Home Again (Part Two)
The village of Sointula, Malcolm Island’s main port, looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Brightly coloured sea shacks dotted the waterfront and the homes lining the main street, sitting on small, tidy fenced lots, were gaily painted.
Sointula, meaning “place of harmony,” was settled in the early 1900s by Finnish immigrants fleeing the harsh conditions in Nanaimo’s coal mines. They envisioned a utopian socialist society with communal property and equal participation/equal voice for all, including women. Weak leadership and bad luck scuppered the plan, but some settlers remained on the island, as their descendants do today. The Sointula Museum showcases this history with a large collection of artifacts.
Our next destination was Bere Point Regional Park, on the north-central side of the island, where it is said that orca whales come close to shore to rub themselves on the smoothly pebbled sea floor. (No one really knows why, though it might be their version of scratching.) In one of the more leisurely and scenic drives of the weekend, we passed rustic Gulf Island properties with driftwood fences and random found-item art installations. We wound up on a long road that gradually became thinner, markings fading, before eventually shrinking to a single lane with no beach in sight.
I tried to reassure Sean. “Don’t worry, as long as there’s power lines, we’re not really lost.” The road turned to gravel. That’s where the power lines ended. In a monumental failure as co-pilot, I had landed us at the easternmost tip of the island, the farthest possible location from our destination.
We eventually found it, a beautiful coastal provincial park and campground, a mere six km from our original starting point. Unfortunately, no whales presented themselves that day.
Back in the ferry lineup. Sean seemed to grow increasingly anxious about the next leg of our journey, edgy and fidgeting in his seat. He suggested that we hunt down some coffee. We chose a bakery where the owner, a kindly and slightly round older woman in a full floral apron, plied me with cinnamon buns.
“Take two, dear,” she said, smiling.
“Oh no, thanks, I just need one,” I said, patting my stomach.
“No, I insist,” she said, dropping two of the gooey buns into one bag. “It’s nearly closing time. I’ll only charge you for one.”
The trip to Alert Bay involved traveling back to Port McNeill, offloading from the ferry, executing a hasty U-turn around the ticket booth and re-boarding the same vessel for a 45-minute voyage to Cormorant Island. I napped through most of the ride. Later, Sean told me that he spent much of that ferry trip deep in thought, contemplating what he hoped we might find there.
Cormorant Island is the traditional territory of the ‘Namgis First Nation. Its main port is the village of Alert Bay, known as ‘Yalis in pre-colonial times. Encased in dense fog, the coastline emerged only as the ferry ping-ponged into dock. Disembarking, the first building we saw was an abandoned bakery. A trail of empty storefronts continued down the main street. It was the opposite of Sointula: there were no colours, only structures in various shades of grey and decay.
At the end of “town” we came across a collection of totem poles, staring like sentries out to sea. The salty air had robbed them of their once-vibrant colours. They marked the ‘Namgis Burial Grounds, a native cemetery and one of the rare BC coastal locations where the poles remain undisturbed on their original sites. Visitors are asked not to set foot on the grounds. Witnessed from the road, wreathed in mist, the scene was eerie, yet beautiful.
We ate dinner at a restaurant named Pass’n Thyme; it was painted the cheeriest colours on the main street and the wordplay pleased us.
Rain threatened as we set out again. Sean’s dad had given us directions: “Look for the tower, up the hill by the coast guard building, and the house is down the end of the lane.” Given the size and shape of the village — small and with only one hill — the cul-de-sac wasn’t hard to find. At the end sat a heritage home, bright yellow with white trim.
“No, that was the manager’s house,” Frank said when we called him on the phone to clarify. “It was the one across the street.” We turned our heads in slow motion unison to the left. There, in a grass-choked yard, behind a chain link fence, stood a small two-storey house, covered in cheap, grey, dirt-streaked siding. I cocked my head to the side; it looked like it was leaning to the left. A neglected-looking dog barked. Limping, he seemed torn between guarding the property and seeking affection. Sean seemed to crumble a little, his face falling. He sighed.
Queen Charlotte Strait was laid out, unobstructed, below us and it was stunning, even shrouded in fog. “I bet the kitchen window looks over the water,” I said. “I bet your mom got to see the view while she was washing dishes.” This possibility seemed to cheer him a little.
“My dad told me how he used to buy fish, fresh from the docks down there,” he said. “He used to climb a long flight of stairs up that hill to bring it home for dinner.” The stairs were overgrown now and the docks were obscured by other homes. Sean’s shoulders were hunched. He grew quiet again.
I looked back at the yellow house. I wished that Sean could attach his memories to that tidy home with the wraparound porch. His father, a communications officer, probably never had the opportunity to become the manager of the coast guard station. The family would have been forced to stagnate in this modest little home, much like the land all around us appeared to have languished over the years.
After cataloging the site with photographs to share with Sean’s parents, we moved on.
“The World’s Tallest Totem Pole” was only a few minutes drive away. I had imagined something attractively lit, perhaps with a ceremonial barrier around it, maybe with an interpretive storyboard. In reality, the 56.4 meter pole stood in the middle of an overgrown patch of brown grasses, secured by long metal tie supports, like a telephone pole. Young lovers and vandals had carved their initials into the lower section. We took pictures, but it was hard to find a flattering angle.
On our way back down the hill we came across a spooky, abandoned, four-storey brick building. There was no name on it, just a simple plaque with the number “1929.”
We learned later that it was the site of St. Michael’s Residential School, an Anglican boarding school, and a symbol of colonial oppression of the First Nations people. It’s a relic of a time when their children were torn from their communities and families to be educated in the ways and religion of white settlers. Many students of residential schools also reported being the victims of abuse. The school operated until 1974, when it was turned over to the ‘Namgis First Nation, who have chosen to let it fall into disrepair and collapse, symbolically, along with its horrific legacy. We didn’t know this history at the time, but the heavy feeling in the air around the site was unmistakable. It was as if the ghosts of those children walked the grounds.
Next door, The U’mista Cultural Centre stood as a powerful symbol of the First Nations people reclaiming their culture. During the 1885-1951 ban on the potlatch (an important gift-giving festival), the Canadian government seized regalia associated with the celebrations. Many of “The Potlatch Collection” artifacts have been repatriated from museums and private collections all over the world and are now housed here. The longest running First Nations museum and cultural centre in Canada, opened in 1980, it’s a beautifully designed wooden building — particularly in contrast to its crumbling brick neighbour.
We made another heritage discovery as we looped downhill and around the waterfront. Christ Church, established in 1878, sits on tidy grounds and is lovingly preserved, boasting a coat of fresh paint. A plaque under a large stained glass window explains that it tells the story of 100 years of European settlement on the island. It’s a very different version of events than we’d just witnessed. We found the four sites we’d visited, representing very different pieces of the fabric of the island, hard to reconcile.
Sean described the entire experience as “a really big letdown.”
“I never want to come back,” he said plainly, as we waited for the ferry the next morning.
Sean had been born into a turning point in the island’s history, shortly after the totem pole was raised and before St Michael’s Residential School closed. It was a time when the ‘Namgis began to reclaim what had been stripped from them during European settlement. His family left in May of 1974. “People want to return to their birthplace and find a fond memory,” he says now. “That isn’t possible here. The town I was born in is a place I never want to come back to.”
The connection he had been so desperate to feel with his birthplace was completely broken. Like much of the area we’d travelled through during the weekend, Alert Bay felt at odds with itself. Even the natural beauty of the wilderness around us — landscapes that tourists travel thousands of miles to enjoy — couldn’t mask the signs that these were communities in transition, and decline. European settlers have tried to master the resources, but the forests and fisheries haven’t been entirely cooperative. They wax and wane, fall prey to unforeseen yet preventable infestations, and succumb to the delayed environmental consequences of the industrial age. Now it is the settlers who must bend to the will of the land.
The more I learn about the effects of colonialism on the region, and the struggles of the First Nations to reclaim their land and their culture, the more the shadows that linger over these places make sense to me. The wounds to the land are palpable. I can’t help but wonder if European settlers will ever find prosperity and peace in these places. Sean didn’t. But tourists will continue to take to the highways in search of beauty between the clear cuts. And, of course, more.
As we traveled south on the Island Highway, just before Nanoose Bay, “The World’s Largest Gnome” raised his hand to us, welcoming us home.