Province House in Charlottetown is the home of Prince Edward Island's Legislative Assembly. The neo-classical building was designed by Isaac Smith and built between 1843 and 1847. It was the site of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference, where formal discussions began that set Canada and the Maritime colonies on the road to Confederation.

Early Government

In the mid-1760s, Great Britain’s scheme to develop its new colony of Prince Edward Island (then called St. John’s Island), was to divide it into 67 private estates and grant these 20,000 acre lots to qualified landlords, making them responsible for settling the land. Though the problems resulting from this system of leasehold land tenure would dominate Island politics for the next century, it yielded one positive outcome: At the time, the colony was considered part of Nova Scotia and administered from Halifax. In 1768, the Island’s new landlords demanded that “their” colony be made a separate entity. London agreed, and in 1769 the Island received its own civil administration. This included an elected House of Assembly and an appointed Legislative Council. The first general election was held in 1773.

Temporary Quarters

In the absence of a purpose-built legislature, the first meeting of the House of Assembly was in a local tavern. One of the first motions put before the House was to fine the tavern’s doorkeeper for contempt. He’d been overheard muttering: “This is a damned queer parliament.”

The House continued to meet in taverns and private residences until 1812, when it moved to the second floor of a new courthouse on Queen Square. Though the new quarters were cramped and did double duty as a public meeting space when the Assembly was not in session, the Legislature finally had a regular home.

Funding

The process of raising the money to build an improved courthouse/legislature illustrates how thoroughly the issue of land ownership dominated politics. In 1837, the Assembly passed a property tax law to raise the funds for a new building. Government had done this several other times in the 1830s to build a vice-regal residence (Government House) and an advanced school (Central Academy).

The 1837 law, however, also proposed taxing undeveloped land. Advocates of land reform thought this a fit punishment of non-resident landowners who had failed to meet the original terms of their grants. Landowners, on the other hand, saw it as an attack on their property rights and lodged an appeal with the British government in London. London ruled in favour of the colony, the tax was allowed, and in the summer of 1839 a call went out for designs for the new legislature building.

Specifications were for a brick or stone structure that would house the greater portion of the colonial government: chambers for the House of Assembly, Legislative Council and Supreme Court and their associated officers, as well as offices for senior administrators, plus visitors’ galleries, a library and fire-proof closets for archiving important documents.

Design and Construction

The winning designer was a master builder named Isaac Smith. Smith immigrated to PEI from England in 1817 and by 1839 he had an extensive portfolio of public buildings, including all three provincial jailhouses, Central Academy school and Government House. There is no indication that he had any formal training as an architect.

Province House, as it came to be known, was his masterwork. Built between 1843 and 1847, the handsome, neo-classical building was imposing. In a city dominated by church spires, it had the only roofline that could compete. The final cost was 16,838 Pounds. (To put this in perspective, the most lucrative crop in the colony at the time was oats; the 1847 crop yielded 22,000 Pounds in exports.)

As the setting for law making and, until 1875, Supreme Court hearings, Province House by its nature became an important part of PEI history. However, its place as a landmark in Canadian history came more by chance than choice.

Charlottetown Conference

In 1864, political delegates from PEI, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick met in Charlottetown to discuss the possible union of their colonies. Delegates from the Province of Canada, who wanted a wider federation of all British North American colonies, also decided to attend – and succeeded in pushing their Maritime counterparts towards the idea of Confederation.

Meetings were held at Province House between 1 and 7 September, 1864. A celebratory ball was hosted for the delegates and their companions at Province House on 8 September. The council chamber where meetings had been held was turned into a reception room, while the library served as a bar, and the Assembly as a dance floor.

The momentum established at the Charlottetown Conference resulted in the creation of Canada in 1867, but it was not enough to entice Prince Edward Island to join. In 1865, the House of Assembly firmly rejected further participation in Confederation talks. A year later, a more emphatic resolution confirmed that “No Terms” could entice the Island into the union.

However, in 1873, with PEI facing bankruptcy over a failed railway project, the Assembly voted overwhelmingly to accept Ottawa’s terms of Confederation. On 1 July, 1873, the document proclaiming Prince Edward Island as Canada’s seventh province was read from the balcony of Province House’s south portico.

Modern Use

In 1966, Province House was designated a National Historic Site. It is unique in that it functions today as both a working legislature and a symbol of the birthplace of Confederation. This too, is as much by chance as design.

In 1893, the province decided to reform the Legislature as a unicameral, or single-house, body. The House of Assembly and Legislative Council were amalgamated to become the Legislative Assembly. The new body met in the former House of Assembly chamber.

The former Council chamber, where the Charlottetown Conference had convened, was turned into a rather cluttered office and meeting space. In 1914 a large bronze-relief artwork, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Conference was added to the clutter. By the 1920s, the room had been dubbed the Confederation Chamber. It became a venue for small museum exhibits and special receptions, a “must see” for tourists, and was part of the itinerary of virtually every visiting dignitary. It even hosted the occasional funeral wake, the last in 1954 for Senator and former Premier John Walter Jones.

The Chamber’s status as a symbol of Confederation, a heritage space, gradually took over, and as this happened other functions faded away. By the 1950s it was considered one of Prince Edward Island’s main tourist attractions, a position it holds to this day.