#EveryElectionProject: Prince Edward Island
Capsules on PEI's elections from The Weekly Writ
Every installment of The Weekly Writ includes a short history of one of Canada’s elections. Here are the ones I have written about elections and leadership races in Prince Edward Island.
This and other #EveryElectionProject hubs will be updated as more historical capsules are written.
1904 Prince Edward Island election
When the premier’s seat ended in a tie
December 7, 1904
At the turn of the 20th century, the Liberals were well-ensconced at the top of Prince Edward Island’s politics. By 1904, the party had been in power for 13 years and Arthur Peters, installed in 1901, was only the latest in a string of Liberal premiers.
A lawyer “born into what passed for an aristocracy in 19th-century Prince Edward Island”, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Peters also happened to be the brother of Frederick Peters, who had governed the province from 1891 to 1897.
That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges for the Liberals in Prince Edward Island. While the province’s economy had been booming in the 1880s, by the 1890s it was stagnating on the edges of a country that was increasingly looking westwards. As fortunes worsened, P.E.I.’s politics turned to how the Island could get a better deal from the federal government.
Representation in the House of Commons was one point of contention. The province’s declining population as a share of the country’s as a whole had decreased its allocation of seats from six to just four by 1903, and Peters was a vocal opponent of Prince Edward Island’s falling clout.
Peters also pushed for P.E.I. to get a bigger subsidy from the federal government. That government just happened to be run by a Liberal prime minister in Wilfrid Laurier, and when Peters called an election for December 7, 1904, he had no qualms arguing that voters would ensure a better deal for P.E.I. by electing a Liberal government in Charlottetown to match the one in Ottawa.
The Canadian Annual Review analyzed the situation facing both the Liberal government and the Conservative opposition.
“Against the Government was the increasing taxation and indebtedness, the prevailing lack of prosperity amongst the Island farmers and leadership of the Conservatives by a young and talented man. As to actual performance the Liberal party had to its credit the abolition of the Legislative Council, or rather its curious amalgamation with the Assembly; the obtaining of some important financial re-arrangements from the Dominion; and the passing of a fairly popular, though not always enforced, Prohibitory Liquor law.”
John A. Mathieson, the young man leading the Conservatives, had hopes for a breakthrough. In the federal election held in early November, the Conservatives had won three of P.E.I.’s four seats. Surely that ‘Dominion’ success would translate over to the provincial sphere, even if Robert Borden’s Conservatives were still on the opposition benches in the House of Commons.
In the words of The Globe’s correspondent in Halifax, “the election was one of the most exciting ever held in the Province, and both parties worked hard, fine weather and good roads bringing out large votes.”
The Liberals brought the most votes out.
Peters secured a result very similar to the one his predecessor had won in 1900. The Liberals were ahead in 21 seats with 54.1% of the vote, a small gain of 0.6 percentage points. The Liberals swept Prince County, gaining a seat from the Conservatives, but lost one seat in Queens County.
Kings County remained the region of strength for the Conservatives, as it was there that they won seven of their eight seats.
But the most interesting result was in 2nd Kings, where Peters faced a tough fight. When the special votes were counted — people were allowed to vote wherever they held property, even if they had also voted where their primary residence was located — Peters found himself in a tie with the Conservative candidate, Harvey David McEwen, at 515 votes apiece.
While the result kept the premier out of the legislature for a few months, he was eventually able to claim the seat in a byelection called in early 1905. By then, it was agreed that Peters would win by acclamation and McEwen, a prosperous businessman, would go back to his life outside of politics.
But Peters didn’t get to enjoy being premier for much longer — he died of Bright’s disease at the age of 53 in 1908. Mathieson, the “young and talented man”, would eventually get his turn as premier in 1911.
Still, Peters would leave at least one lasting legacy. By 1914, Prince Edward Island was at risk of losing yet another seat in the House of Commons. His campaign to maintain P.E.I.’s representation finally bore fruit when the government of the day decided it would not decrease the number of seats P.E.I. had, but instead stipulate that no province could have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it does in the Senate. That rule has survived for over a century and, today, Prince Edward Island’s seat allocation remains unchanged, and very generous, at four.
1959 Prince Edward Island election
PEI goes with the flow
September 1, 1959
It was 1959 and Prince Edward Island was in an awkward spot. For the first time since the 1920s, the province had been governed for an extended period of time by a party that also didn’t hold sway in Ottawa.
That had to be fixed.
First elected in 1935 a few months before Mackenzie King’s Liberals returned to federal office, by 1959 the PEI Liberals had been in power for 24 years under four different leaders. The latest was Alex Matheson, who took over in 1953 and won the 1955 election.
Louis St-Laurent was the Liberal prime minister at the time. But in the late 1950s the country had swung to the Progressive Conservatives. John Diefenbaker was elected with a minority government in 1957 and he quickly turned that into a landslide majority the year later. That landslide included a sweep of all four seats in Prince Edward Island.
Undaunted, Matheson sent the province to the polls to boast of his “forward-looking program”, which included free text books for elementary school children, pensions for unmarried women and widows starting at the age of 60 and new trading relationships abroad.
All well and good, but what about Diefenbaker?
All four of his PEI MPs actively participated in the campaign to help elect their provincial cousins, now under the leadership of Walter Shaw.
A 71-year-old farmer and retired deputy minister of agriculture, Shaw didn’t have a seat in the legislature when he took over the opposition PCs, who had just a handful of seats. Matheson obliged Shaw by giving him a bench he could sit on on the floor of the legislative assembly in order to provide some guidance to his MLAs.
Shaw’s platform included the provincial government taking over the portion of teachers’ salaries paid by cash-strapped local school boards. He also pledged support for fishermen and farmers and called the PCs the “party of the causeway”.
Of course, Diefenbaker had merely promised an engineering study about a possible causeway linking Prince Edward Island to New Brunswick, but Shaw made it seem that a vote for the PCs meant a vote for a causeway that was definitely going to happen (it didn’t).
Shaw leaned hard on the notion that PEI needed a friend in the prime minister’s office, saying that Islanders “see the advantage of keeping the province in line with a generous Conservative administration in Ottawa.”
With some degree of self-interest, Matheson said that provincial and federal politics should be kept separate. But his campaign understood they were swimming against the current and instead put a “Matheson government” forward in its advertisements rather than the Liberal brand. Shaw and the PCs, meanwhile, featured Diefenbaker prominently in their advertisements.
It was an unsubtle message, but it worked.
After winning only three seats in 1955, the PCs captured 22 in 1959. The Liberals were reduced to just eight seats, six of them in the southeast corner of the island.
Despite the lop-sided seat result, the voting was actually quite close — the PCs took 50.9% of the vote, a gain of six points since 1955, while the Liberals took the remaining 49.1%.
Bagpipers and 2,500 supporters greeted Shaw for his victory speech, but the results were also greeted warmly in Ottawa. Though they had won a thumping victory only a year before, the Diefenbaker PCs needed some good news. The Liberals had successfully been re-elected on an anti-Diefenbaker message in Newfoundland the month before and new Gallup polling was showing support for the federal PCs slumping. An upset win in PEI improved the mood.
But it wouldn’t last. Diefenbaker’s government became unpopular and was reduced to a shaky minority in 1962. Similarly, Shaw experienced the loss of a few seats when he took Islanders back to the polls that same year. But he held on and in 1966 tried to secure a third mandate for his PCs.
Except by then there was a big problem for Shaw.
The Liberals were back in power in Ottawa.
1993 Prince Edward Island election
Prince Edward Island makes history
March 29, 1993
For Catherine Callbeck and the Liberals of Prince Edward Island, 1993 held little suspense.
After Joe Ghiz announced his resignation as premier, a job he had held since 1986, it quickly became apparent that Callbeck, the Liberal MP for Malpeque and former provincial cabinet minister, would be his successor. Some 1,500 delegates confirmed this in January 1993 when they overwhelmingly gave their support to Callbeck over her two little-known opponents.
A provincial election was expected shortly after Callbeck was sworn in as premier — and it set up a campaign unlike any other seen in Canada before, as two women leading parties of government faced off against each other.
The PEI Progressive Conservatives, who had been thrashed by Ghiz’s Liberals in 1989, had chosen Pat Mella as their leader a year later. A school teacher, Mella energetically critiqued the Liberal government from outside the legislature.
That’s because there weren’t many seats reserved for Tories in Charlottetown. In the last election, the Liberals had won 30 of 32. And even one of those two PC MLAs had been persuaded to resign in order to accept a government appointment from the Liberals. The other MLA, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, decided not to re-offer.
That meant Mella would be leading a cast of 32 candidates without a single incumbent among them.
“I think it’s time for a change,” Mella said, “and you might as well mean it literally.”
Politically, things looked good for the Liberals. But Callbeck had her own challenges to face as premier of a province with 18% unemployment and prospects of more job losses on the horizon.
One of those fears was that Jean Chrétien’s Liberals, widely expected to defeat the PCs in a federal election later that year, would put a stop to the building of a tax facility in Summerside to process the GST. Chrétien had pledged he would scrap the GST, which would put hundreds of jobs in Summerside in danger.
In the end, Islanders needn’t have worried.
Playing it safe, Callbeck ran a campaign of “splashy advertisements, bland speeches and personal contact with thousands of voters in muddy farmyards and chilly church basements,” according to The Globe and Mail’s Kevin Cox. Callbeck avoided controversy and detailed commitments whereover possible.
Mella, by comparison, was a lively speaker and sharp critic, and her detailed platform included many promises to Islanders, including attention-grabbing ones like ending political patronage and funding kindergarten. But she wasn’t able to move the dial much in her favour, and having to apologize for some radio ads that went after Callbeck personally — attack ads were just not how things were done in PEI — did not help matters.
In a climate of insecurity and uncertainty about the province’s economic future, Islanders opted for the status quo — and nearly awarded the Liberals a sweep.
The Liberals captured 31 seats, a gain of one from the previous election. The party captured both of the seats vacated by the PC MLAs but left one on the table: Pat Mella’s.
It was a disappointing result for the PCs, who had hoped to make a breakthrough. But Mella was able to get herself a seat in the legislature and increase her party’s share of the vote by four points to 39.5%. The Liberals dropped nearly six points to 55.1%, but it didn’t matter much. Callbeck had coupled her leadership landslide in January with an electoral landslide little more than two months later.
Her victory didn’t make her Canada’s first female provincial premier, as Rita Johnston beat her to that title in 1991 in British Columbia. But Johnston and her Social Credit Party went down to defeat later that year. Avoiding that fate made Callbeck the first woman to become premier with an electoral mandate of her own — not that Callbeck thought much about it.
“I can honestly say I don’t feel that type of pressure,” she said. “I’m the sort of person that I take on a challenge and I do the best I can, that’s what I’m going to do as premier of Prince Edward Island.”
2003 Prince Edward Island election
A hat trick for Pat Binns
September 29, 2003
After two consecutive majority governments for the P.E.I. Progressive Conservatives, premier Pat Binns decided to go for something no Tory had managed before in P.E.I. since the 19th century: three wins in a row.
The omens for Binns and the PCs looked good in mid-2003. The last election had only been three years earlier, but unemployment in Prince Edward Island was low (by P.E.I. standards) at 11% and the number of jobs had increased significantly since the PCs had come to office in 1996. Polls put satisfaction with the Binns government around 80% and, just to leave nothing to chance, the PCs had spent the months before the election call announcing new reductions in fees and taxes, such as the capping of auto-insurance rates. That had been a thorny issue which hurt other PC premiers in the Maritimes, and Binns wasn’t going to take the risk.
A bean farmer and one-term PC MP during the Brian Mulroney years, the 54-year-old Binns announced the expected election at his own nomination meeting. His was the last of the 27 PC nominations that needed to be lined up.
Against the PCs, the Liberals had a fresh face in their new leader — though not an unfamiliar name. In April 2003, the party had chosen the 29-year-old Robert Ghiz, son of former premier Joe Ghiz, who had governed from 1986 to 1992 and had passed away in 1996. Robert Ghiz won by a margin of 161 votes over former cabinet minister Alan Buchanan in a contest in which 4,000 Islanders cast a ballot.
Despite the interest, the prize at the time was not particularly glittering.
The Liberals had been out of power for seven years and had been shellacked in the last election when they had been reduced to just a single seat in the 27-seat Legislative Assembly. Only 157 votes in that one riding had prevented a clean sweep of the island by the PCs.
But P.E.I. had only ever known two parties of government — the Liberals and the Tories. If Ghiz wasn’t the favourite to win the upcoming election, he would eventually get a good shot at becoming premier.
While young, Ghiz boosted the party’s fortunes. His father had been a popular premier, though his son rarely spoke of his father on the stump as he wanted to steer his own course. He gave the moribund Liberals new energy and criticized the government for increased electricity rates, one of its few vulnerabilities. He also put the premier on the defensive during the leaders debate.
The Liberals started the campaign about 20 points behind the PCs in the polls, but by election day the race was looking closer. No one, though, doubted that Binns would prevail in what had been widely seen as a low-key, dull election without any major controversy or decisive issue.
On voting day, the damage from Hurricane Juan couldn’t keep Islanders from casting a ballot, as turnout still managed 83% despite nearly half of households losing power. Even Binns had to watch the results on a small TV powered by a generator.
Those results gave the PCs its third consecutive majority government with 23 seats, a loss of only three since the previous election. The PCs still managed to win a majority of ballots cast despite dropping nearly four points.
Ghiz and the Liberals put up a decent fight, gaining three seats (two of them in Charlottetown, including the district in which Ghiz was running) and increasing their vote share by eight percentage points, ending with just under 43%.
The New Democrats, under rookie leader Gary Robichaud, managed just 3.1% of the vote. The party had failed to run a full slate and finished no better than third in any riding, barely clearing double-digits in just one district.
For Binns and the PCs, the gamble of an early election had paid off nicely. On election night, Binns joked that “sometimes it's called P.E.I., sometimes it's P.E. Island. But tonight I want to call it P.C. Island."
I guess you had to be there.
The Writ is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
NOTE ON SOURCES: When available, election results are sourced from Elections Prince Edward Island and J.P. Kirby’s election-atlas.ca. Historical newspapers are also an important source, and I’ve attempted to cite the newspapers quoted from.