Book chronicles history of P.E.I.'s Progressive Conservatives

Mary MacKay
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There's a first time for everything; for example, Confederation, Daylight Saving Time and even the day margarine could be legally sold on Prince Edward Island.

Author Leonard Cusack and researcher Lori Mayne had their hands full with the PC Historical Society Inc.'s book project to chronicle the extensive 200-plus year history of this P.E.I. political party.

There are plenty of premier moments like these and more in a new book entitled "A Party for Progress: The P.E.I. Progressive Conservative Party 1770-2000."

"It's really a history of P.E.I., emphasizing the Conservative party's role in it, " retired history teacher and author Leonard Cusack says of the book, which was recently launched by the PC Historical Society of P.E.I. and Retromedia Publishing.

This project began about three years ago when a number of Tory supporters expressed a desire for a well-documented history of the party.

They formed the PC Historical Society Inc. to raise funds to pay for this endeavour and then recruited Cusack to write the book.

In his many years as a history teacher at Kinkora Regional High School and UPEI, he had done extensive research into the early years of the political party. He also enlisted the assistance of researcher Lori Mayne for the period covering the late 1950s to 2000.

The basis of the P.E.I. Tories can be traced back to the early years of British settlement of what was then St. John's Island.

"When the English took over P.E.I. in the 1760s, they sent a governor over here and established a government system, and I maintain that the ruling group at the time (in Governor Edmund Fanning's inner circle) was the basis for the Tory party. In the 1790s, they became known as The Family Compact," Cusack says.

"They were the elite in the colony. They were the people with education in the colony. They were the ones involved in business and they were the ones involved in the land, and that's where the money was then."

This compact family of movers and shakers later on became known as the Tories, and they controlled the Island government for more than 60 years.

"In the 1850s when responsible government comes in and the Liberals took over power, the Tories started to call themselves Conservatives ... They had to become an organized party in order to get themselves elected," Cusack says.

The Conservatives won the next election in 1853 and again in 1859, just as P.E.I. was entering a boom period.

"Two things happened. The colony ended up having a free trade agreement with the (United States) that was signed in 1854. And shipbuilding was becoming our major industry ... We had more than 20 shipbuilding yards across P.E.I. producing more than 90 ships a year," Cusack says.

Over the next two decades when the party was at the helm, it built the P.E.I. railway and eventually guided the province into Confederation.

"Every other place in Canada had a railroad so the people thought we needed one, but the problem was we couldn't afford it," Cusack says.

"There were huge rallies all over the province celebrating and praising Premier J.C. Pope for doing this, but after a couple of years they got into financial trouble before it got finished, and that's why we turned again to Confederation."

This, in turn, ultimately led to the end of the century-old land lease system.

"As soon as they get into Confederation, the Conservatives … enacted legislation forcing the landowners to sell the land to the government, who in turn sold it to farmers."

Early in the 20th century, Conservative governments convinced Ottawa to create a new car ferry system, ended the prohibition of cars and rebuilt Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown in the midst of the Depression.

"There was very little money and people all of a sudden were turning to the government for help. The government got a fair bit of money out of Ottawa over this time, but it was a struggle," Cusack says.

"And then when they did get the money it was very difficult to distribute it. Even when you make work projects, the Conservatives expected to get the jobs and for the government not to hire Liberals."

In more recent years, governments revamped the education system by building 15 regional high schools, constructing the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, bringing the Atlantic Veterinary College to UPEI and supported the building of the Confederation Bridge.

"The Conservatives also got into industrial development in the 1960s, sometimes to their demise," Cusack says.

Another interesting implementation by the party still in place today was the adoption of Daylight Saving Time in the early 1960s.

"The urban people wanted it, but the rural people didn't because they would lose an hour every day in their haymaking and the dew would be on there for an hour longer and the cows would be thrown off their schedule," Cusack says with a smile.

And then there was PC Premier Walter Shaw's end to the margarine ban in 1965. The ban had been maintained with an act in the late 1940s at the request of the P.E.I. Dairyman's Association that prohibited the sale and manufacture of this butter substitute.

"Farmers here opposed it as they thought it would hurt (the sales) of their milk products," Cusack continues.

The book ends in 2000 with Pat Binns' second election victory.

"We never looked at going beyond Pat Binns because it's very hard to write history that is basically still happening. You have to cut it off," Mayne says.

"The committee really liked the idea of ending in 2000 because the millennium seemed a good ending point plus he (Binns) had won and was getting into his second term. So it seemed like a natural ending point."



Organizations: Prince of Wales College, Atlantic Veterinary College, Progressive Conservatives Party for Progress The P.E.I. Progressive Conservative Party PC Historical Society of P.E.I. and Retromedia Publishing PC Historical Society Kinkora Regional High School Queen Elizabeth Hospital

Geographic location: P.E.I. Dairyman, Iceland, St. John's Ottawa United States Canada Charlottetown

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