George-Étienne Cartier’s famous speech on Confederation articulated a new idea of Canadian political nationality—one capable of bridging the ethnic, religious and linguistic divides among our fractured population. The scattered colonies of British North America were divided by geography, language, ethnic origin, and religion, making Cartier’s speech both an act of statesmanship and an act of imagination. While securing a new provincial government for Quebec, ringed round by the federal division of powers, Cartier envisioned Canada as a “great nation.” He made clear the value and strength of diversity in our common country—a Canadian nationality based not on national origin or religion, but instead upon an ideal of equal justice to all. This idea was Cartier’s greatest contribution to Confederation, and one that still resonates today.
The following is an extract. George-Étienne Cartier’s full Speech in the Confederation Debates can be downloaded here.
Our Political Nationality
ATTY. Gen. CARTIER rose to continue the debate on Confederation.
He said that he approached this subject with a certain amount of diffidence, knowing it was not the first time he had had the honor of speaking upon it in the Lower Provinces and elsewhere. He felt that this was a momentous occasion, as for anything that he said on this grave question, he was responsible to his constituents and the country. Respecting this grave question, it had been said that the TACHÉ-MACDONALD Government had taken upon themselves the solution of a problem which was not at the time of its formation before the country, and had not even been mooted. Those saying so were ignorant of the parliamentary history of the past few years. He would briefly refer to the history of this great question, as far as it had been brought before the Parliament and country. When the CARTIER-MACDONALD Government was constructed, after the downfall of the BROWN-DORION Administration, a programme of the policy of the former was laid before Parliament. Among the subjects contained in this programme of 7th August, 1858, was one referred to in the following terms:
The late Government felt themselves bound to carry out the law of the land respecting the seat of Government, but, in the face of the recent vote on that subject, the Administration did not consider themselves warranted in incurring any expenditure for the public buildings, until Parliament has had an opportunity of considering the whole question in all its bearings; and the expediency of a Federal Union of the British North American Provinces will be anxiously considered, and communication with the Home Government and the Lower Provinces entered into forthwith on the subject; and the result of this communication will be submitted to Parliament at its next session. The Government will, during the recess, examine into the organization and working of the public departments, and carry out such administrative reforms as will be conducive to economy and efficiency.
Here was this scheme of a union of the provinces mentioned in the programme of the Cartier-Macdonald Government, in 1858. He merely quoted this passage to show that neither Parliament nor the country was now taken by surprise with regard to this scheme. (Hear, hear.) We had had general and special elections since 1858, and to pretend that this subject, which had been so often canvassed, was new to the country, was to assert an untruth. At the close of that session, Sir Edmund Head, in his Speech proroguing Parliament, made use of the following language:—“I propose, in the course of the recess, to communicate with Her Majesty’s Government, and with the Governments of the sister colonies, on another matter of very great importance. I am desirous of inviting them to discuss with us the principles on which a bond of a federal character, uniting the Provinces of British North America, may perhaps hereafter be practicable.”
Of course we wanted, at that time, to act with the sanction and approval of the Imperial Government. We pressed the matter as strongly as we could before it.
In accordance with that announcement of policy, a deputation was sent to England, composed of his then colleagues, Hons. Messrs. Galt and Ross and himself. We pressed the matter before the Imperial Government, whom we asked to authorize a meeting of delegates from the British North American Governments, to consider this subject and report upon it, said report to be communicated to the Colonial Secretary. Of course we wanted, at that time, to act with the sanction and approval of the Imperial Government. We pressed the matter as strongly as we could before it.
Of all the provinces that responded to the call of the Imperial Government, Newfoundland, he thought, was the only one which professed her readiness to appoint delegates when the opportune moment arrived. (Hear, hear.) Although the other provinces were not opposed to Confederation, still, as the question had not been brought conspicuously before their people, they did not like then to join in the measure and in the proceedings which the Canadian delegates had urged upon the Imperial Government in 1858. At this time the Canadian Delegates had a duty to perform towards the illustrious Administrator of the Government, Sir E. Head, to fulfil the promise he had made, on proroguing Parliament, by pressing the measure upon the attention of the Imperial Administration. The Canadian Government also kept its promise to report to the House the result of the mission to England, at the next session of Parliament.
George-Étienne Cartier’s full Speech in the Confederation Debates can be downloaded here.