At the end of last month’s piece I included the title of this one to encourage return readers. The topic certainly touched a nerve because the majority of online comments were anticipating this column. Comments included:
We moved to Wilno in ’76 and still aren’t considered local; If your grandparents were not from the Barry’s Bay-Wilno area, you’re not local!
My hubby has been here for 30 years, and he claims he will never be thought of as a local.
It doesn’t surprise me as I have heard these and more from many folks over the years. One acquaintance told me that even though he has belonged to a local parish for 18 years, an individual whom he sees daily has yet to speak to him. I also remember that a few years ago comments made in reference to woodpile art and locals drove a wedge between residents. After a flurry of letters in what was then the only community newspaper, that conversation died down. However, the fact remains that Madawaska Valley residents should be working together to promote development and growth, not dividing themselves according to a length-of-stay criterion. This attitude is unwelcoming, discriminatory, and it has the potential to jeopardize the future of the Madawaska Valley.
What we can learn from bingo
I heard a great story recently about the late Teresa Mask Beanish, a life-long resident of the Madawaska Valley and a true community builder. About 40 years ago, a newcomer won the jackpot at a bingo in St. Hedwig’s parish hall and a number of local ladies were overheard grumbling,
She’s not even from here.
Teresa turned to them and spoke with authority:
You be quiet. She bought her cards just like everyone else.
I think that says it all. I could wrap up this piece right here, but there is a lot more to consider.
Local and localism
The noun local, as in “They’re not locals,” means an inhabitant of a particular place. So, any resident (full-time or part-time) of this particular place, the Madawaska Valley, is a local. Former Madawaska Valley mayor, David Shulist agrees:
To me a local is someone who lives in our community. Once you are a resident,
you are a local citizen.
We are all locals, but some of us (and I do think it is a minority) exhibit a discriminatory attitude we might call localism. When we fail to welcome, recognize or seriously consider the views of newcomers who have chosen to live, work, shop and pay taxes in the Madawaska Valley, and we justify this behaviour by saying they are “not from here,” we are committing this injustice.
One former local pastor, recognizing the local-homeschooler split in his parish, coined the term heritage families. I kind of like that – a gentler us-and-them. In my experience, some of us from the heritage families divide ourselves by ethnicity (Kashub or Polish or Irish or German or Wendish or French or Aboriginal), by religion (Catholic or Protestant), by community (Barry’s Bay or Wilno or Combermere), and by politics (Liberal or Conservative or NDP). It is interesting that when newcomers arrive and try to get involved in our community, we temporarily let go of those internal prejudices and join forces. We label ourselves locals and them outsiders, from-the-city, DPs, cottagers, hippies, draft-dodgers, high school teachers, artists, homeschoolers, Muslims, Academy people, and churchies. Even though these terms are often used negatively, they actually represent a remarkable diversity which could make our community rich, interesting and vibrant. Imagine what we could accomplish if we celebrated our differences and worked together for the common good.
Not unique, just wrong-headed
Localism is not limited to the Madawaska Valley. In 2016, Canadian Treasury Board President Scott Brison campaigned to ban the pejorative come from away used by Maritimers to identify newcomers. In an article in the Toronto Star, Brison explained that the term which signifies suspicion, hostility and indifference discourages population growth, investment and tourism. All of which are needed to offset Atlantic Canada’s economic problems. Population growth, investment and tourism … sounds familiar. Closer to home, Whitney native Roy MacGregor has weighed in on this phenomenon. His comments referring to the local-tourist relationship in the Algonquin Park area are quoted in Joshua Blank’s book, “Creating Kashubia” (2016):
The defence mechanism is to look down on those who come, before they can look down on those already there …
Suspicion and insecurity
Combermere resident Lynne Boehme Yantha reminded me recently that our immigrant ancestors bequeathed to us “a pretty high degree of suspicion of outsiders.” This may explain our tendency to localism because the larger ethnic groups who settled here had bad experiences with outsiders. The Irish were fleeing England’s repression and refusal to alleviate the Potato Famine; the Kashubs and Poles were escaping Prussian or Austrian rule and Bismarck’s Kulturkampf; and the Germans and Wends were seeking refuge from Prussia’s wars, conscription and state control of their churches. Once they obtained their own land in the Madawaska Valley a new set of outsiders “lorded it over” them. The landowners, magistrates or captains were replaced, sequentially, by lumber barons, railway officials, whiskey detectives, mining executives, government officials, rich American cottagers, summer residents from the cities including the middle-class, professional Poles who spoke “High Polish.”
A Two-Way Street
I sympathize with residents who don’t feel accepted because they lack a provenance of four generations in the graveyard, but I think to fully explore this topic, we also have to recognize that newcomers have not always treated the locals with respect.
There is something to be said for living in a place for a while, learning a bit from the locals before criticizing or trying to change things. Rural folk may not have a lot of formal education, but they are wise and know the lay of the land. Newcomers who recognized this, like Catherine Doherty or Barney McCaffrey, got to know their neighbours and sought their advice when they first moved here. They integrated successfully and are legendary.
An unfortunate Catholic school principal who briefly lived in the area was not so respectful. He turned up to make a presentation in a professional development course I was taking in Arnprior through the Renfrew County Catholic School Board in the early 1990s. After living one year in the Madawaska Valley he spoke of his frustration with his parish priest and parish. They were backward and had no sense of liturgy. He felt it was his duty to bring them up to date. He had no idea that Arnprior was still in Renfrew County and that at least four teachers with personal connections to the community he was trashing were sitting next to him. It was pre-social media, but within a few hours the community knew what he thought of them.
Localism Hurts Development
Several years ago, when I was attending the Wilno parish, the pastor spoke bluntly from the pulpit. He was responding to some “heritage family” parishioners who resented cottagers from Kaszuby retiring to the area, joining the parish and purchasing lots in the cemetery. The priest invited them take a look at the register and see how burials dramatically exceeded baptisms and marriages. Some of the baptisms and marriages weren’t even for people who lived in the parish, although their parents or grandparents did. He suggested that if they want to keep the parish open, they would have to be welcoming to “outsiders.”
He got it. We need newcomers. The Madawaska Valley is experiencing the same problems as other rural communities in Canada — youth out-migration, decline in the birthrate, and an aging population. We are struggling to maintain our population, so we should be attracting and welcoming new residents.
I recently heard from local historian Joshua Blank who had this to say about the topic:
Every time I hear someone “local” mention the term “outsider” or “tourist” with a negative connotation, I’m left with goosebumps. In today’s mobile world, small centres, like Barry’s Bay, that rely on seasonal visitors to sustain the economy need to recognize that the future is dependent on “outsiders” or “tourists.” I can’t, offhand, think of anyone from my grade 13 class at MVDHS who is gainfully employed in the Bay. Most have left. Those who have lived in the Madawaska Valley for a long time need to realize they need to continue to promote and develop history, artistic and tourist activities in the area. I have many friends and fellow teachers who visit the Madawaska Valley throughout the year. They enjoy these activities and contribute to the local economy. Using labels like “outsider” or becoming complacent with initiatives that attract people from elsewhere will only lead to negative effects for residents down the road.
Education and New Blood
Since I am a teacher, let’s just look at education. While there are lots of children in the homeschool sub-community, the birthrate among residents who will send their children to publicly-funded schools is low, and local schools have closed or are closing. When faced with declining enrolments, high schools can’t offer a lot of elective courses or run a full range of extra-curricular activities. If we can’t attract families, our schools will continue to shrink. Will teachers, medical professionals or entrepreneurs want to relocate here if there are limited opportunities for their children?
In terms of post-secondary training, residents have to leave to attend universities and colleges and obtained training. Once in urban centres, they often remain. We can’t even get our act together to support a PSW course that will keep people close to home and train them for jobs that are needed right here, since our population is aging.
If the families don’t come and residents don’t stay, our tax base will continue to shrink. Who is going to serve our seniors if there are no schools? Who will work in our hospital? Where will the money come from to maintain our infrastructure? When one of my high school friend’s great aunts learned that she was marrying a French Canadian from Ottawa, they said,
New blood is good.
The Madawaska Valley needs new blood. New blood in the form of population.
Thankfully, not all heritage residents are localists. Lynne Boehme Yantha, like most folks in the Valley, has a welcoming and progressive outlook:
For me, if a people integrate with the community in work, school, volunteerism and take part in events, they are local.
Lynne’s mention of volunteerism reminds me that I have noticed that boards of our institutions, organizations and service clubs are often made up of people who have moved to the area in the last 20 or 30 years. I thank them for taking an interest in our community and for their hard work in making the Madawaska Valley a better place. If some locals resent this, then they should ask themselves why they are not stepping up to the plate. If we think it’s ours, we better get off our duffs to nurture it. Otherwise, we are squandering our inheritance.
Valley pride and the last word
Writing this piece has been a challenge because there is so much that could be explored. Actually, it would probably be an excellent thesis for a student seeking a doctorate in sociology – or maybe a book by a high school teacher who hopes to retire in a few years. Anyway, I hope it provokes a healthy and insightful discussion on an issue that we need to name, deal with and put behind us. I am looking forward to the online comments.
In July 2002, my mother, Gwen, and I took a rail trip to the East Coast to celebrate her 80th birthday. While we were in Halifax, we took the obligatory day trip to Peggy’s Cove. After walking around for a bit, looking at the lighthouse and “nearly getting blown away,” as she would say, we got back in the van to head back to our hotel in the city.
What did you think of that, ma’am?
the driver asked. Gwen didn’t beat around the bush:
It’s all right, but it’s not as nice as the Madawaska Valley where I come from.
That’s what we need – a healthy dose of Madawaska Valley pride. We live here, raise families here, work here, pray here, go to school here, shop here, play here, pay our taxes here, get sick and get well here, and die here. We are all local.
I think Bernadine Roslyn, a Madawaska Valley resident for over 35 years, deserves the last word. Her online comment from the Madawaska Valley Current expresses it best whether we were born here, moved here, or moved away and returned:
We all live here because we love the area. And all together we make one heck of a strong community.
About the author: Descended from railroaders and hotel keepers, Mark Woermke has deep roots in the Madawaska Valley. A high school teacher in Ottawa, Mark spends as much time as he can in the Madawaska Valley gardening, writing and enjoying its cultural wealth and natural beauty. Mark also blogs at https://prussianhillsblog.wordpress.com and manages the group Renfrew County Germans on Facebook.