Macdonald and Cartier

John A Macdonald & George Etienne Cartier
Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George Étienne Cartier: Close friends and Fathers of Confederation

Yesterday was Sir John A. Macdonald’s 201st birthday. To mark the occasion, I thought I would explore his friendship with Sir George Étienne Cartier. The two were both Fathers of Confederation, but were once actually on opposing sides in Canadian politics for a period of time. So how did Macdonald and Cartier come together and how did their unlikely lifelong friendship impact the future of the country?

John Alexander Macdonald was born on January 11, 1815 in Glasgow, Scotland. His family moved to Kingston, Upper Canada when he was five years of age. By the time he was nineteen, Macdonald was running his own law practice. During the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, Macdonald fought on the side of the British loyalists. He was also a successful businessman before he entered politics. Macdonald was elected to the Kingston Town Council as an alderman in 1843. For a more detailed look at Macdonald’s life, both the good and the bad, please refer to this post.

According to historian Donald Creighton, Macdonald was described as both “puzzling and disarming” and that “he obviously enjoyed politics, just as he enjoyed every other part of life.” Macdonald was a hardworking, hard-drinking politician. One would think that alcoholism would be counter-intuitive, but contemporary John Langton noted that “[Macdonald] can get through more work in a given time than anybody I ever saw, and do it well.” He was a high functioning alcoholic and that is part of the reason his drinking got a pass. The other is that alcoholism was considered to be part of his charm. He drank too much and talked too much, but Macdonald knew it and “the knowledge of these habits strengthened the impression of easy-going conviviality.”

George Étienne Cartier was born on September 6, 1814 in Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu, Lower Canada. Cartier was a lawyer at first, but became involved in politics early on. As a student he worked for Louis-Joseph Papineau and Robert Nelson (two leading figures during the Lower Canada Rebellion) during the 1834 elections. Inspired by Papineau and passionate about French Canadian issues, Cartier became a member of the Société des Fils de la Liberté (Sons of Liberty). As such, Cartier was also part of the madness of 1837, however he ended up fighting on the sides of the Patriotes (the rebels) during the Lower Canada Rebellion. Just like the one in Upper Canada, that uprising also failed and he fled to the United States for a time, before being allowed to resume his law practice in Montreal. Overtime his radicalism began to subside and Cartier’s rebel days were a thing of the past by the time he was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1848.

The two men first met in 1855. A recent election had shuffled the Canada East section of the cabinet and three new members joined. One of which was Cartier as the new Provincial Secretary. Macdonald noted that Cartier was “a Montrealer body and soul,” that he had the industry and method required of his new position, and Macdonald believed he could rely upon Cartier. On a funnier note according to Creighton, Macdonald mentioned that “He is active…too active,” referring to Cartier’s animated and lively nature, (he apparently talked a lot with his hands).

Sir George Étienne Cartier and Sir John A. Macdonald by Anthony Jenkins for The Globe and Mail

Fun Fact: Macdonald and Cartier shared an equal fear of the United States one day annexing Canada. It was a part of the drive behind their goal to unite the country, believing unification would prevent a takeover.

1854 – The two were a part of the political alliance between the Upper Canada Reformers and Parti Bleu (the majority, moderate French Canadian party). This alliance formed the the Liberal-Conservative Party, who are considered to be the early forerunners of today’s Conservative Party of Canada.

1857-1862 – When Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché resigned, Cartier took his place and thus the Macdonald-Cartier government was formed. The two men worked as co-Premiers of the Province of Canada. Given that Macdonald and Cartier held support from Canada West and Canada East respectively, their alliance gave them the majorities needed for their government to work. A slew of legislative bills were passed including the Independence of Parliament Act (1857), amendments to the Municipal Corporations Act (1857 and 1858), an act for the registration of voters (1858), etc. Reforms to the judicial system (decentralization) and the creation of the civil code of Lower Canada also took place.

1867 – You can’t talk about these two men without mentioning the most important thing they were a part of: Confederation. Now the idea of federal union that would join the Province of Canada with the Maritimes had been floating around for a while and efforts to make it a reality had been in the works over the course of the 1860s.

George Brown: Fellow Father of Confederation and someone Macdonald and Cartier shared a mutual dislike of.

Everyone always mentions the animosity between Macdonald and George Brown, but Brown and Cartier weren’t the best of friends either. Brown and the Clear Grits (Liberal Party of Canada forerunners) were a perpetual thorn in the Macdonald-Cartier government’s side and Brown hated both French Canadians and Catholics—which is exactly what Cartier was. Cartier was actually attacked in Canada East for forming an alliance with Brown because his anti-Francophone views were well-known. He brushed off the criticism.

Delegates of the Charlottetown Conference. Please click on the photo for a larger image. Macdonald is sitting down in the center and Cartier is standing to the left of him.

Regardless of their feelings about one another, Macdonald, Cartier, and Brown came together to form the Great Coalition. Their goal was to promote the union of the colonies. They spearheaded the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864. Macdonald, forever a fan of centralized governments, was the dominant figure during the Quebec Conference. This is where the 72 Resolutions that formed the framework of the Constitution Act were written. Cartier both defended Francophone interests and was also was key in convincing weary French Canadian members of the Legislature to accept the Resolution, even though he too would have preferred not-so-strong central government. The Great Coalition was successful in its goal and on July 1, 1867 the Dominion of Canada was formed. Macdonald became Prime Minister and Cartier the minister of militia and defense.

Delegates of the Quebec Conference.

1867-1872 – Macdonald and Cartier weren’t done with their vision of a Canada that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The two men worked together to bring in both Manitoba and British Columbia.

After his 1872 electoral defeat in Montréal East, Cartier travelled to London, England, to rejoin with his family who had been living there for a year and to meet with a specialist regarding his chronic kidney condition. Unfortunately, he was already in poor health when he arrived and he died a few months later on May 20, 1873 at the age of 58. Macdonald, having lost his friend of 20+ years, was overcome with grief when he read the news of Cartier’s death in the House of Common via a telegram. Cartier’s funeral ended up being one of the most elaborate in the Canada’s history and thousands of Canadians came to pay their respects. His early death however meant that he missed the fallout from his role in the Pacific Railway Scandal. The scandal would come to engulf the Macdonald government.

Funeral procession of George-Étienne Cartier, Montréal, 1873. [Source]

“Cartier was bold as a lion,” Macdonald said of his friend. “But for him Confederation would not have carried.”


Creighton, Donald, John A. Macdonald: The Young Politican, The Old Chieftain, University of Toronto Press, 1998

J.-C. Bonenfant, “CARTIER, Sir GEORGE-ÉTIENNE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, Accessed from:

J. K. Johnson and P. B. Waite, “MACDONALD, Sir JOHN ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, Accessed from:

“Political Partnership: Macdonald and Cartier’s Quest Towards Confederation,” Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed from:

Richard Gwyn, Nation Maker: Sir John A Macdonald: His Life, Our Times, Random House Canada (2011).






2 thoughts on “Macdonald and Cartier

  1. Matthew says:

    Nice overview of what their political alliance resulted in. You don’t usually hear a lot about Cartier even though clearly he was just as important as Mac and GB in the confederation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • cadeauca says:

      Thank you! It’s probably because of the tunnel vision on Ontario that our school curricula suffer from that causes Cartier to be pushed aside in discussions. Honestly, I barely remember GB even being discussed in high school.


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