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DROGUE-LAJOIE, PASCAL – Volume XIV (1911-1920)

d. 25 Feb. 1919 in Jette-Saint-Pierre, Belgium


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

Cartier and the Union: Strengths and Limitations of a Regime (1848–67)
Original title:  The House of Assembly of Montreal, circa 1848, is shown in this drawing by James Duncan. Archeologists digging up a Montreal parking lot that once was home to a pre-Confederation parliament have begun unearthing bits and pieces of its past.

Source: Link


Elected to the Legislative Assembly of United Canada in 1848, George-Étienne CARTIER, like the Reform leader Louis-Hippolyte LA FONTAINE, continued to believe that French Canadians could benefit from the union. The following excerpt is taken from Cartier’s biography: 

“To the former [Patriote] leader [Louis-Joseph Papineau] who had returned to politics after his years of exile and who asked for the repeal of the union, La Fontaine replied that the regime had been planned in order to crush the French Canadians, but that the latter had succeeded in utilizing it for their own benefit, and they must continue to extract every advantage from it. Cartier was to put this idea into practice.”


However, it was difficult to adapt the political institutions of the union to the major demographic and socio-economic changes that occurred from the 1850s. The biography of John A. MACDONALD, who became co-premier with Cartier in 1857, shows how the situation developed and the need to pursue reform:

“The truth was that the Upper Canadian Conservatives had usually been sustained in power by their alliance with Cartier and the Bleu bloc, which held a majority in Lower Canada. This relationship had obvious political advantages and reflected both Macdonald’s belief in French-English cooperation and his long-standing commitment to the union of Upper and Lower Canada as an economic necessity. The relationship also meant that his brand of Conservatism had become more and more unpopular in his own section of the province and increasingly open to charges of ‘French [Canadian] domination’ of the ministry. … After 1851 the population of the western section of the province [of Canada] exceeded the east’s.… Thus in the period 1854–64 he was in a kind of political trap of his own making. To stay in power he needed French Canadian support.…”


It was in this context that Alexander Tilloch GALT, one of Cartier’s fellow cabinet ministers, put forward his idea of a possible union of the British colonies of North America. This paved the way for Cartier’s ambitious national plans: 

“At that time … Galt had quite a detailed conception of how powers within such a federation might be organized: a central government with fundamental as well as residual powers, the creation of a supreme court, and payment of federal subsidies to the provinces. He persuaded his colleagues to make this plan for a federal union an explicit aim of the new government. With the encouragement of Governor [Sir Edmund Walker] Head, three ministers – Galt, Cartier, and John Ross* – went to Britain in October 1858 to study the proposal with officials in the Colonial Office.”


The British government rejected Galt’s proposals. The political stalemate continued in United Canada until 1864, when it reached a critical point (there had been two elections and four administrations since 1861). In his search for a solution, Cartier decided to support the plan of an adversary, the leader of the Clear Grits, George BROWN:

“[Brown] let the Conservative leaders know that he would support theirs or any other ministry if they would act to solve the constitutional problem. They were ready to respond. On 17 June, John A. Macdonald and Alexander Tilloch Galt*, a leading proponent of British North American federation, met with Brown in his room at the St Louis Hotel. Cartier later joined the discussions. It was soon decided that the only solution lay ‘in the federative principle suggested by the report of Mr. Brown’s committee,’ and that an approach should first be made to the Atlantic provinces to seek a general British American federal union. Brown had looked ultimately toward this larger goal, but he had deemed earlier Conservative advocacy of it to be premature and mainly used as a red herring to evade action on Canada’s own internal constitutional problem. But since the Conservatives had now agreed to federate the Canadian union, he could only see a great gain if the other colonies could also be included. He agreed, though reluctantly, to enter the government with two Reform supporters. The new coalition to seek a confederation would thus have overwhelming strength in the house, backed both by the Brownite Grit western majority and Cartier’s Bleu eastern majority. Deadlock was over. George Brown had initiated the breakthrough, and the movement to a whole new union.

“On 22 June 1864 the ‘Great Coalition’ was announced to a wildly jubilant house.”


All in all, Cartier was won over to the plan:

“Cartier became the advocate of a federation of the provinces of British North America because it appeared to him the best way of extrication from the political difficulties of the period, created especially by the question of representation by population.”


Cartier sought to link the project to minority rights, particularly those of his French Canadian Roman Catholic compatriots. He defended these rights at the confederation conferences of Charlottetown and Quebec City in 1864, and then in London in 1866:

“The fate of the Protestant and Catholic minorities under a future federation was to be discussed again and decided at the London conference. Cartier left Montreal for London on 12 Nov. 1866, and from 4 December on he took part in the work of the conference. The delegates from Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia approved, with a few changes, the Quebec resolutions; these became the London resolutions, and finally the British North America Act, which was ratified by Queen Victoria on 29 March 1867. According to testimony published on 26 May 1873 in Le Constitutionnel of Trois-Rivières by Elzéar Gérin*, who was in London, John A. Macdonald tried to transform the federative system that had been accepted at Quebec into a much more centralized union. George-Étienne Cartier allegedly opposed it, and threatened his colleague that he would wire Prime Minister Belleau and ask for the ministry to be dissolved. Macdonald did not insist. This version has been accepted by some historians, without serious proof, but it remains true that Cartier continued in London, as he had at Quebec, to protect the interests of Lower Canada.”


For more information on the issues and problems concerning the union after 1848, we invite you to explore the following lists of biographies:


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