AN EXCERPT FROM The Iron Steamship Queen Victoria (Confederation Centre of the Arts exhibition catalogue, penned by Ian Trowell), reads: Quebec was the Capital of Canada in 1864 and it was there the Canadians embarked, on the evening of Monday, August 29, in that year, aboard the SS Queen Victoria for their trip down the St. Lawrence. There were eight in the Confederation contingent: Macdonald, Cartier and Galt, Brown and McDougall, McGee, Alexander Campbell and Hector Langevin.
The ship steamed into Charlottetown Harbour around noon on September 1. However, unbeknownst to the party on board, a circus was performing in Charlottetown and the attention of every soul, including the press, was turned to acting dogs, trick ponies, monkeys and a double trapeze under a huge tent. So it was that the Queen Victoria sailed into port without fanfare. In fact, P.E.I.’s provincial secretary, W. H. Pope, had all he could do to round up a fisherman willing to row him out to the ship to meet the distinguished delegation. They made their way back to port on a flat bottom boat that sported a barrel of flour in the bow and two jars of molasses in the stern.
The meetings which became known as the Charlottetown Conference (that birthed Confederation) took place during those early days of September back in 1864. The rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward to July 2011 when Prince Edward Island 2014 Incorporated was birthed as a non-profit organization to commemorate that event: the 150th anniversary of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference.
Referred to as P.E.I. 2014, the organization has a staff of 12, led by executive director, Penny Walsh-McGuire; they are moving full steam ahead to plan a whopping celebratory year.
Their mandate, Walsh-McGuire says, is “To create an unforgettable 150th anniversary year on the island that encourages increased tourism visitation, creates a legacy, serves as a source of pride and identity for all Canadians, and is recognized as the official kick-off to Canada’s 150th Birthday in 2017.” That’s a tall order.
This is how it works: P.E.I. 2014 is a non-profit organization that reports to a board of directors representing major funding partners. In addition, a 15-member volunteer Community Advisory Committee with representation from the French, aboriginal, multi-cultural communities; expertise in the arts, culture, education, major sporting events; and three youth members, is working on creating a program of events and activities that resonate at the community level.
What this means is that starting on New Year’s Eve of 2014 and bridging into New Year’s Eve of 2015, the island will be hopping—for 366 solid days.
The province came to the table with the largest one-time investment into tourism and culture marketing and product development that’s ever happened. The returns are expected to soar, including a robust five per cent increase in tourism revenues alone. As well, there’s already a hefty hike (73 per cent) on advance bookings for meetings and conventions for the coming year.
Walsh-McGuire adds that when she first came on board, she read The Politics of Participation: Learning from Canada’s Centennial Year, written by Helen Davies. “The book was published as a learning tool for us to look back and forward in planning Canada’s 150 in 2017. Using the same model on a provincial scale, we developed the P.E.I. 2014 Fund, a program whereby Islanders were encouraged to submit their dreams and big ideas for the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference.”
Although Walsh-McGuire and her team fretted that there may not be adequate interest, their fears were put to rest when over 550 project applications rolled in. The real challenge was not to light a fire under Islanders collective butts, but to manage the interest and shear volume of applications. “In the end, we were able to support over 160 projects ranging from new public art and creating community archives to staging new festivals and events, new performing arts production, and much, much more,” she says. The feisty team leader adds: “This incredible response demonstrates the degree to which Islanders from tip to tip have embraced these celebrations. We take our designation as the Birthplace of Confederation very seriously. We are proud that the idea to build Canada really took root here, and that our role as great hosts played a part in that.”
McGuire-Walsh is also quick to point out that P.E.I. 2014 is not a flash-in-the-pan kind of event. “Our three guiding principles are: honouring the past, celebrating the present, and planning for tomorrow. There’s got to be a legacy from 2014, both tangible and intangible.”
Kevin Murphy concurs. An Island entrepreneur with a long-standing track record (two hotels, 12 food and beverage operations, and two breweries) he believes the upcoming 2014 celebrations will be comparable to the opening of the Confederation Bridge in 1997. “When you have something that no one else can claim ownership to, this gives you a particular competitive advantage. You need to exploit it, and that ‘it’ right now is about P.E.I. being the Birthplace of Confederation. This is where the idea of forming this great country started. If it were not for this meeting, who knows what the country would look like, or be.”
In relation to the plethora of activities in the making, Murphy muses that although most businesses will benefit by default, “The good operators will position themselves to benefit from the influx of visitors. They will plan and be ready rather than just wait and see what happens.”
One of Murphy’s properties, The Great George Hotel, was part of the 1864 conference as delegates from Nova Scotia stayed there. To be sure, Murphy will not be resting on his laurels. Already he’s involved in the planning and excited about the prospects. “We’ll have some specific projects going on at The Great George that are directly tied to the 2014 celebrations.”
Who knows, there could even be a circus in town to commemorate the event. But this time, nothing will go unnoticed.