Selling P.E.I.

Quaint? Kitschy? Whatever—just don’t expect a bunch of rustics. Anne's island is open for business

JOHN DEMONT July 23 2001

Selling P.E.I.

Quaint? Kitschy? Whatever—just don’t expect a bunch of rustics. Anne's island is open for business

JOHN DEMONT July 23 2001

Selling P.E.I.

Quaint? Kitschy? Whatever—just don’t expect a bunch of rustics. Anne's island is open for business



in Cavendish

Today, she'd probably be on Ritalin —or, at very least, deep into regression therapy. The spunky orphan with the freckles, sparkling green eyes and mass of red hair was prone to histrionics, preposterously big words and flights of the most imaginative fancy. Most of

all, that girl could talk. Anne Shirley—Prince Edward Islands most famous, albeit fictional, resident—fell into a swoon the first time she laid eyes on Green Gables. “Oh it seems as if I must be in a dream,” she gushed to crusty Matthew Cuthbert, as they drew near in a horse-drawn buggy. “Do you know, my arm must be black and blue from the elbow up, for I’ve pinched myself so many times ... to see if it was real—until suddenly I remembered that even supposing it was only a dream Ed better go on dreaming as long as I could.”

So what would she think today if she were to head towards Cavendish, P.E.I., and the farm that inspired her creator, Lucy Maud Montgomery? Chances are, 93 years after Anne of Green Gables hit the bookshelves, shed be pinching herself black and blue, all right—but for entirely different reasons. What, after all, would she make of all the kitsch along the highway: the Black Magic Indoor Blacklight Mini-golf, the Royal Atlantic Wax Museum, complete with its replicas of Elvis and Stompin’ Tom Connors, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum with its six-metre section of the Berlin Wall? What hyperbole would burst from her lips as she passed the motels, country inns and bed-and-breakfasts cashing in on her name, the

gift shops flogging the dolls, sweatshirts, key chains and other curios bearing her likeness?

She would still find the farmhouse, lovingly restored and turned into a national historic site. But often these days, she would find it crowded with Japanese tourists paying homage to their country’s favourite heroine. (Many of them, including one well-known sumo wrestler, insist on being married in front of the fireplace at Green Gables, the same spot where Lucy Maud was wed on July 5, 1911.) And if Anne Shirley were to walk out the back door today, her biggest worry wouldn’t be stepping into cow patties but ducking wicked slices from the Green Gables Golf Course next door.

This summer, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, more than one million tourists will pour into Canada’s

smallest province. Most will make a beeline to Cavendish on a quest for the essence of Prince Edward Island. Outnumbered 10:1, the locals will smile tolerandy, patiendy answer questions about their “quaint” way of life and sell their pricey shellfish to tour-bus visitors after an Island experience. “They arrive from the big cities searching for something simpler and more genuine than life back home,” marvels Urban Carmichael, a P.E.I. storyteller who makes a big part of his living performing for the tourist trade. Some may even find it.

Not, probably, the ones content to don little plastic bibs at nearby village lobster suppers—now midsized commercial ventures rather than local fund-raisers. Or even the

tourists who think the spirit of the island is visible through their car windshields as they peer at weathered barns, white tapered church steeples, sunwashed beaches and red soil. For Prince Edward Island is more than the sum of its clichés no matter how deeply rooted they may be.

Forget, for starters, the islands popular image as some sort of laid-back, rustic fantasyland. The reality is Prince Edward Island is the first province to have

2,200, compared with around 5,000 in the early 1970s. “Its a sad thing to see these people get out of the business,” MacDonald said from behind the wheel of his tmck one recent afternoon. “These are people who went to the same church I go to and used to go to my local store. I understand why they leave. But every time someone sells out to one of the big guys, we lose part of a heritage that has been entrusted to us.” Prince Edward Island may simply be too addicted


provided Internet access in every school and public library. The average Islander is more likely to work in an office, on the production line at a french fry plant, or for some government agency than on a farm or fishing boat. The young person scooping a Cows icecream cone is as likely to be the offspring of hippies who arrived in the 1970s, when their Indian guru set up an ashram near Charlottetown, as a descendant of one of the Islands venerable Irish or Scottish clans.

Sure, the farmer on the John Deere tractor working the field looks stoic enough to be on the cover of a department of tourism promotional brochure. But the truth is he’s probably as stressed as the average big-city air-traffic controller. R. Elmer MacDonald, who runs a 1,800-acre potato, grain and beef farm with his brother Earle in tiny Augustine Cove, just down the road from Summerside, does his best to hide his worry. But he and his brother are a dying breed now that the potato industry is dominated by a few processing giants with an insatiable hunger for low-priced spuds to turn into french fries. For farmers today that means get bigger or sell out. As a result, the number of family-owned farms has plummeted to

to spuds for its own good. Since 1981, farmers have expanded their potato fields from 64,000 to 110,000 acres under cultivation. That dizzying growth has resulted in a dramatic increase in pesticide spraying, which is threatening Prince Edward Islands famous red soil along with its air and water. Brian Campbell, an oyster fisherman who lives in a mobile home a few kilometers from MacDonald, is trying to document the effects of all the chemicals used. Whenever he sets out for the nearby Tryon River, he packs a video camera as well as his fly rod and tackle. His home movies make grim viewing: spray trucks

working the potato fields only yards from the meandering river; the Tryon’s water mrned an opaque brown by pesticide-filled run-off from the nearby fields; pesticides floating in the air in such thick clouds drivers of passing cars roll up their windows.

Its more than just a nuisance: on July 19,1999, following a heavy rain, Camp-


bell awoke to find hundreds of dead trout floating in the Tryon—one of 13 fish kills in Island rivers that the provincial government says are directly connected to pesticide use in the past two years. “Eve lived here about all my life,” Campbell says. “These farmers are my friends and neighbours and I know they have a right to make a living. But the rest of us are paying an awful price.” Anyone who really wants to make sense of Prince Edward Island needs to understand the deep significance Islanders attach to their land. Such an attitude is natural where settlers have been working the soil since the 1760s. On much of the island today you can still walk into a Celtic-style ceilidh, or barn dance, and hear accents that can be directly traced to rural Ireland and the highlands of Scotland. Prince Edward Islands intimate scale and balance, as much as its gentle beauty, also exerts a

strong influence on its inhabitants. With a frill-time population of just 140,000, a thousand or so votes can decide provincial elections. There’s something delightfully toy-like about the historic Charlottetown legislature, where in 1864 the future fathers of Confederation first met to discuss a federal union. Today, it seats 27 MLAs, just six more people than Ottawa’s city council.

On a small island, space naturally is limited. The feeling that every new parking lot or factory looms like a mountain on the landscape makes for a fierce protectiveness. When Cavendish Farms Ltd., owned by New Brunswick’s mega-rich Irving family, began gobbling up acreage in the early 1980s, the province

brought in legislation limiting corporations to owning 3,000 acres and individuals to 1,000. It also restricted out-of-province buyers to holding no more than 50 m of island water frontage. That hasn’t halted the buying spree: Americans now own 30 per cent of Prince Edward Island’s vaca-

tion properties and, overall, nonresidents hold nine per cent of the province’s acreage. Figures like that petrify Islanders. It’s the same kind of trepidation so many of them felt when the Confederation Bridge opened in 1997, connecting Prince Edward Island to New Brunswick after decades of being reachable only by ferry. Both issues threaten something fundamental to the island psyche: the sense that they are both separate and different from the rest of Canada. David Weale, an author and historian at the University of Prince Edward Island, calls Islanders a curious paradox. “There is tendency to envy everyone else, to feel that you have just missed out on being part of it all because of where you live,” he says. “But there’s also this sense of superiority, that you live in a better place than anywhere else.” There can, of course, be a downside to being all by yourself at the edge of the continent: for starters, there’s a clannishness that ensures

Montgomery's legacy

Think it's easy being the offspring of a literary icon? Well, the heirs of Anne of

Green Gables creator Lucy Maud Montgomery want to have a few words with you. Oh sure, its nice that they continue to collect American, European and Japanese royalties. What's more, the heirs hold the trademark for any of Lucy Maud's major fictional characters, including the rights for Anne Shirley, which they share with the P.E.I. government. That means they have the legal power to keep tacky stuff like Anne beer steins and Manila Cuthbert cigarette lighters off the market. And they can also collect royalties from any of the 120-odd products approved by the Anne of Green Gables Licensing Authority Inc., a power they waive for merchandise produced in Prince Edward Island, but exercise to the tune of five to 10 per cent of the retail price for Anne mementoes manufactured off the island.

But, on the downside, there’s the trifling matter of a $5 5-million defamation suit that’s been dragging through the courts since 1999. That July, Ruth Montgomery, the widow of Montgomery’s youngest son, and her daughter, Kate Macdonald Butler, held a news conference in which they publicly criticized Sullivan Entertainment for allegedly failing to live up

to conditions under which Montgomery’s descendants sold the Toronto-based production company the television rights to her famous creation. According to the family, Sullivan Entertainment paid them $425,000 for the live-action, feature-length film rights, but hasn’t paid them their share of the profits from its Anne of Green GablesTV mini-series, or from its sequel of the same name, both starring Megan Follows as the precocious redheaded orphan. Sullivan Entertainment responded with the defamation suit against mother, daughter and Macdonald Butler’s cousin, David Macdonald.

In a separate case, Sullivan and the Anne Authority are suing each other over the question of who, if anyone, holds the trademark to Montgomery’s work. The family, at least, has tradition in its corner: in the 1920s, Montgomery fought her own series of nasty legal battles over royalties with her Boston publisher, L. C. Page & Company. The cases were ultimately settled in Montgomery’s favour.



only those born on Prince Edward Island are considered true Islanders. Someone like Weale, for instance, who has lived there 55 of his 58 years, is still considered “from away.” Such a close-knit place can also lead to a stifling conformity. Islanders acknowledge that the desire to keep things as they are manifests itself in everything from meticulous manicuring of lawns to a stubborn determination to remain the only province in Canada where abortions are not available. Selling alcohol in bars or restaurants only became legal in 1964, electricity did not arrive in most rural areas until the late 1950s and beverages in cans are still illegal.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking Islanders are frozen in time. They’re forward-looking enough to have elected in 1986 Canadas first premier of non-European extraction—Joe Ghiz, whose parents were Lebanese immigrants—as well as the coun-

try’s first and only female first minister, Catherine Callbeck. (Granted, Callbeck could also hold the distinction of being the only sitting premier who lived with his or her parents.)

Staid and boring? Try telling that to the Mounties vainly trying to wipe out the un-

derground art of moonshine making that still thrives on the island. Or the CBC TV producer who in 1993 stepped out of the studio in Charlottetown and found himself face-to-face with then Liberal bigwig Gordon Campbell (now a Supreme Court Justice) who decked him over some ill-advised remarks just made on air. Tell it to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who took a protester’s pie in the face on a visit here last year. “Repressed emotion has to bubble to the surface somehow,” contends Pan Wendt, 29, the goateed coordinator of the Island Media Arts Co-op. Sitting in his office in downtown Charlottetown one recent morning, he sported a nastylooking black eye from a soccer game the night before against a hard-nosed squad from Tignish on the island’s western tip. “Those

guys smile when they hit you,” he explained with a wince. “But God they’re scary.”

They don’t sound like the kind of people likely to do a little step dance for the wellheeled visitors. “If they think we are idiots that’s fine, as long as they bring their money,” declares David MacKenzie, executive director of the Capital Commission of Prince Edward Island, which is overseeing the province’s newest tourist attraction—the $7.5-million Founder’s Hall interactive museum on the Charlottetown waterfront.

Those words seem to sum up Prince Edward Island’s attitude towards an industry that injected $301 million into the provincial economy in 2000. It’s second only to agriculture’s $318-million contribution, which included $140 million from potato farming.

Still, there’s a growing concern among some Islanders they’re sacrificing too much of their identity to bring in the bus tours from

Florida. Catherine Hennessey, a heritage conservationist from Charlottetown, certainly thinks so. Sitting late one night in her century-old house in the capital’s downtown, she says the transformation of Cavendish is only the most obvious example of the trade-offs. She lists all the village general stores that have disappeared while trendy craft boutiques catering to the tourists who come for a couple of months a year continue to dot the landscape. Meanwhile, at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, Anne of Green Gables—The Musical is beginning its 37th run while edgier, less conventional artists and theatre groups are starved for funding. “Everything designed to get tourist bums into seats is at the expense of the people who live here 12 months a year,” she laments. “If we don’t watch out, everything authentic will disappear. We’ll be just like everywhere else.”

But is Hennessey underestimating the essence of what it means to be a Prince Edward Islander? Is she ignoring what it takes to stubbornly live on an island in 2001 no matter how hard the waves hit? That perseverance shines through on the farms still trying to make a go of it, as well as in the theme parks and gift shops hoping that the old fantasies will continue to attract new dollars. You can even sense it in Baba’s, a downtown Charlottetown bar where the hip young musicians, writers and painters who want nothing to do with the traditional Island clichés congregate most nights. “Its hard to be an artist here,” says John MacKenzie, 34, a poet who also doubles as doorman. “But you hang in because this is where you want to be.” Then he turns to watch a hip-hop artist named Fermented Reptile as the rest of the room grooves. A young woman with red hair and freckles gyrates in the half light, then is swallowed by the crowd. She looks a bit like Anne Shirley might with her hair down, without the prissy braids and schoolgirl hat.