Fathers of Confederation

[Delivered to a banquet honouring Alexander Galt, Cartier pays tribute to a key political ally and representative of the English-speaking minority of Quebec, asking his audience “How could someone possibly aspire to become a statesman worthy of the name, in our country, without being fully resolved beforehand to render equal justice to all races and creeds?” In an outstandingly principled act, Galt had resigned from the Coalition Government in August 1866, after withdrawal of the Upper and Lower Canada school bills, the latter being in Galt’s view crucial to secure the rights of Lower Canada’s English-speaking minority, of which he was the key representative. Cartier reveals he insisted that Galt attend the London Conference of 1866, even though no longer a member of the government. Cartier declares that “fairness, justice and a few mutual concessions” were the basis of Confederation, and expresses the hope that if the Constitution is ever to change, it will be to expand “the principles of fairness which are its foundation.”]

Mr. Chairman, Gentlemen,

I feel somewhat embarrassed in attempting to give a dignified response to the toast made in honour of the government to which I belong. But I suppose it would be useless to apologize for my timidity. What embarrasses me most is that I have grown hoarse from making speeches aboard trains and elsewhere. Since my happy return to the country, people have given addresses to congratulate me for the great accomplishment that is Confederation. I do not believe those addresses were due to my merit, but my fellow citizens thought so. I had to respond to all those flattering testimonials, and that is why my voice serves me so poorly tonight.

I told you just now that I felt somewhat embarrassed in rising to speak. It could not be otherwise, when I see around me men who are as learned as they are eloquent, like my friend, Dr. Nichols, and his colleagues from this magnificent institution, men who have for years dedicated themselves to the great undertaking that is moral and intellectual education; and when I see the brilliant young people who will one day play the role that is now entrusted to us, with far greater success, no doubt, than I have been able to achieve.

I am very honoured to have been invited to this delightful reception. I am happy to be near my friend Mr. Galt, whose name is associated not only with the City of Sherbrooke’s history, but also with that of the Eastern Townships and all of Lower Canada’s Protestant population. (Lively applause.) You, Protestants of the Eastern Townships, are right to be proud to have a man in every way worthy of your trust to represent your ideas and opinions, a man so well informed about your religious and material interests, a man whose reputation has reached all the way to England and the United States. Indeed, I can say that, as a financier and politician, he is renowned in Europe as a result of his extraordinary abilities and talents.

Moreover, we must not forget that Mr. Galt’s father was an eminent man of letters, whose works are read in England with undiminished interest. When I traveled to England, in 1858, on a political mission, I was accompanied by Messrs Galt and John Ross. I soon realized that people there knew both Mr. Galt and his father. I will never forget the welcome given to him by Sir Edward Bulmer Lytton, now Lord Lytton. When shaking Mr. Galt’s hand, that remarkable statesman, that great literary genius, told him: “Sir, I knew you father: he helped me and gave me good advice a long time ago.” A few days later, as delegates from Canada on a mission regarding Confederation and the Intercolonial railway, we had the pleasure to meet the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, speaking to my colleague, said: “Mr. Galt, I am delighted to see you. I knew your father: we were very close friends.” I felt proud for him, though he was perhaps too modest to take credit for such a compliment. Besides, I am very comfortable with relating these incidents that are, no doubt, of some interest to this audience.

Mr. Galt has been my colleague since August 1858, with the exception of a few months. His talents are universal. You have just heard him and were able to admire his eloquence as an orator. As a financier, he is peerless in Canada; and he is the equal of the most talented men in the United States Congress and the English Commons!

Mr. Galt has especially distinguished himself in undertakings whose purpose was the development of our country. He was among the first to argue for the building of railways and other great public works that would usher in progress and prosperity. You are not unaware of his early career. At one time, he was president of a powerful association called the British American Land Company.”

Mr. Galt.—I started there as a clerk.

Mr. Cartier.—Indeed, my friend began as a clerk, but his skill soon placed him at the head of the company. I will not say all I know about him; I will add, however, that our relations in government have always been the most cordial. Political life is no bed of roses, and my exchanges with Mr. Galt often made me forget the harshness of politics.

Mr. Chairman, you and Mr. Galt have spoken about what has been called my liberality towards Protestants and the English minority in Lower Canada. I thank you both for your good words; but I do not acknowledge all of the credit you give me. How could someone possibly aspire to become a statesman worthy of the name, in our country, without being fully resolved beforehand to render equal justice to all races and creeds? I speak here before an audience that is in a large majority Protestant just like I would speak to French Canadian Catholics: I would use the same arguments when addressing them.

The new Constitution includes measures to protect the minority, be it Catholic or Protestant, against injustices of the majority. In that regard, it stands in contrast to the American Constitution. The Americans, of whom I wish to speak with respect, did not take religion into account when they drafted their Constitution. We did not wish to disregard it in ours, which was created eighty years later. Whether we are Catholic or Protestant, the question of religion is of vital importance to us. I am as much concerned—I who am a Catholic—about living among good Protestants, as you Protestants are about living next to honest and sincere Catholics. In many cases, the rights, interests and freedoms of one group are more or less at the discretion of the other one. For example, when Catholics have to testify or speak before our courts about affairs that concern Protestants and vice versa, the feelings and conscience of one group demand the respect and protection of the other group. The rights and freedoms of individuals are based on the conscience of peoples, and neither laws, nor institutions, nor anything else in the world can move that conscience in the direction of justice more than religion. I am not speaking about the Catholic religion more than the Protestant religion; I am only saying that religion must direct conscience. We make laws for a population that is moral and religious: but, how could it become moral and religious other than through religious education? And that is why I have no merit in being liberal in this matter. On this, I am only consulting my own interest, knowing it can never be independent from the principles or opinions of my fellow citizens.

Gentlemen, I hope that the great undertaking of Confederation, accomplished under the most favourable conditions, will produce results that will be as fortunate as they will be durable. We did not have to spill blood to seal the deal, nor despoil the weak to benefit the strong: all we needed was fairness, justice and a few mutual concessions. That is the basis of the new Constitution, which, I hope, will last more than one century without suffering harm or mutilations, and without producing divisions, as the American Constitution has done. Indeed, should it become necessary to alter it in eighty years, it will not be to limit the principles of fairness which are its foundation, but to extend them even more and to expand Confederation. We have already had to settle a matter that threatened to undermine progress for the Eastern Townships, which is to say, seigniorial tenure.

Before 1854, laws concerning immovable property were so uncertain that, when purchasing a plot of land, a buyer could not be absolutely sure he was not also buying a court case; and in matters of intestate succession, the ambiguity was complete. In 1857, to reassure owners and dispel doubts, I introduced a law that would settle the matter. As a result of this measure, colonists started moving to the Eastern Townships. The same year, I was able to oversee adoption of an act to reform our civil laws, which ordered the printing of those laws in English and French in Lower Canada. Some predicted that this reform would not be completed in my lifetime, yet it took only a few years for it to be done.

I must not forget to tell you that Mr. Galt can claim some of the credit for the government laws you approved of tonight. Because, though he is no longer a minister, he was my colleague when those laws were adopted. And, since we have had the misfortune of losing him following the dispute over public education, Mr. Galt has still worked alongside me in the study and discussion of important matters.

When discussing the Confederation plan, I had asked for various interests in Lower Canada, whether Protestant, French or Catholic, to be represented in the debates. I even told my colleagues that I would only go to England to discuss this union if Mr. Galt were with me to represent Lower Canada’s Protestant population. My friend had never sought this nomination. Lord Monck was the first to make this proposal; but I was convinced at the time that no one was in a better position than him to represent the interests of his coreligionists in such important circumstances.

Allow me, in closing, to thank you once again, on my behalf and on behalf of my colleagues, for the honour you have done me tonight. Allow me once again to say that you could not have given me more sincere satisfaction than by inviting me to take part in the magnificent banquet offered to your worthy representative, my esteemed former colleague, the Honourable Mr. Galt.

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.