by Sam McBride
Frederick Peters was born Charlottetown on April 8, 1851, the son of Judge James H. Peters of the Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island, and Mary Cunard, eldest daughter of Sir Samuel Cunard. He received his early education in Charlottetown schools and at Prince of Wales College before gaining a Bachelor of Arts degree from King’s College in Nova Scotia.
Following his graduation, Peters studied law in England and later returned to Charlottetown where he set up his first law practice. He was called to the bar at the Inner Temple, London in 1876, and to the bar of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia the same year. In England he articled under Lord Alverstone, who later said Peters was the most brilliant student he ever had. He established a law practice in Charlottetown with his brother Arthur Peters, who followed Fred`s schooling and legal career, almost step for step.
Always a supporter of the Liberal Party, Peters was first elected to the House of Assembly in 1890. One year later, after a series of by-elections, the government of Neil McLeod found itself in a minority position and Peters was asked to take over the Premiership and form a government. He became PEI`s sixth premier since Confederation, serving also as attorney general. He was the first Liberal to lead the province.
Perhaps the most significant act during his term as Premier of Prince Edward Island was a bill changing the form of the Island Legislature. Previous to his administration, the Legislature consisted of two houses, a Legislative Council and a House of Assembly, much the same as the Senate and the House of Commons in the federal government of today. This system became unnecessary in Prince Edward Island and abolition of the Legislative Council was seriously looked at as a solution. However, such a bill did not have a chance of passing the Upper House so Premier Peters offered a compromise by abolishing both Houses and creating a Legislative Assembly in which members were referred to as Councillors and Assemblymen.
He served as premier and attorney general until resigning in October 1897 to move to British Columbia. He retained his seat in the Prince Edward Island legislature until 1899 despite no longer residing in the province. His brother Arthur became premier and attorney general in 1901, serving until his death in office in 1907.
Fred Peters was senior counsel for Great Britain against the United States of America in the Behring Sea Sealing Dispute. Americans laid claim to all seal harvesting in the Bering Sea based on their purchase of Alaska from the Russians, but this was disputed by Britain, Canada and other countries. Peters` co-counsel was federal Conservative Marine and Fisheries Minister Charles Hibbert Tupper of Halifax. Tupper was a son of the Nova Scotia Premier and Father of Confederation Sir Charles Tupper who served briefly as Prime Minister of Canada in 1896. The August 1893 decision of an international arbitration panel solidly in favour of Britain’s position was a feather in the cap for Peters and Tupper, who was knighted. Peters and Tupper also subsequently served as counsel in the Bering Sea Claims Commission.
In 1896 Frederick Peters attended the founding meeting of the Canadian Bar Association in Montreal and was elected as a vice president of the new organization.
While in Victoria, British Columbia for hearings in the Bering Sea sealing case, Peters and Tupper were impressed with the city`s scenery, mild weather and positive economic prospects, and vowed to move there some time in the future with their families. Their plan to move across the continent and establish a law practice in Victoria was speeded up by excitement associated with the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon in the spring of 1897. The paid wanted to get in on the prosperity of the gold rush in some way. They saw that the city of Victoria stood to gain as a supply point for people and goods going to and from the Klondike. Peters resigned as premier as of October 27, 1897. He and Hibbert Tupper crossed Canada by train and arrived in Victoria on November 11, 1897. Their law firm in the west coast capital was established as Tupper, Peters & Potts.
Impressive homes were built on adjoining lots in 1898 for the Tupper and Peters families in the recently-developed community of Oak Bay, east of Victoria.
Peters invested heavily in mining ventures which faded away as the stampeders left the Yukon for new gold finds in Alaska. This was the start of money problems that would dog him and his family for the rest of his life. By 1902, Peters and Tupper had parted ways in their law firm.
The outcome of the Alaska Boundary Dispute in October 1903 was a huge disappointment for Canadians, especially for Peters, whose reputation suffered because of his involvement with the case as a researcher and his longtime association with Britain’s arbitrator Lord Alverstone, who stunned Canadians by casting the deciding vote for the Americans, who were still angry about losing the seal hunt arbitration a decade earlier. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt had threatened to send in the marines if the boundary dispute did not go his way, and Britain was not interested in battling the Americans so far away at a time when their focus was on the rising power of Germany close to home.
Peters found his law work bringing in much less income than he expected and needed, particularly as his wife Bertha wanted their children to attend private school in England. In 1911 Peters took a job as Solicitor (lawyer) for the new city of Prince Rupert, which looked like it was about to boom as a result of the Grand Trunk Railway establishing a major port that would rival Vancouver in the extent of its business. However, the boom never happened, and Peters found himself struggling each year to keep Prince Rupert from bankruptcy. He took on the higher position of City Clerk in 1916.
During the Great War Peters was regularly called upon to deliver speeches supporting the war effort to Prince Rupert community groups. While he was proud of the honours won during the war by his eldest son Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters serving with the Royal Navy, the war hit his family hard, as son Private John Francklyn “Jack” Peters died in the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 and son Lieutenant Gerald Hamilton Peters died a year later in the Battle of Mount Sorrel. His wife Bertha was in England when she learned of the death of her sons. Instead of returning to Prince Rupert, where she would be haunted by the memories of her dead sons, she chose to live with her daughter Helen Dewdney in New Denver, B.C. Fred Peters visited his wife at least once in New Denver, and the couple got together for a short holiday in the spring of 1919, but Fred was already in ill health by then. He died July 29, 1919 alone in Prince Rupert. According to his wishes, his funeral was in Victoria and he was buried at historic Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria.