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Archival clip – [The Queen in Canada, 1964]: October the 6th, 1964. One hundred years earlier, the fathers of confederation had gathered here, in Charlottetown, to discuss the idea of a united Canada. Today, a century later, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, and the Duke of Edinburgh, come to the cradle of confederation to commemorate that event.

Angela Misri: The clip you’ve just heard is from a short documentary focused on Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Charlottetown in 1964, one hundred years after leaders had gathered there to discuss Confederation. For those unfamiliar with the term, Confederation refers to the process of different regions — formerly British colonies — joining together to form Canada.

Archival clip – [The Queen in Canada, 1964]: Her Majesty’s first official engagement is to open the Fathers of Confederation Memorial Building. Located only a few yards from the site of the original 1864 conference, the memorial building, financed with funds from every one of the ten provinces, stands as a tribute to the men who devoted their lives to the creation of this country.

Angela Misri: It would be three years until Canada as we know it was formed, and another six years until Prince Edward Island itself became part of it. Even so, to this day, Charlottetown is still referred to as “the birthplace of Confederation.” Welcome to Canadian Time Machine, a podcast that unpacks key milestones in our country’s history. This podcast receives funding from the Government of Canada and is created by The Walrus Lab. I’m Angela Misri…and in today’s episode, we’ll travel back to the moment Prince Edward Island entered Confederation, over 150 years ago. We’ll talk to a local historian to help us unpack its role in the creation of Canada, and to understand why they joined the country six years after it was formed. But we can’t talk about Prince Edward Island without talking about its original inhabitants and stewards of the land — the Mi’kmaq people. To learn a bit more about Mi’kmaq experiences and perspectives, we spoke with Julie Pellissier-Lush, an actress, knowledge keeper, storyteller, and the first Mi’kmaq Poet Laureate for PEI.

Julie Pellissier-Lush: I am Mi’kmaq and I reside in this beautiful unceded territory known as Mi’kma’ki. And I am a Lennox Island band member. And Lennox Island is one of the two First Nations communities here on Prince Edward Island. We have Abegweit First Nation and we have Lennox Island First Nation.

Angela Misri: Julie is an active member of her community. And — in her words — she wears many hats.

Julie Pellissier-Lush: So one of my hats would definitely be a knowledge keeper, which is somebody who is not quite old enough to be considered an elder, but has worked their whole lives with elders and is working towards becoming a good elder who holds the knowledge and shares the teachings and the stories. So I am an elder-in-training right now, so I am working at collecting as much knowledge and stories as I can. And part of that role is the sharing of those stories and the knowledge that I collect. So, I do a lot of that in the run of my day to day life. I’m a knowledge keeper at L’nuey, so that’s actually my full time job. And we’re working on band governance, and we’re working on treaty work. We have our lawyers, we have our engagement people that are working very hard to try to find an idea where we can start with negotiating our treaties here in Epekwitk, or Prince Edward Island.

Angela Misri: Julie is also a director for Mi’kmaq Heritage Actors, a theatre group that’s been around since 2011.

Julie Pellissier-Lush: We’ve done over a thousand shows with our 30 plus young people that every day get better and stronger at showcasing their Indigenous talents of drumming and singing and dancing and sharing stories. So we are engaging our young people. I think it brings pride to their parents, their grandparents, their aunties, their uncles, when they get to see their children sharing what traditionally really hasn’t been an easy thing to share for a long time here in Prince Edward Island and to bring it back.

Angela Misri: To Julie and many other members of her community, sharing stories through music and dance is essential to reclaiming cultural practices that were outlawed by the government during colonization…traditions that were censored as lands were stolen and children were sent to residential school. For these and many other reasons, Prince Edward Island’s 150th anniversary means something different to Julie than it might mean to some Canadian settlers.

Julie Pellissier-Lush: When I think of the 150, I think we have come quite a ways since the time of Confederation, and I do think that we still have a lot more ways to go. We have so many different commissions. We have calls to action that have been put in place with the TRC. There’s so many things that could be moved forward.

Angela Misri: One way to move forward, Julie says, is through the preservation and promotion of local Indigenous languages, like Mi’kmaq.

Julie Pellissier-Lush: You have to work at it, you have to provide opportunities for us to learn it. The ones who were never gifted that opportunity when we were growing up to learn it, we have, will be given that opportunity. And I honestly think that if we protect our language, it protects who we are because it will remind us of who we were and help us to move forward together in a really good way.

Angela Misri: And just as importantly as the preservation of languages is the preservation, telling, and reclaiming of stories, be it through theatre or other means.

Julie Pellissier-Lush: For so many years here in Canada, a lot of our Indigenous people had a hard time trying to figure out who they were because of all the different systems that were put in place to take away our identity and who we were. And now it’s time for us to reclaim that. And we reclaim it through the stories that we share with each other. And the stories we share with our community members and with our non-Indigenous friends and allies. They hear the stories and they can learn who we are because it’s our story told by us.

Angela Misri: Many thanks to Julie Pellissier-Lush for sharing her knowledge and experiences with us. I would now like to welcome Dr. Edward MacDonald to dig a bit deeper into the circumstances that led to Prince Edward Island joining Confederation in 1873. Dr. MacDonald is a professor of history and classics at the University of Prince Edward Island. He’s the author of many books and papers, including “If You’re Stronghearted: Prince Edward Island in the Twentieth Century.” Welcome, Dr. MacDonald.

Dr. Edward MacDonald: Hi.

Angela Misri: Hi. So we’ve just heard Julie Pellisier-Lush share some of her experiences as a Mi’kmaq person from Prince Edward Island. Do you have any reflections on what she shared?

Dr. Edward MacDonald: Julie is someone I’ve always admired, and I admire her approach to Mi’kmaq rights and also Indigenous rights. So it’s a measured response, and I think a fair one. This anniversary is a time for reflection, and it’s a commemoration, but not always a celebration.

Angela Misri: So, before we get into PEI history specifically, can you paint us a bit of a picture of how the different provinces were governed prior to Confederation?

Dr. Edward MacDonald: There was a period when each of the colonies had essentially one self rule or autonomy in their internal affairs. But each had a government of their own, each operated kind of autonomously from the others. So the British Empire stretched across the continent, but not in a unified sort of a body, but a series of places and colonies with their governments of their own. And so to cooperate and to form a union was actually a bit of a challenge.

Angela Misri: So how did that road to Confederation begin then? Whose big idea was it?

Dr. Edward MacDonald: Well, that could be the subject for a book, and of course it has been for a number of books. But the pressures came from both within and from outside. So the colonial office in Britain was anxious for colonies to cost them less to administer and defend. They were big on free trade in the middle part of the 1800s. They didn’t think they needed to have a colony anymore as a guaranteed market, so they pressured us in a bit of a soft way to become more efficient, and so they really thought a confederation of the colonies would be a good idea. The maritime colonies were less keen on that idea, but the Colony of Canada, which was a marriage of Canada West and East, was essentially an unhappy, unworkable marriage of the Protestant anglophones and the francophone Catholics, and they were having a great deal of trouble in the central part of the continent trying to run their own affairs. And so they formed a government, a coalition government in 1864. And their platform essentially was to have a confederation of all the colonies or separation of the two halves of, you know, their own colony. One other pressure: fear of the United States. Which today, the United States, we regard as a friend and ally. In the mid 1800s, they had been and were still a potential enemy. And we were a little bit worried that they were having a civil war, but once they straightened that out, they might turn their eyes to the northward and invade us.

Angela Misri: Can you tell us a bit about the Charlottetown Conference? When did it take place, and who was there?

Dr. Edward MacDonald: Okay, well, Charlottetown Conference dated from September 1864. And the impetus for it actually started with, you know, the governor in New Brunswick, who fancied that he would be able to, you know, bring about a maritime union of the colonies in the Maritimes. And it wasn’t a union of all the colonies, but it was certainly a start on the colonial office, the kind of intention to unite the colonies. So he imagined that there would be a, just a meeting of the premiers and the governors, that the premiers would do what they were told. They would go back home to their legislatures and we would have a Maritime union. But the politicians broadened the discussion by saying, well, let’s invite members of the opposition parties to a conference. And all of a sudden it became a much larger sort of a forum. Now on Prince Edward Island, we were existing in splendid isolation, as it were. We were enjoying, uh, really our golden age in terms of autonomy. It was a boom time for the economy. And we weren’t interested in a Maritime union at all. So while we agreed to attend the conference, the rest of the Maritimers were concerned we wouldn’t even show up unless it was held on Prince Edward Island, so they offered to come to us.

Angela Misri: Oh, invited themselves in.

Dr. Edward MacDonald: Invited themselves in. Mind you, we weren’t doing anything about organizing a conference until the coalition in Canada heard about it and said: here’s an opportunity for us to sell our larger idea. So they asked if they could attend, and we said, well I guess we better organize that conference. And so the conference was held here. The Canadians showed up the morning of the opening day by ship, and the people from the Maritimes said, hey, let’s just set aside Maritime union and hear what the Canadians have got to say. And the Canadians spent a week selling the idea of a confederation of all the colonies in the eastern half of the continent. And the Maritimers listened.

Angela Misri: So this is interesting to me that you call the ones that arrived Canadians.

Dr. Edward MacDonald: Mm hmm, that’s what we call them.

Angela Misri: Okay, so what did you call yourselves?

Dr. Edward MacDonald: We were Islanders, Nova Scotians, and New Brunswickers.

Angela Misri: Uh huh.

Dr. Edward MacDonald: There was a strong identification still with the British Empire, even though the British Empire didn’t seem to really want us all that much anymore. So, yeah. When we talked about Canadians in 1864, we were talking about Central Canada, what we now know as Central Canada, and that was the Province of Canada, and um, they did a great job. The Canadians had a chance to prepare their sell, and so they spent the week, you know, outlining a structure and a rough kind of a vision for how such a union might work. And at the end of that week, there was an agreement in principle to a confederation of the colonies, if satisfactory terms could be reached. And that was an enormous achievement.

Angela Misri: Yeah, and I understand it wasn’t just about strategic convincing, but there was a lot of social gatherings and merriment at this conference.

Dr. Edward MacDonald: Yeah, there, there, there’s a mythology, well it’s not quite a mythology because it’s partly true, that we conceived our nation in a haze of intoxication. Um, And that literally isn’t true. Probably we were hungover when we did it. But the Canadians, uh, brought down supplies, champagne and, and all kinds of foods. And the Islanders were very, very fine hosts. And so, every day, they met in the morning and the early afternoon, and in the latter part of the afternoon, and in the evening, there was a dinner or a banquet, and at the end of the event, there was a ball. And so, one of the key things that happened outside of the conference room was that the rough edges of that strangeness were worn off as these people who didn’t know one another formed friendships, formed alliances.

Angela Misri: Yeah.

Dr. Edward MacDonald: Gained a familiarity that served them well back in the conference room because, you know, nations, as with a friendship, are built on trust between the members. And so, yes, the partying was important, and yes, it’s fun to celebrate the partying, But in actual fact, the partying served a purpose. And at Quebec later that fall, they did the same thing, but it didn’t work out nearly as well.

Angela Misri: Maybe they took the wrong wine. Like maybe…

Dr. Edward MacDonald: Yes, that could be. That could be. But you know, this idea of a Confederation had been a debating topic. It had been talked about in 1858. It had been tossed around in debating societies. But it wasn’t really a serious prospect until the conference in Charlottetown and that’s the basis for the island’s long standing claim to be the cradle or the birthplace of Confederation. Because it was here that it became a serious political prospect. Agreement in principle was a long way from a confederation, but it was also a long way from nothing.

Angela Misri: Yeah. Speaking of that, it would take three years following that conference before the Dominion of Canada was finally created, but PEI didn’t even join Confederation at that point. So why not?

Dr. Edward MacDonald: Yes, that was a bit of an obstacle for the island’s argument for being the cradle of Confederation. Although to be truthful, it’s the city’s argument has been the city’s argument, not the province’s argument. So there was a conference that fall in Quebec. Where just the idea of a federal union of the colonies had to become a series of, you know, constitutional decisions. The provisions that were passed in Quebec really alienated a lot of islanders. Not all of our delegates, a majority of whom still thought that it was a good idea for confederation, but it was commonly said on PEI that 99 out of 100 islanders were against the idea. Now, there are two levels of opposition in our region to this, you know, union. One was an opposition to the terms of Confederation, and certainly Islanders weren’t happy with the provisions of the Quebec, you know, meeting. And the other opposition was opposition in principle. Think it’s a bad idea. So, the argument is that the other people in the Maritimes were more opposed to the terms than to the idea, but that Islanders were opposed to the idea of, you know, surrendering the autonomy, which we had won after a long fight in 1851, to a government located in Ottawa, which would have the bulk of the power, in which we would have a very small voice. So we saw very little to gain, and much to lose. And so, yeah, we voted to stay out, and Confederation went ahead without us.

Angela Misri: So, why did PEI finally end up entering Confederation?

Dr. Edward MacDonald: Well, it’d be nice to say that we bought into the vision that Canada was a great thing and here was a country that we were feeling, you know, like FOMA fear of, you know.

Angela Misri: Missing out.

Dr. Edward MacDonald: But, yeah, missing out. But, in fact, the reasons were more specific and concrete.

Angela Misri: Okay.

Dr. Edward MacDonald: So, we had specific problems on Prince Edward Island Confederation did not offer to solve, one of which was the fact that about one half of the landmass on PEI was still owned by absentee landlords who rented their farms and islanders were not able to buy their own farms and Confederation did not promise to solve that. But the key change wasn’t a promise from Ottawa to help us to resolve the issue. The key change was that in 1871 PEI caught railway fever and we died of it. As you know, railways were like the automobile of the 1900s and the internet of our new millennium. People thought the railway was the key to prosperity. It was the key to advancement. It was the sign of being, you know, modern. It was going to make everybody rich. They weren’t sure how, but they figured it would. And so PEI…

Angela Misri: It’s like Bitcoin.

Dr. Edward MacDonald: Yes, not unlike Bitcoin. So we decided, our government made a decision, to build a railway across the island from one end to the other. And become, like the rest of North America, a railway country. One problem, we couldn’t afford the railway that we built. In fact, our government was teetering on the brink of insolvency.

Angela Misri: Oh wow.

Dr. Edward MacDonald: So Confederation, which was like that person that you said you would never marry if they were the last individual in the world. All of a sudden, Confederation started looking pretty good.

Angela Misri: Yeah, starting to look pretty attractive, yeah.

Dr. Edward MacDonald: Starting to look pretty good. And so, the government of the day went to Ottawa for terms. Now, Ottawa had us over a barrel. They wanted PEI in Confederation. Here we were, an island located in the Gulf, right across the shipping lanes to the heart of the continent, and we had the Americans sniffing around, you know, the doorstep, wondering if annexation might be a possibility. They wanted us. And so, Ottawa, in fact, offered us the best terms any of the provinces to date had received to join the country. And so the government made an agreement. They had a pledge to bring the terms of any union to the people. They had an election. The other side said, we can get better terms than that. And they won the election and went back to Ottawa and said, that’s no deal. We want a better deal. And Ottawa improved the deal marginally, yet again. And so in 1873, we became a province of Canada. Canada took over our debt, including our railway debt, including the cost of trying to complete the railway. And they loaned us the money to buy out those absentee landlords and get rid of leasehold land tenure on PEI. Two big gains for Prince Edward Island.

Angela Misri: Yeah. So looking back over these past 150 years since joining as a province, how do you think PEI would have been different if it had decided not to join Confederation?

Dr. Edward MacDonald: You know, I teach a course in island history, and that’s a question that I ask, a hypothetical question, but it’s a question that I ask. What would have happened if we hadn’t decided to build a railway? What would have happened if we did not decide to join? And it’s one of those what if questions that, of course, one can’t answer. One can look at Newfoundland. Newfoundland stayed out of Confederation. They held an election on the issue in 1869, and the issue was a loser at the polls. Hmm. And Newfoundland struggled. It stayed independent until 1949, and it was an independence it valued and still does value. But they struggled from crisis to crisis, you know, economically, their resource base was too small for the population as it rose, and that would have been the case on PEI as well. So I think we might have been proud but poor. I think we would have struggled. And who’s to say how long it might have been before we decided to join.

Angela Misri: So is this anniversary significant to Prince Edward Islanders or not? Where do they land now?

Dr. Edward MacDonald: Good question. From 1914 on, PEI has tried to translate our status as the birthplace of Confederation. And in fact, to convince the rest of the country that we are the birthplace of Confederation, has tried to translate that into a tourism industry.

Angela Misri: It’s funny that you call it the birthplace of the Confederation because, because they didn’t join. I wonder if it’s more close to say midwife or hostess. You know what I mean?

Dr. Edward MacDonald: Well, this was a question. So there is an act of Parliament in Canada proclaiming us the birthplace of Confederation, but it’s Charlottetown that is proclaimed. And I was a witness before Senate. There was a committee of the Senate looking at the bill. And I was asked that question, that how can you be the birthplace of Confederation when you didn’t even join initially? I said, well, it is for two reasons. One, Charlottetown is the birthplace, not the province of Prince Edward Island. And two, it is here that the first momentous step on the road was, you know, taken. This was the place where there was agreement in principle. Now, Confederation itself was once a byword for celebration. But as we confront our colonial past, 2023, particularly, is a time for sober, you know, reflection about not just the event, Confederation is an event, but it’s also a relationship. It’s that ongoing kind of relationship among we Canadians. And in the time since 1867 and since 1873, there are things to be proud of and things that we need to work on. And we’re confronting some of them now. And so while 2023 hasn’t been a tourist event, I think it’s a good time to reflect. As I said, you know, to have a commemoration is not a synonym for celebration. To commemorate means something important happened. Let’s talk about it.

Angela Misri: Thank you so much for joining us. Dr. Macdonald. This was excellent.

Dr. Edward MacDonald: Thank you for having me on.

Angela Misri: Thank you for listening to Canadian Time Machine. This podcast receives funding from the Government of Canada and is created by The Walrus Lab.
Like all our episodes, the transcripts will be available in both English and French. To read the transcripts, please visit thewalrus dot ca slash canadianheritage. This episode was produced by Caro Rolando and edited by Nathara Imenes. Amanda Cupido is the executive producer.

That’s next time on Canadian Time Machine. For more stories about historic Canadian milestones visit

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