Fathers of Confederation

[Returning home to Montreal after the London Conference and an audience with the Pope at Rome, Cartier’s train pulls up to greet a crowd of 300 assembled at the town of Saint-Hyacinthe. Cartier speaks of Confederation fulfilling the vision of his namesake, the great explorer Jacques Cartier, in reuniting all the lands which formerly were New France. Speaking of Confederation as a “peaceful revolution,” Cartier impresses that although the BNA Act was passed in London, its terms were made in Canada, and accepted by England as the judgment of Canadians of what was best for their country. Reinforcing one of his key messages during this period, Cartier claims minority rights will be protected under Confederation: “To you, my French Canadian and Catholic compatriots, and to you my English, Irish and Scottish compatriots, I say: be not alarmed! The Constitution Act we managed to get ratified in England protects the rights and privileges of the minority and the majority. Under Confederation, the rights of each and every citizen will be fully protected. With this system of provincial governments and a central authority, individual interests and general interests will always find protectors, as well as a chamber in which to defend them. Everything depends on our patriotism.”]

Gentlemen,

I cannot tell you how honoured I am by this reception organized by the citizens of Saint-Hyacinthe, which, I admit, I did not expect. To give a worthy reply to your address, I will speak to you with frankness and cordiality.

Yes, gentlemen, as you say, I have come here following the accomplishment of a great political act, and on the heels of drafting an entire constitution. The result of this act, this constitution, is the union, under one government, of the Canadas, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. And the result of this union is to make a nation of us. We are walking towards the greatest destiny; the name of Canada has gone beyond our boundaries and now extends to the Gulf provinces.

When my namesake, Jacques Cartier, set foot on our beaches and discovered this magnificent stretch of country that now makes up the British North American colonies, he gave the name of “Canada” not only to the two provinces we inhabit, but also to the Gulf colonies, as I told our friends from Acton earlier. With Confederation, we have now returned to the old boundaries marked by Cartier. Today, Confederation includes all of the country that used to be called “Canada.”  I say “today,” because the royal proclamation that will set the coming into force of the Federal Act has been initiated, and we will have it in our possession in a few days.

Gentlemen, do not forget that, as a result of the federal union, we become the third commercial maritime nation in the world. I mentioned this fact in Paris, and I can say that France takes a great deal of interest in this core of French people who, though very far from the old mother country, have preserved the sum of their institutions. Those sympathies do us honour and we should be proud of them. The people of France understand that Confederation is the only way for British North American colonies to escape annexation to the United States. As we can sense in the land of our fathers, the rest of the world has an interest in the United States not expanding beyond its current boundaries. That is why, besides our blood ties, the French follow with interest the march of political events in Canada, which they regret no longer having in their possession. They are particularly astonished that, belonging to the same race they do, we have accomplished an act without parallel in history; namely, that we were able to go through a great political revolution without shedding a little blood, which they have done so profusely.

That peaceful revolution seemed easy to us, because understanding and goodwill contributed to its accomplishment. Confederation was a compromise, and it still conserves its spirit today. As you will recall, it was said it would be contrary to the interests of Lower Canada, and to its religion. Even many of those who did not hold that opinion, said we didn’t know what to expect from England; that a good constitution had been drafted during the Quebec conferences, but that imperial authorities would change and alter it as they wished.

Well, gentlemen, you know what happened: we went to England, and we were treated with fairness and generosity. All our representations were considered, and no one turned a deaf ear when we raised our voice. On the contrary, our grievances were noted. Canadians, said the English ministers, have come to see us with a ready-made constitution, the result of a cordial agreement among them, of a careful discussion regarding their interests and needs. They are the best judges of what is suitable for them, let us not change what they have done, let us give sanction to Confederation.

Indeed, it is in that spirit that England granted our request. We needed its sanction and it gave it without hesitation, without wanting to interfere with our plan. And I can say that if there are just and broad-minded men anywhere, English statesmen are certainly among them.

And now, gentlemen, allow me to tell you that this agreement, which presided over our efforts until today, must henceforth continue. To you, my French Canadian and Catholic compatriots, and to you my English, Irish and Scottish compatriots, I say: be not alarmed! The Constitution Act we managed to get ratified in England protects the rights and privileges of the minority and the majority.

Under Confederation, the rights of each and every citizen will be fully protected. With this system of provincial governments and a central authority, individual interests and general interests will always find protectors, as well as a chamber in which to defend them. Everything depends on our patriotism and, without mentioning the other guarantees the Constitution gives us, this would already be enough to make me say that everything will be fine.

Gentlemen, allow me once again to thank you for your cordial welcome; it flatters and touches me more than I can say.

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.

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