“If a man preferred to work”: Prince Edward Island’s Statute Labour Franchise in the Era of Responsible Government
Like every other British North American colony, Prince Edward Island had employed the 40 shilling freehold franchise during the early-nineteenth century. So long as a person owned 40 shillings worth of real estate on the Island, that person had the privilege of voting in colonial elections. After PEI formally disenfranchised women in 1836, these property-owning voters also had to be male (Garner, 155). This codification of patriarchy meant that the Island’s several “lady landlords” found themselves without a formal political voice despite the land they owned (Bittermann and McCallum, 7-8).
New possibilities opened for Islanders in 1851. Early that year, the British crown granted PEI responsible government (MacNutt, 124-125). The colony’s legislature could now pass whatever laws it liked. Two years later, in 1853, the Island’s House of Assembly flexed its new legislative muscles and reformed its electoral laws. The statute labour franchise that resulted stands unmatched in Canadian history.
Today, our taxes pay for our roads. Unless stuck in traffic, the average Canadian has little need to think about road maintenance. This was certainly not the case 200 years ago. Because of underdeveloped state institutions and a general hostility to direct taxation, the British North American colonies relied upon their inhabitants to keep local roads in good repair. Every summer, until the age of 60, British North American men had to spend approximately four days working on their colony’s roads (or pay a sum of money in commutation). This was known as statute labour.
Although every colony enforced some form of statute labour law, only PEI ever linked it to the franchise. As of 1853, any male British subject over the age of 21 who resided on the Island and had performed his statute labour (or paid his commutation) could vote on election day. Voters no longer needed to own property for their enfranchisement. For British North America, this was almost unheard of. Only Nova Scotia had strayed away from a property-based franchise by this point, and the result was electoral corruption on a massive scale (Garner, 30-31).
PEI’s Conservatives had resisted this change all the way. As Conservative assemblyman Francis Longworth put it, the statute labour franchise placed “the basement class of our social edifice in a position to over-rule all the others,” namely property-owners (Bumsted, “Part One,” 25). But the colony’s Reformers, alongside the majority of Islanders themselves, really didn’t care. To them, a franchise grounded in statute labour fit the local conditions of PEI better than any franchise that required property ownership.
Traditionally, Britons had employed the gendered language of independence to justify a property-based franchise. The man who possessed his own property had the space to build his own shelter and to produce his own food. So long as he did so, he theoretically depended upon no other person beyond his family for survival. Because such idealized autonomous men wanted for nothing, they couldn’t be – in theory – blackmailed or bribed. This manly self-sufficiency supposedly allowed patriarchs to make independent decisions on election day.
PEI’s land system, however, did not really lend itself to such definitions of citizenship or manliness. During the eighteenth century, the British crown had distributed the colony’s lands amongst a small group of wealthy landholders. By the mid-nineteenth century, most Island men did not actually own the land on which they lived: they instead rented it from one of the Island’s landlords (Robertson, 10-11). Although PEI’s franchise law included stipulations for leaseholders, it nevertheless favoured the Island’s property-owning minority (Grittner, 103).
Of course, PEI’s tenants in no way viewed themselves as second-class subjects. As early as the 1830s, they had organized collectively to demand freer access to the land and greater recognition of their economic value. To make their case, tenant leaders grounded their arguments in a different gendered language: one that linked ideal manliness with labour and industriousness. While PEI’s landlords may have owned the land, its tenants worked the land, improved the land, and brought value to the land. From this point of view, the industrious tenant formed the backbone of Island society. Without him – and it was always presumed to be him, ignoring the significant contributions of women to rural and urban economies – the colony would have remained wilderness and its economy would have collapsed (Bittermann, 165).
When the Island’s Reform party defended the statute labour franchise in 1853, it relied upon the same gendered arguments employed by the colony’s tenantry. In the words of Reform leader and PEI premier George Coles, “the laboring and productive classes, who pay taxes and discharge all the duties and obligations of useful and honest citizens, are quite as much entitled to a voice in the legislation of the country as their apparently more fortunate brethren, the possessors of property.” By means of statute labour, Island men proved their industry and their dedication to the colony. The majority of Islanders agreed that men of such quality deserved the vote in return. It shouldn’t matter whether they owned property or not (Grittner, 107-110).
In the years following 1853, Islanders would periodically question their statute labour franchise. Some viewed it as a headache to administer. Others thought it sustained a backward and inadequate road maintenance system. Finding a suitable substitute proved difficult however. PEI tried a franchise in the 1870s based upon the payment of a poll tax, but it failed after only two years. Many Islanders simply didn’t have the money to pay a cash-based levy. Robert Shaw, an Assemblyman representing Queens County, summed it up well: “If a man preferred to work rather than pay a poll tax it was an injustice to deprive him of that privilege. Many people in the country found it easier to do two or three days work than to pay a tax…” (Grittner, 121)
For nineteenth-century PEI, the statute labour franchise simply made good sense. Not only did it account for economic realities – that the majority of Islanders didn’t actually own the land they occupied, and that many of them couldn’t afford a monetary tax – but it also embraced the colony’s cultural realities. Because most Islanders couldn’t access property ownership, they didn’t subscribe to a notion of manliness that associated ideal manhood with real estate. Community-mindedness and hard work meant more than any piece of turf, and the statute labour franchise rewarded these gendered characteristics. Indeed, this franchise made so much sense on the Island that PEI would continue to offer statute labourers the vote through to the next century.
Although PEI’s statute labour franchise may have ended in 1901, the idea that industriousness should guarantee enfranchisement certainly did not. As the First World War entered its final months, Island suffragists emphasized the important contributions made by women’s labour to both the war effort and PEI more generally (Cleverdon, 202). Women on PEI would finally win the provincial vote in 1922, supported by the strength of such arguments.
Bittermann, Rusty. Rural Protest on Prince Edward Island: From British Colonialization to the Escheat Movement. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.
Bittermann, Rusty and McCallum, Margaret. Lady Landlords of Prince Edward Island: Imperial Dreams and the Defence of Property. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.
Bumsted, J. M. “Parliamentary Privilege and Electoral Disputes on Colonial Prince Edward Island: Part One.” Island Magazine 26 (September 1989): 22-26.
——–. “Parliamentary Privilege and Electoral Disputes on Colonial Prince Edward Island: Part Two.” Island Magazine 27 (March 1990): 15-21.
Cleverdon, Catherine L. The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada. Second edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.
Garner, John. The Franchise and Politics in British North America, 1755-1867. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969.
Grittner, Colin. “Working at the Crossroads: Statute Labour, Manliness, and the Electoral Franchise on Victorian Prince Edward Island.” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 23.1 (2012): 101-130.
MacNutt, W. S. “Political Advance and Social Reform, 1842-1861.” In Canada’s Smallest Province: A History of Prince Edward Island. Pages 115-134. Edited by Francis W. P. Bolger. Charlottetown: The Prince Edward Island 1973 Centennial Commission, 1973.
Robertson, Ian Ross. The Tenant League of Prince Edward Island, 1864-1867: Leasehold Tenure in the New World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.