Will Ferguson’s Canada

MYTHIC ISLE

The pilgrimage to P.E.I. is all about innocence

August 12 2002
Will Ferguson’s Canada

MYTHIC ISLE

The pilgrimage to P.E.I. is all about innocence

August 12 2002

THERE ARE TIMES I wonder if Prince Edward Island really exists. The rolling hills and church spires, the arc of ocean, the red earth at sunset—a rich vermilion colour somewhere between rust and blood: P.E.I. is less a province than it is a pastiche, a patchwork of pastoral idylls sewn together like a warm quilt.

If Prince Edward Island didn’t exist, we would have had to invent it. And in a way, we have. Maritime writer Harry Bruce calls it “the seductive myth of the perfect island.” Part fiction, part fact.

I first came to P.E.I. in 1996 out of sheer desperation, having returned to Canada after spending five years in Japan only to discover that I was pretty much unemployable. Turns out, Bay Street’s highpowered corporate scouts were not nearly as impressed by the fact that I could order beer in Japanese as I might have hoped.

Time for Plan B. I knew full well that Anne of Green Gables held an enduring and inexplicable allure for Japanese women (my wife being one of the few exceptions I ever met). So, after an extended stay in New Brunswick, we moved to the Island in the hopes that I might be able to fob myself off as a sort of freelance “Japan expert.”

My wife quickly landed a job with CP Hotels. I had less luck. The only work I could get was with the local Charlottetown paper, The Guardian (actual masthead motto: “Covers the Island like the Dew”) where, in a moment of weakness, they hired me to write a weekly column on Japanese culture and customs, cleverly entitled “East Meets West.” For this, I was paid the princely sum of $35 a column.

My foray into the world of journalism having failed to make me rich, I focused my uncanny business acumen on the world of travel and tourism. As luck would have it, a Cavendish tour company was expanding into the Japanese market and was looking for someone fluent in Japanese who had a solid background in travel management. Lacking both qualifications, I decided to apply.

At that time, the government of Japan had a series of standardized tests for evaluating language ability. Level One represented perfect fluency, the type of skills needed to be an interpreter or translator. Level Two included the ability to read a Japanese newspaper and discuss detailed economic proposals. Level Three was needed to operate wholly in Japanese. Level Four, the bottom rung, also known as “barroom Japanese,” required conversational ability only, along with 200 or so common kanji characters.

I had a Level Four. Which is to say, I could bluff my way through the basics, but couldn’t discuss complex business arrangements. When I was asked about my second-language proficiency during my interview with the P.E.I. tour company, I leaned in, lowered my voice, and said solemnly, “Well, I don’t mean to brag, but there are only four levels of Japanese fluency and—I paused for full dramatic effect—“I have reached the fourth level.”

It wasn’t exactly a lie, it was more of a fortnight-in-purgatory, don’t-do-it-again sort of thing. But, hey, it worked. I was given a company account and a snappy job title and off I went. Fortunately, most of my work involved selling Anne of Green Gables to the Japanese, which is about as difficult as selling a glass of water to someone whose hair is on fire.

Unfortunately, one of my first duties was to welcome a VIP tour from the Japan Travel Bureau. These were big shots. Corporate big shots. With sweaty palms and heart afluttering, I greeted the JTB contingent at the airport while my unilingual Canadian boss, Roger Dorion, looked on. The Japanese were dressed in severe blue suits and had suitably severe expressions on their faces. Taking a deep breath, I gave what was perhaps the most heartfelt speech of my life:

'Yokoso Prince Edward Island e (Welcome to Prince Edward Island)! Sumimasen, demo watashi wa Nihongo pera pera ja nai (I’m sorry, but I can’t really speak Japanese very well). Demo shacho wa shirimasen (But my boss here doesn’t know this). Barasanai de kudasi (Please don’t tell him).”

There was a moment of dead silence... and then they roared with laughter. Some even broke into applause. Roger beamed, confused but happy, as they filed past into the waiting minivan. One of the head honchos took Roger aside and said, with a grinning gesture in my direction, “His Japanese. Very good.”

“Why were they laughing?” Roger whispered to me.

“Um, I told them a joke. You know, to break the ice.”

THE BEST THING about my “work” in P.E.I. (note the ironic use of quotation marks) is that it provided me with a ready alibi whenever I wanted to play hooky, and I spent many a leisurely hour driving down the Island’s back roads, exploring hidden coves and far-flung villages—all in the name of “research.” After filling out my expense forms, I would draw up elaborate, breathtaking tour reports on P.E.I.’s lesser-known attractions, which I duly submitted and which were duly ignored. “We were thinking more about something with Anne of Green Gables...”

When you get beyond the tourist beat, P.E.I. rewards you handsomely. One scenic tableau after another unfolds, shorelines curve toward distant lighthouses, old barns and fishing piers seem to have been arranged on purely aesthetic principles. There is a mood that overtakes you in P.E.I., one of exhilarated calm—if such a thing is possible.

In a nation that defines itself by the space it takes up, this intimate little island, so perfectly self-contained, is something of an anomaly. The entire population is just 139,000. In comparison, there are more than 20 cities in the rest of Canada that have populations larger than that. Saskatoon has more people than the entire province of Prince Edward Island.

Set among the Maritimes, P.E.I. is an island of farmers. In an urban nation, P.E.I. remains resolutely rural. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Vancouver Island is larger than P.E.I. and so is Cape Breton. Both of these islands have populations bigger than P.E.I.’s, as well, and both were once self-governing colonies. But neither of them became provinces. So why P.E.I.?

The answer: stubbornness. Pure and simple. Cape Breton and Vancouver Island allowed their colonial status to be withdrawn. P.E.I. refused.

The roots of Island autonomy date back to 1769, when it was separated from Nova Scotia and made into a distinct colony complete with its own governor and an elaborate constitution. One of the reasons Britain granted P.E.I. special status lay in the unique manner in which it was settled. Alone among the colonies of British North America, P.E.I. was owned entirely by absentee landlords. It was an experiment, a pet project of British dandies looking to build their own little Edens in the New World.

The Island was surveyed into lots, and the lots were drawn in a lottery and awarded to patrons back in Britain who were required to ship in tenant farmers to break the land. Much comment is made of the seigneurial system of New France, but in many ways, the P.E.I. version of feudalism was much worse. At least the seigneurial lords of New France for the most part lived on or near the property they were granted, and the French habitants who worked the land at least had a chance of some day owning it. Not on the Island. There, the landlords were an ocean away. P.E.I. was the ultimate hobby farm. Bit of a lark that, owning an estate in the colonies.

The Scots, English, Irish and Acadian settlers who tilled the red soil of P.E.I. were little more than serfs, mere tenants on someone else’s land, as were their children and their children’s children. A distinct Island character was already emerging, one born of a shared sense of physical and political isolation. Historians David Weale and Harry Baglole note in their book The Island and Confederation: The End of an Era, “Year in and year out, generation after generation, this singular geographic situation dictated both a sense of unity and separateness, of inclusion and exclusion.”

It took more than a century of protests and petitions to finally wrest control of the Island away from its proprietors. The last parcel of land was not relinquished until 1895, more than 40 years after the French Canadian seigneurial system had been abolished. By that time the Island was already a province.

Although it likes to promote itself as “the Cradle of Confederation,” P.E.I. came kicking and scratching into Canada. The original Confederation conference took place on the Island not because the Islanders were especially keen on the proposal for colonial union, but because holding the meeting on P.E.I. was the only way the other delegates could be sure the Islanders would even bother showing up. As it was, P.E.I. rejected the offer. It wasn’t until 1873, after a disastrous railway venture had driven the colony to near bankruptcy, that the Islanders finally, begrudgingly, agreed to join Canada.

What unites Islanders today is the image they have of themselves as a distinct breed of people, that and the knowledge that they have staked a claim on paradise. “There are only two kinds of people,” I was often told. “Those from the Island, and those who wish they were from the Island.”

NO ONE HELPED SHAPE the Myth of the Perfect Isle more than Lucy Maud Montgomery. Her unassuming novel about a plucky red-haired orphan, Anne of Green Gables, was first published in 1908— and became a surprise hit. The book made Montgomery an international celebrity, and no one was more surprised about this than she was. “I can’t believe,” she wrote in her journal, “that such a simple little tale, written in and of a simple P.E.I. farming settlement, with a juvenile audience in view, can really have scored somewhere out in the busy world.”

Montgomery wrote seven more books in the Anne series, as well as over a dozen other novels, two collections of poetry, a serialized autobiography and hundreds of short stories. But it was with her first novel that her reputation was secured. Mark Twain was an early fan, describing Anne of Green Gables as “the sweetest creation of child life yet written.”

The Anne books have been published in more than 15 languages and have a devoted following around the world, but nowhere has Montgomery’s tale of youth and innocence resonated quite like it has among the Japanese. In Japan, it has been likened to a religion, one complete with a Book (Anne of Green Gables), a Founder (L.M. Montgomery), a Saint (Anne Herself), a Holy Cathedral (the house in Cavendish that served as the inspiration for Green Gables) and of course, a Holy Pilgrimage: the journey to Prince Edward Island, culminating at the gravesite of L.M. Montgomery. I wasn’t selling package tours, I was selling a rite of passage.

Montgomery’s book helped ruin the very thing it celebrated: P.E.I.’s quiet seclusion. Long before the Japanese began their annual hajj, Montgomery herself was complaining that “Cavendish is being overrun and exploited by mobs of tourists and my harmless neighbours have their lives simply worried out of them by carloads of‘foreigners’ who want to see some of Anne’s haunts.”

Today, it has only gotten worse. More than 700,000 tourists arrive on the Island each year, swamping the local population. Germans, Americans, Poles, Upper Canadians, they come to worship at the altar of Anne, to see for themselves where little Anne Shirley grew up. Anne of Green Gables is the story of an island as much as a girl, and the two are inseparable. The border between fiction and reality becomes blurred, real places become mingled with the imaginary and no one seems to know where one ends and the other begins. When I was in P.E.I., Japanese visitors would sometimes become overwhelmed by the sheer emotion of it, their eyes welling, their voices trembling.

If Anne is the fictional made real, then Prince Edward Island has become the real transformed into the mythic. We approach P.E.I. like a memory of lost youth, yearning for a time of innocence that never was. It is a dream that has been carefully manufactured and maintained, a fantasy that’s been packaged for popular consumption. “No other province,” writes Harry Bruce, “is so tortured by the gap between a beautiful dream and a homely reality. More than all other Canadians, Islanders allow a fairy tale to dominate politics and distort visions of their homeland destiny.”

Living in P.E.I., it’s been said, is like living in a national park. Or a fairground. Or both. The tour buses arrive in convoys and the red-haired Anne impersonators pose for photographs beside “Green Gables.” Here, the tour guide tells us, is where Lucy Maud Montgomery was born. Here is where she wrote the book. Here is where she lived. And here is where she lies...

And here, here is the windswept coast where Anne would have run when she was young. When we were young. Here are the fields and the forests, the country lanes and the flowers, wild. Here the ocean, rolling blue. Here, the innocence, regained.