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Prince Edward Island's Confederation Campaigner Defeated

For the week of Monday December 20, 2010

On December 20, 1864, Colonel John Hamilton Gray unexpectedly resigned as Premier of Prince Edward Island. This sudden move ended the political ambitions of a leading supporter of Confederation who helped give birth to a nation.

Colonel The Honourable John Hamilton Gray
© Bibliothèque du Parlement / Library and Archives Canada / C-018884
Gray was born into a wealthy Prince Edward Island family, but spent many of the early years of his life overseas, serving for 21 years in the British Army. Upon his return to the Island in 1852, Gray successfully transitioned to political life and was elected to the province’s legislative assembly in 1858. By 1863, Gray had become premier of Prince Edward Island, at a time when the debate over the federation of the provinces of British North America was gathering momentum throughout the colonies.

In 1864, the Island government considered sending delegates to a conference with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia on a proposed union of the three Maritime British North American colonies. Gray was an early supporter of such a union, but many politicians opposed the idea fearing a loss of the Island’s independence if it were to join a larger federation. However, they agreed to hold the conference when representatives from the united Province of Canada (now Ontario and Quebec) asked to attend.

Delegates at the Charlottetown Conference © Library and Archives Canada / PA-091061
The conference was held in Charlottetown from September 1-9, 1864, with Gray, the host Premier, nominated as conference chairman. By the end of the conference, Gray agreed with the proposition of a united British North America. However, some Island delegates argued against the proposal.

Despite this division, Gray and six other Island delegates toured the united Province of Canada to further explore the idea of Confederation. But when Gray returned from these meetings, Edward Palmer, the leading anti-confederate delegate, had already whipped the island into an anti-Confederation frenzy. As this pressure continued into December, Gray had little option but to resign since he was isolated from the public and opposed by many within his own party.

After his defeat, Gray returned to his first passion, the military, becoming in 1867 the head of the Island’s militia. Ultimately, his active support for Confederation contributed to the birth of Canada in 1867.

Colonel John Hamilton Gray was designated a national historic person in 1939. That same year, Prince Edward Island fathers of Confederation George Coles, T. Heath Haviland, A.A. Macdonald, Edward Palmer, W. H. Pope, and Edward Whelan, were designated national historic persons while Prince Edward Island’s entry into Confederation in 1873 became a national historic event in 1950.

For more information on Confederation, please read the This Week in History story Dream of a Nation. Also, please visit the Canadian Confederation section of the Library and Archives of Canada website to learn more about Canada’s founding fathers.

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