The Future of Province House

Back in April of this year, the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island passed Motion 56: The Future of Province House that resolved:

…that the Standing Committee on Legislative Management be tasked to review the 1974 Province House Agreement between the Government of Prince Edward Island and the Government of Canada, and to report back to the Legislative Assembly with recommendations for revisions to that Agreement which will, 1) ensure the long-term structural maintenance of the building, including basic needed repairs; and 2) transform Province House into a much more dynamic place for engaging Islanders in the history, culture and operation of their own Legislature and democracy;”

I’m passionate about Province House as the centre Prince Edward Island life, so I took the opportunity, when it was offered to the public, to make a presentation to the Standing Committee. Here’s what I presented:

Presentation to the 
Standing Committee on Legislative Management
on Motion 56: the Future of Province House
Peter Rukavina, Charlottetown – October 14, 2010

Madam Chair and Members of the Committee,

I am what former Clerk of the Legislative Assembly Allan Rankin calls a “new growth Islander.”

My partner Catherine and I moved to Charlottetown in 1993: we planned to stay for 18 months; 18 years later, we’re still here.

One block east of here, at 100 Prince Street, is a house built in 1827 by Henry Smith. Henry Smith’s brother Isaac Smith designed this building, and Isaac and Henry played important roles in its construction.

A century later, 100 Prince Street was home to Brigadier Bill Reid, World War II veteran, commander of the Prince Edward Island Regiment and another former Clerk of the Legislative Assembly.

And it has been our home since 2000 when we purchased it from the Reid family.

Since our arrival on Prince Edward Island this has been our neighbourhood: Catherine and I have lived and worked within a few blocks of Province House, off and on, since we arrived here.

Our first apartment was up the street at 50 Great George, my first job was across the street on Victoria Row, and today I work with Elections PEI, right next door. I walk by Province House every morning on my way to work, and every night after supper on a walk with my 10 year old son Oliver.

So I appear before you today as a citizen of Prince Edward Island, of course, but also as a neighbour, a neighbour who feels a sense of responsibility to this building, both due its role in history, but also its ever-present role in our daily life.

It’s hard to wake up in Henry Smith and Bill Reid’s house every morning and not feel called to speak out where matters of Province House are concerned.

I am not a builder nor an architect, and I couldn’t tell you what it means that this is a “neo-classical” building, but I love it nonetheless.

I love how it is such a mirror of the Island spirit: just rising up out of nowhere, without any airs, bold but without pretense, simple but not boring, grand, but not too grand.

I love the sense of history that you can’t help but feel as you walk in the front door, your feet wearing the steps just a little bit deeper.

I love the skylights that bring sunlight into the heart of the building, the hidden rooms above the Speaker’s Lounge that you can only get to by climbing through the attic, the tunnel to the Confederation Centre, and the rocks, one for every province, in the back yard.

I love the view down Great George Street to the water, and I love the view up Great George Street from the water of a building that takes on a completely different character depending on the season and the time of day.

Simply as a building, a part of the Island landscape, Province House is worth preserving: it is at the centre of Charlottetown and at the heart of Island life and that it is called Province House and not Province Building telegraphs the central role in Island life it has played in the 167 years since it was conceived.

That all said, I’m not particularly concerned with this building’s past, for I think its most interesting days lie ahead.

Yes, the Charlottetown Conference was held here in 1864, and that is, no doubt, an occasion worthy of memorializing and celebration.

But hosting the Charlottetown Conference is hardly the most important role this building has played: for 17 years before 1864, and 146 years after, this building has been at the heart of a the democratic tradition in Prince Edward Island.

And Islanders do democracy well.

The Island’s small size and small population means that we’re extraordinarily well-represented by our Members of the Legislative Assembly.

My own District #12, in downtown Charlottetown, for example, is home to about 3,000 electors; in British Columbia, by contrast, the smallest electoral district has 13,000 electors, and the average has about 30,000.

This difference in scale means that the practice of democracy here on the Island is unique: from the degree of engagement of electors at polling time, to the degree of engagement by members with those they represent between elections, to the way that business is conducted in the House.

So while for a week in 1864 we may have lent this building’s democracy-enhancing superpowers to those plotting Canada, in the 7,600-odd weeks since, the proceedings conducted within these walls have resulted in prohibition passing and being overturned, cars disallowed and then allowed, roads being paved, hospitals being built, children learning to read, and thousands upon thousands of other decisions and debates, small and large, that together have shaped what is Prince Edward Island in 2010.

I think what happens in this building is awe-inspiring.

We all take it for granted, mostly, and sometimes it seems affected and tradition bound.

But our democracy is a carefully honed system that lets Island society work without anyone getting hurt or killed in the process, a system that ensures that the voices of Islanders rural and urban are represented, a system that is well-structured, transparent, and capable of including almost everyone.

And yet if you walk in the front door of Province House as a visitor unwise to these wonders you will never hear any of this.

The commissionaire will tell you about the movie running on the first floor, and then point you to a “self-guided tour” of the second floor where you will find, quite frankly, historical interpretation that has all the excitement of a funeral parlour.

There are a few architectural diagrams, a few artifacts, some old paintings, and some informational posters, all of it focused almost exclusively on the Charlottetown Conference.

There are three rooms set up in 1864 fashion – this Library, the Clerk’s Office, and the Confederation Chamber – each gated to prevent the public from experiencing anything tangible.

It is quite possible, I think, to spend 30 minutes touring Province House and to emerge with the general feeling that this is, at best, a poorly executed museum and, at worst, a drafty old building where nothing much of interest has happened for a century or two.

Take this room, the Legislative Library.

Your committee’s last meeting in this room, two weeks ago, was on an unusually warm fall day: the windows were up, the doors wide open, and a cross-breeze blew up from the harbour and through the building.

There were cruise ships and tour buses in town, so there was plenty of tourist traffic, and so as the committee met there was a constant stream of people walking up the stairs on their self-guided tour.

As I sat here watching all this happen I was struck by how well-suited to this sort of meeting this room is and for those tourists lucky enough to have visited on that day it was a rare opportunity to see the building doing what it does best.

And yet, for most of the year, this room sits empty of people, of life, lined with bookcases holding pretend books, chairs that are never sat in, around a table that’s never used. Nobody ever gets to feel the breeze off the harbour because it’s at the far side of a barred room.

I fail to see how this serves anyone.

Surely the Islanders who built this building, the Islanders who conducted the business of the colony and of the province in this room, are not memorialized by it being kept as a precious rarified space, completely devoid of spirit.

And surely Islanders of today are not served by having a room that could otherwise play host to all manner of lively democratic activity locked away from us in the same fashion.

The same could be said of the other “preserved” spaces in Province House: their best and most appropriate use is as working spaces in a working legislature, not as static tributes to a bygone era.

So as your committee seeks to “transform Province House into a much more dynamic place for engaging Islanders,” I would encourage you to keep foremost in your mind those transformations that would enhance the utility of the building for everyday democratic purposes, leaving historic interpretation a secondary role, a role that leavens but doesn’t dominate.

Regarding the long-term maintenance of the building, I am hardly in a position to advise. But I can tell you, that as a citizen and a neighbour, the standard of care expressed by the Parks Canada representative who came before you, which amounted to “we’ve ensured that parts of the building won’t fall off and hurt anyone” is not the standard of care that befits a building of this importance, national or provincial.

This doesn’t mean there’s not a role to play for Parks Canada in Province House’s future, but I would encourage the committee to investigate a “rebalancing” of the arrangement with the federal government that recognizes that this is a building built for Islanders by Islanders, as active and relevant today as ever before, that happened to, by dint of history, play a role in Confederation.

While not diminishing the vital role in the 1970s that the federal government played in restoring a building that was in dire need of care and attention, this came at the price of having parts of the building trapped in 1864. This leaves much of the true purpose and power of the building hidden from visitors, and has, I fear, left Islanders feeling that the building is not quite the province house that it should be.

Aside from this rebalancing, I would encourage the committee to look at taking simpler, more immediate steps that would re-enliven Province House as a vital public space.

A yearly open house, for example, where the plexiglass could come down and Islanders, if only for a day, would be allowed to walk on the carefully recreated historic carpets, to pick up the Clerk’s fountain pen, to sit in the chairs that the Fathers of Confederation sat in and, equally importantly, the chairs that their MLAs sit in today. You might even let people up into the attic.

On a day-to-day basis, if it were possible to integrate into Province House some workaday provincial administrative task – renewing a driver’s license, returning library books, obtaining a fishing license, getting a flu shot, or the like – the result would be to bring Islanders into the building as an everyday part of life, reinforcing that this building is very-much-living.

We’ve been joined by many new Islanders in recent years, many of whom have come from countries with very different systems of government: surely it’s incumbent upon us to offer these people an opportunity to learn about the ins and outs and practical details of Island democracy, and what better a place to do this than right here.

This Legislative Library deserves to be freed from its 1864 prison and reestablished as the living heart of this building: it could serve as a committee room, a reading room, a place for Islanders to meet informally with their MLAs, a reception room for visiting dignitaries. It should be a room where all Islanders feel at welcome: Province House’s “living room,” if you will.

And on a grander scale, I believe that the practice of democracy on Prince Edward Island is something we should both be telling the world about, and seeking constantly to refine and make better. What happened in this building’s early years, leading up to responsible government in 1851, is nothing short of awe-inspiring in its own right. If Islanders used this building to such lofty ends then, surely we can mount an equally vigorous ongoing examination our institutions today, both for ourselves and for the nation.

As a citizen, as Province House’s neighbour and admirer, and as someone who believes deeply in the importance of nurturing democracy, I wish to thank the committee for the opportunity to come before you today; I hold out hope that the result of your work will be a way forward for Province House on a sound architectural footing, with a renewed mission to nurture and develop the democratic processes that I know you all hold dear.

I will leave you with a except from The Islander newspaper, May 19, 1843, reporting on the laying of the cornerstone of this building:

Excerpt from The Island, May 19, 1843.

I encourage your committee to keep that spirit in mind as you make your important deliberations.


Brad Trivers's picture
Brad Trivers on October 14, 2010 - 21:01 Permalink

Well put. I’ve never set foot in Province House and I’m also a new Islander (2004). I especially like your point that the closed-off portions of building should be used instead of roped off.

Jane Boyd's picture
Jane Boyd on October 14, 2010 - 23:24 Permalink

Truly great comments Peter. Province House is gem — not only for the history that it represents but for the potential it holds to truly engage Islanders (and visitors) in the democratic process. I have been in the PEI legislature/Province House more times in the last 5 years than I have been in my own home legislature in BC. It is always a highlight of my trips to the Island…something that I look forward to. I support the concept of doing all that we can to showcase democracy in action and to opening up more areas of the building for day to day use.

LC's picture
LC on October 15, 2010 - 00:16 Permalink

I appreciate the spirit and approach you have taken Peter to Province House the Building
but think the issue is more deep rooted than the Building — it reflects on the nature of governing and the government itself

I think it matters less of who is caretaker of physical surroundings (It should be well maintained!) but on the spirit and approach of democracy within as that is the real test of its vibrancy -I am afraid that even since Confederation Days that the ability of back benchers to think and vote more independently has been greatly diminished and that the two main parties are indistinguishable by their policies but operate more as an “old boys” network -real electoral reform like proportional representation would fit in best as a natural progression from time of propertied protestants only voting in 1773, Catholic Emancipation in circa 1812, Escheat Party being blocked by Colonial Office, achieving responsible government, women voting and end of franchise where property holders could vote in every riding where they held property up to 1960s, restoring Province House however amazing the space and architecture in minds of Islanders would need to propmote a more democratic spirit and have it be more open (we have one of the most secretive provincial governmnet’s in Canada re release of information to the public) and accountable -that would do wonders -electoral reform please and less mindless partisanship and more statesmanship and accountability

Ann Thurlow's picture
Ann Thurlow on October 15, 2010 - 12:56 Permalink

This is excellent, Peter. I used to work at Province House and could not agree more.

Ben Wedge's picture
Ben Wedge on October 15, 2010 - 15:03 Permalink

Very well put. I’d even extend it to ask what the point of Founders’ Hall is, if Province House is presented as a museum. The federal parliament strikes a balance between past and present, but doesn’t allow one to roam the halls. We should find something in between the two extremes for our House.

Ton Zijlstra's picture
Ton Zijlstra on October 15, 2010 - 16:48 Permalink

Hi Peter, enjoyed reading the presentation you gave very much. To my European eyes it always seems slightly strange to see important places and historical buildings ‘frozen’ as you describe when visiting North America. It was like that when we visited you on PEI in 2008, and saw Province House, as when we visited other parts of Canada and the US.

Here in NL I think we mostly work from the premise that a building will be best preserved if it has a purpose in the here and now, is being used. Take for instance the Waag building in Amsterdam (… that started as city gate, was later home to amongst other things as anatomical lessons theater (some of the famous paintings about anatomical lessons were made there), and now houses the FabLab, attracting innovative minds from around the city.

So I very much agree with your message: give the building a purpose in the here and now, that fits and respects the history.

Wayne's picture
Wayne on October 16, 2010 - 00:44 Permalink

Nice job.

Oliver's picture
Oliver on October 16, 2010 - 02:17 Permalink

Cool you did that, P.

Ashley Johnston's picture
Ashley Johnston on October 16, 2010 - 13:55 Permalink