Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

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


Hon. George E. Cartier,

Premier And Attorney-General For Lower Canada


[This biography of Cartier was written in 1862, before Cartier participated in the events of Confederation. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]

JACQUES CARTIER, Or Quartier, as some of the old French writers have it, to whom belongs the honor of having discovered Canada, is understood to have left no issue. It is certain, however, that some of his nephews were in the habit of going backwards and forwards between old and New France. They finally became residents of the colony which their illustrious uncle had added to the kingdom of France; and from one of them the present prime minister is descended. George Etienne Cartier was born on the 6th of September, 1814, at St. Antoine, on the Chambly river, in the county of Verchères, Lower Canada; that parish having almost from time immemorial been the residence of the Cartier family. The grandfather of the subject of this notice, who bore the name of the discoverer of Canada, was one of the first representatives of the county of Verchères, which, under the constitutional act of 1791, was first called the county of Surrey. He was also one of the most enterprising and successful merchants in that part of the country.


M. Cartier received his education at the college of St. Sulpice, in the city of Montreal; which was founded in 1773 by the semi­nary of Montreal, and is conducted by the priests and ecclesiastics of St. Sulpice. At this institution, he went through a regular collegiate course of eight years. Having left college, lie entered upon the study of the law in the office of the late Mr. E. E. Rodier, a leading member of the Montreal bar, and at one time representative of the county of L'Assomption. In 1835 our future prime minister commenced practice, selecting the chief city in the province, Montreal, for the theatre of his professional career, where he must necessarily encounter the competition of the ablest members of the Lower Canada bar. The result showed that the young advocate had not miscalculated his strength, for he succeeded in establishing an extensive and lucrative practice. He has had for law partners, at different times, M. J. A. Berthelot and M. Dummerville. Like most men who make their way to the highest distinctions which their country affords, M. Cartier is a man of never-flagging industry. Scarcely of medium height and of a light build, he possesses that strength of constitution which is best proved by the severe test of continued labor in a profession requiring close application and the continued exertion of mental effort.

When M. Cartier was a law student, there was, in the abuses of the ruling oligarchy, and especially the systematic proscription of his race, enough to fire the generous enthusiasm of every lover of justice and hater of misrule. Politics had for young Cartier already a deep interest. The star of the Hon. Louis Joseph Papineau was then in the ascendant. He was the leader, both in and out of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, of the French Canadians, who formed four-fifths of the population. Although M. Papineau was speaker of the house for some twenty years, his tongue was not tied; for everything was debated in committee of the whole, and he regularly took a leading part in the discussion. The country was mocked with the form of constitutional government, while it was denied the substance. It had a Legislative Assembly, elected by the people; but that body had no control over the executive officers by whom the government was administered. The hostile majority which it permanently presented to the government was powerless to effect any change in the administration. The Legislative Council, whose members were appointed by the crown upon recommendations presented by the governor-in-chief, was the prop of the irresponsible oligarchy. It constantly threw out bills passed by the representatives of the people, or so mutilated them, under the pretence of amendments, as to destroy their purport. The collision thus brought about between the two houses became chronic. The Legislative Assembly complained to the Imperial Government of the Legislative Council; and the latter replied by a counter accusation, in which the governor sometimes joined. The oligarchy which thus ruled Lower Canada in defiance of the wishes of the people, as expressed by their powerless representatives, succeeded in deceiving the Imperial Government into the belief that this mode of governing was necessary to the preservation of British supremacy. The Canada committee of the House of Commons, of which the present Earl of Derby was a member, after investigating the grievances complained of by 87,000 Lower Canada petitioners, hinted that all was not right. But no remedy came. M. Papineau, to tell the truth, had but a faint conception of the true remedy. He did not, like Mr. Baldwin, in Upper Canada, see that the whole difficulty was traceable to the irresponsibility of the executive. The famous ninety-two resolutions passed by the Lower Canada House of Assembly, in 1834, and which embody all the grievances, real and imaginary, under which the country was suffering, never allude to the real source of all the existing evils, except to object, in two lines, to " the vicious composition and the irresponsibility of the Executive Council;" the members of which, whether lawyers or not, were also judges of appeal. Papineau, who at first set out as an advocate of British as opposed to French ideas of government, became in time soured by long years of fruitless effort to secure a reformed administration, and was led or driven by degrees to prefer American institutions to British. At that time, the great men of the American revolution had not all passed away; and American democracy, being made respectable in their persons, fascinated many of the young men of Lower Canada . M. Papineau did not, however, often push this preference to such an extent as to make it offensively conspicuous. The chief remedy for the evils inflicted on the country by the oligarchy he believed lay in an extension of the democratic element in giving greater scope to the elective principle. This idea originated in the obstructive conduct of the crown-nominated Legislative Council. To make that body elective was deemed the alpha and omega of reform; the real difficulty being, in point of fact, in the existence of an irresponsible executive. Still, whatever the errors or the oversights of M. Papineau, he was the acknowledged champion of a proscribed race.


In 1832 the population of Lower Canada was about 500,000, of whom 425,000 were of French descent and spoke the French language, while the remaining 75,000 comprised the whole English population. Yet the latter monopolised 157 offices, while by the former only 47 were held, and these were generally of an inferior order, which often made the holders dependent on the race which monopolised nearly all the principal situations. Of the judges, only three were French, although, in the seigniories, the civil laws of France were in force, and with these English judges were necessarily but little acquainted. The practice once resorted to by James I. of interrogating the judges in private upon cases on which they would afterwards have to adjudicate, was frequently resorted to, and it was complained that a disposition was shown to screen criminals who had rendered themselves conspicuous in the service of the government. As late as 1843, only four French judges occupied seats on the bench of Lower Canada , and one of these, Judge Vallières, had only been appointed second judge in Quebec by Lord Gosford. Before then, Quebec, Montreal, and Three Rivers districts had each but one French Canadian judge to administer French law - Panet, Bédard and Rolland. An attempt was made to impose upon the French Canadians the English law of primogeniture, (which has since been abolished even in Upper Canada ), dowry, and several other customs that were repugnant to the great majority of the population. Lord Gosford was probably, to a certain extent, duped by the pretence of the oligarchy that the preservation of British interests required the systematic exclusion of French Canadians from real legislative influence or executive position, and as if he expected to conciliate the proscribed race by the most transparent of expedients, he procured the appointment to the Legislative Council of a few persons who had been favorites of the people and leaders in the other house. But when they found that the number of those who had received such appointments was so small that they were rendered powerless by the superior number of the props of the oligarchy, they resolved to abstain from taking part in the proceedings of the chamber of which they were members. The judicial and legislative functions were united in the persons of some legislative councillors [sic]; aliens were, contrary to the constitutional act, appointed to that chamber; pluralists grew fat on public plunder; and partisan returning officers attempted but in vain, to force unwelcome representatives upon the people.


It was under this condition of things that M. Cartier first began to take an interest in politics. M. Papineau, with all his errors, was the champion of the oppressed majority, and as such he received the support of M. Cartier, up to a certain point.


To the exertions of Lord Durham is due the change of system which had produced such a numerous train of evils, culminating in insurrection both in Upper and Lower Canada . His report, as high commissioner for inquiring into the condition of the country, dealt the death-blow to the oligarchy. In 1841, seven years before M. Cartier entered Parliament, responsible government had been established. In 1848 he was first elected for the county of Verchères, succeeding the Hon. Mr. Leslie, whom the crown had appointed member of the other chamber. M. Cartier continued to represent that constituency until the general election of 1861, when he contested Montreal with the leader of the rouge or Lower Canada opposition party, M. Dorion, who had hitherto always been returned for that constituency with tremendous majorities and defeated every candidate that could be brought against him; after a hard struggle the victory was declared on M. Cartier's side. This has been declared the greatest election triumph ever achieved in this country, giving as it were the death blow to the Lower Canadian oppositionists. At the election in 1857, he contested Montreal as well as his old constituency, and although he did not secure his own election for the city, his object in standing a double contest was generally considered to have been secured in the defeat of Mr. Holton.


On the 25th of January, 1856 , M. Cartier was first appointed to a ministerial office; he became provincial-secretary in the MacNab­Taché ministry. On the 24th of May, 1856 , he succeeded Mr. Drummond as attorney-general for Lower Canada, on the formation of the Taché-Macdonald ministry. In November, 1857, he became leader of the Lower Canada section of the government, the Hon. J. A. Macdonald becoming premier, and the ministry, under its new phase, being know as the Macdonald- Cartier ministry. On the 6th August, 1858, a slight change in the wheel of fortune produced a transposition of these names, and we have since the Cartier-Macdonald administration.


Having given a faint picture of that state of the administration which induced M. Cartier to support M. Papineau till responsible government was conceded, we must now give the reason which afterwards induced him to oppose the ancient chief. The reunion of Upper and Lower Canada was a measure effected in opposition to the will and the remonstrances of the latter; and M. Papineau, whose temper had become cynical by an opposition of twenty years, resolved to do his best to render the union inseperative. His countrymen were not prepared to sustain him in that resolve; and a new leader arising in the person of M. Louis Hypolite Lafontaine, who was prepared to work the union to the best advantage, M. Papineau, when he re-appeared in the Legislative Assembly of United Canada, after eleven years of absence, the greater part of which had been spent in exile, literally stood alone. His eloquent denunciation-and even in English he was the most eloquent speaker in the house-elicited no response; and the most he could do on any occasion was to find a seconder for any resolution he might propose. It was the opposition of men like M. Cartier, who now appeared in Parliament for the first time, that assisted to reduce the ancient and once all-powerful leader of the French Canadians to this position. M. Cartier is, however, essentially a party man. He never once placed himself in opposition to his leader, though he found it necessary to change Papineau for Lafontaine. He was not a man who could ever be suspected of possible infidelity to party engagements; but he was not bound to follow M. Papineau, beyond the conspicuous failure in 1837, into new follies, the end of which the wisest could not have foreseen.


As a legislator, M. Cartier assisted to carry the bill for abolishing the seigniorial tenures, that for making the Legislative Council elective, and that for secularising the clergy reserves, as well as all the other important measures of the governments with which he has been connected. Of several important measures he was the author, and to his exertions was owing their enactment by the legislature. To say nothing of the Victoria Bridge bill, which he carried when even the usually active and undaunted energy of Mr. Hincks seemed on the point of flagging, M. Cartier, in 1856, framed and carried a measure to provide for the establishment of three normal schools in Lower Canada; and a few months after, the Laval normal school in Quebec and the Jacques Cartier and McGill normal schools in Montreal were ready for the admission of pupils. In 1857, he introduced and carried a measure to provide for the codification of the procedure and civil laws of Lower Canada. In the same session he framed and carried a most important measure, the object of which was to break up the system of judicial centralisation in Lower Canada , which had produced so much inconvenience. The administration of justice in criminal cases, and in all civil matters 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. Thirteen new judicial districts were established, in which contracts for new gaols: have been entered into. In the same session, two years after the feudal tenures commutation bill had been passed, M. Cartier introduced the French civil law into the townships of Lower Canada , its operation having previously been confined to the seigniories. In the session for 1860, he passed the act dividing the cities of Montreal, Quebec and Toronto into electoral divisions, thus completely doing away with the old inconvenient system, by which such bloody and painful results were always sure to take place. M Cauchon also introduced the admirable municipal bill which the lower province now enjoys.


M. Cartier, the present premier, is a man of unimpeachable integrity, who, every year of his official life, submits to a sacrifice of professional emolument which must make him a poor minister. An avaricious grasping after money he regards as fatal to the career of any public man. He is of an hospitable disposition. As a speaker, his enemies have sometimes accused him of prolixity, but it would be nearer the truth to say that he is an exhaustive . speaker. There is nothing to be said on his side of a subject after he sits down. His enunciation of French in Parliament is, perhaps, the most distinct of any member of the house, and he has a perfect command of English. As a leader and a member of the government, he has been found to be one of the most honest and upright ministers which it has been our good fortune to possess; as a man to conciliate the confidence of a party, he is at the present time incomparably the strongest man in Lower Canada, having a large majority by the recent general election in the house.


On the occasion of the late ministry resigning in 1858, when defeated in attempting to carry out the Queen's decision in favor of Ottawa as the seat of government, Mr. Isaac Buchanan the member for Hamilton, paid a warm tribute of his respect and unimpaired confidence to the ex-premier, the Honorable John A. Macdonald, and to the Honorable G. E. Cartier, his chief associate in the government from Lower Canada. He finally (and evidently to the great satisfaction of the house), summed up his estimate of Mr. Cartier's character, as we may appropriately sum up ours in closing this sketch, in the magnificent lines of the ode of Horace:­

"Justum et tenacem propositi virum
Non civium ardor prava jubentium,
Non vultus instantis tyranni

Mente quatit solida, neque Auster

Dux inquieti turbidus Adriae,
Nec fulminantie magna Jovis manus:
Si fractus illabatur orbis,
Impavidum ferient ruinae."

M. Cartier is married to a most amiable French Canadian lady, and is the father of several very interesting children.

Return to the George Etienne Cartier Page

Source: Henry J. MORGAN, Sketches of Celebrated Canadians and Persons Connected with Canada from the Earliest Period in the History of the Province Down to the Present Time , Quebec, Hunter, Rose &Co., 1862, 779p., pp. 603-608.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College