The Islanders: P.E.I. is the place to be

By Michael Rappaport

“You’ll never be an Islander,” joshed Erskine Smith, a native Prince Edward Islander, during an evening of storytelling and music at the Victoria Playhouse, located in a small bayside artist colony. To illustrate his point he recounted this tale: A tourist once asked an Islander about the huge boulders that are scattered across farmers’ fields along the north shore of PEI; boulders, that were deposited by glaciers more than 15,000 years ago. Huffily the Islander responded, “Those aren’t PEI boulders, they only came here during the last Ice Age.”

Islanders have a strong sense of identity — born of common heritages, bred in isolation and steeped in shared experiences. PEI’s sense of uniqueness is so ubiquitous, among its 138,000 inhabitants that differences between Islanders and mainlanders or people who “come from away,” (CFA’s for short) is a surefire conversation starter. Nevertheless, enchanted by the beauty of Canada’s smallest province — its gentle green hills, ruby-red cliffs and calm blue ocean — visitors from around the world have attempted to become Islanders.

For instance, Andrew Luckock, a farmer from Barrie, Ontario, moved to St. Catherines Cove, PEI, because he wanted to raise animals and grow crops on a smaller, more intimate scale. His prized silkie chickens, star in Daniel Day Lewis’s film, The Rose and the Snake, which was shot on PEI in 2003. (He also rents kayaks, but his number is unlisted, so remember to call #902-675-2035.) Another example, are Judy, a former publishing executive and her husband Trevor Pye, an ex CEO of a software firm, who immigrated from London, England. They relocated to PEI last year and now run the Shipwright Bed & Breakfast in Charlottetown.

As an amateur anthropologist, who has intensively studied the ethnographic makeup, ritualistic behavior and eating habits of Islanders — over a period of three days — here’s some helpful guidance, both for those who plan to relocate to PEI or simply visit.

Those who plan to go “native” might want to change their surnames to MacDonald or Gallant. (You’ll find that you’ll get more invitations to family reunions on PEI this way.) Most Islanders, about 80% are descended from Scottish, English and Irish settlers and about 15% are of French origin.

Discovered by Jacques Cartier in 1554, the island was first settled by the French, who christened the land ILe Saint-Jean. In 1763, the British took possession of the island, which they called St. Johns. (Later, noticing that there were way too many cities, rivers and bays named “St. Johns,” in the maritimes, the British renamed it, Prince Edward Island in 1799, in honor of King George III’s son, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent.) The British surveyed the island and divided it into 67 lots of 20,000 acres each, which in 1767 were awarded in a lottery to wealthy Englishmen. Major waves of immigrants came ashore from 1770 to 1840. These included Scottish Highlanders pushed off their land to make way for sheep, English settlers seeking farmland and Irish peasants fleeing oppression and famine.

Islanders are passionately protective of their independence. Despite the fact, that PEI’s capital, Charlottetown, was the birthplace of Confederation, enacted in 1867 — Islanders stubbornly resisted joining the new nation. It wasn’t until five years afterwards in 1873, that PEI came onboard, mainly to get financial aid to pay off debts, incurred during the construction of a railway. Islanders’ independent streak was again manifest in 1988, when the vote to build a link to New Brunswick became a subject of heated debate and passed by a margin of only 60% to 40%. The Confederation Bridge — an 8 mile long, concrete and steel, engineering marvel — was opened to traffic in 1997. Although the bridge has led to a dramatic rise in tourism revenues with more than 1.2 million visitors annually up from 788,000 in 1996, there are still Islanders who continue to grumble.

Islanders worship a female deity — a feisty, redheaded girl with braids. She is known as Anne of Green Gables by the locals or “Akage no An,” (Red-Haired Anne) by the Japanese, who were introduced to her compelling life story by a Canadian missionary before WWII.

Academics claim that Anne is really a fictional character from the novel, Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maude Montgomery, which was unleashed on the world in 1908. According to them, L.M. Montgomery, was born in Cavendish, PEI, and published some 500 short stories and poems and twenty novels — all but one set on the Island.

Cavendish is the town on the north-central coast where L.M. Montgomery lived until she married at age 36. It is the core of the cult of Anne. There’s an Anne of Green Gables Museum, an Anne Chocolate store, Anne gift shops and an Avonlea Village — which recreates the type of rural community where Anne lived, with music, wagon rides, a candy shop and actors in heritage buildings. The Anne phenomenon is hardly confined to Cavendish. PEI’s license plates pay tribute to her. At the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, Anne of Green Gables the Musical has been performed, since 1965, for 38 seasons — that’s longer than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s opus Cats played on Broadway.

Not to be missed is the Green Gables House, the residence that provided the setting for L.M Montgomery’s first book. More than 350,000 pilgrims per year pay homage at the estate in Cavendish, where they can gaze with awe upon Anne’s sacred porcelain chamber pot, lovingly displayed besides her straw-filled bed. If you happen to be a guy, you might want to invent an excuse to cut out and play a few holes at the Green Gables Golf Course, conveniently located near the estate.

Islanders have a strong attachment to the soil — which is famous for its red hue. The redness of the soil is due to the high iron-oxide (rust) content of the sandstone that formed the crescent shaped island. T-shirts dyed in PEI mud and glass vials of red earth are popular tourist keepsakes. Purple Lupins, Lady Slippers and Black-Eyed Daisies are among the flamboyant wildflowers that thrive in the red soil of PEI as well as the humble potato. Stompin’ Tom Connors didn’t exaggerate Prince Edward Islanders’ penchant for potatoes in his folksong, Bud the Spud. PEI grows over 100 types of potatoes and produces 30% of spuds consumed in Canada. Islanders are justifiably proud of their high quality seed potatoes, which are exported to farmers around the globe.

Seafood is the chief source of sustenance for Islanders — at least judging from the menus I surveyed, where the vegetarian option was “Fruit de Mer.” Fishing is the third largest industry on PEI after agriculture and tourism. Although, lobsters don’t grow on trees in PEI, once there was a time when they were so plentiful that they could be caught by hand during low tide. Back then, eating a lobster sandwich for lunch was a sign of poverty. Today, lobsters command the highest price of any Atlantic seafood both in Canada and the United States.

During lobster season on PEI, McDonalds serves McLobster sandwiches and lobster suppers in church basements are popular fundraisers. McDonald’s McLobster combo with fries and a drink is an excellent deal at $7.99. As a gourmand, however, my epicurean sensibilities were offended by the fact that the lobster roll wasn’t deep fried. For a masterpiece of roadhouse cuisine, I’d recommend the fried scallop burger at Rick’s Fish ‘N’ Chips in St. Peters. While, lobsters account for about half of fishing income on PEI many other species are also harvested, including cod, herring, scallops, bluefin tuna, and the world-famous Malpeque oyster. At the Shipwright’s Café in Margate, I slurped down several raw Malpeque oysters and couldn’t help but think that they would have benefited from some time spent in the deep fryer.

At social gatherings, Islanders play a curious instrument constructed from sheepskin and wooden reeds. Even odder, when playing this apparatus, males don skirts with tartan patterns. While touring The College of Piping and Celtic Performing Arts of Canada in Summerside, I witnessed an Islander partake in this strange ritual. I noticed a scruffy student in a Led Zepplin T-shirt, who watched attentively from the bleachers as a Highlander dancer pranced on stage. About half an hour later, the student came onstage, decked out in a kilt and full Scottish regalia, and serenaded the audience with the bleating of the bagpipes.

Islanders don’t have to pay the piper to learn how to play the pipes, at the College of Piping. Thanks to a generous endowment by Wanda Lefurgey Wyatt, students from PEI aged eight to 18 can take piping or drum lessons for free at the college, which was founded in 1990 to keep Celtic traditions alive. The school also teaches Highland dancing and step dancing. It’s the only year round school of its kind in the world and draws 200 international students a year, from as far away as India, Japan and New Zealand.

Islanders speak with a maritime lilt, which is essentially a watered down Scottish brogue. There is a Dictionary of Prince Edward Island English by TK Pratt, that might prove helpful if the lady running your Bed & Breakfast asks you if you want to wersh your hands before eating. A typical PEI expression is “going over to the other side,” to refer to someone leaving for the mainland. It’s spoken with the same sigh of resignation that we use to speak of those dear to us who’ve passed away. Here’s an example of how the expression might be employed in everyday conversation:

Mary Tremblay Arsenault leans over the fence to comfort her neighbor, Allison MacDougall, after she’s learns that her daughter, Cynthia has moved to Toronto to find work. “Sorry to hear that Cynthia’s left,” she says. “I’m sure she’ll do fine. It’s always difficult when children grow up and go over to the other side…”

You’ll never be an Islander, but on vacation you can try.