GARY MACDOUGALL: Our diminished democracy

Island’s most important symbol of democracy squeezed into new quarters; unhealthy situation

Gary MacDougall gmacdougall@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on December 9, 2016

Entering the temporary P.E.I. legislature assembly for the first time is like going back to visit your first school. Somehow, everything seemed bigger and grander in your memory.

Of course, comparing the temporary assembly chamber in the Coles Building to the original legislature building, which is located a few yards away, is unfair.

Everything was bigger and grander in the Isaac Smith-designed legislature that opened in 1847 and features neo-classic architecture and oozes history. But it is falling apart, so in January of 2015 Parks Canada closed it for $40 million worth of renovations.

Parks Canada has been calling the shots at Province House since 1974 when the P.E.I. government signed away its ownership in a 99-year lease with Ottawa.

The building is part of Canada’s Holy Grail when it comes to history. In September of 1864 it hosted the Fathers of Confederation and upon its steps and inside its rooms the concept of our great nation was conceived and nurtured.

The good news is the renovations will save the beloved building. The bad news is that our legislators have been evicted and forced to find a new location to conduct the business of the province.

As far as temporary lodgings go, the new digs are adequate. But the new assembly casts a pale shadow compared to that of Province House. Our democratic footprint has been greatly diminished. It is out of sight and mind for many, a troubling development for what should be our most powerful symbol of province-hood and democracy.

Parks Canada says the renovations will be complete by 2020. The fact no work of any consequence has occurred places that timeline in jeopardy. Many unforeseen problems and delays are likely when working on a nearly 170-year-old building.

And even when Province House is reopened in a few years, it will still remain neither fish nor fowl in terms of its mandate.

Since it is only a tenant, the P.E.I. legislature is restricted in what it can do in the building, especially when it comes to helping our elected representatives properly do their jobs and in outreach and education to the public about our democracy and how it works.

Likewise, the fact Parks Canada has to accommodate the P.E.I. legislature means it is restricted in fulfilling its mandate of promoting Province House as the birthplace of Canada.

What P.E.I. needs is a new legislature, a fully functional one that can meet the needs of a modern legislature - and future ones that will likely be more inclusive and home to more meaningful debate as electoral reform takes root.

During the lead-up to 2014, the 150th anniversary of the Fathers of Confederation Conference, there was a proposal that a legacy project could be the construction of a building on the vacant site of the old Queens Square School, at the corner of Great George and Richmond.

The new building would have housed offices for our elected politicians and other P.E.I. legislature operations. It could have also been designed to hold the legislative assembly. One of the assembly’s windows could have symbolically looked out upon Province House across the street.

The thought of erecting a $20 million building for the use and comfort of politicians, and the advancement of democracy, was shot down in flames. Rather, the government of the day opted for a multitude of festivals and backslapping celebrations.

Something unknown in the debate at the time was just how serious Province House was deteriorating. Parks Canada did not communicate that at the time. Perhaps if it had, more consideration might have been given to the new building.

But that’s all conjecture now. What isn’t unknown is that Province House is closed for a long time; our centrepiece of democracy has been shoe-horned into a small space and, at best, when Province House reopens it still won’t be adequate for its job.

When it comes to justice, there’s an old saying that it must not only be done but it must be seen to be done. The same goes for  our democracy.

 

- Gary MacDougall, a long-time P.E.I. journalist, can be reached at peiivorytower@gmail.com.