We should never kid ourselves into thinking that Prince Edward Island is a simple place, where class divisions don’t exist, and all of us live pretty much the same social and economic realities.
When I was growing up at Glover’s Shore, on the outskirts of Summerside, I was very much an outlier. Most of my friends at school lived in the big houses in town, and their fathers owned stores and sold insurance, while my father worked in construction, troweling cement and putting up buildings. It wasn’t race divided New York, or the poor side of town that Johnny Rivers sings about, but I felt excluded and apart.
As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t seem to cross that divide that separated Glover’s Shore from the more established town, and at Summerside High School I felt a strange kinship with the Acadian students, whose labouring class parents stayed within their designated, apartheid-like community west of Central Street.
It puzzles me when people in government, and occasionally the media, claim that rural and urban Prince Edward Island are one and the same. They would have us believe that Tignish is just like Brighton, or that the lobster fishermen of North Rustico or Murray Harbour have a great deal in common with the lawyers and accountants on Queen Street in Charlottetown.
It is true that many residents of our capital city are just one generation themselves from the farms and small rural villages that once doted the province, and there have been some levelling influences over the past twenty years. Nevertheless, we do have a capital city which tries extremely hard to be sophisticated and urbane, and I believe that rural and urban Prince Edward Island still to possess their own distinct personalities.
What follows is a tale of two places.
My wife’s family comes from Christopher’s Cross, just north of Tignish, a traditional Irish and Acadian community of farmers and fishermen. They are proud, hard working people who, in the early part of the last century, liberated themselves from the economic slavery of merchant barons by organizing cooperatively, and building their own economic independence. Today, the Tignish area is one of the wealthiest communities in the province.
But when I started going there in the late 1960s, Tignish was less opulent, and the economic gulf between rural west Prince and Charlottetown was deep and wide.
For my wife’s two sisters, getting out of Tignish after high school, and away from a simple, unadorned rural lifestyle was a priority. They set out for Saint Dunstan’s University in Charlottetown, and then to other parts of Canada, where the bright city lights beckoned. After many years living away, one of them returned to the Island with her family and settled in Charlottetown. The other has since followed. Their attachment to the Island, and to family, is strong and abiding, but even the acceptance of family has its limitations.
Their father, a well educated and accomplished man whose contributions to the cooperative movement on the Island are prodigious, didn’t care much about the material world or its social conventions. The old beat up blue Duster he drove for many years also transported calves in the back seat when necessary and wasn’t much to look at. So when he attended a credit union meeting in Charlottetown, and overnighted at his daughter’s house in Brighton, she would get him to leave the Duster at our house in Breadalbane, and pick him up there, rather than suffer the embarrassment of having the old car from the country parked in her suburban driveway.
But there was a kind of poetic justice to it all.
Years later, the mother up in Tignish felt similarly embarrassed to have her Brighton daughter’s Lexus SUV sitting outside her modest country home. When she complained, the wiser, older Charlottetown daughter quipped, “put a horse blanket over it mother, and call it a day.”
It seems that modesty is offended by luxury, just as luxury is offended by modesty.
To borrow a Biblical platitude, our Island mansion has many rooms. Driving from East Point to the barrier reef at North Cape we pass through many different communities, separated by ethnicity, economic livelihood, and class. Le Region Evangeline is not Highland Belfast. Hillsborough Village is not Lewis Point Park. Souris is not Stratford.
And speaking of driving, have you ever noticed that Charlottetown people find it difficult to leave their metropolis. The distance to any rural location seems intimidating and formidable, almost like a cross Canada expedition. “Drop the sweater off when you’re in town,” is the city dwellers expectation, not “I’ll drive out and pick up the sweater.” The highways connecting rural Prince Edward Island to the capital city seem to go in only one direction, and our government has encouraged that one-way traffic with policies that make it increasingly difficult to live in rural communities east and west.
Instead of flying off to Florida, or cruising the seven seas, perhaps it should be mandatory for Charlottetown residents to winter holiday in Souris, or St. Louis, and experience rural life for themselves.
Our Island mansion does have many rooms, and we remain a community separated in profound ways.