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The Absentee Landlord Question - Prince Edward Island

Absentee landlordism was the source of a century-long political controversy on Prince Edward Island. It began in the mid-1760s when a survey team divided the island into 67 lots. Each lot had an area of about 20,000 acres (8,000 hectares). On July 1, 1767, these lots were allocated to supporters of King George III by means of a lottery (even the King himself participated).

The new owners agreed to fulfill certain terms and conditions in exchange for title to the land. These included payment of rent to the Crown and the provision of land on each lot for a school and schoolmaster. Most importantly, the new owners had to ensure settlement of at least one third of the land  --  with Protestants only  --  within ten years. Failure to meet the last clause was grounds for forfeiture of the lot. In fact, very few absentee landlords  --  or their descendants, who inherited the land  --  ever met all of these conditions.

The fact that ownership of the land remained concentrated primarily in absentee hands angered Island settlers. Many resented being unable to gain title to land on which they worked and lived. They were also forced to pay rents, often a considerable burden. For decades, attempts were made to convince the Crown to confiscate lots from the landowners if the terms and conditions of ownership had not been met. However, the descendants of the original owners, generally well connected to the British government, refused to give up the land, and the Crown refused to force the issue.

In 1853, the Island government tried a new tactic with the passage of the Land Purchase Act. This act empowered the government to purchase lands from those owners who were willing to sell, and then resell the land to settlers for low prices. When the Island ran short of money to continue with the purchases, they appealed for funds from the Crown. Their requests were refused, and the act became ineffective.

Dissatisfaction boiled over into near rebellion on the Island on several occasions. In the 1860s, the Tenant League was formed. Most of the tenants on the Island joined. The League members refused to pay rents until the landowners agreed to sell their holdings. The conflict between the tenants and the landowners resulted in a series of incidents known as the Tenant League Riots.

In 1864, the Island government saw union as a possible solution to the landlord problem. During discussions at the Charlottetown Conference, delegates proposed a fund to purchase landlords' holdings if the Island joined Confederation. However, this suggestion was withdrawn several weeks later at the Quebec Conference. As a result, the Island resolved not to enter Confederation at that time. The Prince Edward Island government then refused new offers from the other provinces. The Island finally relented in 1873, after a railway project pushed the local economy to near collapse. Under the terms of union, Canada agreed to provide the Island with, among other things, an $800 000 fund to purchase the remaining absentee holdings.

Sources

Bolger, Francis.  --  Prince Edward Island and Confederation.  --  [Charlottetown] : St. Dunstan's University Press, 1964.  --  308 p.

Callbeck, Lorne.  --  The cradle of Confederation.  --  Fredericton : University of New Brunswick Press, 1964.  --  256 p.