Favouring an attitude known as la survivance and opposing the anticlerical and radical Parti rouge, the Parti bleu received the support of the Roman Catholic clergy, making it the most powerful political party in Canada East (Québec). Under the leadership of George-Étienne Cartier, the party allied with John A. Macdonald’s Liberal-Conservatives in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada and played a major role in the establishment of Confederation. Together, they formed the basis for the Conservative Party.
In the aftermath of the Union of the Canadas in 1841, French Canadians gathered around the leadership of Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and worked to limit the damage caused by the Act of Union — which in many ways sought to assimilate francophones. Through conciliatory policies with Robert Baldwin’s Reformers, the “French block” was able to restore French as an official language and ensure that French Canada had a voice in government. During this period, French Canadians, from radical to moderate, supported LaFontaine. However, by the late 1840s, some had grown tired of his moderate and conservative policies. He had alienated several supporters through his alliance with the Roman Catholic clergy, his refusal to adopt representation by population, his refusal to secularize clergy reserves, and his resistance to abolishing the seigneurial system without properly compensating the seigneurs.
Spurred by the liberal revolutions of the 1840s (i.e., France, Germany, Italy) and the return of Louis-Joseph Papineau to the Canadian political arena, the more liberal members of this French block began asking for more radical changes, including universal suffrage, the separation of Church and State, and the end of the seigneurial system. In the late 1840s, a political realignment therefore took place amongst French Canadians. While those who demanded more radical reforms became the Parti rouge, those who remained loyal to LaFontaine’s moderate policies became the Parti bleu.
The Parti bleu was moderate and conciliatory; it supported the Act of Union and was against annexation to the United States, an important goal of the Parti rouge. It was also against republican institutions and universal suffrage. George-Étienne Cartier, leader of the Parti bleu in the 1850s and 1860s, was very critical of both. In a speech to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada in 1865, he stated that republicanism had had a terrible impact on the United States. He argued that democratic and republican institutions, such as universal suffrage, could not guarantee peace and prosperity as well as a federal union backed by monarchic institutions (see Monarchism). Republicanism and universal suffrage subjugate the government — the legitimate authority of a nation — to the will of the mob. The party was also in favour of commercial ventures that would benefit the business community, such as the expansion of railways.
The party also advocated an attitude known as la survivance (or survival), an ideology that was heavily favoured by the ultramontane clergy in Canada East (see Ultramontanism). Adopted in the wake of the Union of 1841, la survivance is best defined as the preservation of traditional French Canadian values, practices, customs and religion. Led by the Roman Catholic Church, French Canadians adopted a cautious attitude towards 19th-century social, economic and political developments, such as republicanism, liberalism and industrialization. This ideology promoted the benefits of a traditional agricultural society and a strong Church involved in all aspects of civil society.
As a result of its conservativism and its opposition to the Parti rouge, the Parti bleu gained the support of the Roman Catholic clergy in Canada East. Though some of the more moderate elements of the party sometimes clashed with the more radical ultramontane ones, the party and the Church remained strong allies. Throughout its political battles with the rouges in the 1850s and 1860s, the clergy would often come out in support of the Parti bleu, using the pulpits and the confessionals to prevent French Canadians from voting in favour of the rouges, famously citing: “Le ciel est bleu et l’enfer est rouge” (heaven is blue and hell is red).
In the early 1850s, following Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine’s departure from politics, George-Étienne Cartier quickly grew in popularity and became leader of the Parti bleu. Though he was a Patriote and even fought at the Battle of Saint-Denis, he was a moderate and supported LaFontaine’s conciliatory policies. Thanks in large part to the influence of the clergy, Cartier’s Parti bleu dominated the political scene in Canada East. In 1861, for instance, the party won 64 per cent of the vote in Montréal and 59 per cent outside the city.
At the Legislative Assembly, Cartier quickly moved through the ranks. In 1856, for example, he was named attorney general for Canada East under the government of Étienne-Paschal Taché and John A. Macdonald. In 1857, after Taché retired from politics, Cartier was asked to form government with Macdonald, creating the first of many Macdonald–Cartier governments.
Cartier and the bleus played an integral role in some of the most important legislation of the period. For instance, in 1852, Cartier introduced the bill that created the Grand Trunk Railway. He was provincial secretary in 1855, when municipalities were created in Canada East. In 1857, Cartier played an important role in the codification of the laws of Canada East, leading the way to the creation of the 1866 Civil Code of Lower Canada.
Under George-Étienne Cartier, the Parti bleu played an integral role in Confederation. In 1858, for instance, Cartier travelled to London with Alexander Tilloch Galt and John Ross to promote a federation of the provinces of British North America. In 1864, Cartier’s bleus, along with John A. Macdonald’s Liberal-Conservatives and George Brown’s radical Clear Grits, formed the Great Coalition — a pro-Confederation coalition government. According to Cartier, Confederation was the only way to prevent the British North American colonies from being absorbed by the United States. It was also the only way to guarantee French Canadian survival; under this system, the province would retain control over its own education, laws, institutions, language and religion. Through their leader, the bleus were represented at two major events leading to Confederation: the Charlottetown Conference and the Québec Conference. In 1865, Cartier also went to London to promote the project that the assembly had approved (see also London Conference).
Conservative Party of Canada and Québec
Following Confederation, the alliance between Sir John A. Macdonald’s Liberal-Conservatives and Sir George-Étienne Cartier’s Parti bleu provided the basis of the Conservative Party — which dominated federal politics until the turn of the 20th century.