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A Century of Stasis

The paroxysm of reform that produced the hybrid legislature of 1893 was a high water mark of sorts in terms of constitutional change. Dogged by outmigration and economic stagnation, the Island did not tend towards bold experimentation. The belated re-adoption of the secret ballot in 1913 was perhaps the exception that proved the rule. Another was the foot-dragging decision in 1922 to enfranchise 50% of the Island’s population, its women (If You’re Stronghearted). Considering that the Legislature had first voted on the issue in the 1890s, and that only Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador among Canadian provinces took longer to give women the vote, women’s suffrage on Prince Edward Island was hardly the crest of a constitutional wave. It was 1951 before a woman ran for the Legislature (Hilda Ramsay, for the provincial CCF party) and 1970 before a woman (Jean Canfield) was elected. Prince Edward Island was proud to become the first province to elect a female premier, Catherine Callbeck, in 1993. While female candidates tend to be popular with voters, and the percentage of female candidates continues greatly to lag the percentage of women in the larger population. (Crossley)

Another historically disenfranchised group, First Nations peoples, received the right to vote in provincial elections in 1963. There was, however, little thought given then, or since, to whether the Island’s original inhabitants might be entitled to special representation within its Legislature.

Although shifting demographics gradually tilted the population towards urban centres, riding boundaries remained unchanged for seventy years, partly because the principal political parties were too evenly matched to risk radical change (Clark). However, after being out of office for twenty-four years, the Conservatives were understandably more open to a measure of reform when they came to power in 1959. In any case, the population imbalance between urban and rural constituencies had become too great to be ignored for much longer. In a larger sense, the reform impulse must also be seen in the context of accelerated modernization that characterized postwar Prince Edward Island.

In 1961 the Shaw Government appointed the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform, chaired by His Honour J. S. DesRoches, Judge of the County Court of King’s County. The Royal Commission’s report was tabled in 1962. The resulting legislation, the Election Act of 1964, in some cases went beyond the Commission’s recommendations. Although the distinction between Councillor and Assemblyman was retained, multiple voting and the property franchise were eliminated. The most contentious clause was actually added by amendment during debate: the elimination of the under-populated riding of 5th Kings and the creation of 6th Queens to belatedly reflect the growing population around Charlottetown.(Carruthers; Russell Clark) With a general election in the offing, the Government found it expedient to restore 5th Kings in 1966, resulting in a Legislature of thirty-two members.

Despite the modest re-distribution of the early 1960s, the question of voter parity among Island ridings continued to bedevil lawmakers into the 1970s, even as an ambitious Comprehensive Development Plan sought to rationalize and re-shape the Island’s economy and society. In 1974 the Legislature appointed an Electoral Boundaries Committee, which, in turn, delegated a sub-committee to canvass public opinion on the issue. General apathy attended its hearings. Consensus favoured replacing the existing constituencies with thirty-two, single-member ridings based on the four federal ridings rather than the three counties. For the first time a form of proportional representation was introduced into the discussion, but only in the sense that interveners stipulated creation of twenty-six identifiably “rural” ridings and six “urban” ones (Committee report). In its report, the Committee generally ignored the subcommittee’s findings, and in turn its recommendations were not proceeded with by the Legislature. In 1988 legislative provision was made for a regular adjustment of riding boundaries. (Electoral Boundaries Act R.S.P.E.I. 1988 Cap. E-2.1)

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