During those scarce times that I am able to return to the town that raised me and many others, I see symbols of my past that have fallen to decay.
The Roman Catholic Church still sits on Borden Avenue but the soul no longer rests there as it has been transformed into tenements. That church provided the staff of life for many, and this staff nurtured our spirituality, community, and self-discipline - sit, stand, kneel, and sit. Sunday service also let us know who in our small town could carry alleluias and amens so high that surely the Lord himself would hear them. I suppose the saving grace for the loss of our church is the old adage that “You can leave the church, but the church won’t leave you.”
As I march forward to the end of Borden Avenue, I see a 13 kilometre concrete tombstone that marks the grave of the Marine Atlantic ferry service. This service provided transportation to and from the mainland, but it also provided for our community, as most households were employed by the ferry service. Many of the bereft have left, but the tragedy still haunts the town.
Marine Atlantic ferries shared the Northumberland Strait with a strong fishing fleet made up of local fishermen. As children, we witnessed men, whose countenance cried of hard work and satisfaction, dock with their haul of Atlantic lobster. The industry lived longer than Marine Atlantic, but is now near the end of palliative care.
The restaurant that perpetually changed names - Jerry’s, Ed’s, Yvonne’s, et al. - no longer hosts the hungry. It is now a place to store personal effects; i.e. things one no longer has need for but cannot part with for sentimental reasons. In a way, our town is very much like those personal effects as it has been stored away from sight by our province.
We had a community doctor once. It was certainly a gift. Alas, with the exodus of jobs and people, no call was made to replace our community doctor upon his retirement. We went from having a doctor visit our homes to driving 25 to 50 kilometres only to wait for several hours before being seen.
Did I mention we had a pharmacy as well?
The only parts of this town that seem to palpitate are the areas where people can “fill-up,” so they can make certain they are able to leave this town, and head toward Charlottetown and vacation areas; it is there that tourists can blind themselves to the realities of our island and enjoy elements of fiction. Sometimes, I think our Trans-Canada highway is simply a narrative device used to put rural P.E.I. on the periphery, and place the city as the focus of one’s vision.
Rural towns, such as our own, can tell you their stories, but visitors choose to read the fiction as they try to escape their own non-fiction. I suppose it is our lot in life as a tourist destination to provide elements of fiction and make sure our visitors get to stay in their preferred genre so that they will return. Oh, life is so much more beautiful when you can choose your setting impetuously, but oh, so, so, so much less authentic.
Our towns are poor but their stories are rich. So please take note, that Charlottetown and Cavendish do not represent who we are, they represent who others want us to be.
Bobby McNally, a native of Borden, now works as a pedagogical consultant for the Cree School Board-Instructional Services in the James Bay area of Quebec.