Fathers of Confederation

[Cartier addresses a crowd assembled at Montreal’s Bonaventure Station, welcoming him home from a mission to England to negotiate the accession of the North-West Territories to Canada. After outlining some details of the plan, Cartier speaks of his pride that the Quebec Legislature has now redeemed the promises made to the English-speaking minority of Quebec before Confederation, in the form of enhanced protections for their schools. Cartier concludes with one of his most famous declarations in public life: “I have never appealed to prejudice; instead, as a politician, I proposed and enacted measures that were very unpopular in their day, but which have benefitted the country. I do not follow popular prejudice; I consult and will only ever consult my own conscience.”]

Mr. Mayor, Gentlemen,

You have kindly congratulated me on the success of my mission to England, carried out with my very skilful colleague, the Honourable Mr. McDougall. This success makes me happy for my country and for my compatriots. In a few months, Canada’s dominion will stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

With four provinces united under Confederation, we are already strong; but we must not leave it at that. Like the individual, a nation must aspire to grow and become stronger. On several occasions, when I had to speak to my friends on the other side of the ocean, in the mother country, I never failed to tell them that Canada wanted to become a large and powerful country; not to satisfy a selfish ambition, but to add further to the prestige of good old England.

Since my return to this continent, I have observed from reading a few newspapers that there has been a mixed reaction to our union. Naturally, I cannot give you all the details of our compromise today; the House will be providing that. But from this place, and from my seat in the House, I am ready to defend that compromise and recommend its adoption to Parliament. A few people told me its conditions were too onerous for Canada. We all know that, even if the Hudson’s Bay Company had dubious title over certain parts of the territory, it had a clear right over other important parts of it. It was also said we should have asked the Privy Council to make a decision on this question. But what would have been the result of this? The case would have lasted three or four years, during which time the government would have been deprived of its rights and titles. And three or four years is a long time for a progressive country like ours. Gentlemen, although we will have to pay £300,000, we will not have to repay that sum tomorrow. We have set the terms of payment.

I remember that when I went to England, in 1865, with the Honourable Sir John Macdonald, Mr. Brown and Mr. Galt, we secured a commitment from the imperial government that it would guarantee the loan needed to acquire the Hudson’s Bay Company lands, should Canada purchase the titles to them. All I can say today is that I am a great believer. I have good reason to believe that the guarantee will be given to us. And with it, we will be able to borrow at 3½ percent, and adding a 2 percent amortization to this, we will have to make payments of about £15,000 a year over a period of forty-five years, and that is all.

But what do we get in exchange? We will have control and ownership of the territory, which from then on will be subjected to our customs laws. And since the company will continue to do business there, and since there are between 20,000 and 25,000 inhabitants there, it will have to pay such large customs duties that it will be happy to commute them into payment of between £10,000 and £12,000 per year. Now, what sensible man will claim that this was a bad bargain? Gentlemen, that is not all. We will own an extremely fertile country. We will have, over there, 50 million acres of prairie that will allow us to compete with ranchers and wheat farmers in the United States. Yes, Canada will own huge prairies suitable for growing cattle feed and crops!

We are seeing a large number of our compatriots from Upper and Lower Canada leaving for the United States. We should not be surprised by this. Not all people have the same tastes and the need for locomotion imperceptibly leads to emigration. Well, our country will have the finest diversity of localities that can be imagined. The emigrant will voluntarily move to the Northwest, and in less than five years, 80,000 souls will be living there. Customs duties will then yield revenues of £60,000 a year. Gentlemen, let us not therefore be afraid.

The company will keep one twentieth of the lands in the ceded regions. And so, in a township of 20,000 acres containing 100 lots of 200 acres, it will own five of those lots. This is without material importance for us, but it will have an influence on colonization. The company will be very keen to encourage colonization in several areas, which will, moreover, be useful to keep the Natives at bay, with whom it trades and towards whom it conducts itself correctly. Through its own organization, the company will save the government large administrative costs.

We must be delighted by this result. I can say that the apparent prior hostility between Canada and the company no longer exists.

We are on friendly and peaceful terms and the company shares the same interest as Canada in developing this territory.

I therefore have the best reasons to believe that the compromise will be rapidly approved by Parliament, although we will have to provide more explanations before it.

With regard to my concerns as leader—a title I hold as a result of the trust the country has placed in me over the last twelve or fifteen years—it has been claimed, with a view to blaming me, that my compatriots from Lower Canada were opposed to acquiring the Hudson Bay Territory. I am ready to say before Parliament that this criticism is unfounded. We never opposed acquisition of the territory, and I am certain the great majority of Lower Canada’s inhabitants would approve of this measure. Therefore, if the people of Upper Canada oppose the compromise, they alone will have to take responsibility for it. I repeat it: Lower Canada is ready to accept the compromise. But I do not think that Upper Canada will seriously oppose it, once the entire question has been explained. It will be my duty to question opponents about their sincerity over the last ten or fifteen years, when they were ceaselessly clamouring for the acquisition of the Northwest.

If you allow me to go beyond the scope of your address, I will tell you how satisfied I am with session of the Quebec legislature. I remember that, in 1866, during discussion of the federal project, the Protestant minority had a few apprehensions regarding public education. As a politician, I have a reputation for keeping promises; but I must tell you this is not easy for me, since I don’t make many and only very rarely. With regard to the apprehensions created by the prospect of Confederation, I took it upon myself to tell the Protestant minority in Lower Canada that it had no cause for alarm, that the Quebec legislature would always render justice to its members. I was happy to learn that the Honourable Mr. Chauveau and his colleagues kept that promise. Although I had expected this, nothing could have pleased me more when I learned of it. Does this not illustrate the liberality that inspires Catholics in Lower Canada? I was well aware of that liberality when I made my promise. I was pleased in particular by the trust the Protestant minority placed in me at a very important time for them. Without being surprised by it, I am pleased that my promise was dutifully kept. It is one of those happy moments that happen now and again in the life of politicians. In general, people feel that the statesman leads an easy life. But that is not so! If the bed appears to be made of roses, we cannot always be sure whether it really contains too many thorns.

I look on the province of Quebec’s situation with delight, since it is so well administered by our skilled friend, the Honourable Mr. Dunkin. The state of our finances is such that it dispels all our apprehensions, and reassures us that we will not have to resort to direct taxation to cover our expenses. Allow me, once again, gentlemen, to thank you for the honour you have done me by listening to me with such attentiveness, and for the trust you have placed in me for over fifteen years. I hope to lose none of that trust.

I have never appealed to prejudice; instead, as a politician, I proposed and enacted measures that were very unpopular in their day, but which have benefitted the country. I do not follow popular prejudice; I consult and will only ever consult my own conscience.

Translated by Jean-Paul Murray, from the 1893 edition of Discours de Sir Georges Cartier, edited by Joseph Tassé, published by Senécal & Fils at Montreal.