Ghiz was elected president of the PEI Liberals in 1977 and became their leader in 1981. His inexperience was a factor in the Liberals' unsuccessful bid for power in the 1982 election. As an MLA, Ghiz developed into an effective opposition and party leader, and by the 1986 election the Liberals were well organized. They accused the Conservative government of making poor financial decisions and of not defending Islanders' rights before their federal allies, and in the election they received a 22-10 seat majority. After much doubt and controversy concerning the willingness of Islanders to vote for a leader of Lebanese origin, the matter was put to rest when Ghiz was sworn in as premier on 2 May 1986.
Ghiz's support of the MEECH LAKE ACCORD (see MEECH LAKE ACCORD: DOCUMENT) and opposition to FREE TRADE kept him in the public eye through 1987. His party was returned with a landslide majority in the 1989 election. The Liberals took 30 of 32 seats in a vote many saw as a protest against the federal Conservative government's decision to close the Canadian Forces Base at Summerside, a significant contributor to the provincial economy. In constitutional discussions following the failure of Meech Lake, he was a consistent advocate of concessions to Québec and a critic of the doctrinaire positions taken by premiers Don GETTY of Alberta and Clyde WELLS of Newfoundland.
Ghiz was opposed to the "Triple E" Senate proposal and his unqualified support for the Québec position made him a firm ally of Québec premier Robert BOURASSA during the negotiations. He announced his retirement from politics just days after the referendum defeat of the CHARLOTTETOWN ACCORD (see CHARLOTTETOWN ACCORD: DOCUMENT).
Ghiz's return to private practice in 1993 was brief. He was immediately appointed Dean of the Faculty of Law at DALHOUSIE UNIVERSITY, and, in the following year, was selected to head a panel to review Nova Scotia's office of public prosecutions. In April of 1995, at 50 years of age, he left the deanship to assume a position as a Justice on the Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island (trial division).
Tragically, this was the last stop in a brief but blazing career. Ghiz fell ill with cancer in the following year, and died in Charlottetown. His memorial service was attended by an astonishing galaxy of Canadian political figures, past and present.
The career of Joseph Ghiz was extraordinary. As the proud son of Lebanese immigrants, he was the first premier in Canada of non-European extraction to hold this high office. For this he always felt the greatest gratitude. And for him, this tolerance and openness symbolized the promise of Canada. In 2007 Ghiz's political legacy continued when his son Robert GHIZ became premier of PEI.
Author W.S. KEIZER AND DAVID A. MILNE