William Wilfrid Sullivan

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Over the past few episodes, we have dealt with premiers that served for a few months to three years.

Today, we are finally reaching a premier of Prince Edward Island who served for longer. This episode, we are delving into the life of William Wilfrid Sullivan, who served as premier of Prince Edward Island for ten years.

Born in Hope River, Prince Edward Island on Dec. 6, 1839 to William Sullivan and Mary McArthy. Unlike the previous two premiers, Sullivan did not come from a prominent family of shipbuilders. His father was a farmer who had arrived in Prince Edward Island before his birth from Ireland. They leased their land until changes were made in how land could be owned on the island.

Sullivan would be educated at Central Academy in Charlottetown and at St. Dunstan’s College. He would apprentice in law and be admitted as an attorney on the island on June 29, 1867. He would be appointed to the Queen’s Bench nine years later.

Sullivan began his career as an assistant editor of the Charlottetown Herald, while also working as a lawyer. Before long, he love of the law took over and he abandoned journalism for good.

In 1872, he entered the Legislature when he was elected as a Liberal MLA. This was his fourth attempt to be elected. He had run unsuccessfully for the Legislature in 1869, 1870 and 1871 in different ridings. In the election that he finally won, he had campaigned on the completion of a railway line and a strict economy in government spending.

In his early career, he had opposed any union with Canada as he felt it would cause the island to lose its unique culture. Before he was elected, he would change his view and came to support joining Confederation.

He would say,

“There was no use in our fighting against it.”

The same year he was elected to the Legislature, Sullivan married Alice Maud Mary Newberry. Together, they would have six children.

His first move when he was elected as to introduce a government bill to amend the Railway Act of 1871, despite his own reservations regarding the details of it. When he saw that the bill was going to pass without the modifications he wanted, he resigned from the Executive Council. The bill would pass and the branch lines, which were going to be delayed, were built.

From 1873 to 1876, Sullivan served as the Solicitor General.

Throughout his time in the Legislature, Sullivan was a staunch Catholic and the issue over Roman Catholic separate schools began to raise his profile in the province. It would also lead to him splitting from his party.

Due to the schools issue, Sullivan left the Liberal Party and reorganized the Conservative Party.

He served as the Leader of the Opposition and a harsh critic of Louis Henry Davies and his Protestant coalition government. Davies had implemented a public, non-secular school system that did not provide funding for Roman Catholic schools. By this point, Sullivan was seen as the leading Roman Catholic public man in the entire province.

He would lead the Opposition through the Public Schools Bill of 1877 and he requested that religious instruction be allowed during regular class hours in public schools, and the option for religious training be given before or after hours.

The bill would pass, which improved the quality of education with respect to administration, quality of teachers and compulsory school attendance.

When the coalition of Davies collapsed due to infighting, the Lt. Governor asked Sullivan to become the fourth premier of Prince Edward Island. He became the first Roman Catholic premier of Prince Edward Island. Sworn in on March 11, 1879. Only a few weeks later on April 2, the province went through an election.

Sullivan was able to win the election with the largest amount of seats seen to that point in Prince Edward Island. His party, the Conservatives, took 24 seats, to the six won by the Liberals. His 24 seats would be the largest for any party until the Conservatives won 28 in 1912.

While Sullivan would take the province through two more elections in 1882 and 1886, winning both times, his seat count dropped each time.

As premier of Prince Edward Island, Sullivan primarily focused on protecting the rights of the province in Canada. He was a critic of the federal government’s failure to fulfill the terms of Confederation.

Sullivan quickly began to make changes after first election as premier. It would eliminate the secret ballot, revert to statute labour on roads, cut the pay of the MHAs in the legislature, reduce the number of offices and the salaries of the civil service, and eliminate jurors on civil cases in the province.

He would attempt to abolition the Legislative Council and amend the financial clauses of the Public Schools Act of 1877.

Despite his emphasis on improving the economy of the island, he was never able to balance the budget. Nonetheless, he stated that the Island was prosperous and had not a single dollar of debt.

In 1886, Sullivan petitioned the Imperial government in London to protest over what he felt was the poor respect the province received from the federal government and the failure to ensure communication lines between the island and the rest of the country.

In 1888, as the Attorney General as well as premier, Sullivan prosecuted William Millman for murder. This was a highly controversial case on the island after Millman was charged with the killing of Mary Tuplin. His conviction came from circumstantial evidence and he professed his innocence throughout. He would be hanged in Charlottetown on June 28, 1887.

On Nov. 13, 1889, Sullivan’s ten years as premier came to an end when he was appointed as the Chief Justice of Prince Edward Island.

His wife, Alice Maud Mary, would pass away in 1908.

In 1914, Sullivan was knighted by King George V.

He would serve as Chief Justice until June 21, 1917 when he chose to retire. During his 28 years as Chief Justice, only seven cases were referred from the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal in Equity to the Supreme Court of Canada and six of those were dismissed.

His health failing, he moved to live with his daughters in turn. He would take walks every day. At one point, he was brought home by a policeman after he had a slight stroke and could not remember where he lived. From that point on, he was not allowed to walk alone.

On Sept. 30, 1920, Sullivan passed away in Memramcook, New Brunswick.

His body would lay in state at the provincial legislature of Prince Edward Island for two days.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Biographi, Government of Prince Edward Island, Macleans, Wikipedia, Montreal Star,

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