Nov 21, 2006
I'm a stranger here, no one you would know
I'm from somewhere else, but isn't everybody though
Don't know where I'll be when the sun comes up
Until then sweet dreams, and goodnight America
- Mary Chapin Carpenter
The air is crispy cold today as I cycle into work and the pond, on which I saw four ducks yesterday, is for the first time this year frozen over. A brisk wind blows down from the north into my face, the first north wind of the year. Late November the weather gets like this. I welcome it. And I'm listening to Goodnight America as I cross the highway over the bridge and I'm thinking about Grand Manan Island and I'm thinking about my former home in Eaglesham.
Living in the north was my dream. I had been teaching in North Country for Athabasca University, making the three hour drive to Slave Lake and the four and a half hour drive to Grouard every week, those long northern roads a million miles from anywhere, the arctic air fresh from the barren lands, the northern lights dancing a melody overhead. I had obtained a teaching position for a year in Grande Prairie, and when it ended, instead of returning to the south I took every dollar I had and several dollars I didn't and purchased a small log cabin in Eaglesham, registering it in my father's name because the student loan people wouldn't allow me to own property.
And it was in Eaglesham that fall of 1994 I watched the northern winter descend into the Peace Country, the ponds and creeks freeze up, the ducks assemble one final time for the summer before their flight south, the crows the last to leave, their sharp black bodies etched against the crystal blue sky. It was in Eaglesham I plunged into the depths of online programming, alone in my cabin, except for my nightly sojourn to Ernie's bar for a beer and some company.
It's a life I know well, living in the small towns in rural Canada, a scratchy voice on CBC radio talking as though it were talking just to me, the neighbours, every one of them, the people you know, your door unlocked, and when the fire alarm sounds (as it did one night when I was on the telephone with a student) you drop everything, no matter who you are. It's not that the community is close-knit, though it is, it's that there's nobody else, and if you aren't there, nobody will be.
I got a sense of that life again when I was on the Magdalene Islands last March. "If it's too cold to walk, hitch-hike," I was told. Look at me, I responded. People don't pick up people who look like me on the highway. "This is Madelaine," he responded. "Everybody knows who you are, where you're staying, and what you're doing." And he was right, I reflected, as the taxi called in one day that he had picked up "Monsieur Martinique."
And I imagine Grand Manan island must be pretty much like that too. Oh, not as cold as the Peace country, not as isolated as the Magdalenes, but a small chunk of land just off the New Brunswick coast. Closer to Maine than to any Canadian city, with a population of 2500 and villages with names like Dark Harbour and Seal Cove, it feels to me like any of these communities I lived in, it feels to me like the village and township in Ontario where I grew up.
Grand Manan has been in the news recently. Last summer, a mob of islanders descended on a resident's house, accusing the owner of being a crack dealer.
The newspaper reports, "Anger had apparently been building for weeks on Grand Manan when on the night of July 21, a mob of up to 100 local residents, many of them fishermen carrying baseball bats and guns, marched on the home of Ronald Ross, claiming his house was the centre of a growing island cocaine trade.
"Shots were fired both at the house and from it, although no-one was seriously hurt in the attack. Police managed to escort the home's inhabitants away from the mob and off the island.
"After the rioters set the house on fire, they formed a human barricade around the property to prevent volunteer firefighters from putting out the flames. Rocks were also allegedly thrown at firefighters."
Well this week the verdict has come down in the trial of five men charged in connection with the incident. "The men were defending themselves and their community," the defense argued at the trial.
What has struck me is how the coverage of this story has portrayed the actions of the men. In pretty much every story, the men are portrayed as having done the right thing. "Supporters of the men were disappointed with the guilty verdicts. 'I still consider them heroes,' said Ken Brown, a friend of the men. 'They did us a great justice.'" Even the prosecution is depicted as playing along. "Crown prosecutors maintained the men went too far when they took the law into their own hands." Too far. Not wrong, just too far.
One day in the fall of 1994 I drove 60 kilometers down the highway to Spirit River to do my laundry. I put my clothes into the washer and then, deciding I had an hour or so to kill, decided to drive in the country near the town. I got out as far as Blueberry Mountain and I noticed the people at the school staring at me oddly as I drove by. Then I heard the high-pitched noise, but it was too late. My radiator blew, the strain of driving the dusty country road too much for my small Nissan Micra. I limped the car back to the school, got enough water to fill the rad to get to Spirit River, put my car in the shop and checked into the hotel, twenty dollars a night, all the money I had.
I got my pay from Athabasca University a few days later, collected my car, and drove back to Eaglesham. My cat greeted me with loud wails, but it was not until that evening that I discovered I had become a new celebrity in town. Apparently, while I had been gone, the RCMP had raided the house across the street from me and arrested the local drug dealer. Since I had conveniently vanished at about the same time, the townspeople naturally concluded that I must be the RCMP informant.
I had a good chuckle over this, and of course denied the allegation. "Look at me," I said. "Do I look like an RCMP agent?" But of course the town had made up its mind. A few days went by. On a day much like today, with the crisp November wind blowing down from the north, Ernie and the rest hosted a community dinner. "Of course you should come," he said. "You're part of the community now." And I did, and we ate and laughed and had a nice time.
Toward the evening we all had a few beer and a couple of the guys said, "Let's have a fire," and the next thing you knew I and a dozen or so of the town's young men were in the bush, having a few cold ones, standing in a circle around a roaring fire, the night sky lit by a nearly full moon. Nothing unusual, the same sort of thing Canadians have been doing since there was fire and bush and beer. And we were just chatting around and then the fights started.
And they started with the accusation. "You're an RCMP agent," one of the young men said. I laughed and for the twentieth time that day, denied it. But the young man was urgent, serious. "You're an RCMP agent," he said. "You're a narc." And the rest agreed, and tacitly, we went from 'us' to 'me and them', and they agreed, tacitly, that I should be made to pay for my act of betrayal, and they moved forward with the intent to beat me to a pulp. One of the men intervened, and that's when the fight started, and I realized just how dangerous my situation had become.
Calmness eventually prevailed, but I was never a member of the community after that. And a few weeks later I made sure I had paid every cent of my tab to Ernie before I got into the car, the moving van having already departed, and left the home of my dreams.
Maybe the man on Grand Manan sold crack, maybe he didn't - he has steadfastly denied being a dealer. But the news coverage and the islanders all seem to agree: his house was a crack house and the man was selling drugs. And I sit here listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter and I ask myself, how do they know. And I realize with a clarity that can only come from the experience, they don't.
The reason we have police and investigations and courts and trials is that people jump to conclusions, especially in small communities, and when they as a community feel threatened they act without regard for truth or evidence. On one bit of fallacious evidence an entire town can and does convict a person of being a dealer or a narc or whatever. And when they act on that conviction, innocent people are hurt. Some people are shot at and their houses burned, others are beaten up in the silence of the northern forest.
So when I read about the Guilty verdict in the Grand Manan trial, and I think about what it must have been like, out there in the country, all alone and far away from any help, being shot at and having your home burned to the ground, all I can think is, "Good. Throw them in jail." Because these men, contrary to every news report that has been written since then, do not represent the best of community values in this country. They represent the worst.
And as I drove along that highway, past Wahnam and by Rycroft, through Spirit River and then over to Dawson Creek and then Chetwynd, on my way south through the mountains, taking the scenic route to Manitoba and a new life, I felt very small and very lost and very alone.