Bringing an arts centre to P.E.I.

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Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, right, and assistant superintendent of Pigott Construction Jack Rivett, left, lay the cornerstone of Confederation Centre of the Arts on Aug. 26, 1963.

Monthly series kicks off that will examine some of the history and provide a behind-the-scenes look at Confederation Centre of the Arts

It all started when P.E.I. college principal Frank MacKinnon and Alberta oil tycoon Eric Harvie shared an early morning elevator ride at the Vancouver Hotel on July 21, 1958.

MacKinnon was visiting a Vancouver theatre as research for a proposed new cultural centre back home in P.E.I. With 1964 nearing, MacKinnon was pitching his centre as a centennial tribute to the nation-building Charlottetown Conference of 1864. Intrigued by this concept, Harvie would help MacKinnon create the Confederation Centre of the Arts.

P.E.I.’s foremost theatre, the Prince Edward, had burned down in 1956, as had Charlottetown’s central downtown Market Building in 1958. As historian and author of the book, Cradling Confederation, Ed MacDonald recounts, the Island lacked “a proper civic auditorium, or an adequate art gallery and library, or a museum and archives. That’s a pretty big hole in your cultural infrastructure.”

MacKinnon lobbied to replace the Market Building with a multi-purpose cultural centre. The project’s early supporters envisioned a theatre, museum, archives, library, art gallery, tourist bureau, bus terminal, railway/steamship/ airline offices, Confederation memorial, and even “an underground space to solve the city’s parking problems,” as a wildly optimistic local mayor envisioned it.

Fellow Islanders — ranging from politicians to everyday folk — were skeptical, partly because the impoverished province’s still largely rural populace wasn’t exactly clamouring for an arts complex. Harvie, on the other hand, loved the idea. Ontario-born and Alberta-based, he pushed for nationwide per capita public funding and participation from both Ottawa and provincial governments. He would also contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars himself.

MacDonald explains that besides his personal fortune and his key personal connections, Harvie made this a truly national project.

“He had no local ax to grind and could not be accused of gaining personally from the project,” MacDonald says. “There could have been a Confederation Centre without Eric Harvie, but it would most probably have been a much less ambitious edifice. Frank MacKinnon was absolutely essential to the project, too, and he was most often its public face, which may be why Harvie’s role has tended to fade from memory.”

Cash-poor P.E.I. provided the project’s real estate as its contribution, donating the former Market Building site plus adjoining property. British Columbia’s Premier W.A.C. Bennett said he would sign on if all the Maritime provinces did, wary of their notorious internal squabbling. Nova Scotia’s and New Brunswick’s premiers soon agreed, thanks in part to reminders that tourist traffic headed for the new project would mostly come through their provinces to get to P.E.I.

Alberta’s Premier E.C. Manning was an early backer. Neighbouring Saskatchewan was slower, distracted by a change in government, but ultimately signed on. Newfoundland seemed to agree out of peer pressure. Key early backer Quebec Premier Jean Lesage helped pitch the project at a Dominion/provincial conference in 1961. The premiers were cautiously receptive, and a Fathers of Confederation Memorial Citizens’ Foundation run by Harvie and MacKinnon was federally incorporated to manage the undertaking.

Harvie and MacKinnon played on postwar Canada’s growing sense of nationalism. As MacKinnon would say in 1964, “It is a startling fact that Canada is probably the only nation in the world that, in a hundred years, has not erected a single memorial to its founders.” Such arguments eventually helped convince a reluctant Ontario to pony up its pivotal per capita share, a third of the total amount.

The last holdout, Manitoba, was trickier. Premier Duff Roblin kept pleading poverty, perhaps worried about his upcoming election campaign and the optics of funding a P.E.I. cultural centre after he had refused to bankroll a similar project in Winnipeg. The foundation and its political allies lobbied Roblin for over a year, and Harvie even offered to personally underwrite part of Manitoba’s share so they could have a fully national consensus. After Roblin’s successful 1962 re-election, Manitoba finally signed on in January 1963.

The Confederation Centre of the Arts opened in 1964, featuring a memorial hall, a thousand-seat theatre, an art gallery/museum and a library. One visiting official said the achievement “had an element of the miraculous,” a miracle conjured by a unique combination of factors: the postwar national government’s expanding role in Canadian public life in general and culture in particular; this same period’s increasing national/provincial governmental co-operation; pervasive nationwide centennial enthusiasm and the time and talents of Frank MacKinnon, Eric Harvie and their collaborators, whose hard work and vision converted a sadly vacant lot into an enduring national landmark.

As MacDonald observes, “a shared vision can be a powerful tool in building relationships-and countries — when it is combined with a tough-minded pragmatism. Neither can succeed on their own.”

 

The content of this article, which is written by Sean McQuaid, is adapted, in part, from Ed MacDonald’s book, Cradling Confederation, his recent historical study of the Confederation Centre of the Arts’ founding. It is the first in a series of Confederation Centre articles celebrating its 50th season, which will run on the first Friday of each month until December. Next month’s article will look at the people of Confederation Centre of the Arts. To comment on these articles, send an email to ellen.egan@tc.tc. 

Organizations: P.E.I. college, Confederation Centre, Vancouver Hotel Vancouver theatre Dominion

Geographic location: P.E.I., Charlottetown, Alberta Ontario Manitoba Ottawa Canada British Columbia Nova Scotia New Brunswick Newfoundland Quebec Winnipeg

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