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Sir George-Étienne Cartier Leaders

The Société Macdonald-Cartier Society is honoured to nominate Sir George-Étienne Cartier to be considered for induction into the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame. This influential leader recognized that the key to prosperity in both pre- and post-Confederation Canada lied in the construction of railways. Understanding this important reality, Cartier devoted much of his professional life to raising money, building public support and representing the interests of the railway industry in the union and federal legislatures. Canada owes a great deal of gratitude to this leader who played such an influential role in shaping our nation’s political, economic and railway history.

While Cartier’s contributions to Confederation are well known, many are unfamiliar with his equally influential role in building colonial Canada through its railway systems. For nearly two decades, Cartier acted as the solicitor to the Grand Trunk Railroad and mobilized his law firm to act on its behalf. Acting as the Grand Trunk’s legal agent, Cartier’s firm dealt with labour disputes, commutations, property litigations, court cases, inquests and land deals. On every significant legal issue the Grand Trunk faced during pre-Confederation Canada, Cartier and his firm fought in the interests of railways and the economic development they brought.

More than just providing legal counsel, Cartier also became a spokesman for the railway industry. Prior to taking his seat in Lower Canada’s assembly, Cartier utilized his popularity to increase support for railway construction and led a campaign to raise a £125,000 municipal subsidy for the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railways. In 1845, Cartier was appointed first solicitor of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railway, a line that would connect Montreal with the ice-free port of Portland, Maine.

When Cartier was elected to the Union Parliament in 1852 he continued his avid support for railway construction. That same year, he introduced the bill that created the Grand Trunk Railway Company of Canada. While leading committees on railway matters, Cartier chartered legislation, regulation and subsidies aimed at improving railway companies’ ability to build and operate their lines. Cartier actively promoted the financing of the Grand Trunk and Intercolonial railways through government loans and subsidies, and helped reconcile the Maritimes to the Confederation project. When the Grand Trunk charter was finally completed in the 1850s, a jubilant Cartier remarked: “I am prouder of that than any other action of my life. Even today it is the Grand Trunk which is the principal cause of public prosperity.”

Shortly after Confederation, Cartier signaled that his intentions to champion railway interests would continue. From 1851 to his death in 1873, not counting short intervals out of power, Cartier was Chairman of the Standing Committee on Railways. As Minister of Militia before and after the Union, he promoted railways as a necessity for national security and unity.

In 1868, he negotiated the transfer of Rupert’s Land over to Canada. This achievement made it possible for the transcontinental CPR to be constructed over Canadian land.

Working with British financiers, and Bank of Montreal and Hudson's Bay Company interests, Cartier actively promoted the CPR. In 1870, he persuaded the BC delegates to join Confederation by promising them that a CP rail connection would begin in three years. Two years later, in 1872, Cartier introduced and pushed the bill that created the Canadian Pacific Railroad through the House of Commons.

While Cartier would ultimately pass away before the completion of the CPR, his contribution to Canada’s railway history was profound in both its scope and its implications. His efforts to secure funding, legislation and legal support for the Grand Trunk Railroad contributed to its construction. The presence of an East-West line fostered trade, which allowed Ontario’s and Quebec’s economies to flourish. Further, Cartier’s role in negotiating the acquisition of Rupert’s Land made it possible for the CPR to extend across the country, physically binding British Columbia with Eastern Canada. Through clauses in various acts, including the BNA Act, he prevented US lines from tapping into Canadian east-west trade until the Grand Trunk, Intercolonial and CPR were under way. This policy attracted fierce lobbying from Boston financiers who wanted to build a transcontinental railway through Quebec and Ontario. In 1872, a year before his death, he was defeated by these interests, and blamed for the Pacific Scandal.

With these accomplishments in mind, the Société Macdonald-Cartier Society respectfully requests that the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame induct George-Étienne Cartier with the esteemed honour of being recognized as an influential figure in Canada’s railway history.

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