of the rebels forced him to flee to the United States, where he settled for a time in Burlington, Vt. After an amnesty declared by the British government, Cartier returned to Montreal in 1838 and, as passions cooled after the rebellions, settled down to a legal career.

Corporation Lawyer

Cartier was remarkably successful as a lawyer, and he became the leading French-speaking corporation lawyer of Montreal, specializing in railway companies. In 1853 he reached the summit of his professional career, when he was asked to act as solicitor for the Grand Trunk Railway, the largest railway enterprise in British North America. At this time another side of Cartier's character was revealed when he wrote the lyrics for "O Canada," a song popular enough in his lifetime to become almost the Canadian national anthem.

Cartier and Macdonald

In 1848 Cartier had entered politics through his election as member for Vercheres County, which he represented until 1861, when he was chosen by a Montreal riding. A moderate Conservative, he reached ministerial rank in 1855 as provincial secretary for Canada East, in the united Province of Canada. A year later he was made attorney general of Canada East, and in 1857 he became the leader of the French-Canadian wing of the Conservative party. This brought him into close relations with John Alexander Macdonald, the Kingston lawyer who filled the same position in Canada West. The two found similar interest in the economic growth of Canada and agreed in applying the principles of a partnership of French and English-speaking Conservatives to the maintenance of a British North American identity. Each possessed a pragmatic approach to political questions, each was affable and urbane, and each was a master in the art of managing men. They developed a relationship of confidence that was to carry them through the critical times of Canadian federation and the launching of a new nation.

In 1857 Cartier teamed with Macdonald in the first of several ministries in which they functioned as joint leaders. The ministry was defeated in the Assembly on June 29, 1858, but came back to power on August 6 through a legal technicality, the "double shuffle." It then survived until 1862 but had increasing difficulties carrying out a legislative program against attacks from the "Grits" of Canada West, who objected to the French-Canadian influence in the government and wished to reconstruct the union on the basis of "representation by population" in the legislature instead of equality by territory.

The Confederation

Out of office for 2 years, Cartier resumed his old post of attorney general of Canada East in March 1864, again in alliance with Macdonald. In June he joined in a coalition ministry, in which George Brown and the Reformers of Canada West participated, to explore the possibilities of a federation of all the British American colonies. Cartier helped to work out the language and educational guarantees for the French-speaking minority in the projected new federal state. Then, tirelessly and skillfully, he used his considerable influence in Quebec to successfully persuade French-speaking Canadians to enter the wider union. The Confederation scheme was endorsed by the members of the legislature from Canada East in 1865. For his essential services to the cause of Confederation, Cartier was made a baronet by the British government in 1868.

The first federal cabinet was formed in July 1867, with Macdonald serving as prime minister. Cartier was minister of militia, his portfolio obscuring the fact that he was Macdonald's chief associate. In 1868 Cartier went to England to arrange the purchase of the Hudson's Bay Company lands in the West for the new Dominion. The acquisition of these lands was essential to the project of a transcontinental railway, which Macdonald envisaged as a necessary step in the creation of a new state across northern North America. Cartier, with his long interest in railways, was a strong supporter of the Pacific railway project.

"Pacific Scandal"

In the election of 1872 Cartier was imprudent in soliciting large campaign contributions for the Conservatives from Sir Hugh Allan, the leader of a syndicate interested in building the Pacific railway. Although no corrupt bargain was entered into, there is no doubt that Allan's expectations of receiving the railway charter were aroused through his dealings with Cartier. The Opposition raised the matter in Parliament in April 1873, an inquiry was instituted, and charges were voiced that eventually led to the resignation of Macdonald's government.

Cartier was a distant witness of these sorry events. He had gone to England in the spring of 1873 to consult physicians about his health, and he died suddenly in London on May 20, 1873.

Further Reading on Sir George-Étienne Cartier

The fullest biography of Cartier in English is John Boyd, Sir George-Etienne Cartier, Bart.: His Life and Times (1914). See also A.D. DeCelles, Papineau; Cartier (1904; reprinted as vol. 5 of "Makers of Canada" series, 1926). Background studies in Canadian history include Edgar McInnis, Canada: A Political and Social History (1947; rev. ed. 1959); Mason Wade, The French Canadians, 1760-1945 (1955; rev. ed. 1968); and J. Bartlet Brebner, Canada: A Modern History (1960; rev. ed. 1970).

Additional Biography Sources

Sweeny, Alastair, George-Etienne Cartier: a biography, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976.

Young, Brian J., George-Etienne Cartier: Montreal bourgeois, Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1981.

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