They were political partners from when Cartier joined the cabinet of the Liberal-Conservative coalition in 1855 to Cartier’s death in 1873. With George Brown’s Canada West Reformers, they led the “Great Coalition” toward constitutional reform.
Macdonald and Cartier worked from a foundation of responsible government first established through the similarly profound friendship of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine in the 1840s.
Their alliance owed much to Cartier’s support of Macdonald. However, political convenience and self-interest don’t sufficiently explain the depth of their partnership. Cartier compared their bond to that of brothers, and they were frequently called the “Siamese twins” of Canadian politics.
By the mid-1860s, Canadian governance was often gridlocked and extremely unstable. Brown’s Reformers sought representation by population, to reflect the growth of Canada’s West and to combat “French domination” in Parliament. French Canadians held the balance of power. Led by Cartier, the bleus rejected the Reformers’ proposal as a threat to their rights as a political and cultural minority.
Historian Christopher Moore argues that when Cartier brought the bleus into coalition with Brown, “he was making an enormous political conversion, and taking an enormous risk. … For Quebec’s political master, confederation was a gamble with nightmarishly high stakes.”
Brown and Cartier soon advocated a federal union, which Macdonald had long opposed because he feared it would dissolve as it had in the United States, where the Civil War was raging.
However, Macdonald ultimately relented and the Great Coalition was sealed.
Macdonald’s biographer, Richard Gwyn, credits the trust between Macdonald and Cartier for enabling this dramatic change. Macdonald and Brown detested one another. Macdonald and Cartier had humiliated Brown with the “double shuffle” in 1858, and Brown distrusted Macdonald. The coalition required Cartier to get the partners to agree upon principles and overcome distrust.
Gwyn points out that the “distinct bargain, a solemn contract” upon which Confederation was based was predicated upon the mutual trust – I would add friendship – between Macdonald and Cartier: they “were so close . . . that they would hardly have needed to commit to paper any agreement between them about Confederation’s future.”
Political interest and ambition brought Cartier and Macdonald together. The way their personalities complemented one another cemented their friendship. Cartier was a fine administrator and excelled at policy details, while Macdonald mastered tactics and was an inspiring leader. Cartier joked that he did the legwork of explaining details to Parliament and Macdonald simply took credit.
Each was immensely convivial, loving song and dance, and, of course, drink.
In his biography of Cartier, John Boyd quotes him as saying: “Nobody knows better than I do John A. Macdonald, for whom I have the greatest respect. It is perhaps fortunate that there are two men, one from Upper Canada, and the other from Lower Canada, made to understand each other perfectly in administering the affairs of United Canada.”
At a banquet in Kingston in 1866, Cartier toasted his friend by pointing out that he had formed with Macdonald “an alliance which has already lasted longer than all alliances of this kind in Canada. The success which we have obtained together has been due to the fact that we have repelled all sectional feelings and sought what might benefit Canada as a whole.”
It is perhaps fortunate that there are two men, one from Upper Canada, and the other from Lower Canada, made to understand each other perfectly in administering the affairs of United Canada.
On May 20, 1873, Macdonald read a telegram announcing Cartier’s death to Parliament, then said, “I feel myself quite unable to say more at this moment.” He slumped to his seat and wept for several minutes. In January 1885, at the unveiling of a statue of Cartier, Macdonald’s speech mentioned Cartier’s political deeds but emphasized their friendship: “A true friend, he never deserted a friend. Brave as a lion, he was afraid of nothing. He did not fear a face of clay. But whilst he was bold, as I have said, in the assertion of his principles, and he carried them irrespective of consequences, he respected the convictions of others. I can speak of him perfectly because I knew his great value, his great value as a statesman, his great value as a friend. I loved him whilst he was living; I regretted and wept for him whilst he died.”
Their friendship and trust helped bring about the Confederation of Canada.
John von Heyking is professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge. He is the author of The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship.
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