Politics on Prince Edward Island | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Politics on Prince Edward Island

Prince Edward Island has a minority Progressive Conservative government, elected 23 April 2019. The premier is Dennis King and the lieutenant-governor is Antoinette Perry. Peter Bevan-Baker leads the only Green Party opposition in Canada. Until 2019, only the Liberals or Progressive Conservatives had ever governed or formed the official opposition. The dominance of these two parties has led some to call PEI the purest two-party system in the country. Yet PEI has seen a number of electoral firsts: Aubin-Edmond Arsenault was Canada’s first Acadian premier; Joe Ghiz was Canada’s first premier of non-European descent; and Catherine Callbeck was the first woman in Canada to win an election as premier.

Province House

Province House, Charlottetown, is home to the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island.

Provincial Government Structure

There are 27 seats in Prince Edward Island’s provincial government. Each seat is held by a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) elected by eligible voters in their electoral district. According to the Elections Act, provincial elections are to be held on the first Monday of October, every four years. Sometimes, should the party in power see it as advantageous, an election may be called before this date. Elections may also occur before four years have passed in cases where the government no longer has the confidence of the Legislative Assembly (see Minority Governments in Canada).

As with the other provinces, PEI uses a first past the post electoral system, meaning the candidate with the most votes in each electoral district wins. Typically, the party with the most seats forms the government, and the leader of this party becomes premier. However, a party with fewer seats may also form a coalition with members of another party or parties in order to form the government.

Technically, as the Queen’s representative, the lieutenant-governor holds the highest provincial office, though in reality this role is largely symbolic. (See also Premiers of Prince Edward Island: Table; Lieutenant-Governors of Prince Edward Island: Table.)

The premier typically appoints members of the Cabinet from among the MLAs belonging to the party in power. Cabinet members are referred to as ministers and oversee specific portfolios. Typical portfolios include finance, health and education.


First Colonial Government: 1769

The approximate areas controlled by the French, English and Hudson’s Bay Company (Rupert’s Land) in Canada. The map depicts the time period after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and before the Seven Years’ War (1756-63).

Prince Edward Island (known as Île St-Jean or Island of St. John until 1799) was originally part of Acadia, a colony of New France. In 1763, following the Seven Years’ War, Britain took control of PEI as well as several other French colonies (see Treaty of Paris 1763). PEI received its first government in 1769.

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In 1764, Britain began to survey PEI in order to divide the island into lots. In 1767, the lots were allocated to landlords who were then responsible for finding tenants and so settling the island. This land-division scheme resulted in years of problems for PEI, as the tenant farmers could not own their lands. The “Land Question” dominated island politics throughout the 19th century. It was resolved in 1875 with the passage of the Compulsory Land Purchase Act; however, the Land Question continues to resonate today.

Representative (1773) and Responsible Government (1851)

In 1773, PEI received its first representative government. Members of the House of Assembly (lower house) were elected by male, Protestant residents of the island. However, the governor, his executive council (cabinet) and legislative council (upper house) were still appointed by Britain.

The colony was granted responsible government in 1851. This meant that the premier and their executive were primarily chosen from the elected assembly. In addition, the executive would need the support of the majority of the assembly in order to govern. The legislative council remained an appointed body until 1862, when its members also began to be elected.

George Coles and Early Governments: 1851–73

George Coles

In 1851, George Coles became PEI's first premier. Photo taken in Montreal, Quebec, in 1865.

George Coles was PEI’s first premier. To the extent that such labels can be applied to 19th-century PEI politics, Coles was a Liberal. He attended the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences in 1864, but opposed PEI joining Confederation, primarily because the agreement did not address the Land Question.

PEI had 11 governments and seven different premiers between 1851 and 1873, when the island joined Confederation. Several premiers were in office more than once, namely Coles (1851–54, 1855–59, 1867–69), James Colledge Pope (1865–67, 1870) and Robert Haythorne (1869–70, 1871–73). A debate over whether or not to fund Catholic schools dominated politics at this time, and led to coalitions and alliances, none of which lasted.

Pope, Owen, Davies and Sullivan: 1873–89

James Colledge Pope

James Colledge Pope was premier of PEI three times (1865-1867, 1870, 1873). 

James Colledge Pope, a Conservative, led the province into Confederation in 1873 (see also Prince Edward Island and Confederation). Pope had already served as premier in 1865–67 and in 1870. When Pope retired in 1873, Lemuel Owen succeeded him. Owen’s government solved the Land Question problem by passing the Compulsory Land Purchase Act in 1875. The Act forced owners of land larger than 500 acres to sell their property to the provincial government, who resold it to farmers at a lower price.

Owen lost the 1876 election and was followed by Louis Davies, a Liberal. In 1879, William Sullivan formed a Conservative government, making Sullivan PEI’s first Catholic premier. Sullivan served as premier for 10 years, until 1889.

McLeod, Frederick Peters, Warburton and Farquharson: 1889–1901

When William Sullivan resigned after being appointed to the Supreme Court of PEI he was replaced by Neil McLeod. Through a series of by-elections, McLeod’s Conservative government was reduced to a minority and Liberal Frederick Peters was asked to form government. In 1893, under Peters’ leadership, PEI’s House of Assembly and legislative council were merged into one. When Peters resigned in 1897, he was succeeded by Alexander Warburton. Warburton served just one year, and was in turn followed by Donald Farquharson. Farquharson resigned in 1901, concluding that he could better serve PEI were he a member of federal Parliament.

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In the years following their entry into Confederation, many provinces abolished their legislative councils, also known as upper houses. Manitoba, for example, joined Confederation in 1870 and abolished its upper house in 1876, while New Brunswick joined in 1867 and abolished its upper house in 1892. PEI chose a different approach. In 1893, it combined its House of Assembly and legislative council into one. Voters in each of the island’s 15 electoral districts elected two representatives, an assemblyman and a councillor, to a 30-member legislature. This system remained in place until 1994, when the island adopted single-member ridings and reduced the legislature to 27 seats. The first general election using this new system was held in 1996.

Arthur Peters, Haszard and James Palmer: 1901–11

Arthur Peters

Arthur Peters was premier of PEI from 1901 to 1908. Photo circa 1905. 

Arthur Peters, the younger brother of former premier Frederick Peters, was premier from 1901 to 1908. Like several premiers before him, Peters wanted to renegotiate the deal that had brought PEI into Confederation. At Confederation PEI had been given six seats in federal Parliament. In 1892 that number was reduced to five and in 1903 to four. While Peters wasn’t able to solve the problem of PEI’s dwindling representation in the Canadian government, he was known as a strong advocate for the issue.

When Peters died in office in 1908, a general election was called and Francis Haszard, a fellow Liberal, won. Haszard continued the fight to ensure PEI did not lose any more federal seats. But he was no more successful than his predecessors, and he resigned as premier in 1911. He was succeeded by James Palmer, son of Edward Palmer, who had served as premier from 1859 to 1863. However, Palmer lost his seat in a by-election, and only served as premier for seven months. The loss gave the Conservatives a majority, and John Mathieson was asked to form a government, ending 20 years of Liberal rule in the province.

Mathieson and Arsenault: 1911–19

Aubin-Edmond Arsenault

Aubin-Edmond Arsenault was premier of PEI from 1917 to 1919. He was the country's first Acadian premier.

John Mathieson managed to have a clause inserted in the 1915 amendment to the British North American Act guaranteeing PEI would never have fewer than four members of Parliament. He resigned in 1917 upon his appointment to the Supreme Court of PEI. Aubin-Edmond Arsenault succeeded him, becoming the first Acadian premier in Canada. Arsenault lost the 1919 general election to John Bell, a Liberal.

Bell, Stewart, Saunders and Lea: 1919–33

John Bell served as premier from 1919 to 1923. In 1922, his government granted women the right to vote (with the exception of female status Indians, see also Indigenous Suffrage). Bell also expanded PEI’s roadways. However, the resulting tax increases proved to be highly unpopular. He was voted out of office in the 1923 general election and replaced by Conservative leader James Stewart. Stewart’s promise to repeal prohibition caused him to lose the 1927 election. Liberal Albert Saunders, who promised to continue prohibition, won. Saunders continued the expansion of the Island’s roadways, and also increased salaries for teachers. He resigned in 1930 upon his appointment to the Supreme Court of PEI. Walter Lea served briefly in his stead before losing the 1931 general election to Stewart, who served as premier for the second time between 1931 and 1933.

MacMillan, Lea and Campbell: 1933–43

Thane Campbell

Thane Campbell was premier of PEI from 1936 to 1943. 

William MacMillan, a medical doctor, had the misfortune of becoming premier in 1933, and so shouldered responsibility for the devastation of the Great Depression. He lost every seat to the Liberals in the 1935 election. The headline in the Charlottetown Guardian read, “Islanders Vote For Liberal Dictatorship.” Walter Lea, who had briefly served as premier in 1930–31, was the victor of the 1935 sweep. However, Lea had campaigned from his hospital bed, and died the next year. Lea was succeeded by Thane Campbell, who led the Liberals to another strong majority in the 1939 general election. In 1943, Campbell resigned as premier upon being appointed to the Supreme Court of PEI.

Jones, Matheson and Shaw: 1943–66

Walter Jones

Walter Jones was premier of PEI from 1943 to 1953. 

Walter Jones succeeded Thane Campbell as Liberal leader and led his party to victory in the 1943 election. Jones’ interests were agriculture and preserving the “Island way of life.” He also ended prohibition in 1948, albeit replacing it with strict government control over alcohol sales and distribution. He resigned in 1953 upon being appointed to the Senate. His successor, Alex Matheson, continued the Liberal victory streak, handily winning the 1955 election. His focus was on bringing electric power to rural PEI. In 1959, the Liberals’ luck ran out, and Matheson was defeated after 24 years of Liberal rule in the province. Progressive Conservative premier Walter Shaw continued with his own reforms, including establishing a professional civil service by standardizing hiring practices and ending patronage appointments. In 1966, Shaw lost the general election to the Liberals under Alexander Campbell.

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A premier may leave office for a number of reasons. They may lose their seat during an election, resign over a controversy, or simply retire. In PEI, however, many premiers have left office during their term in order to accept appointments to the provincial Supreme Court. Historically, these appointments have been seen as a step up from the premiership. To date, seven premiers have left office for the Supreme Court: Joseph Hensley, William Sullivan, Alexander Warburton, Francis Haszard, John Mathieson, Albert Saunders and Thane Campbell. Edward Palmer, Aubin-Edmond Arsenault, Alexander Campbell and Joseph Ghiz were also appointed to the Supreme Court, though not while in office.

Alexander Campbell, William Campbell and MacLean: 1966–81

Alex Campbell was premier of PEI from 1966 to 1978. He's pictured here with his wife, Marilyn, and their children Blair, Heather and Graham at their home on Maple Avenue in 1970. 

The son of former premier Thane Campbell, Alex Campbell was premier for 12 years, making him the longest-serving premier in provincial history. Campbell won elections in 1966, 1970, 1974 and 1978. He partnered with Ottawa in developing the Comprehensive Development Plan, which included encouraging large-scale farming and modernizing the province’s school system. He resigned in 1978 and was appointed to the Supreme Court of PEI. Alex Campbell was succeeded by William Campbell, who lost the 1979 election to Angus MacLean, a Progressive Conservative.

A Second World War veteran, MacLean’s primary focus was on preserving the Island’s rural way of life. Under his tenure, he banned the construction of shopping malls. He resigned his seat late in 1981.

Lee and Joseph Ghiz: 1981─93

Joseph Ghiz
Joseph Ghiz was premier of PEI from 1986 to 1993. The son of a Lebanese immigrant, Ghiz was the first premier in Canada of non-European ancestry.

When Angus MacLean resigned in 1981, James Lee won the Progressive Conservative leadership convention and became premier. His government was re-elected in the 1982 general election. Lee was instrumental in establishing the Atlantic Veterinary School in PEI. However, he lost his own seat in 1986 when the Liberals under Joe Ghiz swept to power. Ghiz and his party had another decisive victory in 1989, winning 30 of the legislature’s 32 seats. The son of a Lebanese immigrant, Ghiz was also the first premier in Canada to be of non-European ancestry. Ghiz received national attention for his support of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. He resigned in 1993, just after the defeat of the Charlottetown Accord.

Callbeck and Milligan: 1993─96

Catherine Callbeck

Catherine Callbeck was premier of PEI from 1993 to 1996. Photo taken on 23 January 1993, following Callbeck's election as leader of the Liberal Party.

Catherine Callbeck replaced Joe Ghiz as leader of the Liberal party in 1993, and won a seat in the 1993 general election held shortly thereafter. Callbeck was the third woman in Canada to become premier, after Rita Johnston in British Columbia (April 1991) and Nellie Cournoyea in the Northwest Territories (November 1991). However, unlike Johnston and Cournoyea before her, Callbeck was the first woman to be elected premier, as opposed to being chosen by their party (Johnston) or through consensus government (Cournoyea).

Callbeck’s tenure as premier was marked by labour strife, as she tried to reorganize government and control its spending. This involved unpopular cuts and layoffs. In 1996, she resigned as premier. She was succeeded by Keith Milligan, who lost the 1996 election to Progressive Conservative leader Pat Binns. When the Island New Democrats won a single riding during this election, it marked the first time in PEI’s history that a party other than the Liberals or Conservatives won a seat.

Binns and Robert Ghiz: 1996─2015

Robert Ghiz

Robert Ghiz was premier of PEI from 2007 to 2015. Photo taken on 21 July 2011. 

In 1996, the Progressive Conservatives under Pat Binns won 18 of the legislature’s 27 seats; in the next election, held in 2000, the PCs under Binns won all but one seat. Binns’ focus while premier was on rural development and conservation. PEI’s household recycling system was instituted during his tenure, and the Binns government also supported sustainable energy programs. Binns, however, lost the 2007 election to Liberal Robert Ghiz, son of former premier Joe Ghiz.

Ghiz won both the 2007 and 2011 general elections with large majorities. Highlights of Ghiz’s tenure as premier include massive investments in wind power. Ghiz surprised everyone when he resigned in 2015. The Liberal party chose Wade MacLauchlan as his successor.

MacLauchlan and King: 2015 to Present

Wade MacLauchlan

Wade MacLauchlan was premier of PEI from 2015 to 2019.

When Wade MacLauchlan succeeded Robert Ghiz in February 2015, he became Canada’s second openly gay premier (following Kathleen Wynne). He was credited with rescuing a struggling Liberal Party in order to win the general election held in May 2015.

Under MacLauchlan’s premiership, PEI’s economy improved considerably, and was seen as leading the country. However, this did not translate into support either for the premier himself or for his party. In 2016, the province held a plebiscite on electoral reform, in which mixed-member proportional representation was the winning option. MacLauchlan’s personal popularity plummeted following his decision not to honour the results. His government cited low voter turnout (36.5 per cent) as the reason for making this decision. A second vote was held in conjunction with the 2019 election, in which Islanders were asked to ratify the previous results. The “No” side won, with 51 per cent rejecting the reform option. However, MacLauchlan’s Liberals were reduced to third-party status, winning just six seats. The Progressive Conservatives under Dennis King formed the first minority government in PEI since the province joined Confederation, and the Green Party formed the official opposition.

Further Reading