Prince Edward Island: A Cradle by any Name



Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.


The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

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            abstract: The Mi’kmaq people who lived there for millenniums before the Europeans arrived called their island the “Cradle in the Waves.” Its current inhabitants prefer to remember it as the “Cradle of the Confederation of Canada.” The Island is now named after Prince Edward, King George III’s son, and it has cradled much of the life style that the King’s farmer subjects brought with them from the British Isles, beginning in the middle of the 18th century. Such a history, pregnant with charm, made a visit attractive to me.

 

Gentle Island

 

A strong wind made me turn my back to the approaching shores of Prince Edward Island as I stood on the deck of the ferry that was taking us there from Nova Scotia. I missed the “funnel cloud” that was forming just then over the Island. As the local newspaper, The Guardian, reported the next day, this rather rare phenomenon occurs when “cold air nears warm water, such as is found in the Northumberland Strait,” which we were crossing. This made a headline in the Guardian because it had caused “a bit of a shock” in some Islanders. On the other hand, as another article in the same issue of the paper said, the Islanders that day had also reported a UFO sighting elsewhere on their Island. It turned out, however, “that the UFOs were actually special fireworks associated with a wedding ceremony.” The other good news, the Editorial of the Guardian opined, was the “Growing tourism: we’re on the right track.”

What this tourist came for was the soothing environment promised in the name “Gentle Island,” given to this province in the northeast of Canada by Mi’kmaq, the tribe that occupied it for thousands of years before the Europeans came -hence called the First Nation.  I was not disappointed as we drove along the south coast from  Wood Island toward the capital city of Charlottetown. Rolling hills of farmland with sienna-colored iron-rich soil were separated from the rose and golden sand of the beaches by fields of purple  and pink  lupine and the wild perennial (“one month only”) fuchsia-color loosestrife flowers.

The landscape reflected the heritage of the majority of the 140,000 inhabitants of this smallest of the Canadian provinces. They trace their roots to migrants from the British Isles, some by way of New England, who came here mostly to farm. I noted evidence of pockets of French-speaking Acadians who constitute 4% of the total population, especially noticeable in radio programs in the eastern part of Prince Edward Island (PEI). The far fewer descendants of the Mi’kmaq, about 1000, were even  less visible.

A Frenchman, Jacque Cartier, recorded his discovery of PEI in 1534. It took the French another 70 years to establish a settlement here, which grew in the early 1750s with the arrival of their Acadian compatriots who had been exiled from Nova Scotia (Acadia) by Britain. In 1758 the British also took PEI and again expelled some three thousand Acadians.

Charlottetown

Nearly thirty percent of PEI’s population live in one city, its capital. Named after Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III and the mother of Prince Edward, Charlottetown was chosen in the middle of the 18th century as the capital as a favor to the “poor side of the island.” Today, with 38,000 people, Charlottetown is so bold as to fly banners on its streets that declare it to be “The Cultural Capital of Canada.” I found it to be cozy and lively at the same time.

The vast lobby of the Rodd Charlottetown where we stayed had marble floors, befitting a vintage Canadian National (CN) Railway Hotel built in 1931. Alas, the rooms had only replicas of period furnishings. The window of our room, however, opened on Rochford Square, one of  four such green spaces each “placed in one quarter of the original rectangular town.” In our quarter, additionally, there were quaint corner flower gardens at intersections, “adopted” by local businesses. The more hip scene was a few blocks away.

On Richmond Street the road was closed to automobile traffic. The sidewalk on one side was given to over to outdoor cafes that served excellent sea food, especially the Malpeque oysters from the bay of a tiny hamlet by that name, for which PEI is deservedly world-famous. On the other side of the street, against the wall of the Confederation Centre for the Arts, a stage was set for musicians who were students and teachers from the local colleges  who played good jazz. On the two nights that we were there, several groups took turns. One consisted of three players on bass, drums, and saxophone; the other boasted five musicians, including players of wind instruments . They were paid by the cafes collectively with some subsidy from the city.

The several eateries here were doing a brisk business. The crowd was mostly in their thirties and forties. This was, of course, the summer season. We were told that only the Globe Restaurant would remain open all year. All others closed after the summer months. Perhaps as a sign of changing times, however, the owners of a brand new Dutch bakery that only sold poffertjes, a very sweet pancake which it called “Canada’s best new treat ,” told us that they would also try to stay open through the winter.

Several streets down, on the waterfront, the Peakes Wharf Summer Concert Series was on. Here the music was Celtic, guitar and fiddle , and the audience was also different. Many had come with their children. The hometown ice cream shop, Cows, which claimed to be the best inCanada, was popular.

To hear Irish music we went to the Olde Dublin Pub on Sydney Street. The better pub scene, however, was at The Gahan House across the street. It branded itself as the “Brewers of Handcrafted Ales.” A fleet of four beers fairly verified that claim for us .

Charlottetown also boasted an annual musical theater Festival, held at the Confederation Centre for the Arts. This year the main show was entitled “Come-All-Ye.” Its aim was to “tell Island stories and sing Island songs with a unique PEI voice and perspective.” Its artistic director’s bio included this line: “She is honoured to have been the private dance teacher to Diana,  Princess of Wales.”

In the intimate way of a small village, the cathedral of the Diocese of Charlottetown is practically right next to the town’s pubs and its Centre for the Arts. With its imposing three stone spires, St.  Dunstan’s Basilica is in the style of High Victorian Gothic Revival, constructed in the late 19th century and rebuilt after a 1913 fire destroyed it. The Basilica is on Charlottetown’s most famous street, Great George, which was named after George III (1738-1820) himself, thus rounding the all-in-the-family naming of the Island, the City, and the Street. The few leafy blocks of this wide street are lined with rows of refurbished “heritage buildings.” Remarkably, 15 of those buildings are now connected as a single hotel, by the same name (Great George), owned by one couple.

Yet this is where Charlottetown stakes its claim to grand historical relevance in Canada: the “Fathers of Confederation” strolled on these blocks in the early days of September 1864 as they contemplated the “idea of Canada.”

Birthing Canada

That claim is much more embellished in the exhibits at the Province House National Historic Site which faces and ends the short Great George street. The Province House is a building which has always played a central role in the Island’s public life. The neo-classical structure was designed and built by a local architect, Issac Smith, and has been home to the Provincial Legislature since 1847 . In the spacious grounds fronting the building was an announcement promising “Free Show Tonight; Weather Permitting.” Not quite trusting the weather, another sign described the site as “The Cradle of Confederation,” and told the story:

“The 1864 Charlottetown Conference was the driving force behind the daring vision that built a nation. In 1864 a group of men gathered in Charlottetownto discuss a union unlike any other…. Delegates from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island assembled in the town to chat about uniting their colonies. Before a word was uttered, eight politicians from the Province of Canada arrived in Charlottetown and crashed the Conference. These ‘Canadians’ came to persuade their Maritime counterparts of something bigger and better: uniting all colonies to form a new nation. For eight days the delegates dined, danced, and talked politics at the Colonial Building, carefully courting the new proposal. All present agreed it was a worthy match, and from their legendary conversation Confederation was born.”

The men at the 1864 Charlottetown Conference succeeded only in forming a vague ideas of what they wanted. They agreed, however, to meet again. They convened next in Quebec City, and over the next three years they “bickered and bartered as they drafted blueprints for the new union. Their final design, the British North America Act, was created and approved in London, England. On July 1st, 1867 their vision became reality when the Dominion of Canada was formed: its founding members New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec. The original design has since been amended creating theCanada we enjoy today.”

Inside the building itself a 17 minute video promised to shed more light on the story. I went to the first showing at 9 in the morning and sat alone in the big auditorium the walls of which were covered with framed flags of all of Canada’s provinces. The one for PEI consisted of a common oak tree and three smaller red oaks which represented PEI’s 3 parts, red oak being the tree of this province. The date 1873 on the flag, which marked the year PEI joined Canada, was several years after the Dominion was formed.  The delay was among the details the video explained.

The Dominion did not initially resolve the main issue that concerned the residents of PEI which was the “land problem” resulting from the “Great Giveaway” of years ago. To encourage settlement the British had divided the island into 67 lots and held a lottery to give away the land. The winners turned out to be merely speculators and did nothing to settle or develop the island. This caused unrest among the other Islanders. The problem was not solved until the 1873 Compulsory Land Purchase Act forced the sale of absentee landlords’ land. This cleared the way for PEI to join Canada later that year.

Oyster diplomacy

The Charlottetown Conference produced no written document. Indeed, there is no written record of its meetings; our only written contemporary source is the collection of letters that a delegate from Canada, George Brown, wrote to his wife. The video’s account was based largely on those letters. Accordingly, the “conference” in Charlottetown that the Canadians “crashed” in 1864 had been convened by the three British Maritime colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island in order to discuss the best way to deal with the threat of an increasingly expansionist United States. It was feared that the neighbor to the south would “take” the smaller colonies to its north unless they took measures to join forces. The thinking in the Maritime provinces was in favor of a Maritime Union. They were not inclined to join the colonies called Canada -which then consisted of Ontario and Quebec. For one thing, the Maritime provinces were far richer then, in part due to their lucrative ship-building industry.

Premier John A. Mc Donald of Canada invited himself and brought his Canadian delegates to Charlottetown. The exact time that these delegates’ ship would arrive in Charlottetown’s harbor was not known and, hence, when they arrived most of the political leaders present in the town were on the top of the Colonial Building to watch a traveling circus that was also in town at that time. Only one PEI official went to receive the Canadians when their ship anchored in the water. He (William Henry Pope) even had to row his boat himself. The Canadians, all except Brown, had to sleep on their ship (SS Queen Victoria) as all accommodations on shore had been taken by the circus goers and the delegates to the conference of the Maritimes.

The delegates stayed for a week and their socializing in nightly banquets where champagne and PEI oysters were served is credited with establishing the milieu in which the participants were able to become friends and discuss their future together. McDonald was a persistent suitor, but it was left to the delegate from the French-speaking Quebec (McDonald’s law partner Alexander Campbell) to provide assurances that as the example of his province showed, the small Maritime provinces would not have to fear domination by Ontario: the autonomy of minorities would be protected in the new nation. The narrator related this with relish, in his slight French-Canadian accent.

Province House

The Province House (which has been called by various names depending on the period in history) is still the pride of PEI, especially since several of its rooms have been restored to their original form with period furniture. I went inside. The design in the sandstone structure is symmetrical down to two skylights that brighten the lobby. A framed picture of  Isaac Smith (1795-1871) tells you that he received all of 20 Pounds for his winning entry in the design competition for the colonial Building. The old Assembly Room is now called the Confederation Chamber. The framed picture of the delegates (on the steps of the Province House) called “The Fathers of Confederation” is posted outside, with John A. Macdonald sitting in front middle, Alexander Campbell sitting on the far right, and George Brown standing close to him, the last two bracketing William Pope standing between them in the back row. A painting nearby depicts the delegates at work in the famous Conference.

Opposite the Confederation Chamber is the current Assembly Room. This is where Canada’s second oldest legislature meets.  The Speaker’s Chair with the PEI Coat of Arms was in the middle. To its right were the Members’ desks. There are 27 Members of the Assembly. Some shared one desk in the small room, like those representing Albertone/Roseville. To the left of the Speaker were the “Portfolio” desks for the Cabinet, such as Transportation & Infrastructure Renewal and Health and Wellness. The setting seemed ideal for a polity small enough in population to make democracy work.

The “Farmers Market” in Charlottetown also seemed to retain elements authentic to the original meaning of the institution. While it had expanded its hours beyond the traditional Saturday to include Wednesdays in July and August, it was still a place for the farmers to buy goods, including clothes, as well as sell their own products. Their products were as diverse as eggs and produce , including the advertised “local organic”: beets, purple cabbage, scallions, Swiss chard, and herb bunches, on the one hand, and home-made bread and  strawberry shortcakes, and cheese , on the other.  Intruding onto this basically traditional scene, there were also on-the-spot productions of Chinese spring rolls, and other non-Island foods of the “Falafel King” .

East Side

The early farmers who came from Britain settled in places like St. Peters. Here, the architecture of the houses on the gently sloping greens, all neatly tended, still evoke pastoral feelings. The church building commanding the hill connects you to  days bygone.  For most tourists, however, the bigger attraction in this area is the Greenwich National Park, located between St. Peters Bay  and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Of the several trails in the Park, we took the one called Dunes of Greenwich. As we walked the landscape around us kept changing dramatically. Through a forest that included white and yellow birch trees and bunch berries , we came upon “grey dunes” which were far enough inland and away from the wind to be stabilized by lichen. We then crossed a long floating wooden walkway  over the fresh-water Bowley Pond . It was here that we saw a rare ecosystem, the “parabolic shifting sand dunes .” A common single red-winged blackbird was sitting on the side of the boardwalk. On the other side of the Pond and the massive dunes we stepped down to the beach at the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Vast and empty, it only had us as visitors today.

East Coastal Drive

The eastern part of PEI is not much visited by tourists either. It is, however, as beautifully interesting as Greenwich Park, but in a different way. We had the Points East Coastal Drive practically to ourselves as it hugged the sinuous shore. The simple café where we stopped for lunch in the tiny hamlet of Naufrage was iconic. Although it had pasted on its windows all the rotary stickers of the “Where to eat in Canada” award which it had won every year since 2003, it was the announcement for “Let’s Ceilidh” on the cafe’s door that identified its appealing down-home character. That invitation to “get together” for Celtic music was for that evening.  Presently, the café served us fish just caught from the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence which we could see from the window . The view outside made a bigger statement: with the simple, grey, rough shingles of its modest structures standing on the brushy cliff it was “North-American Continental Gothic” worthy of the painter Grant Wood.

A few miles down the road the music we heard on the radio was not Celtic. It was French. It even included an old song by Charles Aznavour. This was a short distance due north of Souris, a fishing community of Acadians. Their ancestors, in the 18th century, experienced plagues of field mice here which marked the place as souris (mouse).

Yet a bit further on the coast was Hermanville with its Prince Edward Island Distillery which produced a reputable vodka from the Island’s abundant tuber that allows it to rival  Idaho for the title of Americas’ potato capital.

As we approached the eastern tip of the Island, the fields increasingly appeared wind-swept, with fewer trees and short hardy grass. Giant windmills here made sure that the benefits of natural energy were not lost. We passed an area of several small lakes -plainly designated as North Lake, East Lake, and South Lake- before we reached the East Point. A lighthouse has existed here since 1867. It is an octagonal tower, rising 64 feet high.  I sat at its base.  At my feet was evidence of  serious soil erosion that threatens the lighthouse. In the horizon was water, and land which I could not clearly distinguish but the map said was the area of Cheticamp in Cape Breton on the other side of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. That happened to be where I had been just three days before.

This is a difficult area to navigate because of its “three reefs” and the “meeting of the three tides” of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Atlantic Ocean, and Northumberland Strait. In 1882 the warship HMS Phoenix was shipwrecked because the Captain’s chart was not accurate on the location of the lighthouse.

Only a few miles south at the Northumberland Strait was Basin Head Beach, a favorite of some Islanders. It has white “singing sand,” so called because it makes a pleasant sound as you walk on it.

We turned inland toward a segment of the Scenic Heritage Road, just northeast of Souris, on route 303 connecting to 304. Called the New Harmony Road, it was a charming red clay road with farms on the two sides. Soon it turned narrow as it appeared less used. Our map indicated that there were 16 such short Heritage Roads, mainltained to provide an opportunity for exploring the Island’s nature at its best.

Back on the main highway, we saw the extreme northeastern point of the Confederation Trail, a 470 kilometer recreational road mostly used by bicyclists.  Traversing the Island, it was constructed on the rail-bed of PEI’s railway after the connection to the North American rail network by the ferry system was dismantled in 1997, and replaced with the Confederation Bridge.

Next day, at that southwestern extreme of the Island, we drove onto the Confederation Bridge which appropriately connects PEI to the rest of Canada. About 13 kilometers long, it is the world’s longest bridge over icy waters. This record left a special impression on us because of the monotony of the picture painted that day by the grey sky and the grey sea, enhanced by the virtual absence of anyone else on the bridge. We missed the shining yellow fields of mustard we had just left behind in Prince Edward Island.

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