Courting Cartier: English-Canadian Prime Ministers and Their Quebec Lieutenants

By Lewis, J. P. | Quebec Studies, Spring-Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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Courting Cartier: English-Canadian Prime Ministers and Their Quebec Lieutenants


Lewis, J. P., Quebec Studies


Introduction

As pundits and observers speculated on a possible Conservative government during the recent 2006 Canadian general election, the question frequently arose: Who would represent Quebec in a Conservative-led federal cabinet? With the Tories low in the polls in Quebec, the possibility of winning any seats in the province appeared to be slim. But Stephen Harper and his new Conservative party made a surprising breakthrough in Quebec by winning ten seats. This not only helped Harper nationally in securing a minority government, but also aided him in the challenging task of forming his first cabinet. With ten members to choose from, Harper now had the ability to construct a Quebec component in his cabinet and to appoint a Quebec lieutenant. It was not a new challenge for an English-Canadian prime minister.

In this article I argue that since John A. Macdonald's appointment of Georges-Etienne Cartier, English-Canadian prime ministers have been mostly unsuccessful in following the Quebec lieutenant model set by the Cartier-Macdonald partnership. An adequate starting point in cabinet literature for discussing the Quebec lieutenant theory is W.A. Matheson's comprehensive 1976 work The Prime Minister and the Cabinet. According to Matheson: "the English-Canadian prime minister has often selected one French-Canadian minister and accorded him special status, with a particular responsibility for Quebec" (34). Matheson argues that Macdonald initiated the practice and relied heavily on his Quebec lieutenant, Cartier. Walter Gordon, a former Finance minister in Lester B. Pearson's cabinet, articulated his views of the Quebec lieutenant position in his memoirs, in which he argued that "if the Prime Minister comes from English-speaking Canada, he or she should have a French-speaking Quebecker as their chief lieutenant and if the Prime Minister is from Quebec, he or she should have an English-speaking second-in-command" (322). Gordon's comment demonstrates the belief in Quebec lieutenants shared by practitioners and academics alike. Thirty years ago Matheson astutely predicted "the problem of keeping French Canada satisfied with its cabinet representation will in the future be more difficult" (43).

English-Canadian prime ministers have encountered difficulty in successfully following the Quebec lieutenant model due to three institutional factors. Electoral results, political parties, and the centralization of power in the prime minister's office have acted as structural barriers to the successful representation of Quebec in English-Canadian prime ministers' cabinets. Most Quebec ministerial appointments have resulted in token regional representation rather than significant political responsibility. After Macdonald only William Lyon Mackenzie King and Lester Pearson appear to have effectively followed the Quebec lieutenant model. Quebeckers Ernest Lapointe and Lionel Chevrier were both presented as significant regional ministers under King and Pearson respectively. This could help explain the fact that both leaders are considered by many historians to be superior prime ministers.

This article will begin with a detailed review of Macdonald, continue by outlining the Quebec ministerial appointments by English-Canadian prime ministers after Laurier, and finally analyze and deconstruct the historical facts and figures of the Quebec lieutenant convention. Most of the primary sources used are found in the Canadian Parliamentary Guide, the Prime Ministers' papers at the National Archives, and newspaper reports and articles. The goal is to add a new historical and political perspective on a traditional Canadian political convention. The practice of appointing a Quebec lieutenant will continue as long as Quebec remains a province within the Canadian federation, but the utility for English-Canadian prime ministers must not be overstated. History has shown that except for a few cases the Quebec lieutenant model has been difficult to execute successfully.

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