New P. E.I. biography details the life and political times of former Liberal premier Alex Campbell

Mary MacKay comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on May 24, 2014
Alex Campbell sits  at the family’s cottage retreat in Stanley Bridge on the crest of the launch of his biography. Alex B. Campbell: The Prince Edward Island Premier Who Rocked the Cradle is the title for the long-awaited biography of the Island’s longest serving premier. Written by Wade MacLauchlan, president emeritus of UPEI, it is published by the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MARY MACKAY

Whether you thought of him as Alex or Alec, for 12 years of his early career Alexander Bradshaw Campbell had the title of premier of Prince Edward Island in front of his name.

And now Alex B. Campbell: The Prince Edward Island Premier Who Rocked the Cradle is the title for the long awaited biography of the Island’s longest serving premier and the youngest elected first minister in Canada in the 20th century.

Written by Wade MacLauchlan, president emeritus of UPEI, and published by the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation, the book, which is both rich in insight and anecdotes, is an extensively researched account of Campbell’s leadership through one of the most ambitious reforms ever undertaken in the province.

“This is my legacy. Wade has defined my legacy: the good and the bad; the very personal and the very public. In a very real sense in writing the book he has brought light and life and context to my premiership and to those who informed it, because this was never a one-man show,” Campbell says.

Instead of running in a typical chronological order starting with Campbell’s childhood, MacLauchlan jumps right into the thick of things, much like Campbell did immediately after he was elected premier in 1966 at the age of 32.

The biography begins with a snapshot of Campbell at a pinnacle in his political career, his final first ministers’ conference in 1978.

“(Canadian editor, writer and publisher Douglas Gibson) read some of the chapters and his immediate comment was to say that if I had started with ‘the child who is father of the man . . .’ it would have been a standard, conventional biography. But by starting with Alex in February of 1978, which in fact was his final first ministers’ conference (there were 18 first ministers’ conferences in 12 years), we see him at his crescendo and are immediately introduced to the debates and personalities that were around Alex (at that point in time) . . . ,” says MacLauchlan, who worked for three years on this biography project.

“So chapter one is like ‘OK, folks, here’s the trailer (as in a movie).’ ”

Campbell was born in Summerside on Dec. 1, 1933, the son of Thane and Cecilia Campbell. The fact that his father served as premier of P.E.I. from 1936 to 1943 wasn’t a big factor in his early years.

“When the teacher asked me what my father did, I said, ‘He’s a plumber,’” Campbell laughs.

“He left politics when I was 10 so I was too young to know what governance was all about. (But) I knew what it was like to view a royal tour there were certain things that were public

life. . . .

“When returning to Summerside (after university) to set up a law practice I soon became aware of an expectation that I would find a role in politics.”

In fact, the day Campbell opened his law office he had three visitors: two life insurance salesmen and one person wondering if he’d run for the liberals in the 2nd Prince district

Instead, he assumed a volunteer role that had him actively involved in both federal and provincial elections.

Then in 1965 he entered provincial politics by contesting and winning a by-election in 5th Prince, earning him a seat in the opposition.

At that time he and his wife, Marilyn Campbell, had two small children, so it was not an easy decision.

“I had real difficulty because I was also struggling to establish the business. Fortunately, I had my brother (Mel Campbell) with me then, but it was an enormous decision because we were still just going month to month with the budget. It’s not like we were a huge firm. I got the furniture from the War Surplus (store) and sanded it down, did my own typing and it was just a day-to-day operation . . . ,” Campbell remembers.

“And life was beautiful (as it was), so it was a very difficult decision for me to make and it was going to be an even more difficult decision two years later when I was prevailed upon to seek the leadership of the Liberal Party (in late 1965). I was still not full of confidence and I’d lie awake plenty of nights just thinking about worrying about it. But the call was there, it was put in  and I guess I found eventually that I couldn’t resist the call.”

In the space of just 19 months he not only became leader of the Liberal Party, he ended up in the premier’s office after winning the 1966 provincial general election.

“It was very daunting. I was always aware that it could happen, but I was never fully prepared for it to happen,” he remembers.

“But I didn’t have a lot of time to contemplate what had happened. When I left Souris at

3 a.m. on July 12th as premier elect, Marilyn and I retired to the Charlottetown Hotel. The phone rang at 7:30 in the morning it was Rev. McCuaig, who needed to see me urgently to bring me up to date on the strike at Canada Packers — and I wouldn’t be sworn in as premier for another month … It just happened that quickly.”

Over the next 12 years, Campbell’s government modernized the school system, created a provincial university and a new community college, centralized and equalized property taxation, introduced Medicare, built a modern public service, reformed the judicial system, revamped family services and industrial relations, undertook a massive housing initiative and acted on energy, environment, land use, heritage and many other areas.

One highlight was the 15-year Comprehensive Development Plan, a federal-provincial agreement bringing a historic infusion of resources, policy development and institution-building.

Although many Islanders were not ready for some of the big changes that would be put in place during those years, Campbell says, “they were ready for solutions and they were ready for a government to lead the way.”

The book, Alex B. Campbell: The Prince Edward Island Premier Who Rocked the Cradle puts these changes into context with the times.

“I think many people will welcome the opportunity to revisit the period or to think about it again, not just in a nostalgic sense, but in terms of ‘I never really understood how this fit with that,’ ” MacLauchlan says.

“That’s what I will say has been really gratifying about this book. In addition to giving an account of the politics and the public policy, which were dramatic, it brings in the broader context of how things were changing in society and the forces or the (impetus) that led up to those changes.”

For Campbell, being re-elected in 1970 and 1974 still felt like “winning the big lottery prize.”

“It gave you a feeling of endorsement by Prince Edward Islanders. It’s a marvelous feeling,” he adds.

“But in ‘78 we did not have that same sense of fulfilment because we just barely eked a win but more so we were left with such a slim margin. A slim margin on our way in is one thing, but a slim margin on our way out is quite another. We were left without a sufficient majority to move forward with our agenda.”

Campbell felt his time as premier of the province was at an end, and so after 12 years, two months and a few days the then 44-year-old stepped down.

“There were a number of things in play, but I often regretted that there were no sabbaticals for premiers. You do run out of wind and I felt that remaining in office didn’t have the same sort of challenge for me as it did earlier …,” he remembers.

“I had no intention of running the fifth time, so it was a question of now or three years from now, so I decided it was now.”

And so began the next phase of Campbells’ life.

“I can’t remember that (first full day off), but I can remember that month when I’d be on my doorstep waiting for The Guardian to arrive in the morning, and I remember each time the news came there would be this musical jangle and it stirred the blood. I stepped down from the job but it took a long time to step out of it,” says Campbell, who was appointed to the Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island in December 1978 and retired on Dec. 14, 1994.

Thirty-six years after his last day in office, the biography of P.E.I.’s longest serving premier is set for a series of launches.

“(Many people) have asked what is it about Alex Campbell that’s sort of special or different?” says MacLauchlan, who conducted more than 80 interviews with Campbell’s family, friends and contemporaries.

In addition to being a natural born listener with a special knack of genuinely paying attention in an animated way to the other person, he is exceedingly charismatic.

“That word charisma today conjures an image of somebody on a platform or someone in front of a camera giving some spellbinding performance, but with Alex Campbell it was very much person to person,” MacLauchlan says.

“I’ve heard innumerable accounts of people who were there or, for that matter people who were his opponents, who said when he walked into a room people just went to him. It wasn’t a celebrity thing, it wasn’t power, it was deeply personal and interactive.

“What has been really (interesting) in these last couple of weeks since the book has been finished and there have been opportunities to talk to people, they all say the same thing, ‘He still has it.’”

 

AT A GLANCE

Just the facts

- Published by the Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation, Alex B. Campbell: The Prince Edward Island Premier Who Rocked The Cradle is written by Wade MacLauchlan, president emeritus of UPEI.

- This 400-page biography includes more than 150 photos,

- This  new book on former Premier Alex B. Campbell, will be officially launched at theses locations in May: Veterans’ Convention Centre at Credit Union Place, Summerside, Friday May 30 - 2:30 p.m., UPEI - McMillan Hall, W.A. Murphy Student Centre, Saturday May 31 - 2:30 p.m.

u Contact 368-6600 for more information.

u Visit www.alexbcampbell.ca to read excerpts from the book and purchase it in advance at a discount price.