Fathers of Confederation

[Before the departure of delegates for the London Conference, Cartier addresses a banquet for 250 hosted in his honour at Montreal and presided over by the mayor. Greeted with resounding applause, Cartier gives a potted history of his political career, and its many practical accomplishments. Interestingly, he links his federation proposal of 1858 with the renewed plan of 1864, illustrating the continuity between both Canada-led federation initiatives. On the level of principles, Cartier had this enduring message on the task of political leadership in Canada: “As you know, I am a Catholic: I love my religion, and think it the best; but even as I profess myself to be very Catholic, I believe that my duty as a public man is to respect the sincerity and religious beliefs of others. I am also French Canadian, as are a great many of those I see around me. I love my race; I most assuredly have a natural predilection for it; but as a politician and citizen, I love the others as well. And I am happy to see, through this gathering of citizens of all classes, races, and religions, that my compatriots have acknowledged those feelings in me.”]

Mr. Mayor, General, and Gentlemen,

I ask for a few moments of your attention, and I address this request more particularly to the distinguished guests of this banquet whose mother tongue is not mine.

In the presence of such a display, I naturally ask myself: What have I done? Without going over my political and parliamentary career, I find it difficult to understand why I am receiving this special honour. No doubt, the friends hosting this celebration feel that I have been useful to my country. However, I must try to justify my accepting such honours. (Applause.)

I stand before you, not as a man worn out by an eighteen-year parliamentary career, including ten years in an official capacity, but as someone ready to work as I did on my first day.

In the 1844 election, distinguished men such as Messrs Lafontaine and Baldwin wished to bring me into Parliament. Of course, those who were in charge of government back then were fully capable of waging battles on behalf of the party to which I belong. However, I did render services outside of Parliament, as many of my friends here present can confirm. Some have criticized me for being ambitious, though I have been so loath to take on a parliamentary or official role. I finally accepted a mandate for the riding of Verchères, preferring it to all others, because one of my ancestors, named Jacques Cartier, was among the first representatives of that district, under the Constitution of Lower Canada. I was born along the Chambly River, as most of you may know.

Mr. Leslie had been appointed to the Legislative Council in 1848, and my friends urged me to run to replace him in the Assembly. I yielded to their entreaties and was elected. I believe that a number of my compatriots had their eyes set on me back then. (Applause.) Allow me to say that, before being appointed to cabinet, I helped implement many very important measures. For instance, in 1849, I presented a petition supporting construction of the Saint Lawrence and Atlantic Railway, and legislation was adopted in accordance with that petition. It had inspired in the Lafontaine-Baldwin government a desire to link Montreal to Halifax.

In 1852-53, encouraged by the Hincks-Morin government, I asked for creation of the Grand Trunk Company, and I managed to have legislation passed on this, despite the fiercest opposition. I also managed to win a vote on construction of the Victoria Bridge. You still may recall the prejudices against that measure. Some said that this undertaking would produce floods in Montreal; that this route would divert trade towards Portland; but prejudices against great undertakings soon dissipate—it was a passing storm. The same thing happened with regard to the Grand Trunk and the Victoria Bridge. The Grand Trunk and the Victoria Bridge flooded Montreal with prosperity. (Applause.)

A voice: — With money!

Mr. Cartier: —  What would Montreal be without the Grand Trunk? It has allowed us to trade with the West. And even if prejudices were raised against me, it was, as I said, a passing storm. (Applause.) Those are only some of the things I did while outside of government. Allow me now to tell you what I did as a minister, since, as you can see, I wish to justify the honour you are giving me. I do have ambition: but I believe it to be praiseworthy and dignified.

In 1851, the Hincks-Morin government offered me a portfolio. In 1853, on the retirement of Mr. John Young, Mr. Hincks and Lord Elgin urged me to accept, and I again declined. You can see the nature of my ambition. When Mr. Morin retired in 1855, I could no longer refuse. And national education was the first thing I dealt with as a minister of the Crown. We had to find someone to head Lower Canada’s department of public education who could rival with Dr. Ryerson, Upper Canada’s talented superintendant. I was able to secure the appointment of the Honourable Mr. Chauveau. I knew he had great knowledge of the French, English, Latin and Greek languages, and I still take great pride in his appointment.

In 1856, the first legislative measure I introduced placed our education system on equal footing with that of Upper Canada. What were its results? Lower Canada, which only had 1,500 elementary schools in 1856, now has over 3,000 of them. I am happy to add that this same 1856 law gave Catholics the Jacques Cartier and Laval training schools; it also gave Protestants the McGill training school.

In May 1856, I became attorney general for Lower Canada, and remained in that position for ten years, with the exception of some twenty-two months. During the 1857 session, I had understood that the treatment of French Canadians in Lower Canada’s Eastern Townships, through laws governing private property, could last no longer. Three important measures had to be introduced: first, determining which law should govern people and properties in the Eastern Townships; second, the decentralization of the judicial system; and third, codification. Today, the need for those laws is no longer felt, since reforms have been implemented. And it has been years since anyone remembers the inconveniences people suffered back then.

At the time, a resident of the Eastern Townships, whether French Canadian, English, Irish or Scottish, did not really know which laws applied to him or to his property. This situation could last no longer, and I put an end to it with a law that, with help from my friends, I was able to have adopted in Parliament. Since then, lands in the Eastern Townships have been rapidly colonized. French Canadians, the English and the Scots have settled there in large numbers. Indeed, how could that country have been populated? How could those untamed lands have been cleared, had this uncertainty regarding the laws governing land tenure continued?

Another problem also existed at the time: extreme centralization of the judiciary. The administration of justice was limited to the districts of Montreal, Quebec City, the Gaspé and a few other places. Imagine, if you will, gentlemen, the vast territory that stretches from the Gaspé to Rapides-des-Joachims. How could justice be properly exercised under the system that existed at the time? This was not only a cause for grievance, it was also absurd. I brought a remedy to this through decentralization of the judiciary. I had seen that Lower Canada, with its five districts, could not stand comparison with Upper Canada, which already had a system of judiciary subdivision throughout its counties.

And so, gentlemen, I obtained decentralization in 1857.  Since then, Lower Canada has produced a greater number of lawyers who have honoured themselves through their profession.

During that same time, in 1857, the population that did not speak our French language, nonetheless liked our old French laws; but it did not have a version in its own language. We had to remedy this problem. I advised our English-speaking compatriots on how to provide this option. It is important that none of them overlook the wisdom and fairness of our civil laws.

It was said I would never achieve codification of those laws—I happen to believe that events did not justify predictions made then. In 1858, I became premier. So what were the main measures I immediately proposed? Confederation and construction of the Intercolonial Railway. I was sent to England with two of my colleagues to deal with these serious matters. We outlined a constitution that would, at a future time, come into effect for all of British North America. Indeed, I can tell you that nearly all the proposals we made in 1858 were found in the Quebec Resolutions.

In 1859, Mr. Mayor, we had to redress another grievance: that of seigneurial tenure. I wanted to abolish it because it hindered progress for the City of Montreal and for the entire nation. Here again, many prejudices were raised.

I helped to improve criminal law. In 1857, I introduced legislation to authorize the Court of Queen’s Bench to review decisions made by Criminal Court judges. I also tabled legislation to allow for summary administration of criminal law. Moreover, my colleague, the Honourable John A. Macdonald, and I introduced legislation to establish reform houses, and in the next-to-last session I secured abolition of certain death penalties.[1]

I have been told that, with regard to Upper Canada, my conduct had been more or less appreciated, as well as discussed with more or less bitterness: yet I challenge anyone to prove I ever had legislation passed for one section of the country that did not agree with it. I supported the Honourable John A. Macdonald’s legislation to settle the important question of the clergy reserves: we, Catholics from Lower Canada, did not want the Church to be denied its right to part of the reserves. I supported that measure, on condition the rights of members of all faiths be guaranteed.

I now reach a period that is of utmost importance to us. On taking power in 1864, we formed a coalition with the Honourable Mr. Brown, and it led to Confederation. I do not intend to elaborate on this subject because others will do so. But you will see that the memorandum of 1858 produced the result of 1864. Confederation implies expansion, not only for Lower Canada, but for all the provinces of British North America. Legislation on Confederation was voted by both Houses in 1865, and during the last session, we adopted a measure on provincial organization, so that we are ready to travel to England today to get approval for an undertaking that concerns all provinces, and ourselves most particularly.

There you have it, gentlemen, my entire political career. As you know, I am a Catholic: I love my religion, and think it the best; but even as I profess myself to be very Catholic, I believe that my duty as a public man is to respect the sincerity and religious beliefs of others.

I am also French Canadian, as are a great many of those I see around me. I love my race; I most assuredly have a natural predilection for it; but as a politician and citizen, I love the others as well.  And I am happy to see, through this gathering of citizens of all classes, races, and religions, that my compatriots have acknowledged those feelings in me. I have already had the opportunity to proclaim in Parliament that the Protestant minority in Lower Canada has nothing to fear from the provincial legislature under Confederation. I have given my word and, I repeat it, nothing will be done that might injure the principles and rights of that minority. I take as my witnesses all the Protestant guests who are listening to me. The promise I am giving will be kept; it is made by a man of honour.  I see here, beside me, distinguished soldiers whose motto is: “To die for my country.” What should the statesman’s motto be? “Keep your word to the death.”

After saying that Protestants in Lower Canada will have all possible guarantees, I must add that the Catholic minority in Upper Canada will have the same guarantees, and I give you my solemn word on this: the Catholic minority in Upper Canada will be protected just like the Protestant minority in Lower Canada. All apprehensions over this subject are unfounded and wrong. Do not dwell on this; and, I insist, everything will be fine. If I have been a little lengthy, it is because I owed it to myself and to you: I had to give you the means to somewhat justify the honour you are doing me.

Friends, before us lies an era of glory: we are entering Confederation. Let it not frighten you! It is nothing, moreover, but realization of a design imagined by the first European to set foot in Canada: Jacques Cartier. Would Upper Canada wish to limit the influence of the French race to the narrow boundaries of our province? In 1534, Jacques Cartier reached Newfoundland and then discovered part of Canada and New Brunswick, claiming possession of those lands for France. Francis 1st, who claimed part of North America by virtue of Adam’s Testament, sent Jacques Cartier back to expand his discoveries. What the navigator calls Acadia, includes New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

And so, the lands that Jacques Cartier surveyed or discovered, at least in part, will soon be administered by one government. Confederation will fulfil the vision of that great man: union of all the provinces he discovered. If he were to rise from the grave, today, he would no doubt glance with approval at this vast country, which basks in the lights of civilization, and is destined to enjoy an era of prosperity and happiness soon, as a result of Confederation.

French Canadians must not fear the English. After all, they are not so frightening. (Laughter.) Let us rather admire their energy and perseverance, and let us imitate them. To be excellent French Canadians, we must have the qualities of our race, and the best ones that belong to English Canadians. (Applause.) We are partly descended from the Normans, and the English have also had in their veins, since the days of William the Conqueror, the blood of that heroic race.

Before I conclude, I would like to say a word about the British institutions that govern us. It is the only government in the world that, while including the democratic element, has been able to hold it within reasonable limits. The democratic element has a fortunate effect in the political sphere, when it is balanced by another force. We have this advantage over our American neighbours, who have an extreme democracy. The political order and the physical order are governed by the same laws. Centripetal forces must act in balance with centrifugal forces.

The explorer brought with him the monarchical principles I love and cherish. Jacques Cartier is my namesake: I would like to follow in the footsteps of that illustrious man and not depart from his grand design. If, after three more centuries, history happens to mention my name as that of a man who did something for his country, if it were to be said one day that I had wandered from that design, then my memory would be held in contempt, and I would not wish for it to be so! (Prolonged applause.)

[1] The death penalty was abolished at this time in respect of certain offences.

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.