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Representative government: PEI's first Assembly
Historian Boyde Beck has described PEI’s elections of the 1700s and early 1800s as being “like a floating carnival,” an often days-long affair in which “rum was an integral part of voting day,” though the very first election in 1773 was probably a somewhat quieter affair. All 18 original members were voted for and elected as representatives at large “by taking the voices of the whole people collectively as belonging to one country,” rather than running in separate districts. The lack of such districts, not to mention the absence of political parties and the lack of any candidates beyond the 18 that Patterson apparently pre-selected, made the Island’s first election one of its least competitive.
Graves Aichin. John Budd. George Burns. Elisha and Nathaniel Coffin. William Craig. Alex Farquhar. Ales Fletcher. James Haythorne. Thomas Hopkins. Davis, John and William Lawson. John Lord. James McCallum. Dugald and Robert Stewart. William Warrens. These 18 men are largely obscure now, but they played a key role in Prince Edward Island history. About 250 years ago, they made up the Island’s first-ever elected Assembly.
The Island’s first elected House of Assembly – the second-oldest parliament in Canada, preceded only by Nova Scotia in 1758 – first sat on July 7th, 1773 and ended its session on July 12th, reportedly sitting for two days during that span at a total cost of £11 (250 years of inflation would make that sum worth about £2,150.58 today, or $3,612.97 in modern Canadian dollars).
That House of Assembly’s original members was smaller than today's Assembly and less diverse even than the tiny populace of its time (about 1,200 people), let alone the larger, more varied populace of today. Only Protestant males were eligible to vote or to hold office, an electorate perhaps 200 strong. This left out (among others) women, Indigenous peoples and Catholics (in keeping with British anti-Catholic policies of the time), which also meant excluding the colony’s largely Catholic population of Acadians.
As Henry Smith wrote in 1910, the original House of Assembly’s members were not statesmen or orators but did their best to help develop the Island, making possible the “rare privileges and larger opportunities” enjoyed by later generations. Two hundred and fifty years after that first Assembly and well over a century after Smith’s account, today’s 27-member Legislative Assembly leads a bigger, more prosperous populace in building on the foundation laid by those 18 legislative pioneers so long ago.