Prince Edward Island Political Primer

Article excerpt

This year the Canadian Region of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association holds its annual Conference in Canada's smallest province whose distinctiveness derives from its history, location and political traditions. This article looks at some recurring themes in Prince Edward Island history, outlines the contributions of five notable Premiers and concludes with some little known facts about Island politics.

What are the constants which, arguably, define our sense of place in Prince Edward Island? First and foremost is the very land, a finite resource threatened by overuse and over development. Since the creation of the colony in 1769 through to the present, Islanders and their successive governments have grappled with the nature of land ownership, more recently, the use--or abuse--of our land. By a rather remarkable lottery held in 1765 (a precursor to our all-pervasive 6-49 lottery), the ownership of most Island land was placed in non-resident hands, with Britons who had some claim of favour from the monarch of the day. The subsequent one hundred years, through to the Island's entry into the Canadian union in 1873, centred around efforts to dislodge the absentee landlords and to enable the tenantry to acquire land in freehold. It was a bitter contest both in the House and in the countryside and its legacy remains firmly implanted, the concept of "my land, to do with what I will". In recent times, governments of both political stripes have attempted to grapple with land-related problems: inadequate crop rotation, compaction, soil runoff and high levels of pesticide and fertiliser applications. Almost, one might suggest, there is too much history associated with our land?

Several other recurring themes come to mind. Until the completion of the "fixed link Confederation Bridge" in 1997, communication with the mainland of Canada was a never-ending concern for Islanders. For more than a century, the mainland link--especially during the winter months when ice clogged the Northumberland Straits--was tenuous at best. It may be that this longstanding concern has been overcome, but some will argue that the bridge comes at a cost, that the Island will become something of a Coney Island North with all of the attendant problems of numbers and tacky attractions!

Another constant in our history is the Island's place in the Canadian union. Prince Edward Island was a reluctant entrant into the Canadian union in 1873, succumbing to an insurmountable railroad debt, pressure from Britain to join the new nation and the financial blandishments of Sir John A. Macdonald. Until recent times, the Province was heavily dependent on federal transfers of all sorts and sizes; as much as 60% of annual budgets was "federal money" but now, as a result of determined efforts to expand economic activity, that amount has shrunk to somewhat less than 40%.

A final reoccurring feature of Island society -- and one of particular interest to parliamentarians -- is what I would term electoral extremes. Given the small size of our House [30 seats from 1893 to 1966, 32 seats from 1966 to 1996 and presently 27 seats], the odds for either sweeps or close returns are high. At present, our standing is 26/1 and, in this century, results of 30/0, 30/2, 31/1, 26/1 and 17/15 have occurred. While such results provide a measure of titillation for the media and for the public, they do not bode well for the conduct of parliamentary business. Another aspect of elections and party that continues to intrigue political theorists and junkies is the near failure of Third Parties to "catch on" in the PEI political firmament. The "break through" by the NDP in the 1996 General Election -- the first Third Party representation in the House -- came to a somewhat abrupt halt in the most recent general election.

Some Notable Political Leaders

From the grant of Responsible Government in 1851 down to the present, our political offices have been occupied by many leaders with notable political and administrative skills. …