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"The Small Under the Protection of the Great"

For the week of Monday July 19, 1999

On July 23, 1767, the British government divided the land of the Prince Edward Island among a select few men as payment for outstanding debts by the government of Great Britain. The result was many years of frustration for tenant farmers who worked on the land.

The Island as surveyed by Samuel Holland in 1765

The Island as surveyed by Samuel Holland in 1765
© McGill-Queens University Press

The British took the Island from France as part of the Treaty of Paris of 1763. Two years later, a detailed map of the island was made by Surveyor General Samuel Holland. It divided the colony into 67 townships of approximately 8100 hectares each. These land lots were then distributed to British noblemen, military officers and civil servants in a lottery. Those whose names were drawn received a valuable prize as the soil on the island was ideal for agriculture. This led to the Island's nickname "the million acre farm."

These new landowners were responsible for recruiting colonists to settle in their townships. However, there was never a real campaign to encourage colonists to move there. As a result, only a handful of tenant farmers lived on the island. Those who did, suffered from the neglect of the absentee landlords. Because of this and high rents, the tenants held strikes, riots and other displays of protest. Unfortunately, these actions rarely helped to improve their situation because most of the landlords had never even visited their own townships.

Prince Edward Island National Park

Prince Edward Island National Park
© Parks Canada

In the 1840s, the Colonial government finally made an effort to help the farmers by buying some of the townships back from the landowners. This did not help everyone as the land prices had risen significantly and many landlords refused to sell. Although the Island achieved responsible government in 1851, it was not until Prince Edward Island joined Confederation in 1873 that the land question was settled. All of the land was finally bought or taken back from the remaining absentee landowners and the farmers were able to buy the land for themselves.

The historical importance of the Land Tenure Question in Prince Edward Island has been recognized by the federal government; it is commemorated at Charlottetown by a Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque.

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