A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[AH] What would have come of an independent Prince Edward Island?

In an article by CBC News’ Sara Fraser looking at how Prince Edward Island has had its choice of Confederation-related anniversaries lately now that we’re nearing the 150th–the Charlottetown Conference of 1864, the formation of Canada in 1867, the entry of Prince Edward Island into Confederation in 1873–local historian and folklorist David Weale raised the question of whether Confederation was necessary for the Island.

“The real problem on P.E.I. is that there is a really interesting story associated with Confederation and P.E.I. and we’ve turned it into a boring story,” he said from his Charlottetown home.

In 1864, he points out, Islanders wanted nothing to do with Confederation — P.E.I. politicians didn’t even really want to discuss Maritime union.

“Islanders had this feisty, independent spirit that they wanted to go on their own,” Weale said. P.E.I. was prospering, its population was booming and Island politicians had even held independent talks with the U.S. on free trade.

“Islanders have probably never been united on any other issue as much as they were in their desire to be independent and to stay out of Confederation,” Weale said. One Summerside newspaper, he said, was actively campaigning for P.E.I. to become a U.S. state.

“We’d been fighting against the British government control of us — now did we just want to turn it over to some people in Ontario? That was playing out in their minds,” Weale said.

They were “heady times,” he said, but whether P.E.I. would have been better off independent, he admits he doesn’t know — but that’s not exactly the point. It’s the whitewashing, whether intentional or through ignorance, that bothers him more.

As a fan of alternate history, I would suggest that we can develop a reasonably good idea as to whether or not Prince Edward Island would have been better off independent. Francis Bulger’s “Prince Edward Island and Confederation 1863-1873”, published in 1961 in the Report of the Canadian Catholic Historical Association, observes that the entry of Prince Edward Island into Confederation was triggered by economic catastrophe, the costs of building the Prince Edward Island Railway forcing the Island to choose between Confederation and bankruptcy.

Since Prince Edward Island had rejected Confederation based upon the Quebec Resolutions because it considered such a scheme “would prove politically, commercially and financially disastrous to the rights and best interests of its people,” the Dominion realized that it would have to make a more generous settlement to offset these declared disadvantages if it were to succeed in inducing the Island to enter Confederation. Accordingly, the terms of Confederation offered to Prince Edward Island in 1869 were more generous than those provided by the Quebec Resolutions. The new provisions were “better” in that the Dominion government promised to establish efficient steam service and constant communication between the Island and the Mainland and to provide a loan of $800,000 to enable the Island to purchase the proprietary lands if this compensation could not be obtained from the Imperial government.

The attitude of Prince Edward Islanders to these proposals revealed that they were still so bent on maintaining their independence that as the Dominion offered more concessions they were prepared to demand additional ones. They refused to accept the new proposals. They maintained that the proposed terms did not include an adequate solution of the land question because the $800,000 compensation should come from the Imperial government accompanied by a guarantee that the proprietors would be compelled to sell their lands. They also asserted that the Dominion should build a railway on the Island. The reaction of Prince Edward Island to the “better terms” made it apparent that only the presence of some compelling crisis would ever induce it to enter into union with Canada.

In the year 1871 the Island government unwittingly took a step that was destined to provide the emergency which led to Confederation. In the session of the Legislature of that year a railway bill was passed which was decisive in making the Island a province of the Dominion. Two years later railway liabilities so imperilled the Island’s position in the money market and brought its economy so close to callapse that the Island government reluctantly admitted that Confederation was the only possible solution. Delegates from the Island entered into negotiations with the Dominion and submitted terms of Confederation to the electors. The people were informed that their independence could not be maintained any longer since the Island was encumbered with a debt entirely disproportionate to its resources. They were also advised that increased taxation, besides being unbearable, would only postpone the inevitable which in the end would have to be accepted. The people reluctantly yielded to these arguments.

The role played by Prince Edward Island in the final act of the Confederation drama was in perfect harmony with previous performances. Confederation was viewed primarily in terms of the financial settlement. The electors while voting in favour of the principle of Confederation gave the mandate to the party that promised to secure still better terms of admission. The new government entered into further negotiations with the Dominion and obtained a few additional concessions. In May, 1873, the new terms were carried almost unanimously by the Island Legislature. Local patriotism had finally been forced to yield to economic necessity and on July 1, 1873 Prince Edward Island became a province of the Dominion of Canada.

Note, too, that the other major provision of the Island’s entry into Confederation was the buying out of absentee landlords, overseas proprietors who owned the land of the province.

Without the Island’s entry into Confederation, what could have happened but catastrophe? The province was unable to finance its debts, and Confederation was the only bailout that the British Empire was willing to offer. Had the Island persisted in maintaining its independence in Canada, the only outcome imaginable would be that of a failed state. Long before then, I suspect that popular pressure for relief on any terms would have seen Prince Edward Island join its larger neighbour, the only difference being much avoidable suffering.

If the Island had not entered into the destructive plan to build a railroad–why not is beyond me, since a railroad seemed to be a popular and rational way to further the economic development of the province–could it have done better? Was there potential, as Weale suggests, that were left unfulfilled? For the Maritimes as a whole, perhaps: Nova Scotia was a province particularly well-positioned to experience a mercantile industrial revolution, but the whole of the Maritimes could conceivably have shared.

What of the Island specifically, almost wholly agricultural, without significant industrial resources, and–until Anne of Green Gables–without any other economic resources of note but its mobile workforce? Was there the potential for the Island specifically to develop somehow, to avoid being the agrarian source of labourers that it was almost to the end of the 20th century? I would argue that the necessary resources were not there, that the Island developed much as you would expect any peripheral agricultural region on the fringes of booming industrial areas to develop. The Island’s pre-Confederation economic model, with the most promising proto-industrial sector being wooden shipbuilding, was failing by the 1860s. The scale of emigration had become so huge by the 1890s as to cause net population decline, but as Amanda Creamer noted emigration to New England had begun on a substantial scale as early as the 1850s in response to local problems.

Even in a best-case scenario, Prince Edward Island and its population would seem likely to lose out. Abandoning membership in a much larger and wealthier Canada would deprive the Island of resources that it simply lacked the wherewithal to acquire on its own, while independence would be unlikely to bring about a positive economic transformation. Particularly with absentee landlordism playing a role, the case could be made that Island agriculture would be worse off, and where agriculture went so would the entire Island. An independent Prince Edward Island might do better than Newfoundland, in that its agrarian economy would be more self-sustained, but not much better.

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Written by Randy McDonald

January 10, 2017 at 11:59 pm

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