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SULLIVAN, Sir WILLIAM WILFRED, journalist, lawyer, politician, and judge; b. 6 Dec. 1839 in Hope River, P.E.I., son of William Sullivan, a farmer, and Mary McArthy (McCarthy); m. 13 Aug. 1872 Alice Maud Mary Newbery (d. 1908) in Charlottetown, and they had three sons and three daughters; d. 30 Sept. 1920 in Memramcook, N.B., and was buried in Charlottetown.

William Wilfred Sullivan’s parents arrived on Prince Edward Island from County Kerry (Republic of Ireland). In April 1835 the family leased land in Lot 32 but they later settled on a leasehold at Hope River in Lot 22. Sullivan, a Roman Catholic, was educated at Central Academy in Charlottetown and at St Dunstan’s College. He completed his law apprenticeship under Joseph Hensley* and on 29 June 1867 was admitted as an attorney. He would be appointed a qc on 1 July 1876 by Lieutenant Governor Sir Robert Hodgson* and on 19 May 1879 by Governor General Lord Lorne [Campbell].

Although Sullivan had become assistant editor of the Charlottetown Herald in 1864, and remained so for a short period, his preoccupation, other than the law, was politics. Before obtaining a seat in the House of Assembly, he unsuccessfully contested three elections: a by-election in Kings County, 1st District, in 1869, the general election of 1870 in 3rd Queens, and another by-election in 1st Kings in 1871. A liberal during his early career, he opposed “any scheme of Union [with Canada] which would take the management of the public business of this Island out of the hands of its inhabitants, and place it in those of a distant people, who would, in all probability, neglect our interests and disregard our rights.” He also advocated a speedy settlement of the iniquitous system of proprietary land tenure that had plagued the colony since 1767 and was in favour of maintaining the “present secular school system in its integrity.”

It was in the general election of 1872 that Sullivan obtained the seat for 1st Kings, defeating Emanuel McEachen*. He had campaigned on a platform of strict economy in government expenditures and completion of a branch railway line to Souris, at the eastern extremity of the Island, before another general election. On 22 April 1872 he was appointed to the Executive Council of liberal premier Robert Poore Haythorne*. Anxious to have his election promise regarding the branch railway realized, Sullivan introduced a government bill to amend the Railway Act of 1871 despite his reservations regarding details. When he saw that the government planned to pass the bill without the modifications he desired, he resigned from the council. He feared that the lieutenant governor would withhold his assent to an unamended bill, thereby dooming the lines to Souris and to Tignish in the west. The bill did receive royal assent, however, and the branch lines, which under the previous legislation would have been delayed until the main line was constructed, were begun.

It was in fact the debt incurred in building railways that obliged the Island to consider entering confederation. In February 1873 Haythorne and David Laird went to Ottawa to negotiate terms of entry, and the agreement reached was presented to the people in a general election two months later. Sullivan stood in 2nd Kings, and upon election he was appointed solicitor general in the coalition government of conservative James Colledge Pope*. By this time most politicians were agreed on the need to join Canada and had concluded, with Sullivan, that “there was no use in our fighting against it.” The Island entered confederation on 1 July. Union with Canada enabled the succeeding administration of Lemuel Cambridge Owen to deal with the question of proprietary land tenure through the Land Purchase Act of 1875. Sullivan became one of the counsel for the government in the interests of the tenants before the land commissioners court established by the act.

Although the election of 1873 had supposedly been contested on the issue of confederation, in reality it was entwined with the question of public grants for Roman Catholic schools. When, following his victory, Premier Pope refused to meet the demands of the Roman Catholic bishop of Charlottetown, Peter McIntyre*, Sullivan was willing to help form a Catholic “Centre” that would go into opposition in protest. At this point Bishop McIntyre opposed such action. Later he requested the Catholic members of the assembly not to support confederation unless a system of publicly funded separate schools was made part of the terms, but they declined. They were pledged to confederation, and it would have been financially disastrous for the Island not to unite with Canada. Subsequently Sullivan was the outstanding Catholic in the debate over denominational schools, but even he confessed in 1874 that he “did not know that anything which could be said would induce hon. members to change their minds, which were probably pretty well made up on both sides of the House.”

The issue was resolved in the election of 1876. Investigations into the condition of education on the Island had revealed the need for drastic change; the question remained, however, whether religious instruction had a role to play in a reformed system. Louis Henry Davies*, a Liberal, became leader of the “Free School” party and Pope led the “Denominationalists.” By this time Sullivan had established himself as the leading Roman Catholic public man in the province. He engaged in essentially an independent campaign, factionalism resulted, and the Free Schoolers obtained a resounding victory.

Pope having been defeated, Sullivan led the opposition in the debate on the Public Schools Bill of 1877. He had two requests: that religious instruction be allowed during regular class hours in “unmixed” schools and that optional religious training be given before or after regular hours in “mixed” ones. Premier Davies noted that the latter was permitted under the provisions of the bill but was adamant that, apart from daily Bible reading, regular class hours in all schools should be devoted only to secular teaching. Passed that year, the Public Schools Act greatly advanced the quality of education with respect to administration, compulsory attendance, and improved training of teachers [see Donald Montgomery*]. On 20 Nov. 1878 the Herald stated that Sullivan “has as little thought of changing that Act as he has of remodelling the decalogue.” Sullivan himself said unequivocally in January 1879 that “the policy of the Opposition is to faithfully carry out the desire of the majority of the electors by retaining, in its integrity, the non-sectarian principle, as it exists in the present law.”

Although successful in revamping the school system, the Davies government had been no more able to balance the Island’s annual budget than previous post-confederation administrations. When it attempted to do so by imposing direct taxation through the Assessment Act of 1877, the electorate expressed its “indignation” in numerous meetings across the province. Having joined confederation to rid themselves of the threat of direct taxation due to the railway, Islanders were in no mood to expand their contributions to the provincial treasury. At the same time the government was plagued by rifts within its own ranks, and in 1878 desertions from the Executive Council occurred [see George Wastie DeBlois*]. On 6 March of the following year the administration fell on a vote of no-confidence. Sullivan, Prince Edward Island’s first Roman Catholic premier, succeeded in forming a government, which was sworn in on 11 March. In the subsequent election, at which the Conservatives were returned by the largest majority ever recorded in the assembly to that time, he promised retrenchment and the pressing of financial claims upon the dominion as means of balancing the budget while eliminating the need for direct taxation. Thus the Sullivan administration of 1879–89 was concerned primarily with finance, and its policies were invariably influenced if not dictated by the need for increased revenue.

The emphasis on economy often resulted in reactionary legislation. Following the election, the government eliminated the secret ballot, reverted to statute labour on the roads, cut the pay of mhas, reduced the number of offices and the salaries in the civil service, eliminated some of the jurors on civil cases, and amalgamated the institutions of higher learning in the province. Although the administration was unsuccessful in effecting its two major measures of retrenchment – the abolition of the Legislative Council and the amendment of the financial clauses of the Public Schools Act of 1877 – its other revenue-saving policies permitted treasurer Donald Ferguson* to allow repeal of the Assessment Act in 1882, a major factor in Sullivan’s election victory that year.

Persistent endeavours were made to have revenue painlessly supplemented through claims against the dominion. Sullivan’s major goals were to obtain an award for the surrender of the Island’s fisheries under the 1871 Treaty of Washington and to compel the federal government both to honour the terms of confederation by providing the Island with continuous communication with the mainland and to offer compensation for the losses incurred as a result of its delay in doing so. In these larger claims the government was unsuccessful. The vigour of its negotiations and its apparent success in smaller claims were noted, however, and probably explain the Conservatives’ victory in the election of 1886. Certainly addresses and delegations to both Ottawa and the queen served to keep the optimistic persistence of the provincial government highly visible.

Notwithstanding, the politically expedient strategy of thrift and “better terms” was not solving the Island’s chronic financial woes. From the time that he had abolished the direct tax, Sullivan had been unable to balance the budget. Working within the confines of the inflexible subsidies of the confederation agreement and unwilling to reintroduce the hated Assessment Act, the administration was forced to obtain a substantial portion of its operating revenues from borrowed money.

In his budget speech of 1889 Sullivan attempted to make the financial situation appear as bright as possible. This he was able to do only by confusing loans and grants and capital and operating accounts. He nevertheless declared that Islanders were prosperous and that the province had “not a single dollar of debt.” But he could not have deceived the electorate indefinitely, and his chances of re-election in 1890 upon an exhausted policy of claims and retrenchment were uncertain. Thus his appointment on 13 Nov. 1889 as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island came at an opportune time. His successor, Neil McLeod, managed a narrow victory the following year but failed to hold his majority after subsequent by-elections and resigned in 1891.

During his premiership Sullivan had also served as attorney general, and in 1888 successfully prosecuted William Millman for murder, one of the more controversial legal cases on the Island. Upon his appointment as chief justice he became ex officio judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court. When this court was abolished in 1891, he succeeded by law to the office of local judge in admiralty of the Exchequer Court. During his almost 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 these appeals were dismissed with costs.

Sullivan was made a knight bachelor on 29 June 1914. Three years later, in failing health, he found it necessary to resign his judicial positions, sell his residence, Brighton Villa, in Charlottetown, and live with each of his three daughters in turn. A granddaughter recollects him as “very straight and tall . . . with thick white hair always immaculately turned out.” “He went for walks every day. . . . One day he was brought home by a policeman: he had had a fall (possibly a slight stroke), and . . . could not remember where he lived. After that my mother insisted he should not go out alone . . . Grandfather agreed somewhat reluctantly to be accompanied on his walks but stipulated that [his companion] must always walk a block behind him.”

W. W. Sullivan was a consummate politician. During his early career, in manœuvring from one political controversy or party to another, he demonstrated an impressive ability to discern the issues of greatest popular concern and to employ them to advance his personal career. He was initially a Liberal, but when the schools question drove Catholics to new political alignments, he emerged as the champion of separate schools and rode to the leadership of a reorganized Conservative party on that issue. When the Conservatives seemed doomed to perpetual opposition, he announced his acceptance of public schools in time to pave the way for his party’s victory on other issues. And nowhere was his political astuteness more in evidence than in his handling of the question of provincial finance. Perceiving the sensitivity of fellow Islanders in the matter of direct taxation, he promised to alleviate its burden or abolish it altogether while offering the plausible alternative of retrenchment and claims on the federal government. As a political ploy it was thoroughly successful, demonstrating its appeal in three provincial elections. It was, however, more than political trickery meant to deceive the electorate. The two major claims against the dominion involved sums of money large enough that a settlement in the Island’s favour might have been sufficient to end chronic deficits, and Sullivan must be commended for his relentless zeal in pursuing them.

The real problem was the financial strait-jacket imposed by the confederation agreement. If Sullivan did Islanders a disservice, it was in encouraging them in their unwillingness to face up to their financial problem. The maintenance of the illusion that direct taxation was unnecessary would make it only more difficult for succeeding governments to impose it. Here the needs of sound administration and political expediency came into conflict. And here Sullivan tailored his policies principally to suit the latter.

Nancy MacNeill MacBeath

Arch. paroissiales, Saint-Augustin (Rustico, Î.-P.-É.), RBMS (mfm. at PARO). NA, RG 2, P.C. 719, 19 May 1879; RG 13, A5, 2055, file 881. PARO, Acc. 4001/4; P.E.I. Geneal. Soc. coll., master name index, cemetery transcriptions, Lot 33, cemetery no.14, stone no.1196; RG 1, 22 April 1872, 18 April 1873, 1 July 1876, 11 March 1879; RG 5, minutes, 20 June 1872, 19 Nov. 1889; RG 6, Supreme Court, bar admission papers; estates div. records, liber 21: f.411A (mfm.); minutes, 29 June 1867, 30 June 1868, 30 June 1914. St Dunstan’s Roman Catholic Basilica (Charlottetown), RBMB (mfm. at PARO). Charlottetown Guardian, esp. 1 Oct. 1920. Examiner (Charlottetown), esp. 26 July–2 Aug. 1869, 3 July 1871, 8 April 1872, 20 Nov. 1878, 11 Jan. 1879. Herald (Charlottetown), esp. 21 Dec. 1864. Island Argus (Charlottetown), esp. 1, 22 April 1873; 8 Aug. 1876. Islander (Charlottetown), esp. 6 Aug. 1869, 8–22 July 1870, 16 June 1871. Patriot (Charlottetown), esp. 21 July 1870; 8 July 1871; 11, 20 April 1872; 29 March 1873. Presbyterian and Evangelical Protestant Union (Charlottetown), esp. 17–24 Aug. 1876. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), esp. 23 July 1869. F. W. P. Bolger, Prince Edward Island and confederation. 1863–1873 (Charlottetown, 1964). N. J. MacNeill [MacBeath], “W. W. Sullivan and provincial finance in Prince Edward Island, 1879–1889” (ma thesis, Univ. of N.B., Fredericton, 1978). Notes & annotations upon the reports of the judgments of the Supreme Court of Canada, comp. E. R. Cameron (64v., Toronto and Winnipeg, 1925–31), 16–58. P.E.I., Acts, 1872–89; House of Assembly, Correspondence relating to the non-fulfilment by the Dominion of Canada of that part of the terms of confederation which guarantees efficient steam service for the conveyance of mails and passengers between Prince Edward Island and the mainland ([Charlottetown?], 1886); Debates and proc. and Journal, both for 1872–89; Legislative Council, Debates and proc. and Journal, both for 1872–89. Report of proceedings before the commissioners appointed under the provisions of “The Land Purchase Act, 1875”, reporter P. S. MacGowan (Charlottetown, 1875). I. R. Robertson, “Religion, politics, and education in Prince Edward Island from 1856 to 1877” (ma thesis, McGill Univ., Montreal, 1968). Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island, Verbatim report of the Millman–Tuplin trial . . . (Charlottetown, 1888).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Nancy MacNeill MacBeath, “SULLIVAN, Sir WILLIAM WILFRED,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 2, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sullivan_william_wilfred_14E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sullivan_william_wilfred_14E.html
Author of Article: Nancy MacNeill MacBeath
Title of Article: SULLIVAN, Sir WILLIAM WILFRED
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1998
Year of revision: 1998
Access Date: September 2, 2014