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MILLS, Sir THOMAS – Volume IV (1771-1800)

d. 28 Feb. 1793 in London, England


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From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

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Sir George-Étienne Cartier


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Cartier: The Leader of Canada East (1851–67)


George-Étienne CARTIER was one of the most important French Canadian mlas in 1851–52. His goal was to ensure that French Canadians drew every possible advantage from the government of United Canada. According to his biographer, Cartier, from the time he formed a government with John A. MACDONALD in 1857, held a central role:

“…[he] had become the most influential man in the Lower Canadian section [of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada].”


The Legislative and Institutional Reformer

Relations between Canada East (Lower Canada; present-day Quebec) and United Canada were fundamental to the political actions undertaken by Cartier, the architect of major legislative and institutional reforms:

“As a minister and prime minister, Cartier was the guiding spirit behind many legislative measures; these measures contributed, in the middle of the [19th] century, to the development of United Canada, and established institutions out of which have grown those that still govern Canada, and more particularly Quebec.”


Among the reforms that were carried out under his guidance was the reorganization of the structure of municipalities:

“In 1855 the government of which Cartier was a member had passed the Lower Canada Municipal and Road Act of 1855 (18 Vict., c.100), which created municipalities corresponding to the church parishes and grouped them in county municipalities; it was the basis of the system still to a great extent in force in Quebec. In 1860 Cartier had this law reshaped, and on 6 March declared that ‘our municipal system is one of the principal institutions in Lower Canada.’”


Cartier also drafted legislation related to the organizational framework for primary education:

“In 1856 [Cartier] completed the fundamental 1846 Act (9 Vict., c.27), which established schools in all parishes [in Canada East] and confirmed the principle of the religious duality of these schools, by having parliament decree that a council of public instruction be formed, made up of Catholics and Protestants (19 Vict., c.14), and that there be established some training schools for male and female teachers (19 Vict., c.54).”


Pierre-Joseph-Olivier CHAUVEAU was a key figure in promoting the 1856 reform that led, to the creation of the first Council of Public Instruction in Canada East in 1859:

“On 17 Dec. 1859, through Chauveau’s efforts, the government set up the first Council of Public Instruction, a key component of the school system. … As superintendent, Chauveau was involved with daily administrative problems that often degenerated into political questions. Thus English-speaking Protestants, who wanted to have their own school system, were a powerful pressure group which Chauveau, and Cartier, had to take into account when grants were allotted for education.”


Cartier had also demonstrated that he supported the abolition of seigneurial tenure:

“[Cartier] was not a member of the government when, on 18 Dec. 1854, an act for the abolition of feudal rights and duties in Lower Canada (18 Vict., c.3) was ratified, but he had long been in favour of this measure, and in 1853 he had declared categorically: ‘The seigniorial tenure retards the progress of the country.’ In 1859, he was to have a law passed… to increase the compensation to be paid to former seigneurs, a law that in Cartier’s words ‘will satisfy all the large interests and… do justice to the seigniors as well as to the censitaires’ (22 Vict., c.48).”


As attorney general for Canada East, Cartier was responsible for reshaping the administration of justice and civil law:

“In 1857 [Cartier] got parliament to enact that in the Eastern Townships, populated mainly by Anglophones, French laws would apply as elsewhere in Lower Canada (20 Vict., c.43). The uncertainty that had hitherto prevailed threatened to create a system of personal law under which persons of the same territory were judged according to different law, by reason of their origins. In the same year, going against old traditions, he brought about the decentralization of the judiciary (20 Vict., c.44). By this measure, the number of judges in Lower Canada was considerably augmented, and new judicial districts were instituted outside the large towns. The work of which he was most proud was the codification of civil law. In 1857 he had an act passed ‘to provide for the codification of the laws of Lower Canada relative to civil matters and procedure’ (20 Vict., c.43). To this end provision was made for the setting up of a commission; its president was Judge René-Édouard Caron, who did excellent work during the period 1859 to 1865. Cartier had parliament approve the plan that was drafted (29 Vict., c.41), and the civil code of Lower Canada came into operation on 1 Aug. 1866.”


The following excerpt from the biography of jurist René-Édouard CARON illustrates the need for the codification of civil law:

“Caron’s name has remained closely linked with the codification of civil law in Lower Canada. On 27 April 1857 George-Étienne Cartier introduced before the Legislative Assembly of United Canada the ‘Act to provide for the Codification of the Laws of Lower Canada relative to Civil matters and Procedure.’ … The preamble to the act recalled the reasons for undertaking the codification. The civil laws in force in Lower Canada derived for the most part from the Custom of Paris, which had been applied in New France and of which the Quebec Act had ensured the continuance. These laws had, however, been modified by laws of English origin, so much so that there were not always good comparable versions in the two languages utilized before the courts. France, by codifying its law at the beginning of the century, had set an example for Lower Canada, as had Louisiana in its last civil code, adopted in 1825. Moreover, the French codification had suppressed the commentaries pertaining to those laws that pre-dated the Revolution, and in certain cases it seemed necessary to modify the old rules.”


On Cartier’s death in May 1873 La Minerve recalled the statesman’s legislative contributions:

“‘Besides what he has done for the advancement and material prosperity of our country, M. Cartier can claim the honour of having remoulded the legislation of Lower Canada, and of having endowed us with a code of laws which, in this respect, raises us to the level of the most civilized nation in Europe.’”


Ultimately, according to his biographer, Cartier had achieved his goals:

“[Cartier] won for his French Canadian compatriots living in Quebec rights that he believed essential at the time. He wanted a Quebec that was master of its destiny in the matter of education, common law, and local institutions.”


To learn more about legislative and institutional reforms undertaken in Lower Canada in Cartier’s time, we invite you to consult the following lists of biographies:

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