Prince Edward Island’s Famous Five

Article 1 / 8 , Vol 45 No. 3 (Autumn)

Prince Edward Island’s Famous Five

Sean McQuaid is a research officer at the Prince Edward Island Legislative Assembly.

Most historically conscious Canadians are familiar with the original Famous Five, the five Alberta women whose 1927-1929 Supreme Court of Canada petition (the Persons Case) finally established women as persons in the eyes of the law. The victorious quintet – activists Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise Crummy McKinney, Emily Murphy and Irene Parlby – became icons as champions of women’s rights. But fewer Canadians know about Prince Edward Island’s local version of the Famous Five from 1993, when women occupied five key executive and parliamentary positions in PEI’s provincial administration – the first such landmark representation in any Canadian political jurisdiction.

Sean McQuaid

The Callbeck Comeback

With or without the rest of the latter-day Famous Five, 1993 would have marked a historic breakthrough for Catherine Callbeck. A Prince Edward Island political veteran who had served as a 1970s provincial MLA and Cabinet minister, Callbeck had left PEI politics to concentrate on her family’s business (Callbecks Ltd.) in 1978. Returning to elected politics a decade later as a federal MP in 1988, Callbeck came back to provincial politics in 1993 when she ran successfully for the newly vacant leadership of PEI’s then-ruling Liberals, becoming the party’s first female leader and PEI’s first female Premier. Appointed Premier in January, she became PEI’s (and Canada’s) first-ever elected female Premier in the subsequent March election.

The Mella Factor

It was a tough year to be a Progressive Conservative. The federal version of the party would be reduced to a mere two seats in the 1993 federal election, and PEI’s provincial PCs had even worse luck that March, when the party was reduced to a single seat. That lone opposition seat was filled by Pat Mella. Once a faculty member at Ottawa’s St. Patrick’s College, Mella had come home to raise her family and pursue a teaching career in PEI’s secondary schools. She won the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservative party in 1990 and became the first female leader of a political party in PEI history. The 1993 campaign pitting her PCs against the Callbeck Liberals marked the first election in which both main contenders for the Premier’s job were women. As the only PEI PC elected in 1993, Mella served as Leader of the Official Opposition in the Legislative Assembly thereafter.

Speakers Three

Callbeck and Mella were not the only prominent women in the 1993 Legislative Assembly. The hon. Nancy Guptill, a Liberal MLA since 1987 (and a 1989-1993 Cabinet minister), was elected Speaker of the Legislative Assembly after the 1993 election, and her caucus colleague Elizabeth “Libbe” Hubley (an MLA since 1989) became the new Deputy Speaker. Guptill and Hubley were the second women in PEI history to hold their respective posts. The first woman to serve in either of those roles on PEI was the hon. Marion L. Reid. First elected to the PEI Legislative Assembly in 1979, Reid had served as Deputy Speaker (1979-1983) and Speaker (1983-1986) before leaving electoral politics in 1989. Appointed as Lieutenant Governor of Prince Edward Island in 1990, she was the first woman to serve in that role in the province, as well as the first female Lieutenant Governor in Atlantic Canada.

The Famous Five

With Reid already in place as Lieutenant Governor since 1990, the ascension of Callbeck, Mella, Guptill and Hubley to their new posts in 1993 meant that the five most powerful executive and parliamentary roles in PEI government were now filled by women, the first (and thus far only) time in PEI’s history that women filled all five of those jobs simultaneously. It was also the first time anywhere in Canada that all five of those positions were held by women, an outcome yet to be repeated in any Canadian jurisdiction. The quintet became known as PEI’s Famous Five.

The Famous Five era lasted less than three years. Reid left the Lieutenant Governor job in 1995, the others’ stints in their respective posts all ended in 1996, and all five women were succeeded by men. But the Famous Five period remains a milestone for women’s political representation in Canada, and others have since followed in their footsteps with PEI having had various female Speakers, Deputy Speakers and Lieutenant Governors in the ensuing years.

Capturing the Moment

During the spring opening of the 1993 sitting of PEI’s Legislative Assembly, the provincial government’s official photographer Brian Simpson took a picture of the women later known as PEI’s Famous Five. In October 2021, a framed enlargement of that photograph was placed on permanent display in the legislative chamber. Officials in attendance at a ceremony marking the occasion included all of PEI’s current female MLAs: Trish Altass, Michele Beaton, Hannah Bell, Karla Bernard, Darlene Compton, Natalie Jameson and Lynne Lund.

PEI’s Famous Five in 1993 (below) and during their 25th anniversary reunion in 2018.

For more information on the Famous Five, see the website: