Are you an Islander?

Teresa Wright twright@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on August 22, 2009
Debbie Crowther, who moved to P.E.I. from Texas three years ago, is one of many new P.E.I. residents who dislike being referred to as CFAs. She prefers being called an Islander by Choice (IBC). Here, she shows off her button that says, Im not From Away Im an IBC. Guardian photo by Teresa Wright

Did you ever hear the joke about the woman who moved to P.E.I. from away when she was two years old? She lived her whole life on the Island and died here on her 90th birthday, yet her obituary in The Guardian read, 'Woman from away died peacefully in her home.'
She wasn't born on P.E.I., so she couldn't be classified an 'Islander.'
It's an age-old debate that can range from lighthearted joking to great frustration for those whose birth certificates weren't issued by the Prince Edward Island government.
And it all stems from one simple and often-asked question - are you an Islander?
"Since I was conceived and born here and have several generations before me who were from the Island, then yes - I would consider myself an Islander," says Harry Baglole.
As an Island historian and founding director of the Institute of Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, this is certainly a topic in which Baglole is well-versed.
"That's the traditional definition of what an Islander is, and so if that's the definition - and it has been - it's obviously impossible to qualify as an Islander under that definition if you don't meet this criteria."
Of course, Baglole, like many Islanders, doesn't take this definition too seriously. Baglole said he doesn't personally view non- Island-born residents as non-Islanders, nor does he believe many others still hold to this somewhat old-fashioned idea.
And yet, a pervasive feeling does still exist among those 'from away' who come to live on P.E.I. - a feeling they can never truly become an official member of the P.E.I. insiders club.
"Moving to the Island is like trying to crash a small party," said well-known Island storyteller and author David Weale.
"The society and social life is so community-based and so family-based it's very difficult for new people because you really can't join a family . . . it's really a tight weave and there's not much room for new thread."
Weale has written several books on this topic and has entertained countless audiences with his storytelling anecdotes about what he endearingly calls the 'Island way.' Many of his stories contain joking references to the idiosyncrasies of native Islanders and the way they view themselves as different from those who 'come-from-away.'
His favourite is a story about a baby boy who was conceived on the lower deck of the Northumberland ferry halfway across the Strait. When the rest of the family discovered the baby was not conceived on P.E.I. soil, an argument ensued about whether the baby was a true Islander.
Both his parents were Islanders but there were those hardliners who said, 'No, he was not conceived on the Island so he's not an Islander.' (For some it's not just about being born on P.E.I., you must also be conceived here). To settle the dispute they took the matter to an older member of the family who finally determined, 'In my mind, it all depends on whether the ferry was going away or coming back.'
"People always laugh at that one," Weale said, chuckling.
Despite this humorous approach to the topic, however, Weale does believe there is a real tension that exists between Islanders and newcomers. That's why he believes his stories resonate with so many.
"We tend to laugh at the things that make us anxious and when I was doing my stage show, I could always count on laughs when it came to this whole business of who is an Islander," he said.
"I joke about it because it's serious and I joke because Islanders need to be aware of it."
But not everyone finds this topic funny - especially those on the non-Islander side of the debate.
In a recent report compiled for the provincial Population Secretariat, UPEI Professor Dr. Godfrey Baldacchino found many newcomers to P.E.I. feel the marked distinction between themselves and "real" Islanders is cold, unwelcoming and sometimes just plain discriminatory.
The report surveyed recent immigrants to P.E.I. about their reasons for coming to the Island and wanting to stay and, for those who left, the factors that made them want to leave.
Among the 257 respondents who shared their stories in the survey, "the alleged closed-mindedness of Islanders" was the most common explanation given by newcomers for wanting to leave.
"Many of them are fairly concerned about the labelling that's going on," Baldacchino said.
A settler to P.E.I. from another province or country is often referred to as a CFA (Come-From-Away). But this label is seen as prejudiced and mean-spirited by many new residents.
Baldacchino said he believes the designation of newcomers as 'CFAs' borders dangerously on outright racism.
"It's creating a class of second-class citizens who will never be able to belong and I think that's an issue."
As an immigrant to P.E.I. himself, Baldacchino knows first-hand how difficult it can be to integrate into Island society. He always gets questions about where he's from, especially due to his foreign name and accent.
When he tells people he's from Charlottetown, they just laugh and ask, 'No, but where are you really from?'
"This is something that is very painful because it all the time means that I can't belong," he said.
That's why some new settlers to P.E.I. have recently come up with a new name for themselves: 'Islanders by Choice.'
Debbie Crowther is one such IBC.
She and her family moved to P.E.I. from Houston, Tex., three years ago. They now own and operate the Kitchen Witch Tea Room in Long River.
Like many who come to P.E.I., Crowther immediately fell in love with the Island and the community-oriented lifestyle of rural P.E.I.
Unlike Baldacchino, Crowther said she has been welcomed into her small community with open arms, and attributes this to her positive attitude and active participation in community organizations and groups.
But she does know that some people will never see her as a true Islander. Once at a party the topic came up in conversation.
"I was saying that I don't want to be 'from away' I want to be an Islander, and a young woman, who was drunk, looked at me and said 'Debbie, it doesn't matter how long you live here you'll never be an Islander.'"
Crowther said this has been the only time it was ever put to her in such blunt terms and she believes her community has indeed accepted her. But she knows this attitude does still exist among some. That's why she makes and sells buttons that say 'I'm not FROM AWAY, I'm an IBC.'
"We don't call ourselves CFAs, we're IBCs, because we're Islanders by choice," Crowther laughed, showing off her button.
"And it doesn't really matter what anyone says or thinks, I consider myself an Islander anyway."