The words I’m about to write may surprise many of you, even if you’re a Canadian. And especially if you’re a central or western Canadian that may have shrugged off the four Atlantic Provinces as an East Coast melting pot (or lobster pot), with very little to distinguish one from the other.
(Trust me, I know you’re out there. I played the organ at an Alberta friend’s wedding in 1996; his best man, from Vancouver, called me “Newfie” the entire four days I was in Edmonton. Whenever I’d point out I was from Nova Scotia, he’d reply: “Same thing. That’s like asking which one of the Queen Charlotte Islands you’re from.”)
But even as a proud Nova Scotian, living the grand majority of my life in the musical, cultural and scenic paradise that is Cape Breton Island, I have spent the past four decades knowing conclusively that there’s just something special about our neighbouring province, just across the Northumberland Strait, Prince Edward Island.
We made our first family visit to PEI in the summer of 1978, just before I turned six years old. By that time, I was already pretty sure that this Prince Edward-Something-Or-Other was a unique place, because I was hearing about it every morning on the radio station played on the school bus that took us to Ecole L’Ardoise. Even if your trips to PEI have been infrequent over the past 40 years, the odds are fairly high – especially if you live in the Maritimes – that you’ve heard one of the island’s best-known musical ambassadors, “Bud The Spud” creator Stompin’ Tom Connors, sing his jingle featuring the official Tourism PEI phone number at least once. And with Tourism PEI reviving that campaign in the late ’90s and early 2000s, a whole new generation of kids can now sing “eight double-zero, five-six-five, seven-four-two-one,” even as phone books become an endangered species in today’s digital age.
Now, I’ll be honest – I don’t remember a lot about that first family visit to PEI. A few months later, I though it might be fun to write a child’s guide to Canada’s provincial flags and coats of arms, and I identified PEI by scrawling: “The movie The Spy Who Loved Me is in this province.” For some reason, my family’s decision to put me and my younger sister in PJs and take us to our first-ever drive-in theatre, not far from our rental cottage in the community of Darnley, made the biggest impression on me. (Mind you, the only thing my brain retained from that Roger Moore-as-James Bond epic was Carly Simon’s opening-credits theme song “Nobody Does It Better,” so even those memories are a bit on the hazy side.)
But I still remember my first taste of the island’s world-famous beaches and the amazing tides of the Gulf of St. Lawrence as a wide-eyed five-year-old, not to mention our visit to the colourful Acadian fishing village of Rustico. I also vividly recall my sister and I enjoying the late, great family park Rainbow Valley, which operated in the PEI tourist mecca of Cavendish between 1969 and 2005. Taking its name from the title of a 1919 book by Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery, Rainbow Valley was surprisingly Anne-free, instead offering a wide variety of rides, games, storybook-themed attractions and, most delightfully and bizarrely, a gift shop located in a flying saucer.
And as I had never been on a bigger boat than the Englishtown cable ferry en route to visiting my paternal grandparents in Ingonish, Cape Breton, I was awed by the Northumberland Ferries vessels that carried eager visitors between Caribou, N.S. and Wood Islands, PEI (and, in the days before the 1997 launch of the Confederation Bridge, between Borden-Carleton, PEI and Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick). To this day, knowing full well that there are much bigger ferries in other parts of Canada, and recognising that the crossing of the Northumberland Strait is downright routine for hundreds of thousands of passengers, especially in the trucking industry, I still find something special about that ferry ride.
I would only make that ferry crossing three more times in my formative years, but each trip to PEI was memorable for different reasons.
In 1981, as I neared my ninth birthday, we enjoyed another family trip to the island that included re-acquaintances with Rainbow Valley and those magnificent beaches, as well as our first visit to the capital city of Charlottetown and our initial experience with the now-defunct Fairyland Amusement Park, located on land that has since been divvied up for several purposes, including provincial highway realignment. (Twelve hectares from the site also landed in the hands of the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of PEI only a week ago.)
Five years later, my home parish’s Catholic youth group embarked on a field trip to the Cavendish campground Marco Polo Land. The highlights included our young parish priest, Father Basil Boudreau, playing the guitar and making up a goofy song involving the campground’s name while we huddled around the campfire; a visit to Cavendish’s Wax World of The Stars (and the bizarre realisation that their Terry Fox statue bore a striking resemblance to Father Basil); a full Mass service, including communion, on a picnic table at the campground; and an impromptu swim at Wood Islands that nearly caused us to miss the ferry back to Nova Scotia. It would take another seven years before I returned to PEI, for a brief trip to play music for the wedding of two good friends at a pretty little Catholic church in the lovely town of Montague. (While I was nearly 21 by then, I was still recovering from major eye surgery that took place less than a year earlier, so my mother did the driving and we didn’t bother with any extensive sightseeing.)
(All these years later, I’m still a PEI beachcomber at heart. Left: Basin Head Beach, with its famous “Singing Sands.” Middle: Cavendish Beach. Right: The private beach behind the Points East Beach Motel in Elmira.)
It’s taken me the last 20 years of my life and another dozen visits to PEI – in every season of the year, not just the commercially-lucrative warm-weather months – to fully appreciate the diversity and drive to be found in Canada’s smallest province. It doesn’t just begin and end with tourism, although – at the risk of my banishment from Nova Scotia – I would suggest that “The Gentle Island” is several decades up on my native Cape Breton when it comes to promoting itself. With a few notable exceptions, it feels to me that most Cape Breton communities were hurriedly rushed into tourist/cultural initiatives as a result of our declining population and the collapse of such primary industries as coal mining, steel production and the Atlantic fishery in the ’80s and ’90s. PEI, by contrast, has been at this long enough to place paramount importance on the little touches – for example, uniform, clean promotional road signage that’s a sharp contrast to the garish, often hand-painted advertisements dotting the Cabot Trail – and to make every nook and cranny of the island a welcoming spot for its millions of annual visitors from around the globe.
Don’t let the hospitality fool you, though – behind these bucolic landscapes and well-kept coastlines lie some of the greatest marketing geniuses of our time. Exhibit A: Cows Creamery. It would be one thing if they settled for making the best ice cream this side of Ben and Jerry’s at their six PEI locations, their franchises in Halifax, Niagra-On-The-Lake, Banff and Whistler, and their spot on the return ferry crossing from Wood Islands to Caribou. But somewhere along the way, the folks at Cows decided to market bovine-themed pop-culture parodies featuring every conceivable barnyard pun (“Doctor Moo,””Cowntown Abbey,” “Steerbucks,” “MooTube,” even “Justin Moodeau”) on T-shirts and other clothing items, calendars, postcards, fridge magnets and so on. Even more remarkable: Unless there’s a seamy underbelly to Cows that I haven’t yet discovered, these unauthorized parodies have resulted in a grand total of zero lawsuits against this unparalleled PEI success story. (Seriously, even the overly-litigious Walt Disney Company hasn’t halted the likes of “Finding Moory,” “Hannah Moontana” or “Buzz Lightsteer.”)
Exhibit B: Another Cows’ Creamery product, bottled raspberry cordial. Now, it wasn’t invented in PEI, but the non-alcoholic carbonated beverage took on a life of its own due to its role in the original Anne of Green Gables book and the 1985 CBC-TV mini-series starring Megan Follows as the title character. In both versions, Anne accidentally serves currant wine to her best friend Diana Barry, after mistaking it for raspberry cordial. I can’t even come close to claiming Anne fandom (I’ve never read the books and didn’t see the mini-series until two summers ago) but somehow, sometime over the past 15 years, Cows-bottled Raspberry Cordial became part of my PEI experience and to this day I absolutely can’t visit the island without having one. Or six. That’s my wife Cathy in the above-right photo having one with me outside the Wood Islands Visitor Information Centre in 2007, during our first of many trips to the island. On our next visit I’ll have to introduce her to the decadent delight known as the Cows’ Raspberry Cordial Daiquiri. (No, it doesn’t contain alcohol; yes, it is amazingly delicious.)
Anyone who knows me shouldn’t be surprised that music is a large part of my love of Prince Edward Island. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend the island’s hosting of the East Coast Music Awards in 2001, 2006 and 2011, with Cathy joining me for the latter event. Charlottetown does a grand job of rolling out the red carpet for East Coast Music Week and I have many fond memories of these visits, including my chances to meet the legendary Anne Murray and (above, bottom left) one of the brightest lights on the Canadian country music scene over the past 15 years, Alberta native Carolyn Dawn Johnson. And I’ve seen all sides of PEI’s music and cultural scene, from the enthusiastic promotion of Celtic/Maritime musicians by legendary radio host Eric MacEwen (above, top left) to chart-topping rockers ranging from ’80s favourites like Haywire (above right, receiving their ECMA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011) to more recent hitmakers Nathan Wiley and Paper Lions (formerly Chucky Danger Band).
I’ve also been very fortunate to experience PEI’s musical side on a professional level, with performances on the island’s east and west sides. The good folks at the beautiful St. Peter’s Court House Theatre have had me in for three shows over the past decade, and my 2006 ECMA visit gave me four opportunities to share songs – through cameo appearances with Nova Scotia artists POGEY (at a favourite Charlottetown spot, The Olde Dublin Pub) and Allan O’Donnell (for a Sunday-morning Christian set as part of the ECMA 72-Hour Jam at Rodd Charlottetown), and as an official artist with the island-wide ECMA Soundwaves program, which booked me at the University of Prince Edward Island and at the elementary school in O’Leary, PEI – one of the best musical school visits I’ve ever had. The following year, I returned to that end of the island with my frequent Cape Breton musical partner, fiddler Krista Luddington, for a Canada Day show on the waterfront in Summerside (below). We had a ball and I hope we can return to that remarkable city someday. (Among the remarkable things about Summerside, by the way: It’s only been a city for the past 22 years and is still adding residents, bucking population trends that have seen PEI struggle to maintain its estimated 150,000 residents over the past two decades.)
Less than 24 hours after that Canada Day show in Summerside, Krista was on her way back to Nova Scotia on Northumberland Ferries and Cathy and I were off to discover what has become our favourite part of the province over the past decade, partly because it’s not usually as crowded as Charlottetown or Cavendish. The Points East Coastal Drive has brought us great joy and peace over the years, for reasons both obvious and surprising. Of course there’s the natural beauty of Basin Head Provincial Park Beach and its famed “Singing Sands,” to say nothing of the East Point Lighthouse, the spot where the eastern and western tides meet on a daily basis. But we’ve also enjoyed simply seeing our own Maritime life in a different dimension by visiting such active-yet-scenic towns as Souris and the aforementioned St. Peter’s Bay.
And, yes, we’re well aware of the fine dining to be found in PEI’s capital and various other parts of the province, but Cathy and I can rarely go to St. Peter’s Bay without a stop at Rick’s Fish & Chips and Seafood House, and I don’t think we’ve been to the island once in the last 10 years without making at least one trip to Shirley’s Place in Souris, in the shadow of the town’s historic lighthouse. So help me, I’ve never enjoyed a cheeseburger anywhere else as much as I’ve savoured Shirley’s take on the fast food classic.
(Left: The East Point Lighthouse and Gift Shop. Centre: The sign that greets you when you venture to the back of the East Point Lighthouse. Right: Tucking into a Hungry Man Burger at Shirley’s Place in Souris. I believe I finished that burger roughly three weeks later.)
My point with all of these details is that even if you think you know PEI, you probably don’t. Stereotypes about red-haired girls in pigtails, rough-and-tumble lobster fishermen or singing potato farmers in Cavendish Farms commercials don’t even begin to tell the tale. Nor do they illustrate the island’s rich political history. This is, after all, the home of two long-running father-and-son premiers named Ghiz. It’s also the site of the 1864 conference that led to Canada’s Confederation three years later, and the spot where a 1992 First Ministers’ meeting generated the last constitutional accord to gain the signatures of all provincial and territorial leaders, Canada’s three major party leaders, and the Assembly of First Nations. (More on that in a few days when I write my Joe Clark blog.)
Today, Prince Edward Island is doing something that even the federal Liberal government recently abandoned after trumpeting it with much fanfare in the 2015 election campaign – electoral reform. A plebiscite was held last November to gauge Islanders’ preferences for replacing the traditional “first past the post” electoral system for both Canada and its individual provinces and territories. The winning option in that plebiscite, Mixed Member Proportional Representation, will officially go to a binding vote in a referendum to be held concurrently with the next provincial election in 2019.
So, as you can see, years after that fateful first trip to PEI in the summer of 1978, I’m still discovering the province, and it’s still discovering itself. Cathy and I hope to enjoy this learning process for decades to come, and we expect our next visit – which may come in a matter of days – will generate smiles as bright as the one Cathy is sporting in this picture from a 2009 Northumberland Ferries ride.
(Footnote: The information on PEI’s electoral reform efforts was provided to me by Teresa Wright, the tenacious legislature reporter for the province’s largest provincial newspaper, The Guardian. Don’t let their poetic slogan “Covers Prince Edward Island Like The Dew” fool you – I would have trusted Ms. Wright and her colleagues for the correct information in this regard even if one of my best friends for the past quarter-century and a fellow King’s College grad, Jocelyne Lloyd, didn’t happen to be The Guardian’s current news editor.)