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Lightning Striker

For the week of Monday November 9, 1998

On November 9, 1835, 21-year-old George-Étienne Cartier was called to the bar of Lower Canada (Quebec). Not even two years later, this rising young lawyer got caught up in the 1837 Rebellion and was forced to flee the country! Who could have guessed this 'rebel' would return to Canada and become one of our leading politicians?

Sir George-Étienne Cartier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier
© Library and Archives Canada / C-8007

Born at Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu, George-Étienne Cartier was schooled in Montréal. Aside from his brief exposure to radical politics, Cartier focused on his law practice until 1848. That year he was elected to the Legislative Assembly of the province of Canada, where he concentrated on railways and the legal system. As chairman of the Standing Committee on Railways from 1851 until his death in 1873, Cartier fathered the Grand Trunk through central Canada and the Intercolonial railway that links Québec to Halifax. He also spent five years re-organizing the civil code of Lower Canada; these revisions lasted for more than 100 years.

A passionate French-Canadian nationalist, Cartier became an adamant Canadian federalist. He feared the rapid expansion of the United States and pushed hard for confederation between Canada and the Maritime provinces. While he was Prime Minister of the province of Canada, Cartier's ministry was the first to adopt confederation as policy. Although he was determined to reach an agreement, Cartier was among the French-Canadian leaders who insisted on conditions that would guard Quebec's language, religion, and unique system of civil laws.

Sir George-Étienne Cartier National Historic Site of Canada

Sir George-Étienne Cartier
National Historic Site of Canada

© Parks Canada

His partner in much of this work was the Kingston lawyer John A. Macdonald. In fact, the two leaders worked so well together, they were nicknamed the "Siamese Twins"! When Canada confederated in 1867, Macdonald became Prime Minister but Cartier maintained a lot of influence. Often sitting in for his friend, it was Cartier who arranged the transfer of Hudson's Bay Company lands to Canada, and negotiated the entry of Manitoba and British Columbia into confederation. As Canada's first Minister of Militia, Cartier was also responsible for replacing the departing British army with a new Canadian military.

Obviously, Cartier was a man of many talents. The same man who composed and sang "O Canada, mon pays, mes amour" for a Montréal banquet, once made a 13-hour parliamentary speech that drove a government to resign! Although overshadowed among English-speaking Canadians by his "twin", Cartier was such a political force that colleagues nicknamed him "the lightning striker." In recognition of Sir George-Étienne Cartier's unparalleled role in Canada's development, his house in old Montréal, Quebec, is open to the public as a national historic site managed by Parks Canada.

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