Men in top hats and long jackets stroll down the charming colonial streets of Charlottetown. Passersby listen in on their polite debate: Would a union of the Maritime provinces with the Province of Canada be beneficial?
The discussion, which dominated political talks 150 years ago, returns to the Prince Edward Island capital this year in the form of street vignettes — part of the island’s sesquicentennial celebrations of the Charlottetown Conference, the meeting that would eventually lead to Confederation.
In 1864, three Maritime provinces — Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick — organized a conference to discuss a union among themselves. But after the Province of Canada asked to attend the meeting to propose a wider union, the Maritime-only idea would quickly fade away. With Charlottetown chosen as the site of what was suddenly a much larger gathering, such political luminaries as John A. Macdonald, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Charles Tupper and George-Étienne Cartier made their way to Prince Edward Island in September of that year.
Few officials greeted the delegates when they arrived in Charlottetown, as a far more exciting event was happening that week: the island’s first circus in more than 20 years. The town was unable to accommodate all the visitors and, with the hotels packed with circus-goers, many of the delegates were left to sleep on their ships.
Nevertheless, in just a few days, the idea of a wider union grew into a serious possibility, one that would be further discussed at the Quebec Conference one month later, in Quebec City.
The partying likely helped. Delegates spent the conference drinking and eating at balls, banquets and outings, culminating in an event that kept them toasting and dancing until 4 a.m. A local newspaper enthused that it was the “most brilliant fete that has ever occurred in Charlottetown.”
The province intends to recreate the festive atmosphere of that historic week through year-long celebrations, featuring 150 events across the island, including exhibits, food tastings and daily summer concerts. With Canada’s 150th birthday just around the corner, the island is putting a spotlight on its role in Canadian Confederation. And this time, it’s prepared to handle the guests.