Skip to Main Content
print small medium large 


A Century of Reforms

The early precedent of adapting British practice to local conditions set the tone for the series of modifications that followed during the 19th century. While political considerations might influence the timing of change, a growing colony required frequent adaptations of its constitutional arrangements.

In 1774, legislation laid the groundwork for an electoral process, leaving the Governor with considerable discretion in the timing and nature of elections (although until 1834, the death of the monarch automatically triggered the election of a new house). Exercising that discretion, Lt. Gov. Edmund Fanning divided the colony into three constituencies, based on its counties, in 1787, with four members elected at large for each county, and two from each county capital. However, the first Election Act was not introduced until 1803 (Carruthers), and it was 1806 before a term length for the Legislature was fixed: seven years, amended to four in 1833. (MacKinnon, 53)

By the 1830s, immigration and natural population increase were transforming the human and physical landscape of the colony. Between 1798 and 1855, the population soared from less than 4,300 people to over 71,000 (Spierenburg, 18). One effect was to engender debate about the emancipation of Roman Catholics, who comprised 45% of the colony’s population but were barred from voting or holding public office. They were finally enfranchised in 1830.

The enlarged electorate no doubt radicalized Island politics, since many Roman Catholic voters were tenants opposed to the leasehold land tenure system. That, in turn, empowered the radical Escheat Party, which won control of the House of Assembly in 1838. While the Escheaters were unable to legislate seizure of proprietorial estates, they did preside over a series of constitutional reforms. The Election Act of 1838 enlarged the House of Assembly to twenty-four members, and four dual-member electoral ridings (including each county capital) were carved out of the old county constituencies. In 1856, the House was enlarged again, to 30 members, chosen from five dual-member ridings in each county. Even in 1856, the convenience – and precedent – of using county/capital subdivisions defied the Island’s demography. Queens County’s population already outstripped Prince and, particularly, Kings County, yet each retained an equal number of seats.

The only concession to population realities addressed the seats apportioned to County capitals. The problem in Prince County was resolved in 1861 when the capital was formally shifted from moribund Princetown to Summerside (Carruthers, 19), while the low population in Georgetown and Royalty was addressed in 1893 by enlarging the riding to encompass a series of headlands roughly centered on Cardigan Bay and linked by the prevalence of water transportation. (MacKinnon v. Government of PEI, PEI Supreme Court, Trial Division, 1993). While unremarked at the time, this was perhaps the first instance of using a specially defined community to draw constituency boundaries. The artificial boundaries of 5th Kings made some sense in a pre-asphalt era when roads remained poor (at best) and water/ice provided the most effective means of transportation.

One of the chief obstacles to land reform in the 1830s and 1840s was the appointed Council, filled as it was with men of substance materially vested in maintaining the status quo. In 1839, a year after the House of Assembly was enlarged, the two Councils, Legislative and Executive, were formally separated, making it possible for members of the House of Assembly to serve on the Executive Council. The essence of Responsible Government, achieved in 1851, was to deliver control of the Executive Council (colloquially, the Cabinet) into the hands of the party that controlled the elected Assembly.

The Legislative Council, too, was targeted for reform, especially after the House of Assembly achieved supremacy. Appointed by the monarch on the recommendation of the Governor, Legislative Councillors served "during pleasure," but in practice it was difficult to dismiss them without demonstrably just cause. Thus, when elections changed control of the Assembly, the Upper House was frequently filled with political opponents appointed under previous administrations, who could only be removed from office by death, disgrace, resignation or emigration. One way around their obstruction was to appoint more Councillors – in 1859 the size of the Legislative Council swelled to seventeen members – but the simpler solution was to bind the Council to the will of the electorate by making it elective. The reformed Legislative Council, established by statute in 1862, consisted of thirteen members, four from each county, with one member from Charlottetown. (MacKinnon, 102-03) Although it was now elective, the Council was still intended to represent men of property. While there was no property qualification for candidates, electors had to be males over the age of twenty-one and have freehold and/or leasehold property to the value of £100.

In the colonial House of Assembly, the property qualifications continued to be minimal. In practice and, finally, in principle, the Assembly was chosen by universal (adult) male suffrage. The manner of its election was more variable. In the wake of the notorious Belfast Riot, the culmination of a long tradition of election-day violence, multi-day voting was abolished in 1848 in order to eliminate the practice of partisan mobs roaming from poll to poll, intimidating voters.

Another invitation to voter intimidation was addressed in 1877 when election by secret ballot, accompanied by voters’ lists and regularized polling procedures, replaced open, oral voting. But in this case, cost trumped conscience. The measure was enacted just as Island governments were beginning to discover the woeful inadequacy of their revenues under Confederation, and the Sullivan government, newly elected on a platform of financial retrenchment, repealed the secret ballot in 1879. It was only reintroduced in 1913 by a Conservative administration proud of its progressive approach to government – and temporarily buoyed by a $100,000 per year increase in its federal subsidy. Even so, it would be 1964 before voters’ lists were required for general elections, and a chief electoral officer appointed.

The same cost-cutting mentality that abandoned the secret ballot also took aim at the province’s upper house. After Confederation in 1873, Prince Edward Island sported six federal Members of Parliament, a thirty-member House of Assembly and a thirteen-member Legislative Council. Surely, critics reasoned, that was more than enough representatives for one small province. Legislation to abolish the Legislative Council was first introduced in 1879, but the rights of property proved much more durable than the new voting system. It took several attempts, the precedent-setting example of several other Canadian provinces, and considerable, unrecorded backroom negotiation before the Legislative Council was finally done away with – after a fashion – in 1893.2

The new Legislature uniquely welded the Legislative Council onto the House of Assembly to create a new, thirty-seat “Legislative Assembly” elected from 15 dual-member ridings. Each constituency was represented by a Member of the Legislative Council (MLC) and a Member of the Legislative Assembly(MLA), which allowed for one-on-one contests at the polls and, just as important, allowed opposing parties to match candidates according to religion. The latter consideration was a legacy of the bitter sectarian rivalries of the 1856-1877 period (pitting the Roman Catholic plurality against the Protestant majority), which had exerted a dangerously corrosive effect on party loyalties. Religion had not ceased to matter by the 1890s, but it had gone underground as a political issue, and keeping it “out of politics” meant that it remained a central, backroom consideration for another century.

Once in the House, MLAs and MLCs functioned in exactly the same fashion; the only difference lay in how they got there. Assemblymen were elected according to universal male suffrage, while a property franchise was retained for those electing Councillors (though, again, not for candidates). To vote for Councillor in any constituency, electors must own $325 worth of property in that riding.3 Property owners could vote only once for Councillor in a given constituency, but they could vote in any riding where they met the property requirements. In a province where the two principal parties were evenly matched in terms of popular support (10% of all elections between 1893 and 1963 were decided by twenty-five or fewer votes) (Clark), electors with multiple votes were a valuable commodity.

2 The Davies government’s bill was lost when it was defeated in 1879, and the Sullivan government’s 1880 bill was defeated in the Legislative Council. The Upper House at the time was said to cost $7,000 per year. (Driscoll)

3 According to Marlene Russell Clark, a non-resident could also vote for Assemblyman in any riding where he owned property worth at least $100.

back to top