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WAYNE YOUNG: Legislating history

As Province House undergoes a $47-million restoration, Parliament affirms its place in Confederation

My first visit to Province House and Confederation Centre of the Arts came several years after Canada celebrated its centennial in 1967.

It was a school trip from O’Leary to Charlottetown and for a teenager from rural P.E.I., tracing Sir John. A Macdonald’s steps from a century before brought history to life in a way no classroom ever could.

We had already learned that Charlottetown was the birthplace of Confederation, thanks to a conference held at Province House in 1864.

That’s when Macdonald, soon to be the country’s first prime minister, and other delegates from Upper and Lower Canada crashed a meeting to discuss the possibility of Maritime union but soon resolved to work towards forming a brand new country.

I knew about Charlottetown’s historic place in Confederation when my class visited the city more than 40 years ago, but it was only this week that Royal Assent was quietly given to a private member’s bill that affirms the claim.

So what does it mean? Well, probably not much to most Canadians but for Islanders, there’s a sense of pride knowing the country that’s ranked today among the best in the world was born right here. We’ve used that historical significance as a brand to draw tourists to “the Cradle of Confederation.”

It’s part of our history. So, too, is the fact that P.E.I. didn’t actually join Canada in 1867. It wouldn’t be until six years later that P.E.I., saddled with a mounting railway debt, became the nation’s seventh province. Still, by playing host to the conference that got the ball rolling towards a future union in 1864, its birthplace claim is historically valid.

It also means that in 2023, we’ll be celebrating again, this time our own sesquicentennial. By then, Province House will be back on a solid foundation, once again serving as the seat of our provincial government and as a popular tourist attraction.

Province House is an important landmark, not only for Charlottetown and P.E.I., but for all of Canada. Sen. Diane Griffin, while shepherding the private member’s bill through the Senate last spring, noted the U.S. has Independence Hall in Philadelphia and Mexico has its National Plaza in Mexico City. But she said our monument – Province House – was lost in “Canadian modesty.”

“These monuments to democracy connect people to the past and give meaning to the future… they anchor lofty notions of nationhood to time, place and personality.”

The act, she said, simply confirms that in 1864, Charlottetown is where the Fathers of Confederation – from Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, N.B. and P.E.I. – first met to “sketch out a rough plan for Confederation.” It also acknowledges key conferences that followed soon afterwards in Quebec and London, drawing a blueprint for the new country.

Malpeque MP Wayne Easter, who steered the bill through the House of Commons, said having the act in place is important so that history won’t be reinvented, as he said sometimes happens through the passage of time.

I’m looking forward to walking through Province House when it reopens, and pleased the 170-year-old building is being preserved to remind future generations of our nation’s history and of the role Charlottetown played in that narrative.

- Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.

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