Splendid Isolation - Part III


Disclaimer: The three parts of Splendid Isolation study the events that surround PEI's entry into Canada. It is infused with some artistic license and creative writing. But at its core it is purely based on factual records of the era. The goal of this series has been to highlight the true sentiment of that time which is largely overshadowed today by a nationalistic-Canadian narrative. It's a narrative that whitewashes many parts of the countries heritage, including the Island's. 


In May of 1870, John A. MacDonald was approaching his second year as prime minister. While working in his office one day in Ottawa he suddenly yelled out in agony. Clutching his side he fell to the floor. Nearby staff ran into the office, then out again. One ran down the corridor to fetch a doctor.

MacDonald was suffering from a severe gallstone attack. The pain was so bad that he couldn’t be moved for a couple days. A temporary bed had to be made in his office in parliaments East Block where a nurse tended to him.

 Not the most comfortable looking hospital room.

Not the most comfortable looking hospital room.

When he was well enough to move it was decided that the new prime minister would go to Prince Edward Island for the summer.  To heal. His Island connections had arranged a house there for him, his family and entourage. Macdonald and his group moved to Quebec City where they boarded a ship for the Island.

Arriving in July of 1870, the prime minister, his wife, daughter, and others arrived at Falconwood, a sprawling 8 bedroom house east of Charlottetown. The estate was comprised of 200 acres, where today stands the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Hillsborough Hospital, a golf course and Hillsborough subdivision.

It would be one of the most relaxing times of MacDonald’s life. During that time he read about the Franco-Prussian war taking place in Europe, made small outings throughout the Island and chatted with visitors.

 MacDonald couldn't resist a PEI summer surrounded by beach babes.

MacDonald couldn't resist a PEI summer surrounded by beach babes.

One of the men that he would often chat with was William Hamilton Hobkirk. His doctor.

Two Popes, a Prime Minister, and a Doctor

A year after MacDonald spent the summer on Prince Edward Island, he would write a letter to Dr. Hobkirk. “I see that you have quite a political ferment about your Railway. I hope that the result of the increase of your [money] burdens will be your making a junction with the Dominion; but such a consummation....can be hastened by no action on our part, it must arise altogether from your people.”

MacDonald was saying that he hoped the construction of a railway led the Island into confederation. He had heard lots about the want for a railway to be built across the colony. He had also talked about a potential railroad with one of his biggest pro-confederation allies on the Island, William Pope.

The split between William Pope and his brother James can fairly be considered the Island’s most defining family feud.

James and William Pope. Brothers and rivals

The two brothers had several things in common. They were both successful conservative politicians and they both deeply wanted a railway for the Island. But the two was totally divided on the biggest problem of the day.

James was firmly anti-confederation. Whereas William was firmly pro-confederation.

James Pope would be premier from the time Canada was created until after Prince Edward Island joined the country in 1873. He was also the Island’s third-biggest shipbuilder. There can be no doubt about James's success, but his brother’s William’s success made the biggest impression.

William was smart, but he was sly. He acted in the shadows.

The summer that John A. MacDonald was relaxing at Falconwood, William sent a letter to the prime minister. His brother James had just become premier again.

secret letter.jpg

“It’s time for the Colonial Office to ‘put on the screws’”, William said to MacDonald. Islanders needed to be told that London was going to impose terms if the Island didn’t proactively negotiate them he said. All of all this, William believed, needed to done without Ottawa communicating with any members of the government on P.E.I.

In the shadows, powerful people whispered about P.E.I.’s future.

The Railway Bill

1871. In the legislature, Premier James Pope rises to his feet.

“Mr. Speaker,” he announces. “I submit, on behalf of the people of this colony, The Railway Bill. After years of consideration, debate and study, this government is confident that the short-term cost of such a mammoth project will pay for itself double-fold--and for years to come.

 Choo-choo. Here comes the crippling debt machine.

Choo-choo. Here comes the crippling debt machine.

“With a train, the communities on this Island will be connected allowing citizens and American tourists alike easy transport across her. It will allow us to quickly and efficiently export our goods to new markets. And it will employ many Islanders in it’s operation.”

During the debates there were shouts that it was too expensive. That it wasn’t the right time to build a railway. That the land question still needed to be settled. The money should go towards that first.

The came time for the vote.

Each man stood and said yay or nah. As the last couple men stood, the support for the bill was split evening down the middle. The last man to stand was Donald Cameron. He held the deciding vote on the Railway Bill.

The chamber went quiet. Cameron cleared his throat. Heart beats were racing. Every eye in the room was on him. “Yay,” he said and the room burst into cheers.

In their rush to push through the Railway Bill, a major loophole had been overlooked. In the contract a set-price per mile was set for the builders. But the amount of miles wasn’t set. To the benefit of the contractor, the route of the railroad snaked across the Island. For every extra mile, the contractor's profit skyrocketed.



But that also meant that the colony was bleeding money. The contract had been signed and politicians could do nothing but stand back and watch as the treasury was depleted. The cost per mile was $14,500. With inflation that would be upwards of $400,000  per mile in 2017.

When the Railway was complete, it would have 147 miles of track. In comparison, the Island is 120 miles long.

Just over a year later in the winter of 1872, the premier and the executive council quietly sat in the Colonial Building. The leaves on the trees outside had fallen away, and the stove was lit to push out the cold.

“Gentleman,” the Premier Pope said as he slouched in a chair. “We need to face the fact that the colony is near bankrupt. It’s time to open negotiations with the Canadians about joining the union.”

In the Spring of 1873, a delegation travelled to Ottawa. They chatted with the prime minister and government members. Telegrams were sent back and forth between the two capitals and Islanders continued to press their politicians not to join confederation.

But the policy of Splendid Isolation was quickly coming to an end.

The Proclamation

At 12:30 on July 1st, 1873, mounted police escorted the governor’s buggy to the front doors of the Colonial Building. Governor Robinson, a tall and serious man stepped out of the buggy, walked into the building, and up the stairs. In the Legislative Council Chamber he took a seat on the throne. The room was quiet.


Robinson was a somber and uptight figure as he sat there. He lacked charisma for such affairs. But back at Fanningbank the sound of piano playing and music would ring through the house. He was a gifted musician. Unknown to him, a century later a university music department would be named after him in Australia.

“The great majority of the people of the Island, it is pretty evident, have accepted Confederation as a necessity...”
— The Patriot newspaper. 3 July 1873

Politicians were in their seats and members of the public stood watching. Shuffling into the middle of the room, the colonial secretary opened a scroll. “The following declaration comes from the Governor General of Canada.”

In the decree, Robinson was demoted to Lieutenant-Governor under the Dominion. Two judges in the room were given delegated authority from the Governor General to administer to Robinson the oath of office, which he then read.  

 Governor William Robinson.  Clearly a free spirit. Or not.

Governor William Robinson.  Clearly a free spirit. Or not.

More silence. Then the colonial secretary asked that anyone not belonging to the Executive Council to leave. When the group had gone, the council quietly lined up. One by one they stepped forward and were sworn in as members of a Local Government under the Dominion of Canada.

An article from The Patriot two days later provides a summary of the day:

“The great majority of the people of the Island, it is pretty evident, have accepted Confederation as a necessity...when the day arrived that the union was a fait compli, they had not a cheer to give...but now since Confederation is a fact--since the Island is now part and parcel of the Dominion, the duty of our people is to make the best of their position…

“Let us perform our part so that we may do more than merely keep pace with them in the march of intelligence and reform.”


Canada marched forward. In 1901, John A. MacDonald’s passed the National Policy which moved the manufacturing hub of the country to central Canada. The creation of the western provinces was given top priority. Taxes and resources from the eastern provinces were funneled towards nation building.

On the 12th of February 1912, a delegation from the Prince Edward Island Government were in Ottawa. The delegation was led by Premier Mathieson. They presented to the Privy Council of Canada a report asking for extra subsidies for the province.

 The lion and unicorn had to sit down for this one.

The lion and unicorn had to sit down for this one.

In the Islander’s claims, a stark reality of Confederation’s toll on the Island was explained in detail.

“In 1873 this Island as a separate colony was one hundred years old. Its population had doubled in the last thirty years, with an increasing ratio. Its revenues were doubling every twelve years. It had constructed suitable public buildings, wharves, roads, breakwaters, lighthouse and other public works, equipped a stock and experimental farm, and was building up manufacturing industries of many kinds.

“In relation to its size, there was no more progressive community in British North America.

“All this had been done under a Customs and Excise Tax not exceeding $3.10 per capita.

“By the Confederation agreement, the Island surrendered to Canada the control of its Customs and Excise, and immediately became liable to a taxation of $5.05, an increase of $1.95 per capita, or a total increase of $190,000 (over $4.2 million in 2017) per annum sufficient to have enabled it to finance the railway and to carry on the other services efficiently.

 Canada to Prince Edward Island.

Canada to Prince Edward Island.

“It is the opinion of your memorialists, almost unanimously supported by the people of our Province, that Confederation has caused the destruction of the industries of the Island, and has driven those formerly engaged therein to other lands. Had the Island remained out of Confederation, it could have gaurded these industries and developed its trade along the line which it had established, but by surrending to Canada its power to regulate its tariff, its established trade routes were broken up, its business turned into Canadian channels, its industries so heavily weighted in the race with rivals who enjored the advantages of continuous connection with the transportation facilties of the mainland, that they have almost become extinct.

“Prince Edward Island has always borne its full proportion of the burdens of Canada, while sharing to a very small degree in the advantages of Confederation.”

[To get a full understanding of the Island’s claim to the federal government in 1912, click here  and read the report yourself.]

What If…

It took generations for the anti-Confederation and resentment towards Canada to be bred out of Islanders. Today the province is home to proud Canadians and the thoughts of an independent P.E.I. are unheard of. But when we look back on reports such as the one in 1912, it's clear that the Island paid a heavy price for passing over control of taxes and its economy to Canada.

 With no natural resources and being stuck in the middle of the ocean, Bermuda is one of the richest countries in the world. Good thing they never built a railroad....

With no natural resources and being stuck in the middle of the ocean, Bermuda is one of the richest countries in the world. Good thing they never built a railroad....

How might history be different in P.E.I. never joined Confederation? Would the Island have raised taxes high enough to pay off the railway and eventually buy out the remaining absentee landlords? Would the Island’s business leaders have continued to heavily invest in the manufacturing and industry? It can be assumed that the trade routes with the States and other countries would have lasted.



If the Island had remained independent into the 20th century it would have had to deal with American expansionism, two world wars that brought an end to the old colonial empires, the Cold War in which everyone took a side, and economic depressions that brought well established societies to their knees.

These are hypotheticals of course. No one knows for sure how the Island’s future would have played out if it had remained independent. It's seems highly unlikely that PEI would have remained isolated throughout the events of the early 1900s. Especially considering its ties to the British Empire and the American Republic. Although, it’s not fair to assume that the island would have floundered.

One thing is for sure. We can’t whitewash history saying that Islanders just didn’t get the vision--the big picture that was Canada. Nor can we say that the economy would have sunk because its agrarian economy wouldn’t have sustained it. Afterall, the Confederation era was on the tail end of the Industrial revolution in Britain. And it’s clear that the Island business community was up to date and invested in emerging industries. With Confederation, all those ties for the Island were cut-off.

When we look back at the period of Splendid Isolation on Prince Edward Island, one can imagine the optimism and hope people had for the Island’s future. The feeling of being independent and prosperous. The feeling of packing a heavy punch.

The feeling of the Island being a country onto itself.

PEI crest .jpg

Splendid Isolation is a three part series telling the true story of how Prince Edward Island came to join Canada. In case you missed them than please check out Part I and Part II. 

Next week Mayzil will publish an in-depth feature article focusing on a current issue in Island affairs. If you want to be notified as soon as it's published then please subscribe to our newsletter below.