Spirit Quest


'All absurd! All impossible!'

But a spirit has crossed the Northumberland Strait

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

Every year after most of the tourists have carted off the last and best of the lobsters and oysters, my spouse and I visit “The Island,”  Prince Edward Island, that is.  

My spouse, an Islander herself, refers to this annual pilgrimage as “watering the roots.” We see this beautiful province “cradled in the waves”  or Abigweit as the natives called it, not through the lenses of those thousands of visitors that pour off enormous cruise ships, planes and buses, but through the eyes of “real” Islanders. Her cousins, mostly retired farmers, once upon a time plowed the red soil and planted the spuds  that P.E.I. is highly noted for.

I well recall my first visit long before the Confederation Bridge spanned the Northumberland Straights . We have crossed on the ferry many times since and it was always a romantic occasion, standing at the railing of the Abegweit car ferry, an all season icebreaker, watching the island coming into view and catching up with the gossip of other islanders encountered on board.

My first impression was comparable to that of the early Kodachromes where the reds were too red, the blues too blue and the greens too green. Mixed into that palette  were the white churches and farm houses.

My wife’s relatives  came from Scotland, the Island of Barra in the Hebrides over 200 years ago, to farm and fish. Some were West Countrymen, ship builders from England in search of timber. At that time the island was covered with trees. Today one wonders whether they were all transplanted onto the provincial flag.

The denuded land became ideal for potato crops. but the producers today are mostly large corporations. The overuse of pesticides and herbicides has enhanced production but also introduced toxic elements that some medical people on the island believe is showing up in tumors in children.

A leaf mould has devastated the maple trees. There was little of the fall colours to be seen. The foliage of maples developed black spots and the leaves dropped long before the coming of the rich reds that add so much colour in the autumn of the year. Within two to three years the trees so affected will die. There is as yet no remedy except to bury the leaves in landfill. Burning the leaves merely spreads the fungus through the smoke, I was told.

The Island has changed in many ways. The University of Prince Edward Island  has added a distinct element to the life of the province. Young people seeking post secondary education are now able to stay “home” to become veterinarians, nurses, teachers and agriculturalists. A generation ago people like my wife went  to “Away,” to Dalhousie or Mount Allison Universities to be educated and often also partnered. The native sons and daughters next to spuds are the islands most important exports making significant contributions throughout Canada and the United States. Nevertheless many come home at the end of their careers.

Visitors to the Island are not allowed to forget its history as the Cradle of Confederation and also its culture which is more than Don Messer and his Islanders or Stompin' Tom. Anne of Green Gables, the delightful story by Lucy Maud Montgomery is about a spunky red-haired orphan. It has been translated into many languages and  was especially popular in Japan. There aren't many red-heads in that country.  A Canadian teacher introduced the book as an English text. It caught on beyond expectation bringing camera toting tourists swarming to Cavendish and the Anne country. It became an industry. Even a clergyman has done a thriving business “reaffirming” marriage vows of those visitors. Island recipes have been translated into Japanese and sell like mussels to the hungry orientals. Most evening after a sumptuous lobster dinner at St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church near Rustico they can enjoy the musical based on this quintessential island novel at the modern Confederation Centre in the historic downtown of the capital.  It does look a little out of place next to the old provincial legislature building where in 1864 the Fathers of Confederation met and laid the ground work for the Canadian nation.

Golf courses are on the wane, some brandishing "for sale" signs on the pro shop wall. One of my wife’s cousins informed me that the type of tourist has changed. They seem more serious minded rather than only play oriented, visiting the piping academy in Summerside and the Indian River Concerts , jazz and classical that even the cows nearby enjoy.  There are lots of little playhouses as in Victoria scattered throughout the Island. American visitors have dropped off as Canada is no longer a “cheap” destination.

On our recent visit we attended church at the great old Trinity United Church in the heart of Charlottetown.  It is the church that my wife attended in the 50s. In those days the sanctuary was crowded, now attendance is but a fraction of its former self.  I remarked to the minister John Moses, no relation to the Hebrew hero of that name, that his was a youthful congregation, “most were younger than my 4 score years.”

I was impressed with his message about the power of faith, faith the size of a mustard seed, that the Gospels speak about.  “Faith causes us — or ought to cause usto be profoundly skeptical of many things.” He went on to point out the results of that small but mighty faith:

“Think of all the great social movements that have brought us step by step along the way to a more just and humane world. They all began as absurd notions in the estimation of the dominant culture.
Free slaves? Without slavery the economy would grind to a halt and everyone including those held in servitude, would be much worse off.

Do away with child labour?  Preposterous, who would sweep chimneys? Entire cities would burn down. Unemployed children would starve.

Equality for women? The full inclusion of gay and lesbians in the life of the church?

Saving Earth from the ravages of climate change and other abuses?

All absurd, all impossible until the scarcely visible seed of faith begins to take root and the unshakable foundations begin to crumble.”

I can well imagine that some of those who used to occupy those very pews  would “turn over in their graves if they were alive.”

To follow in the dictates of the faith on this blessed island as on the mainland takes courage. Luckily there are those such as Islander Leo Brodrick, a teacher and activist in the Council of Canadians who have fanned the winds of progressive change, and David MacDonald former MP and clergyman much involved in the residential Indian school issue.

The Island isn’t what it used to be, for sure. Nor has change been entirely positive, think of the preponderance of strip malls and big box stores along Charlottetown’s main artery. There is a spirit, sometimes hard to detect, but like the small mustard seed of Jesus parable, mighty changes  emanate.

There is a Spirit that has crossed the Northumberland Strait, in both directions, I believe. Catch those winds that carry the mustard seeds of faith!