[Cartier] was as bold as a lion. He was just the man I wanted. But for him, Confederation could not have been carried.
- Sir John A. Macdonald
Born 6 September 1814, in Saint-Antoine, Lower Canada; Died 20 May 1873, in London, England. Sir George-Étienne Cartier was an integral part of the Confederation of Canada, easing French Canadian fears of assimilation and convincing both Manitoba and British Columbia to join the fledgling Dominion. His alliance with Sir John A. Macdonald began as a key political manoeuvre to force a political coalition, but their unlikely relationship turned into a steadfast and lifelong friendship, without which Confederation might not have happened.
Cartier was born in Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu on 6 September 1814 into a wealthy French-Canadian family of grain exporters. He was not related to Jacques Cartier, the famous explorer from Saint Malo, though George-Étienne’s family legends claimed otherwise. Cartier graduated from the Sulpician Collège de Montréal and was called to the bar in 1835. He practiced law for many prominent Lower Canada institutions, including the Sulpician Order, the original seigneurs of Montréal and the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railway.
He quickly became involved in radical politics in Lower Canada, first as a member of the Fils de la Liberté (Sons of Liberty) which resisted the dominance of the Château Clique. He went on to fight with the rebels (known as the Patriotes) in the 1837 Rebellion. After the rebellion was suppressed, Cartier escaped and lived in exile in Vermont for a year before petitioning to return to Montréal to practice law.
Cartier did not stay out of politics for long. By 1841 he was Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine’s campaign manager and right-hand man. They reformed the Civil Code, and restored the Assembly of Lower Canada (which had been nullified by the Act of Union of 1840) with Responsible Government granted by Britain in 1848. In 1861, after the coalition with Canada West’s Conservative Party (led by Sir John A. Macdonald), Cartier and Macdonald served as joint premiers of the Province of Canada from 1857-62. It was during this time that they laid the foundations for Confederation. In 1857, it was Cartier who advocated for Ottawa as the Province of Canada’s (and later the Dominion of Canada) capital city. He argued it was more defensible then the other options (Toronto, Montréal and Kingston) and was located on the border between Canada West and Canada East. He also wrote the patriotic song “O Canada! Mon Pays, Mes Amours” which helped to create some common ground between English and French Canada. Cartier’s ability to satisfy both sides of an argument with a fair compromise proved to be a great strength later on in his political career, and helped create the Dominion from sea to sea.
Cartier’s goal was a federation of provinces rather than a British-style single legislative union, which would force assimilation. Rather, he saw the opportunity for a new political nationality that accounted for differences in language, religion and cultural practices by implementing a federal-provincial system of governance.
It was this provincial semi-autonomy that helped to convince New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to unite with the Province of Canada, alongside the promise to build the Intercontinental Railway. Cartier, like Macdonald, stressed the importance of a unified military in case of an attack by the much larger United States.
Cartier’s ability to find a compromise was integral in securing Rupert’s Land (1869) and in the signing of the Manitoba Act (1870) and the British Columbia Act (1871). He negotiated with the Hudson’s Bay Company in London for the transfer of Rupert’s Land to the Dominion, and was successful in part due to his close relationship with British railway builders, financiers and military officials. In Manitoba, he sympathized with the Métis cause, and worked closely with their emissary, Abbé Ritchot, to solidify the Province of Manitoba’s entry into Confederation. Delegates from British Columbia came to Ottawa in June 1870 to discuss joining Confederation, and Cartier’s promise of a transcontinental railway proved to be enough to seal the deal. A national railway, commonly thought of as Macdonald’s dream, was Cartier’s as well, and he worked diligently on the project for the rest of his career.
Macdonald was devastated by the loss of his ally and advocate when Cartier died in 1873. Each man had immense respect for the other, and their long political relationship had transformed into a loyal friendship. Shortly after Cartier’s death, Macdonald unveiled a statue on Parliament Hill to commemorate his greatest friend and collaborator and to honour Cartier’s commitment and dedication to the united Dominion of Canada.
- Sir John A. Macdonald – Steve Cumyn
- Sir George-Étienne Cartier – Jean L’Italien
- John Sebastian Helmcken – Steve Coombes
- Abbé Noel Joseph Ritchot – Christian Laurin
- Antoine-Aimé Dorion – Jean Pearson