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  • Maxine Pitre (1822 - d.)
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    his daughter Jane's baptism record indicates his name as Carrol, not Kenneth. Mother is Mary McKinnon. Mary, Kenneth's wife, appears on the 1841 census as head of household. Her headstone indicates t...

Pioneers of Canada - Prince Edward Island


The first inhabitants of PEI were ancestors of the Mi’kmaq. There is evidence they occupied sites on PEI as many as 10,000 years ago by crossing the low plain now covered by Northumberland Strait. Occupation since that time has most likely been continuous, although there are some indications that there may have been seasonal migrations to hunt and fish on the Island as well. The Mi’kmaq have inhabited the area for the last 2,000 years.


The first European to record seeing the Island was Jacques Cartier, who landed at several spots on the north shore during his explorations of the gulf in the summer of 1534. Although there was to be no permanent settlement for almost 200 years, the harbours and bays were known to French and Basque fishermen, but no trace of their visits has survived.


French settlement of the Island (then known as as Île St-Jean) began in the 1720s. The colony was originally a dependency of Île Royale, although a small garrison was stationed near what is now Charlottetown. Settlement was slow, with the population in 1748 reaching just over 700. However, with increasing British pressure on the Acadian inhabitants of Nova Scotia culminating in the decision to expel them in 1755, the population of the Island was significantly increased. Some 4,500 settlers were on the Island at the fall of Louisbourg in 1758, but the British quickly forced all but a few hundred to leave, even though the colony was not ceded to them until the Treaty of Paris (1763). Under the British administration the name of the Island was anglicised to the Island of Saint John. This was the first of the new possessions to benefit from a plan to survey all of the territory in North America. Surveyor General Samuel Holland was able to provide detailed plans of the Island by 1765. He divided it into 67 townships of 20,000 acres each. Almost all of these were granted as the result of a lottery held in 1767 to military officers and others to whom the British government owed favours. With the exception of small areas surrounding the land allotted for towns, there was no crown land. The proprietors were required to settle their lands to fulfil the terms of their grants, but few made an effort to do so. As a result the Island had vast areas of undeveloped land, yet those who wished to open up farms often had to pay steep rents or purchase fees. Some proprietors refused to sell land at all and settlers found that they had no more security of tenure than they formerly had as tenants in England or Scotland. Further, the costs of the administration of the Island were to be borne by a tax paid by the proprietors on the land they held. This was often impossible to collect, and efforts made by the local government to enforce the terms of the grants were usually overruled by the British government under the influence of the landowners, most of whom never set foot in the colony. The land question was the dominating political concern from 1767 until Confederation. Confrontation between the agents of the proprietors and the tenants frequently led to violence, and attempts to change the system were blocked in England. During the 1840s the government was able to buy out some of the landowners and make the land available for purchase by the tenants, but funds available for this purpose were quickly exhausted. In spite of these difficulties the population grew from just over 4,000 in 1798 to 62,000 around 1850. Although there was an influx of Loyalists after the American Revolution, the majority of the newcomers were from the British Isles. Several large groups were brought from Scotland in the late 1700s and early 1800s by landowners such as Captain John MacDonald and Lord Selkirk, and by 1850 the Irish represented a sizable proportion of the recent immigrants.

Colonial Government

After 1758 the Island was administered from Nova Scotia and later, in 1763, became part of that province. In 1769, however, following representations made by the proprietors, a separate administration was set up complete with governor, lieutenant-governor, council and assembly. In 1799 the name of the colony was changed by the assembly to Prince Edward Island to honour a son of King George III stationed with the army in Halifax at the time. With rapid growth in the second quarter of the 19th century, demands came for more effective control over the affairs of the colony by the elected assembly. Although the concept of representative government had been accepted since 1773, the administration was still dominated by the appointed executive council. In 1851 responsible government was granted to the colony and the first elected administration under George Coles took office. The period was not a politically stable one, however, for in the next 22 years, a total of 12 governments were in office. The land question continued and, in addition, matters such as assistance to religious schools divided the population.


The Charlottetown Conference of 1864, the first in a series of meetings leading to Confederation, was held in the colony, and it marked the beginning of a period of political change that would leave a deep imprint. The meeting was called to discuss maritime union, but when visiting representatives from Canada began to promote a larger union, the original proposal failed to capture the imagination of Islanders. When the other British North American colonies joined the new federation in 1867, few people in PEI regretted not being part of the union. The reluctance of the Islanders, however, could not last for long. A massive debt incurred by the Islanders in building a railway running from one end of the colony to the other, combined with pressures from the British government and Canadian promises, pushed the Island into Confederation in 1873. The enticements offered by the Canadians included an absorption of the colony's debt, year-round communication with the mainland, and the provision of funds with which the colony could buy out the proprietors and end the land question. Although few Islanders displayed much enthusiasm, most accepted the union as a marriage of necessity.


The post-Confederation period brought severe hardships to the Island's economy and population as new technology, the National Policy and other forces combined to reduce the Island's prosperity. Although the province reached a population level of 109,000 in 1891, the lure of employment in western and central Canada, and in the US led to a drain on the population, which had slipped to 88,000 by the time of the Great Depression. Dominion-provincial relations dominated the political sphere as the Island sought to increase its subsidy from Ottawa, retain the level of political representation it had enjoyed at Confederation, and finally establish the continuous communication with the mainland that was promised in 1873. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the economy of the province was stable, with only slight changes in both farming and fishing — with the notable exception of the fox-farming industry between 1890 and 1939. By the mid-1960s, however, the situation had changed considerably. The number of farmers and fishermen had dropped, and the economy, which had lagged behind the rest of Canada, was in serious trouble. Due to recent booms in PEI’s natural resource industries, the province has experienced several decades of relative stability. Important, however, are the continuing efforts to bring in new industry while still maintaining elements of the province’s history and heritage. People Along with Canada's Eastern Arctic, PEI is one of the most culturally homogeneous regions in Canada. The population is predominantly British Isles in origin, with a significant number of residents claiming some degree of French or Acadian heritage. The Mi’kmaq can trace their ancestry on the Island as far back as 10,000 years ago. Upon the arrival of the Europeans, they were left with small parcels of land of poor quality, and suffered from disease and high unemployment. Late in the 20th century and into the 21st, PEI’s total Aboriginal population slowly began to grow. They accounted for 0.7 per cent of the province’s population in 1996, one per cent in 2001, and approximately 1.3 per cent in 2006. The majority of the Acadian population can be traced to several hundred Acadians who escaped deportation at the time of the British occupation of the Island following the fall of Louisbourg in 1758. Today, approximately 2.4 per cent of PEI’s population claims Acadian descent. English, Scots and Irish arrived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and by 1861 the population of the Island grew to just over 80,000. Thereafter growth slowed and following 1891, natural increase was unable to keep up with the number of Islanders leaving, especially for New England. Most of the other ethnic groups on PEI are the result of immigration in the last 50 years. The 1950s and 1960s were periods of slow population growth as Islanders continued to leave the province in search of economic opportunities elsewhere. In-migration in the 1990s, combined with natural increase, caused the population to grow to 136, 200 in 1996. In 2011, PEI’s population was 145,700, representing a 3.2 per cent increase from 2006. Despite this growth, the population only represents about 0.4 per cent of the Canadian total. Although the majority of the population in 2011 was between the ages of 15 and 64 (67.3 per cent), the percentage of those over 65 years of age has steadily increased over the last two decades. In 2011, for example, 16.3 per cent of the population was over the age of 65, which was higher than the national average of 14.8 per cent. This was an increase from 2006, when the percentage of those over 65 was only 14.9 per cent. The government has indicated some concern about this shift in demography.