RD Editorial September 2018

Becoming home

    The government of P.E.I. recently launched a campaign urging Island expats to return to the province of their birth. At least, I assume that’s what they mean when they say they are targeting “Islanders living away.” Doesn’t that turn of phrase have a charmingly old-fashioned ring to it? Kind of like “living in sin.”
    The campaign is called “Maybe You Should Come Home,” which is borrowed from the refrain in a song titled “Golden Days,” by P.E.I. singer-songwriter Kinley Dowling (latterly of the excellent band Hey Rosetta!). It’s a nice song. “I heard you went colour-blind, now everything you see is red,” sings Dowling sweetly. “You were looking for the sunset, but all the numbers got to your head.” 
    It appeals directly to those lost souls living in the big, bad city. Perhaps the timing is apt, with the rise of Fordism casting a sweaty pall over Toronto this summer, and bullets whizzing about. Best flee back east with your pigtails flying behind you, and chill on Cavendish Beach with your compatriots – whom you can presume to be non-hostile, if not verifiable kindred spirits.
    The campaign features YouTube testimonials from contented returnees, a strong social-media component with hashtags and such, and even a contest for the best story or video or photo illustrating why returning to P.E.I. is a good life decision. According to a press release from the provincial Department of Workforce and Advanced Learning, this is all part of the government’s Population Action Plan – its objective “the repatriation of Islanders living in other parts of Canada and abroad.” 
    It’s funny, how bureaucrats describe their little social engineering projects. “Repatriation” sounds only slightly friendlier than extradition – kind of like it might be something done to people against their will. Notably, the grand prize up for grabs in this contest is a one-way ticket to P.E.I. – which suggests an element of entrapment. Once the lucky winner disembarks, he or she will have to stay at least long enough to drum up $47 for the bridge toll.
    Of course, there’s nothing wrong with people leaving a place and then being drawn back by the bonds of family and community, not to mention a highly agreeable quality of life. It’s a happy outcome. For rural communities, this is actually a far better prospect than begging young people not to leave in the first place. But the campaign strikes an odd note because of its focus on this select group of people who will always be Islanders no matter where they may roam, etc., and who will always be welcomed home with open arms, etc. Presumably there’s another group of people – like, everyone else – who do not share this identity, and will therefore always be viewed as tourists. 
    One of my colleagues said the whole thing reminds him of another song, called “Not an Islander,” by P.E.I. musician and author Margie Carmichael. It begins in the manner of a traditional folk ballad: 
    Oh my name is Hector Jelley, and this is my complaint.
    My twin brother is an Islander, but holy smokes I ain’t!
    I was born aboard The Abegweit and I came as quite a shock –
    but some idiot cut my umbilical cord before the ferry docked.

There’s another great verse that goes like this:
    I loved a girl from Carleton and she said she’d be my wife,
    A third-generation Islander – I’d known her all my life.
    She called it off the night before and she phoned me up to say
    “I could never tell a child of mine that his daddy’s from away!”

    You get the idea. It’s pretty comical, and rather cutting. But my intention is not to single out P.E.I. These sentiments exist in many communities, in various regions. There’s no ill will involved, generally. It’s something that happens at a subconscious level. I’m just saying we should think about the message we’re sending. Considering the demographic and economic challenges facing the Maritime provinces, greater uniformity is not really what we need. 
    And although celebrating identity can be a positive thing, there’s a flip-side. It creates insiders and outsiders – those who belong, and those who are merely tolerated. We are seeing this now, in extreme forms, with the rise of nationalism in many countries. Fear of foreigners – xenophobia – is easily exploited by those seeking to consolidate political power. It has ever been thus.
    In the rural community where I live, I have actually heard people express anxiety about immigrants – of which there are virtually none! Maybe these anxious people are confused by the presence of temporary foreign workers – who are out there in the blazing sun doing a lot of the grunt work, with only the dimmest prospects of ever gaining citizenship. We need to change these attitudes, and these policies.

    I was reflecting on the idea of home because it is a theme in this issue of RD. Some people, because of their disposition or their line of work, live in many different places over the course of their life, and move from one to the next with apparent nonchalance, seemingly unsentimental about any particular community. Others are pathologically attached to the place they call home, and grieve for it when they must “live away.” 
    I guess I’m somewhere in-between. Growing up, I felt a strong attachment to my home, but no particular attachment to my home province. Maybe that’s a function of being born and raised in Ontario. It’s like white privilege. When you’re part of a majority, you can be blissfully unaware of who you are; there’s no one reminding you – no one putting you in your place – and you may fail to understand why minority groups are more concerned with articulating their identity.
    In any case, I was always made to feel that it would be perfectly acceptable to live anywhere in Canada – and that it’s not necessarily beneficial to live among people with whom you have a lot in common. I love where I live, but I still feel I could, if necessary, relocate to any number of places across the country, and eventually find or create a sense of home. (More privilege. While there are legions of people around the world who have been forcibly uprooted, left homeless due to circumstances beyond their control, I enjoy not only security, but also the luxury of mobility, by virtue of my citizenship. I certainly didn’t do anything to deserve this. Just luck of the draw.)
    The home we ended up buying here in Nova Scotia was, ultimately, a rather arbitrary choice. It offered the key merits of privacy – or at least, elbow room – and affordability. We had a building inspector look at it, and then ignored most of his recommendations, such as replacing all the windows and installing a frost wall around the foundation. We knew it was a fixer-upper, but initially we treated it mostly as a cleaner-upper. The previous occupants – tenants rather than owners – left the place a mess. Its condition suggested either desperation or indifference. 
    Beneath the mess, the house retained the charms of a homemade object: some degree of craftsmanship, frequent instances of improvisation, and overarching frugality. The original structure, built sometime in the second half of the 19th century, had exterior dimensions of about 20 feet by 17 feet. That allowed for some 265 square feet of living space on the main floor, plus a similar area upstairs (but with less head space, due to the sloping ceilings). An L-shaped addition was constructed at some point in the early 20th century, roughly doubling the space, though the house was still small by today’s standards. We have been told that lots of children – big families, by today’s standards – were raised in this house. 
    For the past couple generations, North Americans have been building progressively larger homes, though the average number of people in a household continues to decline. As Ralph Martin points out in his essay on pg. 26 (“Sustainable intensification is not enough”), improvements in efficiency are too often negated by increased scale. Thus we have high-tech refrigerators large enough to accommodate a side of beef (but actually filled mainly with condiments); monstrous SUVs equipped with sophisticated emission-control systems; and McMansions with exemplary R-values (sometimes thanks to publicly funded rebates on insulation).
    I sure as heck don’t want to romanticize living in a vintage farmhouse. Early on, when we were having a first go at scraping and painting the wood shingles, one of the old patriarchs from up the road stopped in. I came down from my ladder, expecting some words of approval and encouragement. But the way he shook his head was more indicative of befuddlement or pity. “These old houses!” he said. (Actually, there was an expletive in there.) Then he got back in his truck and drove away. 
    I am very fond of my house – its sweet face, its irregular geometry, its worn surfaces, its funky smells, its untold stories. But 20 years on, it’s still a fixer-upper. Ours is a bit of a dysfunctional relationship. Sometimes I think my house is trying to crush me. And sometimes I am unfaithful to my house. I neglect its seemingly insatiable maintenance requirements, and I secretly fantasize about hooking up with a different house – one offering greater comfort and demanding less upkeep.
    Some people want to build a house that reflects their personality. For me, that would be a bad idea. Better to build a house that will be both economical and serviceable, not just for us but for others, in the uncertain future. Contemplating this seems like a useful exercise. 

    (For nautical trivia buffs, the original Abegweit, launched in 1947, was a powerful icebreaker that could carry a train of 16 railway cars between Borden, P.E.I., and Cape Tormentine, N.B. Since being decommissioned in 1982, she has served as a floating clubhouse for the Columbia Yacht Club in Chicago. The replacement Abegweit, capable of carrying 20 railway cars, was taken out of service when the bridge opened in 1997, and met an untimely end in a shipbreaking yard in India.)  DL