The Birth (?) of a Nation

A left click will display the entire newspaper ad – it was quite the show!

On August 31, 1864 when the S.S. Queen Victoria, carrying the political elite of the Province of Canada, steamed into Charlottetown harbour there was no one working on the public wharf at the foot of Great George Street. In fact her – and their arrival – went largely unnoted by the good people of PEI. Slaymaker & Nichols’ Olympic Circus was in town – the first visit by a circus to the Island in over twenty years. The lure of the daring feats of the “World’s finest riders, acrobats and clowns” was stronger than a gaggle of politicians in silk hats and beaver coats. Besides the delegation was, so they said, only there as “observers” of a planned conference on a Maritime Union; an event that engendered only slightly more interest in the general populace than their arrival.

A reception committee of one gave welcome – William Henry Pope rowed out to greet them to what became known as the Charlottetown Conference. And when it came time to find accommodation for the gentlemen from the Province of Canada there was no room at the inn – folks into see the circus from across both the Island and the Northumberland Straits had taken every available bed in town. Men who were use to throwing political invective and rhetoric at each other were forced to share close quarters and pleasantries on the Victoria.

For a more amusing account of what took place those seven days in September 1864 Michael Crummy tells us all about when The Circus Comes to Charlottetown.

The Canadian Encyclopedia gives a more sober, politically correct, version of the events that led to us becoming a Nation.

Laurent and Sir John A. talk politics before heading off to a local bar for a nice glass of gin.

Whichever version you feel may best capture the founding of our country – and I prefer Crummy’s – it is an event that is much remarked upon in PEI. Charlottetown is dotted with some fun bronzes of various players in the very Canadian drama (what drama?  There you see I said “Canadian” didn’t I?) that led to Confederation. More than one tourist has had their picture taken on Queen Street with Sir John A MacDonald.

Back in 1864 the water would have almost come up to what is now our back door – it is named Water Street for a reason – however today there is a landfill park behind us called  Confederation Landing.  No doubt so named because the SS Queen Victoria anchored just off shore at that point and it was from nearby Peake’s Wharf that Pope rowed out to offer his welcome.

Celebration – Then and Now
Metal Scupture and Design by Christopher Phillis; Ceramics by Carl Phillis

The area is pleasantly treed and planted – Nora finds it a treasure trove of smells – with an old fashioned boardwalk along the waterfront. In a copse of trees is a metal and ceramic sculpture “Celebration – Then and Now” which has become nicely weathered since it was installed back in 1996. The metal work, commemorating that arrival in 1864, is by Christopher Phillis who also designed the piece; his son Carl Phillis created the ceramics, celebrating the Provinces and Territories crowned by our flag. The senior Phillis was born in England but came to Canada in 1956 and is well known for his metal work; his son is a ceramic artist who features in the collections of many galleries.

The metalwork panorama is a circle with three tableaux representing Charlottetown Harbour, Pope rowing out to greet the SS Queen Victoria, and a group of delegates leaving Province House.
The tableaux are broken up by placques bearing the signatures of the 24 gentlemen who became known as The Fathers of Confederation.


By 19th century standards the Charlottetown waterfront of 1864 was fairly typical of any seaport – a bit seedy and ram shackled. Located at the foot of Great George Street, Peake’s Wharf was an maze of shipyards, warehouses, docks, taverns and decidedly not the best area of town. But as it does today Great George Street led the eye up past some no unsubstantial home and  Saint Dunstan’s Cathedral (later Basilica)  to Province House, the seat of the Island legislature.

Built in 1834 the Cathedral was an English style wooden structure that, though it had none of the impressive grandeur of the stone French-Gothic pile that replaced it in 1908, still dominated the skyline.
(A left click will take you to a slideshow of the panel and a few close-up details including a charming rendering of Province House.)


Built in a Scottish shipyard the S. S. Queen Victoria was launched in 1856 and acquired by the colonial government of Quebec as a tug, mail and provisioning ship. It had an iron hull and operated under a combination of sail and steam. Though given yeomen chores it was seen as elegant enough to serve as transportation for the Prince of Wales during his 1860 visit to Canada. It also saw service as vice-regal transportation for Viscount Monck, the Governor-General of the colony. And of course it served as transportation and accommodation for the delegates from the Province of Canada in September of 1864 but more memorably on that journey it was the site that hosted what many consider the turning point in the Conference.

(And once again a left click will take you to a slideshow for a close up of the delegates and William Henry Pope at his oars.)


Initial talks had prove lacklustre with little interest from the Maritime delegates but then that crafty old bugger Sir John A Macdonald invited everyone to an elaborate champagne luncheon aboard the Queen Victoria. Food was plentiful and bubbly even more so. The events of the day were described in a letter to his wife by George Brown, the Toronto newspaper man and a primary delegate:

“Cartier and I made eloquent speeches – of course – and whether as a result of our eloquence or of the goodness of our champagne, the ice became completely broken, the tongues of the delegates wagged merrily, and the banns of matrimony between all the provinces of B.N.A. having been formally proclaimed and all manner of persons duly warned then and there to speak or forever after hold their tongues – no man appeared to forbid the banns and the union was thereupon formally completed and proclaimed!”

(And once again a left click will take you to a slideshow of the delegates – perhaps leaving Province House at the end of the Conference).  I’m a little puzzled and haven’t been able to discover what that round building to one side is.)


The twenty-four “Fathers of Confederation” posed for a picture on the steps of Government House on September 7, 1864 – the final day of the Conference.  The gentleman seated on the steps in the centre is (the no doubt at this point smugly satisfied) Sir John A. Macdonald; the gentleman jauntily raising his hat – either to shield his eyes from the sun or in salute to the new country – was the youngest member of the group Andrew Macdonald, a delegate from P.E.I.

The architects of Canada in front of Government House, Charlottetown in September of 1864.
George P. Roberts – Archives and Library of Canada

Though it was the birthplace of the concept of a united British North America Prince Edward Island got cold feet and was not part of the original Confederation.  The 1867 terms of the union were seen as unfavourable and it was not until 1873 that they became a Province of the Dominion of Canada.  The first Premier of the new Province was James C Pope, the brother of the man who had greeted the Victoria and her passengers that late August afternoon.

On this day in 1940:The first successful west-to-east navigation of Northwest Passage begins at Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Author: Willym

A senior with the heart of a young'un

5 thoughts on “The Birth (?) of a Nation”

  1. Reblogged this on Larry Muffin At Home and commented:
    A very good history of how a United Canada started as we approach Canada Week and our National Day 1 July. This is why Charlottetown is called the Birthplace of Canada’s Confederation.

  2. What a fascinating and beautiful post. But I wouldn’t go drinking with Sir John; that man looks like he can really hold his liquor. Hope Laurent survived that adventure!

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