Death of Cartier
One man at the centre of the Pacific Railway Scandal was not around to experience its fallout in late 1873.
By the early 1870s, George Étienne Cartier had made an indelible mark on Canada. He was one of the most prominent Fathers of Confederation, instrumental in leading French-speaking Quebec into the Dominion.
“Cartier was bold as a lion,” Prime Minister John A. Macdonald said of his close ally. “But for him Confederation would not have carried.”
Cartier also brought British Columbia into the Canadian fold in 1871. He had negotiated with the colony’s leaders promising them a railway to the Pacific it they joined the Dominion.
Despite his political skill, Cartier lost his seat in the federal election of 1872 — an election that saw Cartier and Macdonald accept large election contributions from financier Hugh Allan in exchange for giving Allan the lucrative contract to build the railway to B.C.
But by the time he lost in his Montreal riding, Cartier was unwell. His seemingly inexhaustible energy had given way to constant fatigue. His limbs were swollen and his hand shook when he wrote.
Cartier was ill with Bright’s disease, a degenerative kidney condition. In September 1872, he sailed to London to consult a specialist. His long-time mistress Luce Cuvillier followed him to Europe. Cartier’s wife Hortense and their daughters were already there; they had been living in Europe, on and off, for a year.
Cartier met his family at the Westminister Palace Hotel, the same hotel he and Macdonald had stayed in while working on the Confederation bill. Over the months, his condition worsened, and on May 20, 1873, Cartier died.
News of Cartier’s death reached Canada by transatlantic cable the same day. When Macdonald read the telegram in the House of Commons, he was overcome by tears and sat down, unable to speak.
Cartier’s body arrived in Canada 11 days later aboard the Druid. On the ship, his body lay in a candlelit chapel, bells tolling, with the band playing the “Dead March.” Along the shore, church bells tolled as the ship passed.
Cartier’s funeral was the most elaborate in the country’s history and it brought out thousands of Montrealers.
Later that year, Cartier’s longtime ally, Macdonald, resigned amid scandal. The two men who built the Dominion of Canada were gone from its political landscape. But the country they had envisioned now was in place and stretched from sea to sea.
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