Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Circus upstaged nation-building

Clowns, acrobats bigger draw than politicians in 1864

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The Fathers of Confederation meet in Charlottetown in 1864. John A. Macdonald is seated, centre front.

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The Fathers of Confederation meet in Charlottetown in 1864. John A. Macdonald is seated, centre front.

When a delegation of politicians from Central Canada arrived in Charlottetown in the summer of 1864 to discuss the idea of uniting Britain's North American colonies, only one representative of the Prince Edward Island government was available to greet them.

Everyone else in the tiny capital of 7,000, it seemed, had run off to see the circus.

Slaymaker and Nichols' Olympic Circus was the first travelling show to visit the Island in 20 years, and the serious business of nation-building had to compete with the antics of clowns, acrobats and trained monkeys.

The 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference is being marked with a summer of festivals, fireworks and music -- country superstar Shania Twain is taking a break from her Las Vegas show to headline a concert -- to rival anything Slaymaker and Nichols could stage.

This week's one-day royal visit by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall was part of a P.E.I. 2014 celebration that promises to boost the all-important tourism industry. And this outpouring of pride in the Island's role as "the Cradle of Confederation" comes a year before Premier Robert Ghiz and his Liberal government face a fixed-date election, expected in the fall of 2015.

Ghiz, whose father, Joe, served two terms as premier, looks like a shoo-in for a third term. He holds 23 of 27 seats in the legislature and the latest survey by Halifax's Corporate Research Associates pegs Liberal support at better than 50 per cent among decided voters. The NDP has elected only one candidate in 40 years but stands in second place at 22 per cent while support for the Progressive Conservatives -- a party beset by internal divisions and looking for a new leader -- has dwindled to 17 per cent.

Despite the NDP's abnormally high showing in the polls (support peaked at 32 per cent last summer), observers have long complained of a democratic deficit in Island politics. Power shifts from the Liberals to the PCs and back again, with the party in power enjoying a lopsided majority and weak opposition until the pendulum swings in the opposite direction.

Last week an editorial writer with the Charlottetown Guardian grumbled about the government's "bare-bones budget" and the spring session's "light legislative agenda," but for now the pendulum is solidly on Ghiz's side. His government has steered clear of major controversies and appears to be on track to balance the books by 2016.

The budget tabled in April projects a $40-million deficit (a $12-million improvement over last year) coupled with modest improvements to health-care programs. But the net debt will top $2.1 billion by next year, a tremendous burden for a province with a city-size population of 140,000.

Tourism is one of P.E.I.'s major industries, second only to production of its trademark potatoes, and provides the equivalent of more than 7,000 full-time jobs. About a million visitors flock to the Island's famed beaches, parks and golf courses each year, and P.E.I. 2014 events have already increased vacation bookings for this summer.

So the sesquicentennial of the Charlottetown Conference and its economic boost come at an opportune time for Ghiz, just as the original conference -- convened to discuss a more modest proposal to merge Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I. into a single colony -- came at an opportune time for future prime minister John A. Macdonald and his vision of a new country.

This summer's party atmosphere on the Island is an appropriate way to mark the occasion. The Fathers of Confederation spent as much time enjoying lobster dinners, champagne toasts and late-night dances as they did hammering out a blueprint for a new constitution.

But the nine-day conference forged new friendships and political alliances and laid the groundwork for further meetings in Quebec City and London that culminated in Canada's founding as a self-governing dominion in 1867.

Ironically, Islanders resisted joining the nation-building project launched in their midst. P.E.I. finally entered Confederation in 1873 -- three years after Manitoba -- when escalating railway-building costs made the financial benefits of union too tempting to resist.

"Everybody admits that the union must take place some time," Macdonald declared in the wake of the Charlottetown Conference. "I say now is the time. If we allow so favourable an opportunity to pass, it may never come again."

Macdonald and his colleagues seized the moment. And that alone is a good reason to party like it's 1864.

 

Dean Jobb, the Winnipeg Free Press East Coast correspondent, teaches in the School of Journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax. www.deanjobb.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 22, 2014 A13

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