Political Partnership: Macdonald and Cartier's Quest Towards Confederation

Canada’s history is filled with events rooted in relationships between two people.
Canada’s history is filled with events rooted in relationships between two people.

Canada’s history is filled with events rooted in relationships between two people. Without the alliance between the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh and the British military commander Sir Isaac Brock, the War of 1812 might have been quite different — and Canada might be part of the United States. Before and during the Second World War, the trust that Prime Minister Mackenzie King placed in Ernest Lapointe as Québec lieutenant resulted in decisions that kept that province onside, which was far from a given. Sometimes, strong relationships transcend borders. Such was the case with the Free Trade Agreement of 1988 between Canada and the United States, which could not have happened without the friendship between Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan.

And then there was the unlikely friendship between Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Étienne Cartier without which Canada might not exist. It is worth considering the flaws and achievements of these remarkable men who are the subjects of two Heritage Minutes produced by our organization, Historica Canada. Both were possessed with almost breathtaking self-confidence, and each preferred talking to listening. Cartier once spoke for more than 13 hours during a parliamentary debate. Macdonald was infamous for his rough tongue and partisan nature and for his fondness for drink. Once, after he was publicly sick to his stomach during a campaign debate, he declared, “I get sick… not because of drink [but because] I am forced to listen to the ranting of my honourable opponent.”

The two men approached polite society in different ways. Macdonald, the Scottish immigrant, was a bratty youth who for a time seemed destined to become best acquainted with the law from the wrong side. He was uncomfortable expressing affection publicly but was devoted to his disabled daughter. He had a complex relationship with his wife and kept a mistress. Cartier was very conscious of money and social position. He married accordingly, to Hortense Fabre, a reserved woman. They eventually broke up (though not publicly), and he took up with the real love of his life, Luce Cuvillier, a cousin of Hortense who sometimes smoked cigars and wore long pants. Cartier, in earlier years, was no fan of the British. During the Rebellion in Lower Canada of 1837–38, he fought against them and was subsequently exiled to the United States. But his views changed, and after he was pardoned in 1848, he was elected to Parliament.

Eventually, both men found themselves at odds with some of their original supporters. Cartier was denounced by Québec nationalists with whom he had once been allied and had to work alongside men such as George Brown, whose anti-francophone views were public and well-established. That made life difficult for Cartier. Macdonald, in turn, had a long history of disagreement with Brown, and those two men also had to learn to overlook their differences.

They persevered. Macdonald pushed his vision of a united country. Cartier was key in achieving that, not only in Québec, but also in bringing in Manitoba and British Columbia — the latter with the promise of a national railway.

In their years together, they forged an extraordinary friendship. When Cartier died in 1873, Macdonald wept. He commissioned a statue of Cartier on Parliament Hill, which still stands. Cartier, Macdonald said, "Was as bold as a lion. He was just the man I wanted. But for him, Confederation could not have been carried.”

And because of them, we are Canadians today.

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