Islander indifference to Confederation had its roots in a thorny land ownership issue that had irritated local affairs for nearly a century. This question stretched back to the colony’s early days under British rule.
In 1767, the British government divided up the island into 67 lots of about 20,000 acres apiece and gave title away in a lottery involving wealthy and well-connected British landlords in London. The owners were expected to send settlers to the colony; few did so, most failed to maintain their properties or meet their obligations to settlers and the colonial administration. The Colonial Office consistently backed the absentee proprietors against the colonial tenants. In the mid-19th century, this was the issue that dominated Island politics; the search for a mechanism for gaining ownership of the proprietors’ lands and selling them on to the tenants — called escheat — was regarded as an economic issue and also one that would help PEI society grow and thrive. In 1864, there was nothing the Canadian government could do to help this process along. Islanders believed they were at last making headway with Westminster and that a resolution was in sight. Staying with Britain — at least until absentee landlordism was addressed — was the most prudent path to follow.
PEI’s links to the mainland colonies were important and unlikely to change by staying outside of Confederation. Islanders regularly took seasonal work in the mines and forests of New Brunswick, Cape Breton, and mainland Nova Scotia. Their labour was welcomed and no treaty or constitutional change was necessary to this relationship’s continuance. The colony had good trade relations with the United States as well, and produced enough shipping to be active in the West Indies and cross-Atlantic commerce. There was some talk of exploring annexation to the United States and about as much interest in becoming a Dominion in its own right, as Newfoundland would do in 1907. On the whole, the status quo appealed most of all.
This inertia reflected divisions within Island society and the lack of advantages to be gained in joining Confederation. The PEI Liberals and Conservatives were supported, respectively, by comparable populations of Catholics and Protestants. The Tenant League — advocates for an end to the system of absentee landlordism — was more associated with the Liberals and thus with Catholicism. These were fracture lines that preoccupied the colony’s leaders. Against that, the PEI delegates at the 1864 Charlottetown Conference articulated a reasonable fear that the colony would be lost within Confederation. Being one-third of a Maritime Union was one thing; being a tiny sliver of a federated Canada was quite another.
The Cradle of Confederation
What changed? The Island’s government hoped that it could expand economic prospects by negotiating freer trade with the United States. Without British support this could not happen. Concern for the colony’s economy began to grow – which set the stage for a bout of railway fever. A colonial railway that was meant to be the key that would unlock economic diversification and tourism swallowed up the colonial budget. By 1871, PEI was looking at a desperate financial situation. Stagnant trade, government deficit, incomplete infrastructure, and the lack of funds with which to resolve the absentee landlord issue were the ‘pushes’ that the colonial elite needed to pursue new terms with Canada. Ottawa provided the necessary ‘pulls’: it would pay off the railway debt, guarantee a year-round steamship link to the mainland, and buy out the landlords. The Island’s Liberal government, under R.P. Haythorne (1815-91), had spent the colony into near-bankruptcy and placed the end to tenancy at the top of PEI’s political agenda; the Conservatives, under James Pope in 1873, were able to use their leverage with John A. Macdonald to win better terms. In this case, both parties were eager to see Confederation succeed, and they were able to obtain everything the colony required at the time. On 1 July 1873, PEI entered the federal union; despite having dismissed the idea of Confederation in 1866, the newest and smallest colony began a long tradition of packaging itself as the “Birthplace of Confederation.”
- Land ownership issues dominated in pre-Confederation Prince Edward Island.
- The Escheat Movement worked to eliminate leasehold tenures and absentee landlordism.
- PEI rejected Confederation in the 1860s, and reconsidered its position in the 1870s — mainly due to colonial debt.