P.E.I. Father of Confederation leaves lasting legacy

Louise Campbell
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George O’Connor, president of the Benevolent Irish Society, prepares to restore a portrait of Edward Whelan, after whom the society’s facility is named. The portrait will have a place of honour in the restored building, to be unveiled later this year.

If one adjective could be used to describe Father of Confederation Edward Whelan, it would certainly be “accomplished.”  

Against a backdrop of personal tragedy, he was an accomplished publisher, journalist, orator and politician. Whelan used those roles to help lay the foundations for this great country, a legacy to be celebrated.

Backing up almost two centuries, little is known about Whelan’s life before immigrating to Halifax with his mother at or around the age of seven. Records show he was born at Ballina, in Ireland’s County Mayo, the son of an Irishman who served in the British Infantry. It appears he attended school in both Ireland and Scotland, enrolling immediately in St. Mary’s school upon his arrival in Canada.

A chance meeting with newspaperman Joseph Howe in Halifax set him on a path that he followed for the rest of his life. The first step on that path was an apprenticeship at Howe’s printing office, beginning when he was just eight years old! By the time he was 19, this avenue took him to Prince Edward Island, at which time he launched a semi-weekly newspaper, the Palladium, and never looked back.

In his 24 years on the Island, Whelan made a huge impact as a newspaperman and politician. At the same time, however, he suffered loss after loss in his personal life.  

His first wife, of less than a year, died in childbirth, followed shortly by the death of his first son some three months later. Whelan’s second wife outlived him and each of their three children. Their first daughter died as an infant, their second daughter at age nine and their son, tragically, at age 20.

Although Whelan has no descendants carrying on his name, he is not likely to be forgotten, for he has left a lasting legacy that Islanders still enjoy today.

“For all intents and purposes, we act as his descendants,” said George O’Connor, president of the Benevolent Irish Society in Charlottetown.  

“We keep his memory alive and we tend to his gravesite.”

Whelan was a member of the Benevolent Irish Society from the time he was eligible and was president in 1850. According to O’Connor, he is as well thought of today as he was back in the mid-19th century. This admiration is why the society’s facility is named the Honourable Edward Whelan Memorial Building, a name it has carried for many years.

One of Whelan’s legacies is responsible government. Through his political and publishing roles, he fully immersed himself in the struggle for a system of government through which the executive cabinet is led by the leader of the party that held an elected majority in the legislative assembly and in which the cabinet must maintain support of the legislature in order to govern.

This struggle bore fruit in 1851, when Prince Edward Island achieved responsible government, a stepping stone toward independence from the monarchy. 

Whelan is also credited with educational reform on the Island, change sorely needed to address a lack of efficient teachers and student non-attendance.  

In 1852, through the Free Education Act, this province became the first in Canada to adopt free education. Further, it was Whelan who recommended that three government scholarships be awarded annually, one in each county, as a hand-up to promising young Islanders wishing to further their education.

Long opposed to absentee landlordism, Whelan was a proponent of legislation that enabled the government to purchase land from these owners and sell it to the tenants who occupied and farmed it.

While the law was not immediately successful in its aims, it laid the foundation for a later law with more teeth that made the sale of larger properties compulsory.

Last, but not least, Whelan was the sole Confederation supporter in the opposition Liberal caucus at the time of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference.

At that momentous event, he declared his support for a union that he believed would free Prince Edward Island from colonial influence.

Obviously, the governing Tory party recognized his great ability to influence colonists with his voice and his pen. His backing of the cause garnered him an invitation to the succeeding Quebec Conference later that year. Although the Island resisted Confederation for a decade, Whelan’s dedication to the cause did not falter.

Whelan’s great contributions to this province and country were not intended to bring him fame and certainly not fortune.

This fact is reflected in so many words in his first political acceptance speech: “Neither private investment nor personal ambition has prompted me to seek the honor which it is in your power to confer.”

After this speech, Whelen went on to serve as an elected official for 20 years beginning at age 21, became co-leader of his party by age 28 and a Father of Confederation at age 40.

Sadly, he died when he was but 43, in the very year Canada became a nation.

Did Whelan leave descendants?

No. But did he leave a legacy? Certainly.  Not surprisingly, Whelan has been called Ireland’s greatest gift to Canada and, indeed, some maintain, to this very province.  

 

Confederation Connections: Finding the Fathers' Families will be presented in The Guardian every month with the last one running in August. It is based on genealogies of the families of the Island Fathers of Confederation, as prepared by members of the P.E.I. Genealogical Society, and sheds light on the descendants. Liz Glen, CG(C) was the lead genealogical researcher for this month’s article on Whelan. Please note, Lou Daley, CG(C) was the lead genealogical researcher for last month's article on Col. John Hamilton Gray. The series is written by Louise Campbell of Louise Campbell Writing Services and is her first foray into genealogy and family history. To give feedback on this series, which is presented in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference, contact the author at louise.campbell@tacsltd.com. For more information on the P.E.I. Genealogical Society project, visit its website at http://peigs2014.ca

AT A GLANCE

Fast facts

Edward Whelan, 1824-1867.

Sometimes known as the angriest Father of Confederation, Edward Whelan came to P.E.I. via Halifax, to which he emigrated from Ireland with his mother in 1831.  

After gaining newspaper experience in Halifax at the hand of Joseph Howe, Whelan moved to the Island at age 19 and started his own newspaper, The Palladium.  

Whelan’s political life spanned 21 years, ending shortly before his death in 1867, following an electoral defeat blamed largely on his pro-Confederation stance.  He was a leading player in the George Coles government.   

Whelan was married twice and had four children, only one of whom survived him.

 

 

Organizations: Benevolent Irish Society, P.E.I. Genealogical Society, Tory Louise Campbell Writing Services

Geographic location: Prince Edward Island, Halifax, Ireland Charlottetown Scotland Canada.A Canada Quebec

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