Edward Whelan | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Edward Whelan

Edward Whelan, politician, journalist (born 1824 in Ballina, Ireland; died 10 December 1867 in Charlottetown, PE).

Edward Whelan, politician, journalist (born 1824 in Ballina, Ireland; died 10 December 1867 in Charlottetown, PE). Edward Whelan was one of Prince Edward Island's delegates to the Québec Conference. As a journalist and legislator in Prince Edward Island, he strongly supported Confederation, which put him at odds with most of his own political party, a party he helped shape.

Early Life

Edward Whelan received a rudimentary education in Ballina, Ireland, and in Scotland before immigrating with his mother to Halifax, by Whelan’s account, in 1831. He entered St. Mary’s school at once, and in the following year became an apprentice in the printing office of newspaper owner Joseph Howe. His employer encouraged him to follow his own example by continuing his education through reading. Whelan attended St. Mary’s Seminary, all the while continuing to work in Howe’s office until 1842.

In the same year, Whelan became editor of the Register, a newspaper that appealed to Irish Roman Catholics and Liberals in particular. The paper was outspokenly committed to the repeal of the union between Ireland and England. He attempted in the following year to establish a new Liberal paper in Halifax that would not be aligned with specific ethnic or religious interests. The project never got off the ground, and in the summer of 1843, he moved to Prince Edward Island. He founded a twice-weekly newspaper, the Palladium, devoted to the Island’s Reform cause, and particularly to attacking the predominant system of leasehold land tenure — a key plank of the Reform party.

See also Prince Edward Island Land Question.

Political Career

Edward Whelan believed that a solution to the land question would not be possible until Prince Edward Island gained responsible government. This constitutional reform, in his view, would provide the means with which leasehold tenure could be dismantled. His strategy was to avoid committing himself on more specific remedies over which Reformers might disagree, and instead to focus on the issue of responsible government as the essential preliminary. Yet the Palladium encountered financial difficulties and ceased publication in May 1845.

Although Whelan had considered leaving the Island after the demise of his paper, he stayed after he won a seat in the House of Assembly, representing St. Peters, in eastern Prince Edward Island, in August 1846.

On 7 August 1847, he commenced publishing a new weekly, the Examiner. In it, he wielded a brilliant satiric pen and demonstrated exceptionally keen insight into character. His portraits and analyses of his contemporaries have informed perceptions ever since.

Whelan formed a strong working alliance with George Coles, a successful entrepreneur and former Conservative, who became leader of the Reform party. By early 1850, as the struggle for responsible government was approaching a climax, Whelan increased the frequency of publication of the Examiner. A talented orator, he also spoke at many public meetings supporting the cause. Responsible government was won in the colony in April 1851.

Through the 1850s, Whelan played a leading role in promoting and defending the major reforms that the Liberals introduced. The Coles–Whelan partnership became a legendary feature of the Island’s “Golden Age.” Coles dominated debate in the Assembly, whereas Whelan established himself as the journalistic champion of the progressive agenda, which included: extending the electoral franchise, bringing in free education and attempting to reform the land system.


When union of the British North American colonies emerged as a practical political question in 1864, Edward Whelan became enthusiastic about the project, despite his initial skepticism. He anticipated that the Colonial Office — which had provided landlords with consistent backing against Reform measures — would no longer be “intermeddling [...] in our local legislation.”

Whelan was named a delegate to the Québec Conference, and despite his concern over the provisions for representation of the Island in federal legislative bodies — which he considered inadequate — he continued to support union, advocating the cause in the Examiner. But on this subject he was in a small minority among Islanders, and especially within the Liberal party. Whelan complained in 1866 that he had never been subjected to so much abuse as over this issue.

In the following year, he suffered electoral defeat for the first time. The Liberals won a general election over a badly divided Conservative party, and Whelan initially retained his seat. But he accepted the office of Queen’s Printer and was thereby obliged to face his constituents in a by-election, which he lost to Edward Reilly, a former employee and a fellow Liberal. Several factors contributed to Whelan’s defeat, and Confederation was certainly one of them.

See also Prince Edward Island and Confederation.

Life after Politics

Edward Whelan appears never to have recovered from the defeat. His health declined over several months and on 10 December he died of dropsy at age 43. He has become known as a tragic figure, and his personal life bears this out. He married twice; his first wife, 11 years his senior, died in 1845 — five months after their marriage. All of his children predeceased him, with the exception of Edward, Jr., who died by drowning at age 19.


Edward Whelan’s historical reputation is primarily, and justifiably, that of the most talented journalist Prince Edward Island has ever harboured. His precociousness — coming on his own to the colony as a teenager to start his own Reform paper — adds to the lustre. He was at the centre of every major issue from his arrival on the Island until his death: the land question, responsible government, struggles over the proper relationship of religion and education, and finally, Confederation. He was most successful in the struggle for responsible government, articulating a winning strategy for Island reformers. Nobody in his lifetime could claim a winning record on the land question; his relationship to church–state issues was difficult and fraught with complexity; and on the issue of Confederation, he did not live to see his cause succeed.

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