Cartier and Railways

I’m enjoying the discussion with Alastair Sweeny on George-Etienne Cartier.
He says in his last comment: “For Cartier, the Canadian Confederation was
all about business, not culture.”

A valuable observation! I admit it. I do not pay enough attention to the
railways issue at Confederation. My fellow commentator-editors for Canada’s
Founding Debates
(Paul Romney, Ian Gentles, William Gairdner; U of T Press,
2003) weren’t much interested in them either. A volume of more than 500
pages on Confederation and we included practically nothing about them .

And not a single reviewer to this point has noted the lack.

We included speeches on human acquisitiveness, property rights, and personal
and political ambition, but I don’t think we have a single speech by that
eminent master of money-matters, dreary old Galt. For goodness sakes, the
book is stuffed with notes about Montesquieu, Locke, J.S. Mill, the American
Founding Fathers, Adam Smith. You can see where our minds were. In the
clouds: thinking of high intellectual matters. Well, Sweeny’s reminding me
of our bias. Thank you, Alastair.  Oh, wait: a review of the Index for
Canada’s Founding Debates turns up a few references under “railways.” Not

My complaint is that scholars have paid too little attention to the fact
that at Confederation the Fathers created the Parliament of Canada. The
Fathers had the two tasks: to create a federation and to create a
legislative power with taxing and spending powers. Canadian scholars say
much too little about the debate at Confederation on parliamentary
government and little about the political institutions and principles
established in 1867 that still guarantee our liberty and equality.

This is perhaps the place to remind readers again that an excellent book on
Confederation, one that fully recognizes the Fathers’ role in making a
liberal democracy,  is Christopher Moore, 1867, How the Fathers Made a Deal,
(Toronto: M&S, 1997). When it first appeared Romney, Gentles, Gairdner and I
were on the line immediately. Had we been scooped? There was an initial
moment of jealousy.


2 Responses to “Cartier and Railways”

  1. 1 Christopher Moore July 2, 2008 at 10:13 am

    From the very kind comments about my “1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal” in your “Founding Debates,” I would never have suspected even a moment of jealousy!

    More to the point, I noted in the introduction to that book that my discussion “ignored a host of conditions specific to the 1860s,” and I listed “railway economics” as the first example.

    Alasdair is absolutely right: building economic ties among the colonies was important, so was a sound fiscal basis for the new state. But if railway-building had been the only point of confederation in the 1860s, the deal they struck would have become obsolete by the 1870s or so. I think you are justified in focussing on principles.

  2. 2 Alastair Sweeny May 28, 2009 at 6:16 am

    Janet and Chris:

    A belated comment on both your comments:

    Railways were a major part of Cartier’s vision – he was chief solicitor of the Grand Trunk and chaired the Railway Committee – but he also spent a great deal of time when in England, wearing his Minister of Militia hat, lobbying for fortifications and military works, at the same time as he pushed for Grand Trunk financing to Chicago and eventually to the North West.

    His great goal was to make Montreal the hub of a North American trading system in competition with the Erie/Hudson and Mississippi routes. He was fond of showing Keefer’s chart of how a straight line drawn from Chicago to Montreal led directly to England, and how it was far and away the shortest route.

    Confederation had a lot to do with business convenience. LaFontaine’s pre-Confederation reform of the Civil Code was as much to do with smoothing Upper and Lower Canada business relations as with modernizing the land system.

    As Confederation approached, Cartier’s financial lobbying in England was increasingly smoothed by two main groups – 1) imperial visionaries who wanted an all red route around the world, with all weather rail connection to Halifax, and 2) HBC capitalists and shareholders led by Donald A. Smith, who wanted to unload their white elephant before competition killed it.

    Post Confederation, Cartier pretty much single handedly ensured that Canadian credit would be available for the acquisition of Rupert’s Land, and that BC would be on board (see Helmcken’s Diary of negotiations). Cartier himself wrote the bills enabling the transfer and creating the new province of Manitoba.

    So while he died young, in 1873, Cartier laid the groundwork for events that carried Confederation forward for easily the next generation or two.

    T.C. Keefer’s Philosophy of Railroads is a good intro to the thinking of the business passions of Cartier’s era. See also Masters on Keefer

    Alastair Sweeny
    V-P Development
    Northern Blue Publishing
    Skype: northernblue

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