Cornelius Howatt at 200

Ryan O'Connor
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This past Thursday marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Cornelius Howatt, the farmer-politician from Tryon.

You won't find any statutes of him, nor will you find any buildings named in his honour.

Commentary -

This past Thursday marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Cornelius Howatt, the farmer-politician from Tryon.

You won't find any statutes of him, nor will you find any buildings named in his honour.

Nonetheless, Howatt serves as an important reminder of Prince Edward Island's colonial past and a legacy worth embracing.

Cornelius Howatt served the riding of Prince County, 4th District, from 1859 to 1876. When he first joined the House of Assembly, Prince Edward Island was a vibrant colony that was economically self-reliant and enjoying the fruits of the hard-fought attainment of responsible government in 1851.

The colony still suffered from a land system which saw the Island's tenant farmers paying rent to non-resident landlords, but the 1864 emergence of the 11,000-member strong Tenant League, whose singular purpose was to without the payment of rent, led the land owners to sell their holdings to the farmers.

As the aforementioned demonstrates, Prince Edward Island had a can-do sense of self-reliance in those days. This explains why Islanders overwhelmingly rejected Confederation with Canada when the idea was first broached.

As Howatt explained in an 1866 speech: "Taking away the constitution of a country is a serious affair. We have now the management of our own matters; but the moment we would go into Confederation we would cease to have any control even of matters which concern ourselves. All we would get would be by begging."

Prince Edward Islanders eventually relented and joined Confederation after the colony was indebted by an ill-fated railroad construction plan. After Britain rejected coming to the colony's aid, the local legislators succumbed, one by one, to the promises of Confederation.

Not Howatt.

In the last days before Confederation, Howatt made his position clear in a motion stating, "that it is the opinion of the House that the best interests and future prosperity of Prince Edward Island would be secured by refusing terms of admission into Union with the Dominion of Canada."

The resolution was defeated, 24 to two.

Time passed. Dependence replaced independence. Having traded its powers of jurisdiction for federal handouts, the province came to resemble the beggar Howatt had warned of in 1866.

Howatt and the value of self-reliance were largely forgotten until the 1973 centennial celebration of the province's entry into Confederation. Significant hoopla surrounded the event, and Islanders were encouraged to celebrate a rather peculiar version of their history - one that began with the Charlottetown Conference in 1864 and concluded in 1873.

This struck two young Islanders - David Weale and Harry Baglole - as rather unusual. Both were pursuing graduate degrees in pre-Confederation Island history.

In an age when Islanders were encouraged to be more like those on the mainland - a push epitomized by the Comprehensive Development Plan that aimed to "modernize" the province's economy and social structure - Weale and Baglole felt that they could share some lessons from the Island's past. In order to spread their message they launched the Brothers and Sisters of Cornelius Howatt.

Howatt was a natural fit for the group.

As David Weale explained in a 2001 interview, he and Baglole decided that "We'll operate in the spirit of Howatt, which is the spirit of self-determination, because that was at the heart of our grievance at the time." (It must be noted that unlike the original Howatt, the Brothers and Sisters were not anti-Confederates. However, they did share a fear that the province could lose sight of its own best interests, and its identity, within Canada.)

The Brothers and Sisters had serious points to make about contemporary issues such as non-resident land ownership, the decline of the family farm, and Islanders' devaluation of their culture and heritage.

Using their wit to garner attention, they established themselves as media darlings. Whether they were pushing a wheelbarrow full of clay from Borden to Charlottetown, paddling canoes to St. Peter's Island, or draping Province House in black crepe, they won the hearts and minds of many Islanders.

Like their patron, the Brothers and Sisters left behind a shining legacy. They reminded Islanders that theirs was a heritage worth embracing, and that the Island way of life should be preserved.

Thirty-six years have passed since the Brothers and Sisters wrapped-up their year-long campaign. Prince Edward Island needs a new generation of advocates. Who will pick up the mantle and continue the legacy of Cornelius Howatt?

Ryan O'Connor is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Western Ontario. A native of Prince Edward Island, he is the son of George O'Connor, who just happened to have been a member of the Brothers and Sisters of Cornelius Howatt.

Organizations: Tenant League, Dominion, Province House University of Western Ontario

Geographic location: Prince Edward Island, Canada, Prince Charlottetown Britain

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