George Coles, premier of Prince Edward Island (1851–54, 1854–59, 1867–68), distiller, brewer, merchant, farmer (born 20 September 1810 in Prince Edward Island; died 21 August 1875 in Charlottetown Royalty, PE). George Coles attended both the Charlottetown and Québec Conferences as leader of the Prince Edward Island Reform party, but opposed Confederation because its resolutions did not deal with Prince Edward Island’s land question. The land question determined Coles’ break with the local elite and pushed him towards responsible government. Coles was the first premier of Prince Edward Island.
George Coles was raised on his father’s farm in East Royalty, Prince Edward Island, and received little formal education. At age 19, he travelled to England where, in 1833, he married Mercy Haine, with whom he had 12 children. Later that year, he returned to Prince Edward Island with his bride, and shortly afterwards he advertised for sale items he had brought from England. He opened a store in Charlottetown and established other businesses, becoming best known as a brewer and distiller.
In 1842, George Coles entered public life by successfully contesting a rural constituency. As a man of property, he allied himself with the Conservatives in the House of Assembly, who in broad terms represented the interests of wealthier Islanders. The dominant issue in the colony was the land question, that is, the conflicts arising from the division of the Island into 67 townships or “lots” in the 18th century and their distribution to favourites. As a consequence, there was almost no crown land for settlers to acquire in freehold tenure; most had to become tenants. Coles came to see the land system as an impediment to the development of the colony — especially for businesses such as his, which required healthy internal markets.
Coles switched party affiliations and by the end of the 1840s emerged as the unchallenged leader of the Reformers. He proved to be an exceptionally effective debater in the Assembly, speaking directly to the point and quickly seizing upon weaknesses in his opponents’ arguments. When the Island won responsible government in 1851, he became its first premier.
In the 1850s, Coles led the most progressive Reform government in the Atlantic region. His administration extended the franchise to make it virtually universal for adult males and made education free at the local or district level in 1852, eliminating tuition fees and local assessment. This measure, which greatly increased school attendance, was reputedly the first such experiment in free education within the British Empire.
The problem that bedevilled Coles’ government was the land question. His legislative initiatives to reform the system in the interests of tenants and squatters were obstructed — either watered down or blocked entirely — by the Imperial Government.
The majority of Prince Edward Islanders were under the impression that Confederation — as discussed at the Charlottetown Conference in 1864 — had been thrust upon them without much warning or preliminary discussion. George Coles was no longer premier; his Reform party had been defeated twice, in 1859 and 1863, over conflicts concerning religion and education. As a Protestant leading a party mainly supported by the Roman Catholic minority, Coles had been unable to counter Protestant fears of Catholic intentions.
Beyond sectarian divisions, the Island was engaged intensely with the land question, which had taken a new form. The Conservatives, like Coles’ Reformers, had failed to resolve the problem of leasehold tenure. By the spring of 1864, Island tenants and their sympathizers had taken matters into their own hands, founding the Tenant League, which consisted of those who pledged not to pay rent and those who supported such refusals. The objective was to force the negotiated purchases of leasehold properties.
Coles denounced the Tenant League, which had widespread appeal. But as someone who had struggled with the land question for decades, he recognized its crucial importance to Islanders. Thus, when the Confederation question emerged, he declared at the Charlottetown and Québec Conferences that he would only accept terms of union that put an end to leasehold tenure in Prince Edward Island. Such remarks were rebuked by delegates from the Province of Canada who felt that the Island had already been promised fair financial subsidies. Consequently, Coles led the Liberals into adamant opposition to the Québec Resolutions. With public opinion strongly opposed to the scheme — and with the James Colledge Pope government split on the matter — the Island stood aside from the Dominion when it was formed on 1 July 1867.
See also Prince Edward Island and Confederation.
Life after Politics
Earlier in 1867, the Reformers had won an election against the deeply divided Conservatives. George Coles returned to the premiership but his mind had begun to deteriorate. In mid-1868 he formally resigned as premier; during the next legislative session he rarely spoke; and in 1870 he was absent for the entire session. Coles’ senility was commonly attributed to overwork and anxiety. He himself dated his decline to his overexertion in the face of Charlottetown’s great fire in 1866, stating that he had collapsed twice in the course of fighting the blaze.
George Coles was the outstanding Prince Edward Island parliamentarian of his era, dominating the Assembly with his quick mind. He also brought an exceptional passion to the politics of his era. His most important legacy was free education, and his commitment to it should be understood in relation to the land question. Literacy would partially redress the imbalance in power in the landlord–tenant relationship, which placed great importance on written contracts and the ability to decipher them. The land question had also determined Coles’ break with most of the local elite and his adherence to the Reform party. The failure of the other colonies to end leasehold tenure determined that Coles would not support Confederation.