By H. Wade MacLauchlan
Alex B. Campbell’s premiership is described in a forthcoming political biography as “a come-the-moment, come-the-leader story with few parallels in Canadian history.”
Campbell was born Dec. 1, 1933. On the face of it, this was not an auspicious time to arrive into the world. By the time Campbell turned 12, Canada would be through the Great Depression and the Second World War.
The post-war years brought a new sense of optimism, an expanded role for governments and, not least of all, the baby boom. There were 8.5 million babies born in Canada between 1946 and 1965.
While the currents of change were running strong in Canada by the mid-1960s, there was no assurance that Prince Edward Island would be swept along. The province’s educational system was heavily influenced by the nineteenth century, with 270 one-room schools and a variety of local arrangements, often designed to reflect religious differences.
The P.E.I. economy lagged the rest of the country, with Islanders earning 62 per cent of the Canadian average income and the province being the most indebted in the country.
By 1972, all 270 one-room schools were closed and more than 400 local school districts amalgamated into five administrative units.
In 1969, UPEI and Holland College were created. During Campbell’s time in office, there were transformative changes in the public service, health care, the administration of justice, housing, taxation, land use, heritage, the environment and other areas.
The most palpable change came in the economy. By 1978, Prince Edward Islanders were earning 72.2 per cent of the Canadian average income, closing the gap with the rest of the country by more than 10 percentage points in 12 years.
For the decade of the 1970s, P.E.I. had the third-strongest GDP performance in Canada, after Alberta and British Columbia.
While leading epochal change, Campbell enjoyed historic political popularity, winning four successive elections as premier and never suffering personal or party defeat. Even political opponents described Campbell as charismatic.
The overriding question about Alex Campbell’s political success is: “Where did he get it?” Campbell was a natural. He was open and willing to listen. He had an ability to bring people together. He welcomed change and new ideas. He loved interacting with people, especially one-on-one.
The two best responses to “Where did he get it” are family and community. Alex Campbell enjoyed both freedom and encouragement at home. It may have been an omen that he was born at the corner of Summer and Winter Streets.
Summerside and Stanley Bridge were big influences on Campbell.
Summerside was more open than Charlottetown, starting with the fact that it was, as George Dalton says, “a walking town.”
There was a closeness that came with scale. There were fewer distinctions based on religion in Summerside.
Among the imaginary boundaries for Summerside boys was a demarcation among Eastenders, Westenders and Hillers. There was a further classification – the Centre - for those who lived in the area between Granville and Central Streets, where the Campbell home was located.
These associations were mainly playful, helping to define alignments in sports. Paul H. Schurman says, “It wasn’t really much of a rivalry. We looked out for each of the districts. For boys, it was a neat way of organizing their world.”
Campbell’s friends say that Alex was, in the words of Ken Grant, “a very inclusive kind of guy, right from the word go.”
While Campbell was a young lawyer building a practice with his brother, Mel, and while he and his wife, Marilyn, were starting their family, there was a ready camaraderie around the coffee counters, in service organizations and among the young couples would go from house to house at Stanley Cup time, dressed in the colours of their favourite team.
The sense of camaraderie and community that shaped Alex Campbell was sometimes referred to in Charlottetown as “the Summerside mafia.”
It will be in evidence at the May 30 launch of Alex B. Campbell, Prince Edward Island Premier Who Rocked the Cradle.
H. Wade MacLauchlan is president emeritus of the University of Prince Edward Island. He is the author of a political biography of Alex B. Campbell, which will be launched Friday, May 30, 2:30 to 5 p.m., at the Veterans’ Memorial Convention Centre, Credit Union Place.