EDITH WALLIS MINDS EVERYBODY’S BUSINESS
And every Thursday she shares the news with fishermen, farmers, townsmen and villagers up and down the salt-sprayed coast where Canada started. She owns and edits the weekly Digby, Nova Scotia, Courier, which tells it like it is — or most of it.
VICTOR CARDOZA, who used to help Edith Wallis run the Digby Courier, says the best example of her profound sense of fairness was her editorial stance when the eels got into Digby’s water mains the year before last. They came from the lake, then the town’s main water supply, and probably got in when young and grew up in the mains without actually polluting the water until an eel — half an eel, actually — was found blocking someone’s taps.
“It was a bad situation,” says Cardoza. “An out-of-town rival weekly trying to cut in on Edith began a great sensational campaign, and for a while people round here were saying, ‘At last, we’re getting the truth.’ But in the long haul, Edith’s approach was the right one. She took the view that it was regrettable but probably unavoidable and just presented the facts so the public could make up its own mind.”
Digby is a county town on the northwest shore of Nova Scotia; it borders on Digby Bay, part of the Bay of Fundy, and is near the site of the first agricultural settlement in Canada, Port Royale (now Annapolis Royal), heart of Acadia. Digby and its satellite fishing, farming and logging villages have been served by the Courier (Thursdays, 10 cents; circulation: 3,375) since 1874, when it was founded by an itinerant Scottish printer. Edith Wallis is the present owner and editor.
Above all else Edith Wallis is a gentle woman and, being gentle, fiercely determined to be fair to everyone. She is also intelligent, charming, a good manager, smiles almost all the time and sings mezzo-soprano with her own church and any other that asks, since she abhors bigotry. She also concedes that having been brought up to speak well of somebody or not at all can be a handicap to an editor and publisher. Glen Smith, the mayor of her town, says that she “won’t report court cases unless we ask her because she doesn’t like giving people a bad name.” The police would like all offenders held up as awful examples.
Fishing, like everything else, isn’t what it used to be, but it remains the abiding concern of the Courier and the rugged little fishing villages it covers
And somehow, at this point in the history of the Maritimes, there is a rightness about the Courier's being run by a woman, particularly one like Edith Wallis. For the Courier, like most of Canada’s 625 weeklies, is not only one of the regular punctuation marks in the life of its town; it is also the umbilical link between Digby and the local people — scores, hundreds, thousands, who knows? — driven out into the cold to work in Ontario or Boston or Los Angeles or wherever you have to go when your hometown and province can’t support you in the manner to which TV commercials have made you accustomed.
To these people out in the cold, Digby is home, and if the Courier keeps coming in its brown-paper wrapper, then home and all it symbolizes is still there. Each week 645 copies of the Courier are mailed to faraway places in Canada, the United States,
France, Britain, Ghana, even Siam.
Those readers don't want news particularly, they want gossip. “Mr. and Mrs. David Marsters and baby Davy, of Malden, Mass., are spending two weeks at the home of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Gus Melanson . . . Miss Taryn Doucette had the misfortune of cutting her foot on the beach and is confined to her home for a week or more . . . Sorry to report Mrs. Lambertson is a patient in Digby General Hospital. We wish her a speedy recovery ...”
“When I went to work at the Courier I believed all that stuff was a lot of twaddle,” says Victor Cardoza, “For a couple of weeks when 1 was on my own we had lots of real news — about the council, the Board of Trade, fires, the police and the courts. You know what? After a couple of weeks local people began to come in and complain there was nothing in the paper. And to those who’ve gone outside it’s like a letter from Aunt Emily.”
That is not to say, however, that the Courier is all gossip, or ever was. In its early days it was as concerned with the intelligences from Europe and the more civilized parts of the U.S. as it was with the local temperance tea. The spirit hasn't died. Bobby Kennedy was shot in California at 3 a.m.
local time, just as the Courier was being printed, and Edith Wallis stopped the 71-year-old press — an act of great courage since it was working and the printing staff believes in letting well enough alone — to get the news in black type on the front page.
The Kennedy assassination forced the Courier to drop Mrs. Alva McDormond’s Westport notes that week. She is the farthest flung of the Courier's 40 regular correspondents, who are paid a dollar a column (450 words) plus a free Courier subscription. Most are in communities along the mainland shore of St. Mary Bay and on the isthmus which juts northwest from Digby to form the other shore of the bay. The isthmus is called Digby Neck and is shaped like the letter “i”, with two dots. The furthermost dot is Brier Island, and Westport is the fishing village on Brier Island, 40 miles and two ferry rides away from Digby.
Mrs. McDormond is always a little disappointed when her news doesn’t get in. "There’s lots of times when Mrs. Wallis changes something I have written,” she says. “I’m not learned in that kind of work and I might not put it down just as it should be. Ordinary news — visits, and children’s birthdays, anniversaries, I try to get all of them over the 25th, and the Oddfellows and the Rebekahs — I can get that down all right, but if I’m doing a feature story, like one 1 just did about the lighthouse, or a big anniversary, now that’s hard. 1 can’t write by hand because of arthritis, so I sent $50 away to Ontario for a typewriter. Sometimes I tear the paper out two or three times before I get going. When I'm going it’s all right, but then I have trouble with endings. I don’t like them flowery, but I like it to end nicely.”
Fedor Dostoevski, Hemingway, Graham Greene and even Alan Edmonds all had, or have, much the same problems.
The population of Brier Island was 367 in June 1966 — Mrs. McDormond was the enumerator — and the men all fish, or work in the fishprocessing plant. Because of the inconvenience of the ferry, islanders often don’t get to the mainland for months. The islanders share barely a dozen names among them, and when young men go to other villages along The Neck for brides they find Miss Right is somehow related to them. But the only inbreeding problems are among the cats. Mrs. McDormond and one or two other women have kittens with six toes on each front paw, instead of the customary three.
Like most correspondents, Mrs. McDormond exists mostly on the visits home of former islanders. She rarely reports weddings or funerals, and she never touches the main social problem — drunk driving — which seems to plague all Digby’s outport communities. Mrs. McDormond dismisses it with, “Once in a while the kids get some liquor and drive around too fast, blowing their horns. It makes me cross, but it’s nothing to put in the Courier.” And that’s on an island with about three miles of road, none of it wide enough for two cars to pass comfortably, and which needs a ferry ride to get off — to yet another island. This is Long Island, the nearer of the two dots to the letter “i”. It, in turn, is also a ferry ride away from the mainland part of The Neck.
Long Island is about 12 miles long and has just about that much road linking the villages, Freeport and Tiverton, in which most of the island’s 1,250 population live. Like the rest of The Neck, Long Island is devoted to fishing and fish processing. It seems some young fishermen are prone to sudden bouts of heavy drinking, then climbing into cars and screaming along the solitary highway, roaring drunk. Wrecked and derelict cars, up-ended in roadside fields, are an occasional part of the Long Island landscape. The drunk drivers and bootlegging plague the local Mountie detachment. Even
when called from Digby by an angry islander, they rarely catch anyone. Many fishermen have two-way radios in their cars as well as in their boats, and as the Mountie patrol car howls down the 20 miles of road along The Neck to reach the ferry, the word is passed quietly along over the citizens’ waveband: “Long Island, you’ve got visitors coming.” By the time the Mounties disembark from the ferry scow, Long Island’s current answer to Stirling Moss has been extricated from a car running on neat alcohol and is home in bed. “Damned place,” says one Mountie. “They protect their own, and their early-warning system makes it impossible to catch anyone.”
In a bid to catch the hell-drivers, a Mountie once hid in the trunk of the patrol car on the way to Long Island, and then slipped out and remained behind, hiding in a clump of bushes when the car returned to Digby. He had, however, been spotted, so he caught no one. And anyway, the islanders’ sins are relatively harmless. On Brier Island last summer a teenager named Benny Robicheau, who dresses as though The Beatles, circa 1965, were his idols, opened up a poolhall in a decrepit quayside shed. “A few old women complained about kids playing pool and swearing and that sort of thing. And then a lot of the kids drink because there isn’t much for them to do. Anyway, someone wrote to the Mounties and they came down and told me to keep the under16s out of the poolroom, and at the same time they warned off the bootlegger. He used to work on the ferry.” Now everyone drinks his booze before going to the poolhall, and those of Robicheau’s customers who are still under 16 idle in the snack bar next to the poolroom where the action is, or play the pinball machines, “Big Deal” and “Four Roses,” just marking time until they, too, join the fishing fleet, or get married and go to quilting bees, or get pushed out into the cold.
Fishing, like everything, isn’t what it used to be but those men still with the fleets sometimes earn big money — perhaps $100 a day, if fish and weather coincide — and so the fish business remains the abiding concern of The Neck. Mrs. Ida Dakin, 60, the Courier's senior correspondent since she began contributing the Centreville notes in 1940, often mentions the weather and the fishing. Ain’t much I don’t write about,” she says. “I don’t have much learning or anything, but I just loves it. On Sundays I always sits down for a couple of hours to do my notes. Mostly it’s the visitors, but there’s receptions, I puts them in, too, and funerals sometimes. There’s not much crime, and we ain’t had a fire
since Ernest Nisbitt’s got burned two years ago. And I always puts in about my mother-in-law’s anniversary.” That is Mrs. Aggie Dakin. All but one of her nine children, 32 grandchildren and 115 great-grandchildren now live in the U.S. “When the young hit their teens and 20s, they git,” says Mrs. Dakin.
Throughout most of the Courier's circulation area Mrs. Wallis or her assistant Lee Everett cover the major events: village carnivals, political meetings, beauty-queen competitions, golf tournaments and the other milestones of community life. Mostly, however, they concentrate on Digby itself with the occasional aid of the half dozen men in the print shop who turn to with a bit of reporting when the need arises. Wayne Snow, the Linotype operator, coaches and covers pee-wee hockey; Murray Baxter, the general printer, reports and plays baseball. Covering Digby is relatively simple for Mrs. Wallis. She’s lived there for 34 years, since she moved from Lunenburg, where she was a teacher (specialty: math), and married J. M. Wallis, son of the man who had owned the Courier and its job-printing business since the 1920s. Her two daughters grew up there and she was involved in community life even before first her husband and then her fatherin-law died and, 12 years ago, she found herself running the Courier.
The Courier building is a white frame structure just off Water Street, Digby’s shopping thoroughfare. It was a machine shop and a garage before the Courier moved in 26 years ago. The print shop is roomy, but the two business and editorial offices are closet-sized and crammed with desks, filing cabinets, antique typewriters and paper so that you don’t walk among the furniture; you wriggle. “It is,” concedes Mrs. Wallis, “hard on the nylons.” At 61, she remains an attractive woman and the nylons are on wellshaped legs. She conducts all her business transactions with the grace you expect at a tea party or reception. “She’s extremely feminine,” says Victor Cardoza. “And she’s a damn good manager,” says her print-shop foreman, Paul Snow.
Unlike many Canadian weeklies, the Courier's 12 pages are rarely tainted by boilerplate free - advertising filler material, or predigested editorials clipped from bigger newspapers. Mrs. Wallis produces around 1,000 words of editorials each week. They’re commonsensical, rarely radical and are called About This And That. She writes them on a portable typewriter, sitting up in bed on Tuesday nights. “I’m very conscious I’m not a good writer or a particularly good reporter,” she says. “I just fell into running the Courier. I think it’s important that people should have the facts presented fairly, and get the chance to make up their own minds.”
Ida Dakin, 60 (here with husband Harley), is the Courier’s senior correspondent: she’s been writing her notes from Centreville, a fishing village along Digby Neck, for 28 years. “There’s not much crime and we ain’t had a fire in two years and I loves it,” she says.
The 71 -year-old newspaper press dwarfs modern machines on which most of the job printing in and around Digby is done. The old press is temperamental, “and we haven’t had it long enough to love it despite its faults,” say printers.
The Courier s 40 regular correspondents supply the homey sort of news that’s as satisfying to readers as a letter from Aunt Emily
Albert Melanson, the 62-year-old postmaster in the village of Clare, is the Courier’s only male correspondent. “1 don’t report gossip.” he says.
Digby Mayor Glen Smith mourns that “Edith never sticks her neck out.” Others make the same point, though not as a criticism. Her former assistant, Victor Cardoza, says, “Edith walks a tightrope. It’s all very well to say you must crusade and let the heads fall where they will. But Edith has to survive. The Courier was here 10 years ago, is here now and it will be here in 10 years’ time. Remember that the definition of courageous journalism depends on whose ox is gored.” And besides, Digby isn’t the sort of town where radical journalism is made. It’s a conservative community whose half dozen residential streets teeter down a hill to the harbor and the bay where the French set up Canada’s first agrarian settlement in 1605. Digby’s population today is about the same as it was at the turn of the century, when prosperous traders built magnificent Victorian mansions on the hillside, all minarets and cupolas and narrow, angular windows, and which today are mostly apartments.
A Courier reader, fisherman Orin Tidd, of Whale Cove, battles the sea and low prices to earn a modest living.
Digby has a Negro suburb: the villages of Jordantown and Acaciaville just outside town. The people are poor, the houses unpainted. But the area’s news has a regular place in the Couriers columns by way of the social notes written weekly by Mrs. Dorothy Bailey.
The town’s preoccupation is servicing the fishing fleet and the surrounding communities. Decreasingly, it does business with the Annapolis Royal naval base nearby. During the war there were 10,000 sailors there, a fact that prompted the tabloid newspaper Flash to declare that Digby was “the Sin Bin of the Maritimes.” Digby is dry and the only place where sailors can drink is the Legion Club, and only if their service identification cards show they are over 21. Storekeeper Chub Connell, who sells stationery, says that for a while he couldn’t understand why he had a big run on liquid ink eraser. Then he discovered that underage sailors were buying it to change the birth date on their identification cards. “It sounds ridiculous, but I had to ban the sale of ink eraser to minors,” he says. Connell’s Courier ads are part of local lore. Typically, one read: “Wanted — customers. Experience unnecessary.” This invitation now graces the shop doorway.
As well as doing his share of the reporting, Lee Everett helps tradesmen write the ads he collects for the Courier. He’s a diminutive and furiously energetic bachelor in his late 20s who began working for the Courier as a Linotype operator. He is given to making little jokes. Once he finished setting a column of Bear River notes with the line: “The End of Bear River — Thank God.” He expected the printers to spot and remove the line, but they didn’t. At least, they didn’t until 2 a.m. on Thursday morning, by which time 300 papers had been printed and there was barely enough paper left to finish the press run. The press was stopped and the slug of type removed. Everett was hauled out of bed and Mrs. Wallis put him to work with a bail-point pen crossing out the offending words, “The End of Bear River — Thank God,” in the 300 papers already printed. “We sent those papers to subscribers in the States,” says Mrs. Wallis. “There was less risk
“Some editors feel they must be the power around town,” says Edith Wallis. “I don’t. I feel people can make their own judgments”
of offending them.” Everett may also have been guilty of the headline: “Digby Town Band on Sound Basis.”
Covering the bigger out - of - town events provides Mrs. Wallis and Everett with periodic swings through the Courier territory, encouraging correspondents and handing out stationery. On one such trip last fall, Mrs. Wallis set out for Clare on the South Shore, which is across St. Mary Bay from The Neck. At a dance in Clare that evening they were choosing the Evangeline and Gabriel to preside over the local Acadian Festival.
On the way there she stopped by Jordantown, one of two Negro villages on the fringes of Digby where the descendants of refugees who traveled the slave railway still live in their own local Tobacco Road. The frame houses are basically no worse than in white villages, but are unpainted, largely unserviced and mostly set in unkempt gardens.
There’s no overt discrimination: if Digby has done little to help Negroes, it has also apparently done little to harm them. The Jordantown notes of correspondent Mrs. Dorothy Bailey, wife of a laundryman, turn up in the Courier along with those from neater white villages. The content is similar, too. “It’s mostly people visiting,” says Mrs. Bailey. “I see them in the street and I know everybody, so I write it up. I don’t put weddings and funerals in, but sometimes I put in about the church or the Scouts or the community centre.” At the centre, some adults, says Mrs. Bailey, are now taking grade-one lessons “so’s they can read and write their own names.”
At Clare, shortly before the dance and the choosing of Evangeline and Gabriel, she explained to Albert Melanson, the 62-year-old postmaster and the Courier’s solitary male correspondent, that she would cover the dance herself. Melanson doesn’t report social notes — “gossip,” he calls them. “I deal only in real news,” he says. “Board of Trade or the service clubs or like a house burning down or someone getting hurt. I don’t cover politics: that way I keep out of difficulties
— they still take their politics seriously around here. I try to send in something every week because I like to keep this area before the public. But it’s difficult. I don’t have much spare time and I’ve got to be in the mood for writing. Otherwise I would do a mediocre job. I’m a correspondent for another weekly paper and I send them the same things as the Courier. But the Courier is a good paper. It’s improving all the time. There doesn’t seem to be as much gossip as there was.”
Evangeline and her beau, Gabriel, turned out to be slightly gawky 15year-olds. The emcee announced that Mrs. Wallis of the Digby Courier would take a photograph, which she did with the office Polaroid camera. And on the way back to Digby she expanded on her philosophy of newspapering. “I don’t want you to think I sit on the fence because I lack the courage of my convictions,” she said. “Some editors feel they must be the power around town. I don’t. The Courier stands for justice in the community, but I feel there are just as many intelligent people in the world as there are intelligent editors, and they can make their own judgments. I do express my own opinions, and I’ve fought for things. But I try to do so in a way that gives other people room to disagree with me.”
They’re noble sentiments, and she seems to put them into practice. But, as Victor Cardoza puts it, “Edith has her crosses to bear.” One of them is probably the person — man, woman?
— who sent me a letter after I left Digby. It contained a clipping of a Wallis editorial which at one point said: “Editorially we are not dictatorial and don’t mind saying so.” The words were underlined. In the margin was written:
“Wouldn’t it be nice if this was true
She doesn’t fool us — did she
fool you?” □