Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Sir George-Etienne Cartier


[This biography was written in 1888. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]

This illustrious statesman was born in the village of St. Antoine, in the county of Verchères, on the 6th of September, 1814. It was claimed for him that he was descended from one of the nephews of Jacques Cartier, the adventurous Breton navigator, who showed to France the ocean pathways to a western empire. But George Etienne stood in no need of the dim and flickering lustre reflected from remote family achievement. He made for himself, in the history of his country, a name and a fame which, by right of native ability and resolute and fortunate effort, are permanently his own.

His immediate ancestors were of the better class of French Canadians. His grandfather, a successful merchant, was one of the first members chosen for the county of Verchères, when the Constitutional Act of 1791 gave to Lower Canada the right to representative institutions. In Lower Canada, in the early days of George-Etienne Cartier, two avocations possessed, and still possess, a strong attraction for the more gifted amongst the younger population. These avocations were the church and the bar. Cartier chose the latter. To qualify himself for his intended profession, he pursued, for eight years, a course of study at the college of St. Sulpice, in the city of Montreal. There is no tradition to show that he was a brilliant student. In this respect he adds another to the number of eminent men who reserved, not for the ideal world of the school-room, but for the actual world of after life, powers and faculties previously unsuspected, because undisplayed. After leaving college he entered upon the study of the law, and in 1835 he began practice in the city of Montreal. The legal profession, crowded at that period, over­crowded at the present time, still affords, to use the simile of Daniel Webster, "room in the upper story." To that place of vantage Cartier made his way. The explanation of his success is not far to seek. He possessed at that time, and until the end of his life, an industry that never knew cessation, an energy that never faltered, and an ever-present consciousness of his own ability.

But, for young Cartier, another pursuit besides law presented imperative claims to attention. This was politics. To him, and to the majority of his countrymen, they seemed to mean political existence, and the preservation of their language and institutions. Cartier had scarcely begun the practice of his profession when he was drawn into the vortex. Louis-Joseph Papineau, speaker of the Legislative Assembly since the year 1817, had been flaming, like a portentous meteor, in the troubled sky of Canadian politics. Under his influence, Cartier, like the overwhelming majority of French Canadians, fell. It was no wonder. Papineau was an impetuous leader; he had a popular cause; he appeared to be fighting an unequal battle. To narrate in detail the causes which created a leader out of Papineau, and which attracted to his banner all the more enthusiastic among the French Canadians, would be to fill volumes to write a history of a country, and not the brief biography of a man. But a few words may serve to convey a faint idea of the political condition of Lower Canada, at the time when Cartier ventured into the perilous pathways of the provincial politics of that epoch.

From the conquest of Canada , in 1760, to 1791 (the year of the passing of the Constitutional Act), Canada was a portion of the British empire, but was an alien in respect to British institutions. This Act divided what was known as the Province of Quebec into two new provinces - Upper and Lower Canada . A legislature was, by the Act, established in each province. It consisted of a House of Assembly and a Legislative Council. The people elected the Assembly; the Crown nominated the Council. Herein lay the monstrous defect of the Constitutional Act; the poisonous leaven that corrupted the body politic in Upper and Lower. Canada ; the pestilent germ that developed into outrageous misgovernment, jeopardy of British connection, and ultimate rebellion.

The Upper House, nominated by the Crown, was not only irresponsible to the people, but set their wishes at absolute defiance. The popular Assembly might pass necessary measures; the Council expunged the provisions that made them useful, or trampled them under foot. The oligarchy, which was continually in a minority in the Assembly, but always in a majority in the Council, lorded it over Lower Canada in contemptuous in­difference to the wishes of the French Canadian majority (1). The Governor, who was commissioned to represent the King, was the mere puppet of the oligarchy. While they flattered him they ruled him, and cajoled while they enslaved. Thus, for long and weary years, was enacted the wretched drama of despotism under a constitutional mask. There seemed no sign of relief. The governors and the oligarchy, by their machinations, had gained the ear of the imperial authorities, and tricked them into the belief that to rule in contempt of British institutions was the only means of perpetuating British rule in Upper and Lower Canada.

With the intention to act justly, the British government, above all others, seemed, at this period, to be beyond the reach of the warnings of experience; seemed doomed never to know the truths as to the dismal history of colonial misgovernment. The loss of the thirteen colonies had been a lesson taught in vain. Not until the Earl of Durham, in a state paper which eclipses, for ability, conscientiousness, vast industry, and fearless truthfulness, any other of the kind in the diplomatic literature of the British American colonies - not until he laid bare the ulcers and festering wounds on the Canadian body politic, did the imperial authorities learn the truth, and set themselves to prepare a remedy.

In the year 1837 the patience and prudence of the French Canadian leaders gave way. The pleading for reform had been scouted as treason; now insurrection was about to take the place of argument. Among the deplorable elements engendered in the long struggle for a better state of things was that of race-hatred. For this dangerous passion, Papineau, often violent in language and unwise in denunciation, was more responsible than his opponents. To this passion, Cartier, even in his hot youth, would not surrender himself. But, when the movement which Papineau for nearly a quarter of a century had fostered, burst away from his control, and leapt from agitation into rebellion, George-Etienne Cartier, throwing to the winds considerations of selfishness and prudence, boldly took his life in his hand, and appealed to the arbitrament of the sword.

The autumn of 1837 was ominous of coming troubles. The government, even if no other source of information had been at their command, could not fail to perceive in the speeches of the more impetuous of the French Canadian leaders that an appeal to arms was in immediate contemplation. After waiting for a period which to their friends seemed perilously prolonged, the authorities determined at length to grapple with the incipient insurrection. On the 16th of November, 1837, warrants for high treason were issued against the Montreal agitators who were inciting the people to rebellion. Papineau was included in the number, but he had been warned in time. He placed the St. Lawrence between himself and arrest; and made good his way towards the Richelieu river. His arrival in that locality brought to a focus the latent elements of revolt. The disaffected peasantry of the surrounding districts trooped to their headquarters, a village named Debartzch, in the parish of St. Charles.

But, in addition to the encampment at St. Charles , there was another and more memorable mustering place of the "patriots." This was at St. Denis, on the Chambly river. The leader of the patriots was Dr. Wolfred Nelson, a man whose energy, courage and principles won him the unshaken confidence of the peasantry. At St. Denis we find George-Etienne Cartier. A British force under Colonel Gore, a Waterloo veteran, was sent against St. Denis. Accompanying the expedition was a deputy-sheriff armed with a warrant for the arrest of Dr. Wolfred Nelson on a charge of high treason. On the morning of the 23rd of November, 1837 , the troops, after twelve hours' march through the sloughs, mud, and pit-falls of a winter road in Lower Canada , approached the village of St. Denis . A contemporary account thus narrates the result of the attack on the position of the insurgents :-

The necessary orders were given for the troops to advance; an order which was promptly obeyed, notwithstanding the harassing and fatiguing march of the night. Towards the north-eastern entrance of the village of St. Denis there is a large stone house, of three or four stories, which was discovered to be full of armed men, who opened a sharp and galling fire upon the troops. The skirmishing party here consisted of the light company of the 32nd, under Captain Markham. Within a quarter of an hour after the firing commenced, Captain Markham was severely wounded in the leg; and, almost at the same moment, received two dangerous wounds in the neck, which brought him to the ground. In conveying him to the rear, he received another wound, a proof of the dexterity and precision of the fire kept up by the patriots. It was found by Colonel Gore that the infantry, deprived of the assistance of Colonel Wetherall's force, was inadequate to cope with the terrible fire of the musketry that was kept up and directed against them from the stone house. The field-piece, accordingly, was brought to bear upon this fort of the insurgent army, and injured it considerably, sending many of the inmates to their final account. Notwithstanding, as the ammunition was nearly exhausted, it was deemed prudent to retire, in order to maintain the communication with Sorel, as many of the inhabitants were seen gathering from all directions to the scene of action. About half-past two in the afternoon, the order to fall back was given; and, with the loss of six men killed and ten wounded, a retreat was commenced. The roads were so bad it was impossible to get farther than three miles that night, and Colonel Gore was under the necessity of bivouacking till daylight of Friday morning (24th), when he again commenced his march upon Sorel, which he reached that afternoon.


On the 25th of November, 1837, Lieutenant-Colonel Wetherall and a British force drove the patriots from their position at St. Charles . A few days after this event Colonel Gore, with his command reinforced marched upon St. Denis. But the victory at St. Charles had caused defections in the ranks of Dr. Nelson. He did not wait a second attack, but abandoned his position, and sought to make his escape to the United States . Thus ended the operations on the Richelieu , and with them the rebellion south of the River St. Lawrence . George-E. Cartier was with Dr. Nelson in the combat at St. Denis. In after life, a political opponent would sometimes taunt him with cowardice on that occasion. To such reproaches he never replied, and hence there were some persons who suspected that there might be truth in the accusation. But Cartier himself knew better, and could afford to be silent. Ten years or so after St. Denis his conduct was described by Dr. Nelson, who was qualified to speak on the subject. In La Minerve, of Montreal , under date of September 4th, 1848 , Dr. Nelson's " attestation," dated Montreal , 21st August, 1848 , was published in French. " Seeing," says the Doctor, "that an appeal has been made to me to give my testimony concerning certain events at St. Denis, in 1837, I will do so in the interest of truth and justice. I owe this to my friends, and to the country in general.


It is true that M. Henri Cartier (2) remarked that it would be well to retreat seeing the destruction caused by the discharges if the enemy, the want of munitions, and the flight of a number of per­sons of consequence. I strongly opposed this retreat; but, notwithstanding that, Mr. Henri Cartier vigorously supported us during all the day. M. GEORGE CARTIER never made allusion to the retreat, and he like his cousin, M. H. Cartier, valiantly and effectively contributed to the success of this struggle. And these gentlemen only left me when I was myself obliged to leave, nine days after this event, when the second expedition of troops moved against St. Denis; resistence [sic] then having become impossible, I sent   M. George Cartier, towards two o'clock in the afternoon, for some stores to St. Antoine, and he promptly returned with succour, after about an hour's absence. Mr. George Cartier did not wear a tuque bleu (3) on the day of the battle.

WOLFRED NELSON. MONTREAL , 21st August, 1848.


The authority of Dr. Wolfred Nelson must be accepted as conclusive evidence respecting the personal courage of Cartier, who, it would seem, acted in the capacity of aide-de-camp to the valiant doctor. Cartier, at this battle, was in the twenty-third year of his age. It was also charged against him by some of his political opponents, that for his participation in the events of 1837, a reward was offered for his head. The present writer has not been able to verify this fact. The name of Cartier does not appear in the lists of those for whose apprehension the governor proclaimed rewards. Some time after the fight at St. Denis, Cartier took refuge in the United States . Although he was unnamed in the proclamations, his course of action was well known to the government. He would have been arrested at the time if it had been possible, and his fate would probably have been like that of his commander at St. Denis - banishment. He returned secretly from the United States to Canada, and remained in hiding, for a time. His seclusion, however, was not of very long duration. An intimation from the authorities assured him that on presenting himself in public he would not be arrested. The promise was faithfully kept. The result of Mr. Cartier's participation in the rebellion of 1837 was that for nearly ten years after its close he took no active part in public life.


In 1848, yielding to the pressure of his friends, he was returned to parliament as the representative of his native county of Verchères. He could not have made his entry into public life at a more favorable moment for a man of the liberal tendencies which then dominated him. The governor-general was the Earl of Elgin, the greatest man, with the exception of the Earl of Durham, ever commissioned by the British government to perform the functions of viceroy of Canada. The Lafontaine­Baldwin cabinet, never before or since ex­celled for ability and administrative talent, swayed the political destinies of the pro­vince. A seat in the House of Assembly, for two sessions, in the time of Baldwin and Lafontaine, was in itself a political education. Cartier was an apt learner.


In the session of 1850 he showed how well he understood the needs of his native province. In that year Lafontaine proposed, in the House of Assembly, a series of resolutions for the abolition of the Seignorial Tenure. Like every other abuse which has the plea of age for its defence, the Seignorial system found determined advocates. But its opponents were not only more numerous, but had an infinitely better cause. Some great debates arose on this subject, for it was one that went home to the whole body of the French Canadian peasantry. It appealed, also, to the dearest interests of the seigneurs. Cartier was one of those who offered strong opposition to the tenure. As the representative of a purely agricultural county he could take no other course, but the position he assumed was in accordance with his convictions. In his place in the house he boldly stated that that portion of the province which had been settled under the Seignorial Tenure had not made as much progress as the part which had been settled under the Free Tenure. He contended that it was as much the advantage of the seigneur as of the tenant to abolish the Feudal System; and that the proper time for so doing had presented itself. The general opinion of the house was that the session was too far advanced to deal effectively with the question. It was also considered that the seigneurs had not had time enough afforded them to plead their cause. The Hon. Robert Baldwin and Mr. Cartier were in favor of settling the Seignorial question at once, and would have prolonged the session for that purpose; but Mr. Lafontaine refused to consent. He considered that the legal remedies proposed would not lead to a definite settlement of the problem. He had no desire to reform and perpetuate the Tenure; he wished to sweep it out of existence.


The Tenure was abolished in the year 1854, by the Hincks-Morin administration. Those two leaders having retired in 1855, Sir Edmund Head, then governor-general, called upon Sir Allan MacNab to form a Cabinet. Sir Allan allied himself with Colonel E. P. Taché; and the latter on the 27th of January, 1855, selected Mr. Cartier as provincial secretary. He was not eager for office. Under the previous administration he had refused the position of commissioner of public works. The Legislature, in 1856, devoted a great deal of attention to the subject of public education. Mr. Cartier entered heartily into the question. He had the principal share in preparing two measures which were adopted by the house [sic]. The one provided for the establishment of a Council of Public Instruction for Lower Canada, and for allowing school municipalities to levy their own quotas. The other authorized the establishment of Normal schools in Lower Canada, and erected a permanent fund of $88,000, to be devoted to superior education in that province. Part of this money was made up out of the revenues of the Jesuits' estates; $20,000 of it came from the Consolidated Fund. A sum of $20,000 was at the same time voted for the purposes of superior education in Upper Canada . The opposition endeavored to alter these two measures. It was contended that the distribution of $88,000 by the superintendent of education, under an Order-in-Council, would be placing means of corruption in the hands of the government. It was further contended that it was unconstitutional to deprive the House of Assembly of the right to vote, annually, the public moneys. The arguments of the opposition were sound, but were urged in vain, and the government measures were carried.


The MacNab­Taché administration, in 1856, fell to pieces. There was weakness within its membership. There was, in addition, the disturbing question of the settlement of the seat of government. The house, at the end of a long and exciting debate, resolved that, after the year 1859, the city of Quebec should be the permanent capital of Canada. A considerable number of the representatives of Upper Canada were discontented with this arrangement. They considered that Quebec was too far removed from the centre of the pro­vince. The government, in accordance with the resolution of the house, placed in the estimates the sum of $200,000 for the erection of public buildings. The Hon. Luther Hamilton Holton proposed the following amendment : -" That the conduct of the administration on the subject of the question of the seat of government, and on other questions of public importance, has disappointed the just expectation of the great majority of the people of this province." The discussion which followed lasted some days. The amendment of Mr. Holton was defeated by a majority of twenty-three. But, among the forty-seven yeas, were thirty-three members from Upper Canada; while, from that province, twenty-seven only voted with the ministry. The vote was followed by the resignation of two members of the government, Messrs. Spence and Morrison. These gentlemen belonged to the Upper Canada section of the ministry.


The Hon. John A. Macdonald was the next to secede. He was of opinion that the vote on the question of the capital had weakened the government, and as there was no security that the same votes would not be repeated he thought it best to remain no longer in the Cabinet. The Hon. Mr. Cayley, also from Upper Canada, followed the footsteps of Mr. Macdonald. Sir Allan MacNab was reluctantly forced to resign. The governor-general requested Colonel Taché to form a new administration. He chose for his colleague the Hon. John A. Macdonald, in the stead of Sir Allan MacNab. The new ministry was virtually a continuation of the old one, with two exceptions : Mr. Vankoughnet replaced Sir Allan MacNab in the Upper Canada section; Mr. Terril replaced Mr. Drummond in the Lower Canada section. Mr. Cartier, in passing from one ministry to the other changed his portfolio. He became attorney-general for Lower Canada, in the place of Mr. Drummond. His new office was no sinecure.

The session which opened on the 26th of February, 1857, was signalized by a ministerial project which was of far-reaching importance to Lower Canada . This was the codification of the Civil Laws, and of the Laws of Procedure. The measure was the work of Attorney-General Cartier. He expended on it great industry; he made it a labor of love. As he himself observed, the necessity of codification made itself felt the more because the province was settled by people of different races. The knowledge which everyone should possess of the laws of his country could only be attained by codification. The sources whence those laws were derived were so varied that an acquaintance with them demanded great research. Part of the civil laws of Lower Canada had been borrowed from the Roman law; part from a body of jurisprudence known as the Custom of Paris; part was found in the Edicts and Ordonnances [sic], and in the Provincial Statutes. The time was ripe for this great and beneficent work. The peasantry of Lower Canada had been emancipated from the control of the seigneurs. The land laws which had ruled them had been swept away, and an improved system of jurisprudence, suited to the new state of things, was demanded. Mr. Cartier was determined to satisfy this demand. But there were those in parliament who wished to proceed farther then he then wanted to go. The Hon. Mr. Drummond, attorney­general in the late administration, and an able jurist, was of opinion that the laws of both provinces should be assimilated, so that there might be but one code for Canada.

The reply of Attorney-General Cartier was to the effect that it was necessary to begin first with the codification of those laws which Lower Canada imperatively demanded. After this, it would be time to think about accomplishing what was proposed. The measure passed through the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council without opposition. The commissioners appointed by the government to codify the laws began their labors in 1859, and finished them in 1864. Some readers of this sketch will remember the occasion on which, in the Legislative Assembly in the city of Quebec, Attorney-General Cartier rose to move the resolution which would make the Civil Code the law of the land. He addressed the house in French, and with more seriousness and deliberation than marked his ordinary utterances. He spoke with the feeling of a man who is conscious that he is placing the crowning stone on an edifice which has cost him years of labor and anxiety to build. As he finished with the words, "I desire no better epitaph than this - 'He accomplished the Civil Code,'" the house did honour to itself and to him by a hearty burst of applause.

The eastern townships of Lower Canada are peopled mainly by an English-speaking population. But the French Canadians, in course of time, found their way into these districts. The result was, that there were two systems of civil law. To remedy this evil, Mr. Cartier pre­pared and carried through parliament a measure which introduced the French Civil laws into the eastern townships, and rendered uniform the holding of lands.

An­other most important measure which he succeeded in passing during the session of 1857 was an Act for the Decentralization of Justice. Its object was to cheapen justice, and to render it more easily attainable. "The administration of justice in criminal cases, and in all civil matter where the amount involved was over fifty pounds, was confined to seven places : Quebec, Montreal, Three Rivers, St. Francis, Aylmer, Sherbrooke and Gaspé, in a country exceeding seven hundred or eight hundred miles in length." The act divided Lower Canada into nineteen judicial districts, adding twelve to those already mentioned, It provided for the erection of courts of justice and prisons in the new districts, increased the number of the judges of the Superior Court to eighteen, and the number of the judges of the Court of Appeal to five. The act provided that there should be four terms of the Court of Appeal in Quebec, and made other regulations respecting procedure and the salaries of the judges. The care and labor which this statute imposed on Mr. Cartier, in originating it, in passing it through the house, and in devising the multifarious machinery necessary to put it into successful operation, were enough to have overcome a man of less mental and physical energy. The majority of the people of Lower Canada welcomed the Act with open arms, and it endeared its author to his French Canadian fellow-countrymen.


The parliament of 1857 had not been long in session when the question of the permanent seat of government again came to the front. In the previous session, as we have seen, the Assembly had decided that Quebec should be the capital and had authorized the expenditure of $200,000 for the erection of necessary buildings. But the Legislative Council had refused its assent to the supplies. The question, therefore, in 1857, was practically undecided: and so thought a great many of the members. The ministry decided to overlook the Assembly's vote last session in favor of Quebec; and resolved to leave the question of the permanent seat of government to the decision of the Queen. The ministry further proposed that a vote of $900,000 should be taken for the erection of new parliamentary and departmental buildings. Attorney-General Cartier was of opinion that many of the members could not have been serious in voting in favor of Quebec; his reason being that they had voted immediately afterwards against the expenditure of the $200,000. Besides, the Legislative Council had refused assent to the supplies. The government would not act unless the two branches of the legislature were in agreement; but it was impossible to have the consent of the Council. The better plan, therefore, in his opinion, was to leave to her Majesty the selection of the future capital of Canada . This proposition was opposed by many members from the lower province. Mr. J. E. Thibaudeau moved an amendment to the effect that it was not expedient to take into consideration the question of the seat of government, because it had been decided the previous session. He contended that the rejection of the supplies by the Legislative Council was not a sufficient ground for annulling the decision of the Legislative Assembly, the more especially as many councillors [sic] from Lower Canada were absent when the vote was taken. The amendment was lost. The same fate befell a motion to make Montreal the seat of government. The result was that an address to the Queen, praying her to select the capital, was carried by a majority of nine. Her Majesty selected Ottawa as the seat of government.


On the 25th of November, 1857, Colonel Taché the nominal head of the administration, resigned office, and the Hon. John A. Macdonald was called upon to form a new government. He made no change in the Upper Canada section of the cabinet. At his request, Mr. Cartier proceeded to select the ministers for Lower Canada . His object was to combine the two political parties in his native province. Two moderate Liberals, Messrs. Belleau and Sicotte, accepted office under Mr. Cartier. The offer of a portfolio to the Hon. A. A. Dorion was, with the consent of Mr. Cartier, made through Mr. Sicotte. But Mr. Dorion refused the inducement, and remained true to his political allegiance. The Macdonald-Cartier administration was formed on the 26th of November, 1857. Mr. Cartier was the only Lower Canadian minister who belonged to the old cabinet. His colleagues from that province were all new men.


On the 28th of July, 1858, Mr. Piché moved an amendment : "That, in the opinion of this chamber, the city of Ottawa ought not to be the seat of the government of this province." The amendment was carried by a majority of six. The ministry, on account of this vote, tendered their resignation next day, the 29th of July. Sir Edmund Head requested Mr. George Brown to form an administration. This gentleman, as the leader of the Opposition, had for years waged a resolute battle against the party represented by the defeated ministry. Following constitutional precedents, it was the duty of the governor-general to ask Mr. Brown to form a cabinet. It was also his duty to smooth the way for the accomplishment of the object he wished Mr. Brown to accomplish. But the governor, instead of removing obstacles from Mr. Brown's path, was the first to place them in that gentleman's way. He would not give to Mr. Brown the promise of a dissolution, but he would consent to a prorogation, if one or two measures were passed, and if a vote of credit were taken for the supplies. Mr. Brown was thus overweighted from the very beginning. Still, with that political courage which had always characterized him, he undertook the formation of a cabinet. He chose as his colleague, and as leader of the Lower Canada section of the government, the Hon. A. A. Dorion, a gentleman with an untarnished political record. On the 2nd of August, 1858, Mr. Brown had completed his task, and the cabinet took the oath of office. The existence of this administration was brief, in fact the shortest known to our history, it having existed for only two days when it resigned, being defeated on a motion of want of confidence.


The governor-general having in vain requested Mr. Galt to form a cabinet, Mr. Cartier became the head of a new Administration. He chose the Hon. John A. Macdonald as the leader of the Upper Canada section. The government was completed on the 6th of August. Then followed what is known as the "Double-Shuffle." By the Independence of Parliament Act of 1857, it was provided that if a cabinet minister in either house should resign his office, and within a month afterwards accept another, he should not go back to his constituents. Some of the members of the Macdonald­Cartier government, who had entered the Cartier-Macdonald government, took advantage of this law in order to avoid the ordeal of re-election. They accepted, on the 6th of August, in the Cartier-Macdonald cabinet, offices different from those they had held in the Macdonald-Cartier cabinet. But on the 7th of August they discarded their portfolios of the 6th, and resumed those which they had held in the Macdonald­Cartier administration when it resigned on the 29th of July. Mr. Cartier, when he resigned, on the 29th of July, was attorney­general for Lower Canada. On the 6th of August he became inspector-general. On the 7th of August he resumed the office of attorney-general. This constituted the " Double Shuffle." The action cannot be defended, and he never attempted to defend it. The ministry seemed to be ashamed of the part they had played. Many of their own supporters blamed them. The political conscience of the country seemed to have become sensitive, when it fully realized the extent of the wrong which had been done to constitutional and parliamentary government. The ministry were forced, by public opinion, to repeal the Independence of Parliament Act, under which they had accomplished the "Double-Shuffle."


The Cartier-Macdonald administration, after it had been formed, announced that it would give serious attention to the question of a Federal Union of the Provinces of North America. They further promised that they would approach the imperial authorities on the subject, and also enter into communication with the governments of the Maritime provinces After the session of 1858, Messrs. Cartier, Galt and Ross visited England in the interest of a Federal Union. To communications from the colonial secretary on the subject of union, the government of the Maritime provinces answered by requesting time for the consideration of the project. The result was that no action was at that time taken. The Cartier-Macdonald government proceeded no farther in the direction of union. On this visit to England, Attorney­General Cartier was, for three days, the guest of the Queen at Windsor Castle.


Parliament was opened, in Toronto , in the month of January, 1859. The question of the seat of government again came to the front. The ministry stated that they were obliged to uphold the Queen's decision in favor of Ottawa. Mr. Sicotte, who had left the cabinet on this question, proposed an amendment to the Address in reply to the Speech from the Throne. He had seceded because he held that, after the vote of the Legislative Assembly at its last session, the government could not abide by the decision of the Queen without violating the principle that the majority should rule. The amendment he now proposed was to the effect that the principles of the Constitution required that the opinion of the majority should be respected; and that, in declaring, during the preceding session, that Ottawa should not be the capital, the house had expressed its views in conformity with the ordinary and constitutional exercise of its privileges. Mr. Langevin seconded the amendment. He was of opinion that Attorney-General Cartier could not make any one believe that Ottawa was the most convenient place for the seat of government. The capital ought not to be fixed before the question of Confederation was decided. Mr. Cartier argued that the conduct of the cabinet in this matter was constitutional. The simple declaration, by the house, that Ottawa ought not to be the capital, did not suffice to set aside the Queen's decision, and bind the ministry to take account of it. The choice of Ottawa was a good one, because the immediate pressure of public opinion would make itself less felt there than elsewhere. The French-Canadians would find, in Ottawa, a population in part Catholic, and having the same institutions. The result of the debate was a government majority of only five. The Upper Canada Opposition contributed to the victory so narrowly won. Ottawa , sorely pressed, snatched the capital from the other competitors.


The session of 1859 was marked by another advantage secured by Mr. Cartier for his native province. This was an Act to amend the Seignorial Act of 1854. The object of his measure was the complete redemption of the Seignorial rights, with one exception. It was stated that the funds provided by the Seignorial Act of 1854 had proved insufficient for the redemption of certain feudal obligations still pressing upon the habitants. For this purpose a new appropriation of between $1,600,000 and $2,000,000 was demanded by Mr. Cartier. With the exception of one member, Mr. Somerville, all the Lower Canada re­presentatives supported this measure. But the Upper Canada Liberals, led by the Hon. George Brown, assailed the proposal with the utmost vigor. They proclaimed that it was nothing more than an attempt to rob Upper Canada . They opposed it in the press, and combated it with unflinching courage on the floor of the house. But in vain: the Lower Canada phalanx voted down all attempts to amend the measure, and with them voted their Upper Canada allies. The end was that the law was carried by 66 to 28.


The session of 1861 was marked by a long and vehement debate on the question of Representation by Population. It was opened by Mr. Ferguson proposing an amendment to the Address. The amendment declared the regret of the house that the governor-general had not been advised to allude to the recent census of the people, which census the house could not but regard as preliminary to legislation upon the great question of Parliamentary Reform, based upon the numbers and wealth of the people, etc. The amendment was voted down by 72 to 38. The Lower Canada phalanx and its Upper Canada allies were again victorious. Mr. Ferguson then proposed a measure in modification of the existing system of representation. The new project was to give to a county of at least 15,000 inhabitants one representative; to a county of 20,000, two representatives. Mr. Cartier, in a strong and uncompromising speech, announced his unalterable opposition to what he styled the unjust pretensions of Upper Canada . He maintained that the upper province had no right under the Union Act, to claim a larger representation than Lower Canada. The union had been consummated with the understanding that the equality of the representation would be maintained. He concluded in protesting that he would never sacrifice the rights of Lower Canada. The government of which he was first minister would not yield Representation by Population, in spite of the efforts of the members from Upper Canada who advocated that measure. It must be admitted that, on this particular question, Mr. Cartier shows to great disadvantage. The lawyer and the sectionalist are seen everywhere: the statesman and the Canadian nowhere. Because the Union Act was silent on the subject of representation, the great upper province must chafe under a galling injustice. Containing 285,­000 people more than Lower Canada, this vast number was to remain without a voice to make known their wishes in the councils of the country. In this instance, Mr. Cartier showed himself devoid of that rare element, political equity: the element that distinguishes the statesman from the politician. After a discussion prolonged through several days, the measure of Mr. Ferguson was defeated by a majority of 18. For the motion 49; against it, 67. Upper Canada had 49 representatives who voted for the motion, and a dozen who voted against it. If Mr. Cartier had been a man of ordinary political prescience on this question he would have foreseen, from this vote, that Upper Canada was determined to have her claims satisfied, and that it would not be possible much longer to refuse them.


The parliament was prorogued on the 18th of May, 1861. On the 16th of June following, it was dissolved by proclamation. In the general election which followed, Mr. Cartier defeated Mr. Dorion in Montreal East. The seventh parliament of the province of Canada was opened on the 20th of March, 1862. In the debate on the Address, the burning question of Representation by Population again came up. The Hon. William Macdougall, one of its most able and ardent supporters, moved an amendment to the Address. It set forth that, by the recent census, the population of Upper Canada exceeded that of Lower Canada, in February, 1861, by no fewer than 285,427 souls. The amendment expressed the regret of the house that the governor-general had not been advised to recommend some measure for securing to this large population in Upper Canada their rightful share of the parliamentary representation, and their just influence in the government. The Hon. John Hillyard Cameron, though Conservative as he was, raised his eloquent voice in favor of the claims of Upper Canada. But facts, reasoning, justice, pleaded in vain. The Lower Canada majority, to a man, voted down Mr. Macdougall's proposition; but he was supported by forty-two of the representatives of Upper Canada. Mr. Cartier, this session, failed again to see that the headlong voting of his followers was paralyzing the constitution which, in their common political blindness, they fancied they were perpetuating. But the day of his supremacy was drawing to a close.


His colleague, the Hon. John A. Macdonald, brought forward a measure intended to increase the efficiency of the militia. It was based on the suggestions of a special commission, amongst whose members were Mr. Cartier and Mr. Macdonald. The commissioners recommended that an active force of 50,000 men should submit to a drill extending over twenty-eight days in each year; and that a reserve of an equal number should be embodied. The opposition at once began to question the ministry. The Hon. Mr. Galt, the minister of finance, informed them that he would ask for $850,000 to set the new scheme in operation. After this outlay, the annual expenditure would be about $500,000.


The French Canadian constituencies took the alarm. They dreaded a conscription which would every year take away so many thousands of needed workers from their homes and farms. They raised their voices against the enormous increase of the provincial liabilities which this new scheme would necessitate. Some of the friends of the government sought in vain to induce them to modify the measure. They defied a vote. On the second reading the vote was taken. The government was beaten by 61 to 54. Mr. Macdonald was supported by a majority of seven votes from Upper Canada; but Mr. Cartier was left in a minority of thirteen. His political power was shattered. On the 21st of May, 1862, he tendered his resignation.


The Hon. John Sandfield Macdonald, at the invitation of Lord Monck, succeeded in forming a cabinet. How it was compelled to resign, and how successive cabinets were subjected to a similar ordeal; how the scheme of Confederation was matured, as the only way out of the deadlock, it will be the province of other sketches to detail. At present, our concern is with Mr. Cartier alone. To those who can remember the political events of 1863 and 1865, it is needless to say that Mr. Cartier succeeded in forcing the scheme of Confederation on Lower Canada . He had managed to array on his side, amongst other influences, those of the Roman Catholic church. Against a scheme thus supported the efforts of the Liberals were directed in vain. The cry of Confederation swept Lower Canada like a hurricane.


Under the new system of Confederation, Mr. Cartier was, on the 18th of July, 1867, appointed minister of defence for the Dominion. In August, 1868, he was created a baronet of the United King­dom . He represented Montreal East in the Quebec Legislature from the union until the general election of 1871, when he was chosen as member for Beauharnois. He remained in the local parliament until the abolition of dual representation. To his credit be it said that the majority of the British population of Lower Canada looked up to him, when he was a member of the Quebec Assembly, as their special champion. This they did, to the setting aside of the timid and trimming representatives of their own nationality. It must be admitted that, from the era of Confederation, the political stature of Sir George Cartier began to grow less. Larger interests than those of Lower Canada usurped the public attention. His province had no grievances to bring into the Confederation. He was still her foremost man, but she needed him no longer as her champion. In the general election of 1872 he suffered the mortification of defeat in Montreal East. He sought political shelter, in the distant Manitoba county of Provencher, a region wherein he had never set foot. He was in England when, in 1873, the Pacific Scandal burst, like a thunder­clap, upon the people of Canada. That Sir George was deeply implicated in the de­grading bargain was only too clear. He died in England, on the 20th of May, 1873 . On the 13th of June following, his remains were accorded, in Montreal, the honor of a public funeral. Men of all ranks and nationalities made up the multitudes who escorted his remains to their last resting-place, in the cemetery on the Montreal mountain.


(1) It is but justice, however, to the Legislative Council of. Lower Canada to say that, on more than one occasion, in those times of political tumult, the refusal of that body to yield to the Legislative Assembly was the means of preserving the interests of the British minority from being sacrificed.

(2) The italics and small capitals are in the original.

(3) The tuque bleu is the blue woollen night-cap, the distinctive national head-dress of the habitants.

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Source: George Maclean ROSE, A Cyclopaedia of Canadian Biography. Being Chiefly Men of the Time, Toronto, Rose publishing Company, 1888, pp. 569-577. Several minor typographical errors have been corrected. The text has also been reformatted, particularly by the introduction of paragraphs.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College