Skip to main content

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

As Canada 150 celebrations roll across the country, a veteran Liberal MP and a new Prince Edward Island senator are pushing to get Charlottetown officially declared the "birthplace of Confederation" – but another Maritime province says PEI is hogging the spotlight.

Charlottetown's claim to Confederation fame stems from a conference the city hosted in 1864 in which delegates from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec decided to unite their colonies into a single nation. (Delegates from PEI took part, but didn't join the union until 1873.) After two more conferences in Quebec City and London, Canada was born on July 1, 1867.

Jean Chrétien signed a proclamation when he was prime minister that declared Charlottetown the birthplace of Confederation. PEI MP Wayne Easter and Senator Diane Griffin now aim to go one step further by introducing bills that would enshrine that declaration into law.

Not so fast, the New Brunswick government says. Who do you think came up with the idea for that conference in the first place? New Brunswick Lieutenant-Governor Arthur Gordon, the province points out, proposed the conference months before it actually took place in Charlottetown.

Hence the province's $10-million 2017 tourism campaign, with the slogan: "Celebrate where it all began."

Who is right? To paraphrase a former U.S. president, it might depend on what your definition of "it" is.

"Their use of the pronoun 'it' is suitably vague," said Edward MacDonald, chair of the history department at the University of Prince Edward Island.

He contends that Gordon sought only a union of the Maritime colonies, until the conference was hijacked by visiting politicians from what are now Ontario and Quebec.

"So Gordon set in motion a train of events in 1864 that he did not control and that he did not anticipate, but he did set them in motion," Prof. MacDonald said.

New Brunswick Tourism Minister John Ames declined to be interviewed, but said in a statement that his province has done its share to shape Canada and deserves the credit.

"We agree that Prince Edward Island is the 'Cradle of Confederation,' but would like to augment that by saying that New Brunswick had a significant role in it, too," he wrote.

"New Brunswickers and Maritimers should be proud that not only one, but three provinces, contributed to the original movement toward unity."

Charlottetown Mayor Clifford Lee isn't buying it.

"Even the province of New Brunswick can't rewrite history," Mr. Lee said.

"I don't think anybody who has ever read a history book on Canada would suggest New Brunswick was the birthplace of Confederation or Canada."

So why all the fuss? Tourism. The federal government says international visits to Canada were up 11 per cent last year, and it hopes the trend will continue in 2017 – along with a healthy boost to the Canadian economy. New Brunswick wants a piece of the action.

"With Canada 150 top of mind, and with travel guide publisher Lonely Planet naming Canada the top tourism destination in 2017, we need to work hard to earn our share of tourists to Canada next year," New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant said in a November press release announcing the province's campaign.

Mr. Easter, one of PEI's four MPs, says he's pushing for the city's designation to be enshrined in law so it's easier to protect its heritage. For instance, the building that hosted those 1864 talks, Province House, is currently undergoing a major $41-million rehabilitation paid for by the federal government.

"It does give Province House as a site itself a bit more historical significance ... and adds to our tourism industry, and the spinoff into the economy from there," Mr. Easter said.

Prof. MacDonald said there's a precedent for that. Prince Edward Island started to make a big deal about its historic role when the province needed more money from Ottawa in the early 1900s.

"Our ferry service was not working well in the winter time and we were stranded, freight rates were not working in our favour, the subsidies we were receiving from Ottawa were insufficient, membership in the Commons was declining as our population fell behind the growth rate for the rest of the country. So we had quite a number of issues to be unhappy with Ottawa about," Prof. MacDonald said.

Mr. Lee, the mayor, said it's about duty. "I personally believe that [Charlottetown] has an obligation to the rest of Canada to maintain and preserve a city that truly reflects the birthplace of Confederation," he said.

In the end, it may be that there was no lone architect whose hand designed the Dominion of Canada.

"New Brunswick's Lieutenant-Governor of the day had suggested a meeting, but I mean others were suggesting meetings, too," said Ms. Griffin, who introduced the PEI bill in the Senate last week.

"Certainly Sir John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier should claim some credit. … Would Kingston, Ontario, claim the idea originated there because John A. Macdonald was their member of Parliament? I don't know," she said.

"But it's great that New Brunswick suggested it."