Premier Alex B. Campbell and limits to partisanship

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
Published on March 8, 2014

Alex Campbell, left, and Walter Shaw share a dance at the closing of the P.E.I. legislature, April 1966, before embarking on one of the most closely fought electoral contests in Canadian history, lasting 86 days. At the time of the photo, Campbell was 32 and Shaw 78. Photograph courtesy of Public Archives and Records Office of P.E.I.


Editor’s note: The following is a an excerpt from H. Wade MacLauchlan’s forthcoming book, “Alex B. Campbell, the Prince Edward Island Premier Who Rocked the Cradle.”

Politics depend to a very high degree on personalities. Character is a significant ingredient in setting the tone for a political party and for relations with opponents, ultimately for the whole polity.

It was not in Alex Campbell’s character to “go negative.” He saw the best in others and stayed above board.

When asked about this aspect of her brother’s character, Campbell’s older sister Virginia says, “Alex was always very, very fair. I once asked him whether ‘such and such’ was driving him nuts. He said, ‘I choose not to let it bother me.’ His sense of humour always got him through.”

Campbell’s good humour and forbearance were called upon regularly throughout his years in office. The Comprehensive Development Plan would not have come to pass without his combined perseverance and patience, within cabinet, with the P.E.I. public service, with the Conservative opposition and, above all, with the federal government.

One of Campbell’s early challenges came in dealing with investments by Walter Shaw’s government in Georgetown Industries. More than three decades later, he acknowledges, “That was the rat that gnawed at me from inside.” Whatever was gnawing at him, Campbell respected Shaw.

After he left politics in 1970, Shaw continued to be a regular visitor at the legislature, where he was given a special seat outside the rail. One day Campbell observed that Shaw’s aging Chrysler sedan was showing rust. He said to Shaw, “Give me your car keys for the day Walter and we’ll get her buffed up.” He had the car taken to the body shop at the Provincial Vocational Institute and returned to Shaw the following day in much improved condition.

Campbell’s best antidote to the pressures of politics and government was the family cottage at Stanley Bridge. Built in 1967, ‘Stanley’ was the family’s sanctuary, where they spent the entire summer and every Christmas.

Marilyn Campbell would have the car packed the day school closed. If a winter storm was forecast, she would bundle the family into the car and head for the cottage. Blair Campbell recalls that as they arrived at Stanley with a winter storm moving in, his mother would utter a defiant-but-gleeful “Bring it on!”

During the years of Campbell’s premiership, Marilyn resisted having a telephone at the cottage, saying, “People had to be pretty desperate to see Alex in order to get in.”

Rev. Francis Bolger had a cottage at Stanley Bridge and became good friends with Campbell, starting out with casual meetings at the local service station. Bolger was invited to gatherings at Campbell’s place as frequently as five or six times in the course of the summer. He says, “We didn’t talk politics at all. I might bring up something political from time to time, and Alex would say, ‘Let’s not bother with that today.’”

Campbell attracted people who preferred the political high road. By 1974, this philosophy was being passed on to the next generation in his cabinet. Bruce Stewart became a mentor to the cabinet ministers who were newly elected in 1974, including George Henderson, Catherine Callbeck and George Proud.

Henderson recalls his first legislative session after being appointed minister of fisheries, and his first question from the opposition. “Leo Rossiter was my critic. Leo came on pretty strong, and even stronger with the supplementary. I came back pretty strong. I knew the fishery inside out. I thought I had done pretty well and laid him out.”

After the session adjourned for the evening, Henderson and Stewart were walking back to MacLauchlan’s Motel where they shared a room. Henderson asked how Stewart thought he had done. Stewart took a little time before responding in his unique drawl, “Well George, you certainly knew your stuff, but you might have come on a little strong. Sometimes when you throw mud, you’re throwing the ground away from under your own feet.” Henderson says, “I never forgot it.”

Another of Campbell’s ministers, John Maloney, was almost the antithesis of a politician. After Leonard Bradley was appointed as Campbell’s principal secretary in early 1976, Maloney became “one of my greatest teachers.” Bradley says that the media did not like Maloney because “he didn’t play the game.”

One evening when the two were discussing things in Maloney’s woodworking shop, Bradley was given advice that he has retained for a lifetime, “Beyond government and politics, you should have something to do with your head, your heart and your hands.”

- H. Wade MacLauchlan is president emeritus of UPEI. His book “Alex B. Campbell, the Prince Edward Island Premier Who Rocked the Cradle”, is to be released in May 2014 by the Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation. For excerpts and advance purchase, visit