Cartier: Kingpin of Confederation

Who is the true father of Confederation? Alastair Sweeny argues it's Sir George-Étienne Cartier.
Who is the true father of Confederation? Alastair Sweeny argues it's Sir George-Étienne Cartier.

John A. Macdonald was a man of infinite charm and craftiness, but Confederation was not in any way his achievement. Indeed, it could very well have happened without him.

The real driver of Confederation was Macdonald’s colleague, his “Siamese Twin,” Sir George-Étienne Cartier.

So why has Sir John A. garnered better press than Cartier, with some even calling him “the Father of the Country”?

Willful ignorance of the facts by people more in tune with myth than reality.

Richard Gwyn’s recent retelling of the Macdonald legend, while nicely written, does nothing to dispel that ignorance. Gwyn boldly states that Macdonald was “British North America’s irreplaceable man.” He even rhapsodizes that “Macdonald made us. He made us in the way he had intended to all along and he made us his way.”

In truth, our beloved whisky-sodden first Prime Minister was a follower, an also-ran in the movement to confederate.

The fight for Confederation was from the beginning a French Canadian project, and Cartier became its major leader. The French were enraged by Lord Durham’s proposal that Lower Canada be abolished and absorbed into a single province with Upper Canada, with the express goal of assimilating the French.

For 25 years Cartier’s party battled to break up the Union, and restore a province where French Canadians would have a majority. Their main weapon was block voting - if they remained united, and allied with one of the rump parties of Upper Canada, they would keep power.

Indeed, it worked out that way: Cartier’s party held power during all but two of the years leading up to Confederation. Following the retirement of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, the Province of Canada had a succession of eight ministries kept in power by the big bleu/conservative majority. (The only exceptions were the shaky 1862–64 J. S. Macdonald Sicotte-Dorion ministry and the short-lived Brown-Dorion ministry that followed the infamous “double shuffle” of 1858.)

In 1864, frustrated by the deadlock created by Cartier’s party, George Brown threw in the towel and joined Cartier and Macdonald’s Great Coalition to work toward Confederation.

Finally, Cartier had his hands on the major levers to make Confederation happen. He was long time solicitor of the Grand Trunk Railway, chair of the railway committee, and Minister of Militia. He took the lead at Charlottetown in 1864, convincing the Maritimers that the British provinces needed an intercolonial railway, a common defence against the United States, and a railway to the Pacific.

Even after 1867, Cartier continued the great work, in some cases where Macdonald was indisposed or drunk. In the six years before his death, Cartier handled the purchase of the North-Western territory and Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and as acting prime minister, negotiated the entry of Manitoba as a province. A year later, he met with delegates from British Columbia to draft their terms of union, telling them to press not for a wagon road through the Rocky Mountains, but for a railway.

So why was Cartier downgraded in our national mythology?

For one thing, Cartier was complicated, and perhaps too passionate to be truly Canadian. You won’t find any Cartier bobbleheads at WalMart.

English Canadians yearn for a presidential founding father, their very own George Washington. They ignore Cartier, almost as a nuisance getting in the way of their adoration of Sir John A.

Many French Canadians, identifying as a conquered nation and oppressed people, have a similar response. Cartier doesn’t fit into the narrative. Even though he was the poet of the Lower Canada rebellion of 1837, even though he founded the new province of Quebec in 1867, he remains a politically incorrect personage, almost invisible in his home province.

Cartier’s role in the Pacific Scandal was also a factor. Generations of historians have reworked the same uncomplicated fairy tale of money changing hands for the Canadian Pacific Railway contract, ignoring the fact that Cartier fought off American railway promoters who wanted a more southerly CPR route, and who paid a fortune to engineer his 1872 defeat.

Macdonald’s friends also contributed to the downgrade. In some cases, they questioned Cartier’s state of mind before his death in 1873: convenient lies were circulated that Cartier was not himself when he promised the presidency of the CPR to Sir Hugh Allan.

Macdonald even confessed to his first biographer, Joseph Pope, that "Cartier was as bold as a lion. He was just the man I wanted. But for him confederation could not have been carried."

In fact, the present nature of Confederation owes the most to Cartier's steadfast demands for provincial powers. Macdonald, with an eye on Cartier's powerful bloc of votes, did not need much urging to be won over. But Cartier did not merely supply the political capital for the enterprise of Confederation; he set the wheels in motion over the track he himself had laid. Macdonald was just the man he wanted.

It’s tempting to argue that Macdonald squandered the legacy left by Cartier, and opened wounds that have still not healed. The old Liberal Conservative coalition started to unravel in 1885, the year of the last spike of the CPR, and the year Riel was hanged. In 1896, a new Liberal, Wilfrid Laurier, moved smoothly into the vacuum left by Cartier.

Cartier himself made a telling argument against the Macdonald legend. On June 30, 1867, the evening before our first Dominion Day, Henry J. Morgan, author of The Canadian Parliamentary Companion, visited Cartier at his home on Metcalfe St. in Ottawa. The two chatted into the night. As Morgan recalled, Cartier was immensely proud of the fact that he was “the first man, as Prime Minister of United Canada, to make Confederation an administrative act and to carry it to the foot of the Throne.”

“John A. had nothing to do with that.”

Alastair Sweeny is the author of George-Étienne Cartier: A Biography and a consultant on a new Historica Canada Heritage Minute about Cartier, which launches Jan. 11, 2014.