It’s been 20 years since the Confederation Bridge opened, ending the physical isolation Prince Edward Island had known for centuries. That causeway became a cause célèbre. When the province held a 1988 plebiscite on the issue – “Are you in favour of the fixed link?” – only 59 percent of the population thought it was a good idea.
Opponents were tenacious and outspoken. They raised money and ran a media campaign that touched Islanders’ inherent resistance to change. There was a genuine sense of impending doom: the Confederation Bridge was vilified as an avenue for crime, drugs and social disorder. We were told we’d lose our sheltered, bucolic way of life, and that hooligans from the mainland would have an easy drive to the Island.
As a people we are firmly rooted in tradition and self-reliance. Change has always been vigorously resisted. Our history is rich with examples of challenges to modernism.
As a young lawyer in Summerside in the 1950s I discovered many adult sons of farmers rarely owned a bank account. When I became premier in 1966, eighty-five percent of homes had no indoor plumbing. Prince Edward Island was the last province to enforce prohibition, in 1948. Even rural electrification was opposed by some farmers who refused to permit a public utility to string wires along their property lines.
Yet Prince Edward Island is not an outpost of Canada, and Islanders will not tolerate being isolated from the mainstream of Canadian life.
If you took that plebiscite today I suspect 98 percent of Islanders would give the Confederation Bridge their blessing. The crime rate has not spiked; our way of life has not been destroyed. I asked the bridge manager, what impact has it had on the Island? He replied, “Well, it brought on-time delivery.” It enabled businesses such as Walmart to move to P.E.I.
There is a different climate in P.E.I. retailing today; many of the village stores have closed, though that was a long, transitional change that most rural Canadians would recognize regardless of what part of the country is home. As business moved from rural P.E.I. to the big box stores, so did the habits of neighbours. And so today, you will still encounter friends greeting friends, enquiring about relatives and exchanging news of the day.
My sense is Prince Edward Islanders consider themselves very privileged, especially when they go away and sample life in other parts of North America. You often hear the expression, “There’s no place like the Island.”
That’s something I feel very deeply in my own soul. Wherever I travel, on my return I feel I’m reconnecting with my people, and that the people care. Are Islanders different than other Canadians in this respect? I’m not sure – but you feel it here, even with the bridge.
(Editor’s note: the author is a former four-term Liberal premier of Prince Edward Island)