How it all StartedPrince Edward Island government was not always led by one House of elected representatives; for roughly the first 120 years of Island governance, there were two legislative bodies, the Legislative Council and the House of Assembly. A two-body Legislature is known as a bicameral Legislature. PEI’s first Governor, Walter Patterson, was instructed to establish a House of Assembly in which representatives were popularly elected (unlike Council members, who were appointed). The combination of a Council and House was a requirement for the enactment of legislation under British law. Though Patterson became Governor in 1769, the first House of Assembly was not elected until 1773. Early sessions of the Assembly met in private homes and taverns. A Sergeant-at-Arms of the time commented that this made for a “damn queer parliament”.
By 1825, the House of Assembly was working on establishing its rights and privileges, particularly in terms of self-regulation and authority. It followed the example of the British Parliament in seeking to secure
“...freedom from arrest (save in indictable offences) during the session and for periods of forty days before and after the session, freedom of
speech during debate, power to discipline members and non-members who
gave insult or injury to the House or its members, the right to determine
disputed elections, [and] the right to receive petitions “
The House also established committees charged with the discussion and analysis of particular matters, which took some of the work load off the main body of the House. Committees remain an important part of today’s Legislative Assembly.
PEI’s early Legislature often remained in office for an indefinite time, until the Lieutenant Governor saw fit to dissolve it. In 1833 the term was set to four years, with exceptions for dissolution by the Lieutenant Governor or upon the death of the King or Queen. Today, the term of the Legislative Assembly may last for up to five years from the day of the return of the writs for a general election. Otherwise, it may be dissolved earlier by the Lieutenant Governor with the advice of Executive Council. It is no longer automatically dissolved upon the death of a sovereign.
The existence of an elected House of Assembly was key to PEI’s attainment of responsible government (self-government) in 1851. The members of the House of Assembly were in favour of responsible government, while the members of the Legislative Council were not. The Council members’ resistance was likely because they were appointed, opposed to reform and enjoyed freedom from responsibility to the House of Assembly. In fact, the Council was often an obstacle to the House in terms of membership and policy. But in 1839 the Legislative Council was separated into a Legislative Council and an Executive Council, and some members of the House of Assembly were placed on Executive Council; this had the effect of reducing the Legislative Council’s power. In 1840 the House of Assembly requested that the Queen grant responsible government to PEI. It was granted in 1851, and was augmented with an 1862 Act that required the Legislative Council to be elected rather than appointed. From this point onward the Council’s influence gradually diminished compared to the House.
Creating the Legislative Assembly
In 1893, the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council were combined to form the Legislative Assembly. From 1893 to 1966, PEI’s Legislative Assembly was made up of 30 members, half of which were elected as Assemblymen, half as Councillors. There were five electoral districts in each of the three counties, and each district elected an Assemblyman and a Councillor. This double-representative system was unique in Canadian politics, as all other provinces had abolished their second chambers. In 1966 the riding of 6th Queens was created, which brought the total membership in the Assembly to 32. In 1994 the Election Act and Electoral Boundaries Commission recommended a shift to single member representation for all 30 districts. MLA Ross Young later introduced a Private Members Bill which redrew electoral boundaries according to a 27-riding system. The bill received Royal Assent on May 19, 1994, and survived provincial and federal Supreme Court challenges by the City of Charlottetown and other urban centres. The 1996 election was the first time the Legislative Assembly was elected based on one member for each of 27 ridings, a system it continues to follow today.