The United States has Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Mexico has its National Palace in Mexico City. These buildings embody the origins of their countries — bricks and mortar that clothed a definitive moment in the birth of their respective nations. Today, these monuments to democracy connect people to the past and give meaning to the future. They anchor lofty notions such as nationhood to time, place and personality.
But lost in Canadian modesty is our monument. Charlottetown and its Province House — the place where, in 1864, leaders of the British North American colonies met for the first time to discuss a shared vision of a united nation. In fact, it’s the only surviving building from any of the Confederation conferences. Indeed, now, as we celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, is the perfect moment to cement this monument in our history.
To this end, I introduced Bill S-236, the Recognition of Charlottetown as the Birthplace of Confederation Act, in the Senate in February. It has now been adopted by the Senate but still needs to be sent for passage through House of Commons. Member of Parliament and fellow Islander Wayne Easter will sponsor the bill in that chamber to help expedite the process; although it would have been nice to have royal assent by Canada Day, I am confident Mr. Easter will have this passed in the fall.
Although we are from different political groups, we are working together on this initiative, a collaboration that’s on the one hand an example of the modern Senate and on the other a demonstration of the importance of this initiative.
Just think about it. It was here, in Province House, that delegates from the British North American colonies— hosted by P.E.I. premier John Hamilton Gray and including Sir John A. Macdonald — debated the contents of a federal constitution, supped on Atlantic lobster and undoubtedly drank and danced into the early hours.
As a P.E.I. senator, this hits close to home doubly. It was here, in Province House, that delegates found the Senate compromise. A Parliament with an upper house comprising 20 Maritimers, 20 Ontarians and 20 Quebecers was indeed the greatest condition for Confederation in order to protect Maritime provinces’ interests from the quickly-growing populations to their west.
Delegates came to Charlottetown with ideas — some of which centred exclusively on a maritime union rather than a grand one — but left with a mission. The wheels were now rolling. Canada was the only way forward.
In the 150 years since Confederation, Canada’s territory has grown and its culture has matured. But now, Province House is showing its age and is in poor condition. Plaster has come off the walls, mortar in the building’s foundation has turned to dust and timber holding up the roof is rotting.
While Province House is owned by the province of Prince Edward Island, it’s actually operated as a national historic site by Parks Canada. Conservation efforts are therefore in the hands of the federal government. While a $46.5 million restoration project has been approved, even the minister responsible for Parks Canada thinks it might not be enough to do the building justice.
Islanders are justifiably proud of the role our province played in Confederation. As Canada’s smallest province, this well-deserved recognition would undoubtedly spur P.E.I. tourism, one of the island’s most important industries. With 150 years behind us as a country, now’s not just the time for festivities.
Let’s look to our next 150 years.
How will Canada’s culture and identity evolve? Which direction will our politics take? What will define our relationship with the rest of the world?
These kinds of questions are hard to answer — but they’re made easier to tackle when standing on a solid foundation.
So let’s do that. Let’s celebrate Charlottetown and its Province House, not just this year but for many years to come. Let’s open our eyes to our past, to our very real monuments, and find meaning in this story of which we’re all a part.
The Fathers of Confederation did their duty. Now it’s our turn.
Diane Griffin is a senator representing Prince Edward Island. She is a member of the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources, as well as the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications.
This article appeared in the June 30, 2017 edition of the Guardian.