Cartier
Chapter IV - In Power


IT was in the month of January, 1855, that Cartier was for the first time sworn in as a member of the executive council. He had been for a long time the power behind the throne; it was only fair to the public and to his opponents that he should assume the responsibility of a policy which was distinctly his own.

For the first time also his name then came before the country connected with that of John A. Macdonald, an alliance which lasted until the death of one of the partners. Their respective beginnings in life did not indicate that they would, one day, work together hand in hand; for their political creed had placed them face to face as opponents in the House. A man is hardly responsible for peculiar views in the early part of his life; he inherits the, ideas which permeate the ambient air in which his first years are spent; when he prides himself upon his strong convictions, he is only an unconscious slave of persons who have taught him to think as they themselves thought.

Macdonald first appeared in parliament as an uncompromising Tory of the old MacNab type. He was not far from the Upper Canada Assembly's narrow-minded notions in reference to Lower Canada. It was his wont to be then found in the ranks of those most opposed to La Fontaine. He voted against the proposed settlement of the seigniorial tenure when Cartier earnestly voiced the wishes of his people in that matter, and during the debate on the Indemnity Bill, which provided that the government should indemnify the loyal Lower Canadians who had suffered losses through the rebellion, he qualified that simple measure of justice as a reward to treason. When Lord Elgin gave the royal assent to the Indemnity Bill, he was not with the mob that pelted the governor with stones and rotten eggs, sacked La Fontaine's residence, and burned the house of parliament, but he was politically associated with these firebrands, with such men as Moir Ferris, whom afterwards he appointed to important offices. His prejudices were bound to disappear with time as he escaped from early influences, and came in contact with Lower Canadian representative men. His experience was similar to that of so many other of his friends whose intercourse with French Canadians showed them that they Were not as black as they had been painted.

Cartier could not afford to renounce any of his ideals. He was on the defensive and directing his effort to gain political equality for his countrymen of Lower Canada. At the time to which we refer, the principles which were to be his guiding star through life had taken a strong hold on his mind, 32 and he had no intention of forsaking any of them. How could he ? Was he not simply claiming equal justice and equal rights for all in the face of men who were advocating privileges for a class of British subjects, superior in their mind to their neighbours? When, therefore, it was mooted in the House and in political circles that the Upper Canada Tories desired to form an alliance with the Lower Canada Liberals, he boldly told MacNab and Macdonald that if they courted his fellowship they must first alter their views. " If the Upper Canada Conservatives desire to form a coalition with us Liberals, they must give up many of their principles." It was in this firm language that Cartier laid down (June 26th, 1854), in the House, the fundamental condition of an understanding between his friends and the Tories of Upper Canada, and when this alliance materialised with the MacNab-Morin administration (the latter soon to be replaced by Tach£) Cartier was in a position to state (Feb. 14th, 1855) at Vercheres, in answer to the charge that he was a Tory, because he had formed an alliance with MacNab: "There are no more Tories in the sense formerly attached to this qualification. The old Tories have weakened their principles (mis de Veau dans leur vin) and have given up antiquated ideas which were their own. In the alliance which we have made, it is Sir Allan who has come to the Lower Canada minority. We have not abandoned any of our positions; can a statesman refuse support offered to his cause?" It was in those words that he explained the nature of the compromise which formed the conditions of the Liberal-Conservative alliance, when he came forward in Verchores seeking re-election as a cabinet minister.

Cartier was in such a position that he could not remove one plank from his platform, built as it was upon equal rights for all classes, both in the political and religious spheres; minor matters only were open to compromise and concessions. His general policy was, nevertheless, bitterly attacked in Vercheres although it was unimpeachable from the national point of view. It seems as though his opponents foresaw in the young minister the man who for nearly twenty years would stand between them and power. In the eyes of Le Moniteur, a Liberal paper of the day, he was the Grand Trunk Railway solicitor. This was a crime, for the famous company was then subjected to all sorts of slanderous imputations. The same paper denounced him also as the supporter of monopolies, of the seigneurs, the upholder of well-paid government situations, a breeder of corruption, the enemy of justice, the champion of illegal measures, the apostle of servitude, the partisan of passive obedience, a human conscience vendor, a Tory minister, a jobber. Such were the epithets too often used in those days against political opponents. If a man's merit is to be measured by the attacks he is subjected to, Cartier indeed was a great man, for he has been assailed as very few politicians have been in Canada. But all this vituperation appears to be the unavoidable stock in trade of politics. A French statistician and bibliophilist has jotted down the titles of eight thousand pamphlets written against Cardinal Mazarin, when he was first minister of France, and this with the total absence of newspapers and with slow press work. But the cardinal outlived that storm of ink and paper, like many another eminent statesman.

From the day he entered the cabinet to the day of his death, Cartier's career was a useful and fruitful one for his country. His activity spread itself over every part of national life, imparting to each new blood and strength. The field of his labour might be divided into two parts, one being his native province and the other Canada at large. Public education, the seigniorial tenure, the judiciary, the codification of the laws of Lower Canada were among the subjects which occupied his attention in Quebec. It cannot be claimed that he alone settled the land tenure of the country. It had been before the public and parliament for many years. But the questions of acquired rights, the rival claims of the seigniors and their censitaires raised a mountain of obstacles which no one dared touch until Cartier and his friends resolved to grapple with its huge bulk.

It will not be out of place here to outline the main features of the ancient land tenure, which, to many outsiders, is still looked upon as part and parcel of the feudal system planted in New France by Louis XIV. During this king's reign, tracts of land were granted to seigneurs under certain conditions. The principal conditions were that the seigneur should, in his turn, make grants of land to settlers, who became proprietors of the concession and could dispose of the same. The price of sale was an annual rent of a sou or a sou and a half per arpent. This was called the cens et rente. This system exists to this day in many places, but the owner of any farm can rid himself of it by paying the capital of such rent. The great difference between our land system and the tenure of most European countries lay in this: that the Canadian settler was the proprietor of his farm, and could dispose of it by lease or sale. The feature of the tenure to which people objected was the droit de lods et ventes, a tax which the owner of a farm had to pay to the landlord if he sold it, that duty amounting to 9 per cent, of the sale price. The lods et ventes interfered with land transfers and led to many abuses; the vendor would sometimes ostensibly undersell his property, which the seigneur could then buy himself if he considered the sale price below the real value of the property. There was also the banalite, under which the seigneur was obliged to keep up a grist mill to which the censitaire was compelled to bring his grain. Under an act of parliament passed in 1854, a commission was entrusted with the task of amending this old tenure. As a matter of course the seigneurs were indemnified for their losses. All that remains now of the tenure is the rent of a sou per arpent; the censitaire can liberate himself by paying the capital of this rent, computed at 6 per cent.

A man of broad mind like Cartier could not overlook the important interests of education. He gave the subject his attention for several years and had the education act amended so as to insure the success of popular as well as of superior education. It was he that placed at the head of the system Mr. Chauveau, a man whose bright intelligence and whose literary attainments fitted him to carry out Cartier's views with success. In this reorganization of public instruction, he gave the Protestants of Lower Canada full control of their schools. At the time of confederation, the English population of Lower Canada had conceived a certain anxiety lest changes should be made in the law affecting their educational establishment when they should come under the parliament at Quebec, where a majority of Catholics would be entrusted with the making of the laws. Of course the British North America Act provided that they should have the same rights as the Catholics of Ontario had under the school system which obtained in that province; but a law had to be made in Quebec to carry out the special clauses of the constitution referring to schools. Cartier pledged himself that this would be done, and relying on his word the Protestants were reassured. After confederation the Quebec government, through some misunderstanding with the corporation of Montreal, did not at once carry out the engagement made by Cartier, and loud complaints were heard among Protestants on all sides, both in the press and in parliament. Cartier then pressed the Quebec government to enact the desired law, with a prompt and gratifying result. When he returned from England in 1871, he was presented with addresses by the Protestants of Lower Canada, the object of which was to thank him for having carried out his promises with so much zeal. It is to be remarked here that but few French Canadian ministers have ever enjoyed to the same extent as Cartier the confidence of the English-speaking population of Canada.

In the administration of justice he made a reform which has lost, with time, some of its merit. Up to 1857 legal business was concentrated in the cities, to the great inconvenience of people living in the country, who had to travel great distances to attend the courts. Cartier established fifteen new judicial districts, so as to place (law courts) within easy reach of the people. It was his intention also to have the judges reside in their districts, so that they might form in different parts of Canada enlightened centres, which would improve the social condition of the inhabitants. Unfortunately most of the judges have not shared his views in the matter, and have made their residence in the cities. To complete this reorganization, he decided that all the French laws, scattered in many antiquated books, should be codified after the style of the Code Napoleon. In this action he had another object in view beyond mere convenience. He desired to facilitate the study of French laws for the population of the Eastern Townships and those parts of the country to which the French laws had been extended. This reform he carried, as he stated in Sherbrooke, against the opposition of very many lawyers and even judges. It was, indeed, a beneficial reform, and any one conversant with our civil courts cannot to-day understand why any opposition should have been made to Cartier's codification scheme.

Another measure which his skill and energy . carried through parliament is the act giving civil status to parishes established by the bishops. According to this act, whenever the Church thinks fit to establish a new parish in any diocese, it receives civil life without having to go before parliament to obtain an act of incorporation. This piece of legislation was of great benefit to the Catholics. It substituted a simple petition to the courts for the former act of parliament. It is strange that no one has ever given Cartier credit for this law which completes the liberties of the Catholic Church in Lower Canada and its independence of the state. Cartier was very proud of the measure, and considered that in having placed it on the statute book he had rendered invaluable service to the Church; but he took no trouble to claim credit for it at the time, as such a law might have awakened prejudices. His object was always to do good rather than gain popularity.

Huxley once said of Gladstone: "Here is a man with the greatest intellect in Europe, and yet he debases it by simply following majorities of the crowd." Without stopping to inquire whether this judgment is exaggerated or not, it can be said that such a charge could not be laid against Cartier. Of all Canadians he was the most independent of public opinion. When a plan or a scheme, however risky, politically speaking, it might be, had been fully matured in his mind, he carried it out inflexibly. The judiciary act and the consolidation of French laws were carried against very powerful opposition, as we have just stated. It was his wont not to consult his friends on measures of great importance before they were brought forward for public discussion. Even confederation was resolved upon without the advice of his followers. Being asked one day if he had sought their opinion before forming an alliance with Brown, the arch-enemy of Lower Canada, he made the following astounding confession: "With regard to this matter, I have not sought the advice of my countrymen nor of my political friends. I here confess that in all important acts of my life, of my political career, I have not consulted anyone."

Strange as this conduct may appear, is it not the correct method for responsible ministers to adopt?

Members of parliament, men of conflicting views, many living only with the idea of preparing for the next election, and on that account dreading questions involving great issues easily misunderstood by the people, can only be made to accept average opinions if consulted. It behooves leaders of men to bring them, all at once, face to face with a proposal of high import, and compel them to support it whether it corresponds with their ideas or not. It is not unlikely that Cartier felt the pulse of the country, made inquiries as to its requirements, and after full study made up his mind, well persuaded that he knew better than the rest of the world what reform was needed.

With his self-confidence he thought very little of the party rank and file. When told that he seemed to have a certain fondness for inferior men as his followers in the House: "What does it matter," he replied, "as long as the head is good?" This would indicate that his opinion of his supporters bordered almost on contempt. Cartier lived in an age of restricted suffrage; he derived his strength from the better class of the population that trusted him entirely, but his methods would not suit a democracy and its representatives. Be that as it may, it cannot be gainsaid that the work he performed was great and far-reaching. It bears evidence that he was a man of great powers, and that with constant and hard labour, his achievements were considerable.


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