Sir John A. Macdonald was infinitely charming and crafty, but Confederation was not his achievement. Indeed, it could have happened without him.
The real driver of Confederation was Macdonald’s colleague, his “Siamese twin,” Sir George-Étienne Cartier.
So why has Macdonald garnered better press, with some even calling him “Father of the Country”? Willful ignorance of the facts and reliance on myth, rather than reality.
Richard Gwyn’s recent two-volume retelling of the Macdonald legend is nicely written, but it does nothing to dispel that ignorance. Mr. Gwyn boldly states Macdonald was “British North America’s irreplaceable man.”
In truth, our beloved whisky-sodden first prime minister was a follower, an also-ran in the movement to confederate.
The fight for Confederation was a French-Canadian project, and Cartier became its leader. The French were enraged by Lord Durham’s proposal to abolish Lower Canada and absorb it into a single province with Upper Canada, with the intent of assimilating the French.
For 25 years, Cartier’s party battled to break up the union and restore a province where French Canadians would have a majority. Their main weapon was bloc voting. If they remained united, and allied with an Upper Canada rump party, they would keep power.
Indeed, it worked out that way: Cartier’s party held power during all but two of the years leading up to Confederation. Following the retirement of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, the Province of Canada had a succession of eight ministries kept in power by the big bleu/conservative majority. (The only exceptions were the shaky 1862-64 J. S. Macdonald Sicotte-Dorion ministry and the short-lived Brown-Dorion ministry that followed the infamous “double shuffle” of 1858.)
In 1864, frustrated by the deadlock Cartier’s party created, George Brown acquiesced, joining Cartier and Macdonald’s Great Coalition to work toward Confederation.
Finally, Cartier controlled the levers to make Confederation happen. He was long-time solicitor of the Grand Trunk Railway, the railway committee chair and minister of militia. He took the lead at Charlottetown in 1864, convincing Maritimers that the British provinces needed an intercolonial railway, a common defence against the United States and a railway to the Pacific.
Even after 1867, Cartier continued the great work, in some cases where Macdonald was indisposed or drunk. In the years before his death, Cartier handled the purchase of the North-Western Territory and Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Co. and, as acting prime minister, negotiated Manitoba’s entry as a province. He met with British Columbian delegates to draft their terms of union, telling them to press not for a wagon road through the Rockies, but for a railway.
Why has Cartier been downgraded in our national mythology?
For one thing, he was complicated and perhaps too passionate to be truly Canadian. You won’t find any Cartier bobbleheads at Wal-Mart.
English Canadians yearn for a presidential founding father, their very own George Washington. They ignore Cartier, almost as a nuisance who gets in the way of their adoration of Sir John A.
Many French Canadians, identifying as a conquered nation and oppressed people respond similarly. Cartier doesn’t fit the narrative. Even though he was the poet of the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837 and founded the new province of Quebec in 1867, he remains a politically incorrect personage, almost invisible in his home province.
Cartier’s role in the Pacific Scandal was also a factor. Countless historians have reworked the fairy tale of money changing hands for the Canadian Pacific Railway contract, ignoring Cartier’s fight against American railway promoters who wanted a more southerly CPR route, and paid to engineer his 1872 defeat.
Macdonald’s friends also contributed. Some questioned Cartier’s state of mind before his death in 1873; lies were circulated that Cartier was not himself when he promised Sir Hugh Allan the CPR’s presidency.
Macdonald confessed to his first biographer, Joseph Pope, that “Cartier was as bold as a lion. He was just the man I wanted. But for him Confederation could not have been carried.”
In fact, the present nature of Confederation owes the most to Cartier’s demands for provincial powers. Macdonald, with an eye on Cartier’s powerful voting bloc, didn’t need much winning over. Cartier didn’t merely supply the political capital for Confederation; he set the wheels in motion over the track he himself had laid. Macdonald was just the man he wanted.
Cartier himself made a telling argument against the Macdonald legend. On June 30, 1867, the eve of Dominion Day, Henry J. Morgan, author of The Canadian Parliamentary Companion, visited Cartier at his Ottawa home. As Morgan recalled, Cartier was proud that he was “the first man, as prime minister of United Canada, to make Confederation an administrative act and to carry it to the foot of the Throne.
“John A. had nothing to do with that.”
Alastair Sweeny is the author of George-Étienne Cartier: A Biography and a consultant on a new Historica Canada Heritage Minute about Cartier, which launches Jan. 11. A longer version of this essay is available at http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/.