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Residence of Sir George-Étienne Cartier, illustrious French-Canadian politician and Father of the Confederation

George-Étienne Cartier lived in this upper-middle-class house on Notre-Dame Street in Montreal between 1848 and 1872, from the beginning to the end of his brilliant political career. The most memorable of his achievements is no doubt the fact that he was one of the principal architects of Canadian Confederation. He also made a significant contribution to the expansion of Canada to the west. Entirely furnished in the style preferred by the Cartier family, the residence gives visitors a glimpse of the interior of a Victorian home in the 19th century and the lifestyle of its inhabitants. Visitors can also enjoy reading about the political debates in the lead-up to the creation of Canada and the positions that Cartier defended.

 

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The privilege of visiting the Cartier family residence

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Victorian parlour

In Montreal, the House of Sir George-Étienne Cartier offers the public the rare privilege of visiting the interior of a luxurious home in the second half of the 19th century. It has been faithfully restored and includes some items that belonged to the members of this influential family. The affluence of the Cartier family is reflected in the elegant furniture, the fine woodwork and the delicate yet abundant decor. At first glance, these features confirm the elevated social status of the inhabitants. Travel trunks, photographs, office accessories, sewing materials, china and other items give us a good idea as to their lifestyle.

Inspired by the diaries of Hortense and Joséphine, two of the Cartier-Fabre couple’s three daughters, the items exhibited in their rooms suggest evoke certain aspects of the lives of these two young upper-middle-class ladies of Montreal. During the Christmas period, visitors can discover a mixture of English and French traditions that the Cartier family liked to celebrate at that time of the year. Like many members of the French-Canadian elite at the time, the Cartiers were influenced by the power that the British had over Quebec, Canada and a large part of the world. Indeed, when Cartier had a discussion with the Queen of England, he allegedly declared that the people who lived in Lower Canada were Englishmen who spoke French. This comment did not, however, apply to the entire French-Canadian population, many of whose members remained very attached to their French origins.

Canadian Confederation, an historical compromise

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The Honourable Sir George-Étienne Cartier

During the period of great political instability from 1850 to 1860, Cartier played a decisive role in developing Canadian Confederation. Convinced of the superiority of British institutions, in comparison with those in the United States, Cartier developed, promoted and negotiated a political project inspired by British traditions, but tailored to Canada. In this sense, his specific aim was to guarantee equal rights for both Francophones and Anglophones. The federal level of this proposed confederation was to have more powers that the provincial levels, which nonetheless benefitted from specific powers in such fields as education and culture, which were important for the French Canadians.

Among the artisans of Canada, Cartier was the main promoter of a decentralized state that would maintain a certain balance between the powers of the federal government and those of the provinces. This compromise finally gained enough support and led to the creation of Canadian Confederation in 1867, which lasts to this day.

Theory and practice

On the issue of Francophone rights, the application of the Canadian political system did not produce results that were as favourable as Cartier had hoped. In the provinces where the majority of citizens were Anglophones, the right to education in French was rapidly restricted, or even virtually eliminated. At the federal level, Anglophones, who also were in the majority in Canada as a whole, quickly came to dominate the political scene and marginalized the Francophone communities outside Quebec, where the only Francophone majority was located. The project for which Cartier had fought thus only partially resisted the application of the principles on which it was based. This situation persisted until very recently, when reforms associated with the patriation of the Canadian Constitution from London to Ottawa in 1982 enabled minority Francophones to recover certain essential rights, such as the right to education in French.

Cartier’s heritage

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Poster for the new “Imagine a country!” exhibit

The important contribution that Cartier made to the creation of Canada is not the only legacy of this eminent politician. In 1868, he went to London to negotiate the transfer of the vast private territory held by the Hudson’s Bay Company to the fledging Canada rather than to the United States, which also wanted to acquire Alaska. The purchase of this territory in 1870 greatly increased the geographic territory of Canada, particularly towards the west. Cartier also played a key role in the admission of Manitoba into Confederation in 1870, and then British Columbia in 1871. He was also one of the architects of the Canadian transcontinental railway, in which he had hidden interests that created a scandal. Finally, in Quebec, he participated in the enactment of the Municipalities Act, in school reforms and in the implementation of the Quebec Civil Code.

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