Stephen Harper was one of the politicians celebrating Sir George Etienne Cartier’s 200th birthday this weekend in Quebec City. Cartier was one of the Founding Fathers of Confederation, and was Sir. John A. Macdonald’s right hand man and de facto Co-Premier after Confederation. Cartier was also a Conservative (or Liberal-Conservative, as the party was called in French-Canada at the time) so it makes sense to celebrate his 200th birthday! Cartier was a pillar of the Conservative Party in Quebec and they have never recovered its support in his province since his death. Given recent polls, it seems as though they still haven’t even recovered the level of support they had under him.
Born to a wealthy seigniorial family, Cartier entered politics young. He worked on election campaigns for Louis-Joseph Papineau and fought the militia in the Rebellions of 1837—making him something of an early separatist. Like certain members of the Conservatives and the NDP, he eventually changed his tune and worked as a lawyer before being elected to the Parliament of the United Canadas. He rose to power quickly, and he and John A. Macdonald became a team equal to the political partnership of Baldwin and Lafontaine.
Much like during Stephen Harper’s early tenure as Prime Minister, there was a lot of political instability in the country by the early 1860’s. It was somewhat worse than in Harper’s case, since the handful of men who could vote went to the polls six times in six years. This situation helped make a Federation look very attractive indeed, with Cartier leading the Quebec delegation in the negotiations. Conservative propaganda can tout that Cartier founded the Canadian Militia, brought BC, Rupert’s Land, and the North West Territories into Confederation, and helped organize the construction of the Canadian Pacific railroad.
What the Government of Canada website doesn’t quite get into was that he also got rich by giving his other employers (The Grand Trunk Railroad) government contracts and by giving his religious employers (The Sulpicians) preferential treatment. Corruption is not a new thing in Quebec. He was also embroiled in The Pacific Scandal, which helped bring down Sir. John’s government in 1873 and allowed for Canada’s first Liberal Government to take shape. Canada’s longest serving Conservative ministries always seem to be embroiled in some scandal or another, don’t they? At the time, it also wasn’t necessary to live in the riding you ran in, particularly in the ones out west. When he lost his seat in Montreal in 1872, Cartier ran in Manitoba; he never got out to see his riding. He died in London later that year.
Few Canadians can identify current politicians (almost 25% don’t know who Tom Mulcair is), so it is understandable when a poll of Quebecer’s found that only 11% can identify Cartier’s importance in bringing Quebec into Confederation. It’s doubtful if there will be many people celebrating his birthday along with Uncle Stephen. Nevertheless, bonne fete a tois, Monsieur Cartier! As a birthday present, the National Capital Commission decided to rename the Rockcliffe Parkway after him. This comes two years after they renamed The Ottawa River Parkway after Sir John A. The CEO of the NCC said at a ceremony on the weekend, “it is fitting that the two parkways that connect east and west Ottawa should be named after the two men who worked side by side to link Canada from coast to coast.” I suppose naming an airport after the two of them wasn’t enough, but then again Pierre Trudeau, Pearson, and Diefenbaker got airports all to themselves! Remember, Tory premiers don’t like to share!