HOWATT, CORNELIUS, farmer and politician; b. 1810 on the family homestead in Tryon, P.E.I., son of James Howatt and Ellen Miller; m. c. 1840 Jane Bell, and they had seven sons and two daughters; d. 7 May 1895 in North St Eleanors, P.E.I.
Cornelius Howatt, a tenant farmer from Tryon, was first elected to the Prince Edward Island House of Assembly in 1859, and he served continuously until his defeat at the polls in 1876. During three of these years, 1874–76, he acted as speaker, succeeding Stanislaus Francis Perry in the position. While his political career was not, by most standards, a remarkable one, he is remembered for his passionate opposition to confederation.
During the late 1860s and early 1870s Howatt was only one of a large number of anti-confederate politicians on the Island. What set him apart was the tenacity of his opposition. The tangled events of the early 1870s had the effect of persuading virtually every politician in the colony to support, or at least acquiesce in, the confederation cause, but Howatt refused to budge. The only other politician who persisted as long in his opposition was Augustus Edward Crevier Holland, Howatt’s fellow member from Prince County, 4th District.
In opposing confederation Island legislators were mirroring the sentiments of their constituents. In March 1871 Lieutenant Governor William Cleaver Francis Robinson estimated that nine-tenths of the population of the colony rejected union on any terms. The Islanders’ enthusiasm for railways, however, settled their fate. Legislation providing for a railway was passed by the government of James Colledge Pope* in April 1871, and by early 1873 construction of the line had produced such an overwhelming debt that the administration of Robert Poore Haythorne was forced to open negotiations with the Canadian government. When the terms of union agreed upon in Ottawa were submitted to the electorate of the Island in April, Haythorne’s government was defeated, but it was clear to most anti-confederates in the assembly that continued opposition was a lost cause. Nevertheless, Howatt insisted upon moving the following resolution: “that it is the opinion of the House that the best interests and future prosperity of Prince Edward Island would be secured by refusing terms of admission into Union with the Dominion of Canada.” Holland seconded the resolution, which was promptly defeated by a vote of twenty-four to two. Many in the house felt that the die-hards from 4th Prince were being unnecessarily obdurate. Howatt maintained, however, that one day his gesture would be vindicated. He wished his resolution to stand “as a record to show who was and who was not right.”
Howatt’s opposition to union was in large measure a reflection of the buoyancy and optimism that had come to the Island by the 1860s. The hardest years of settlement and acclimatization seemed behind and there was a widespread sense of pride that the colony had emerged as an economically self-sufficient and politically “independent” community. This spirit is evident in an important speech Howatt delivered during the 1866 session of the assembly. “Taking away the constitution of a country is a serious affair,” he said. “We have now the management of our own matters; and if one party does not please us, we can have another; but the moment we would go into Confederation we would cease to have any control even of matters which concern ourselves. The other colonies speak of us now with the greatest contempt, and then what chance would we have. All we would get would be by begging.” Howatt continued this refrain until 1873, insisting then that confederation meant “political annihilation” and that the day could come when Islanders would regret deeply the decision to unite with Canada.
An interesting footnote to Howatt’s career is that a century later, in 1973, a small group of Islanders formed a society called the Brothers and Sisters of Cornelius Howatt, with the express purpose of examining critically the role of the Island within the Canadian nation. As a result of the activities of this group, Howatt, who had been almost entirely forgotten, was resurrected in historical consciousness. He became a central figure in a reinterpretation of the confederation era that viewed the Island’s resistance to union not so much as the manifestation of a visceral fear of change, or as a ploy to extract better terms from the Canadian government, but as an expression of the very positive feelings of pride and patriotism that had developed in the colony.
Throughout his political career Howatt was something of a rural populist, frequently claiming that his views reflected the native wisdom of the farming community he represented. His opposition to confederation had been couched in these terms. In 1867, for example, he had hoped to see the time “when men from ‘the country’ would do their duty” and prevent union being forced upon the people. Like most of the Island’s inhabitants, Howatt had been born and raised in the countryside and he lived and worked there the greater part of his life. It was appropriate, therefore, that the one thing to gain him a measure of notoriety – his rejection of confederation – was to a large extent simply a reflection of the attitudes of ordinary Islanders. He had never been a politician of great power or influence, and after confederation he quickly disappeared as a force in Island political life.
Four of Howatt’s children predeceased him. Of his remaining sons only one – Nelson, who took over his father’s farm – remained on the Island. The surviving daughter, Helen, married John Howatt Bell*, who would be premier of the Island from 1919 to 1923.
The main sources used in the preparation of this biography were the Debates and proc. of the Prince Edward Island House of Assembly and various newspapers, including the Charlottetown Herald, the Islander, the Examiner (Charlottetown), the Island Argus (Charlottetown), the Summerside Progress (Summerside, P.E.I.), and the Broad-Axe (Charlottetown). The most complete obituary appeared in the Island Farmer (Summerside), 9 May 1895. A short biography, Cornelius Howatt, farmer and Island patriot, by David Weale, was published in Charlottetown in 1973.