Sir John A Macdonald as Anne
By Laurie Brinklow and Pete Hay (commentary)
With 2014 celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference now under way, it is worthwhile to take a moment to ponder its significance. We know that Charlottetown is now known as “the birthplace of Confederation.” Yet, in sharp contrast, if you mention the word “Confederation” in Newfoundland, you get a much different reaction: in some circles, the word “Confederation” is akin to a swear word. Why the difference? How has it come to be that “the birthplace of Confederation” has become so accepted here?
First of all, for places to become places, there must be a process of storying. Stories are intimate and they interconnect — they weave a pattern of events and unfold over time, creating a common history — and they draw people together. But, like an ecosystem, the relationships between the parts and the whole can be complex and varied — and not always comfortable. Governments and “the big end of town” often seek to promote certain storied place meanings that suit partisan political ends.
The story that now seems to get the most play here is “the Cradle of Confederation” or “the Birthplace of Confederation.” It may be quibbling to say that a subsequent birth did not come until 1867, and the 1864 conference was merely the place of conception. And, in 1867, when Canada officially became a country, Prince Edward Island was conspicuously absent. But the Birthplace of Confederation motif has become so much a part of Islanders’ consciousness and popular mythology as to be believed by nearly everyone to be fact.
We’ve all heard the story leading up to the Charlottetown Conference in September 1864. The Maritime colonies were under pressure from the Colonial Office to consider Maritime Union, but when a meeting was suggested, Prince Edward Island — with its successful economy and fierce attachment to its independent island status — reacted with cool indifference. So Nova Scotia and New Brunswick decided to bring the meeting to Charlottetown. It was only when the leaders of Canada West and Canada East (now Ontario and Quebec) requested permission to send a delegation of unofficial observers to broach the idea of a larger confederation — crashing the party, as it were — that the meeting became much more significant.
As it turned out, the meeting achieved nothing more concrete than an agreement to reconvene on October 10 in Quebec City, where more progress was made. But the Quebec Terms were not acceptable; on March 24, 1865, the Island legislature voted 23 to 5 against the union.
In 1866, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario agreed to form the Dominion of Canada, which came into existence on July 1, 1867. The Island, though, continued to enjoy its independence. But circumstances changed. In a misguided attempt to demonstrate that an independent Prince Edward Island could keep up with its neighbours, the Assembly passed the Railway Bill in 1871. Cost overruns created by the railway’s construction led to empty government coffers by 1872. This event dramatically changed local sentiment over the question of Confederation. The only alternative to accepting provincial status within the Dominion of Canada would be a direct taxation regime.
So, on July 1, 1873, Prince Edward Island became a province of Canada. In addition to paying off the railway debt, included in the deal was $800,000 to purchase land from absentee landlords. Indeed, some people believed that the 1873 terms — far more lucrative than those offered in 1867 — showed that Islanders were “shrewd political horse-traders” while others saw it as a sell-out.
For several decades thereafter, the new province’s economy stagnated. Well into the 20th century, in part because of its island-forged isolation, the Island continued to be virtually untouched by industrialization and modernization. Most of its population continued to live on small rural farms, which became an integral part of the island’s identity; we became known as “the Garden of the Gulf.” The 1908 publication of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables fueled a tourist industry that drew potently on this place construction.
By the early decades of the 20th century, however, an additional tourism-fueled place myth was emerging to sit alongside antimodern pastoralism. A plan was hatched to celebrate the Birthplace theme on the 50th anniversary of the 1864 Conference, but it was scuttled by the onset of the First World War. Instead, a plaque was erected in the legislature which reads, in part, “they builded better than they knew.” In 1934 the Island’s Secretary suggested a regional conference to commemorate the 70th anniversary in order to pledge anew the Maritime provinces’ commitment to Confederation, though also to highlight issues of regional imbalance. This conference, too, failed to materialize.
But the idea had taken root, and in 1939 the P.E.I. Tourist Association decided the 75th anniversary of the Conference warranted just such a celebration, with the focus to be solely upon the birthplace of Confederation.’The official line was to rekindle the Confederation Spirit and help lift Canadians out of their post-Depression depression, but tourism promoters were more impressed by the boost in revenue, exhibiting little concern for historical authenticity.