Why P.E.I. is celebrating 150 years — again and again

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Why P.E.I. is celebrating 150 years — again and again

In 2014, Islanders learned the word sesquicentennial. That's sess-kwee-cen-TEN-ee-uhl, and it means 150th anniversary.  

Yes, it was just two years ago that P.E.I. wrapped up a year of exhaustive province-wide celebrations on which federal, provincial and municipal governments collectively spent $26 million and 161 community groups partied with the nearly $5 million from the P.E.I. 2014 Fund — so Islanders can be forgiven for a bit of dejà vu when they hear that Canada is celebrating 150 years of nationhood in 2017.

"This is part of a continuing story," explains UPEI history professor and author Ed MacDonald. We "see Confederation as an event that began in 1864 with a conference in 1864 in Charlottetown... that union was not actually consummated until three years later." 

In 2014, P.E.I. celebrated the road to Confederation, which started with the Charlottetown Conference in the summer of 1864. Now in 2017, it's the nation's turn, with Canada celebrating 150 years since the signing of the British North America Act in 1867.

"We're lucky in Prince Edward Island because we get to celebrate three times!" MacDonald enthused. Islanders got "the starring role in act one," the Charlottetown Conference, he said, and are now part of Canada which celebrates 1867 — although P.E.I. didn't actually sign on to the union until 1873, six years later. 

"So in 2023, we'll do it all again!" said MacDonald. 

'Lucky' or 'boring'? 

"I think it's not a bad thing to celebrate," said Island historian and storyteller David Weale. 

"The real problem on P.E.I. is that there is a really interesting story associated with Confederation and P.E.I. and we've turned it into a boring story," he said from his Charlottetown home. 

In 1864, he points out, Islanders wanted nothing to do with Confederation — P.E.I. politicians didn't even really want to discuss Maritime union.

"Islanders had this feisty, independent spirit that they wanted to go on their own," Weale said. P.E.I. was prospering, its population was booming and Island politicians had even held independent talks with the U.S. on free trade. 

"Islanders have probably never been united on any other issue as much as they were in their desire to be independent and to stay out of Confederation," Weale said. One Summerside newspaper, he said, was actively campaigning for P.E.I. to become a U.S. state.

"We'd been fighting against the British government control of us — now did we just want to turn it over to some people in Ontario? That was playing out in their minds," Weale said. 

They were "heady times," he said, but whether P.E.I. would have been better off independent, he admits he doesn't know — but that's not exactly the point. It's the whitewashing, whether intentional or through ignorance, that bothers him more. 

'Winners writing the history'

"What do you get when you go to these [sesque]centennial things? You just get a boring 'Oh, isn't it great to be part of such a great country.'"

"It's a classic example of the winners writing the history," Weale said. P.E.I.'s "period of extreme self-confidence," has been forgotten. 

Province House is a good example, he adds — built by Islanders 20 years before the Charlottetown Conference, it's a symbol of Island pride. 

MacDonald agrees the anniversary "should be about more than having birthday cake and singing songs -- it should be about considering the richness, the diversity and the complexity of our past."

Two historians agree

The historians agree P.E.I. both gained and lost by joining Confederation, of which Islanders could be more aware.

P.E.I. eventually signed on to the deal in 1873, after building a railroad that pushed the province to the brink of bankruptcy. Although it did negotiate better terms with Upper Canada than other provinces to that point, there was — and is — a loss of independence.

Luckily, perhaps because the Island maintains status as a province, it has retained a unique identity despite its tiny size. 

Confederation, MacDonald notes, is a relationship that continues to evolve — pointing to the recent acrimonious federal-provincial health meetings.

'Centennial fatigue'

Weale complains he and other Islanders are suffering from "centennial fatigue."

"It's getting boring, having one in '14, and '17, and then we'll have another one in '24 — it's not so special anymore," said Weale, adding the "patriotic platitudes" make him "nauseous."

"Even if all the state wants to do is celebrate, as opposed to take a searching look at our history and expose the shadows as well as the sunlight — that in itself is interesting," said MacDonald, a self-professed "history geek."

"There is a tendency among politicians and other kinds of leaders to make history their servant rather than their history," MacDonald points out — and governments like to emphasize the positive to try to generate national pride.

'Address historic wrongs'

Some of those shadows MacDonald describes fell on the Island's indigenous people, the Mi'kmaq. The chiefs of P.E.I.'s two Mi'kmaq first nations call the Canada 150 celebrations "important and significant." 

"Canadians know well the challenging legacy of the first 150 years and the impact these years have had on our Peoples. Optimistically, we see Canada 150 as a moment for our country to seize, in order to initiate reconciliation, to address historic wrongs, to respect rights and treaties, and to begin a new chapter where Canada's indigenous peoples are at the table," said Chief Brian Francis of Abegweit First Nation and Chief Matilda Ramjattan of Lennox Island, who emailed a statement to CBC News.

"We are eager to see the steps being taken to redress the damages from past policies and address current challenges within our own communities and our province," the statement continues. 

"We look forward to the inclusion of the Mi'kmaq people in these events and to building an inclusive future that all Canadians can be proud of."

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