The Island and Its People
Media and illustrations by Emily Woster and Elizabeth Epperly
The physical space of Prince Edward Island was everywhere shaped by human hands. It was the most densely populated province in the Dominion—and one of the least diverse. Four ethnic groups, Scots, Irish, English, and Acadian, accounted for some 95% of its population. Their cultural baggage, customs, values, priorities, and experiences dictated the human geography of Anne’s Island, forming different strata of identities. Island culture had adapted from its British template a social pecking order that was informal and unofficial yet pervasive. The result was a social pyramid that might be as low as the Island’s rolling hills, but was still hard to climb.
Culture, Language, and Religion
Not surprisingly, in a British empire dominated by English Protestants, the English were the most favoured group. In practice, however, the English (about 20% of the population) were far outnumbered by Scots, most of them Highlanders. In the 1870s, when Montgomery was born, just under half of the Island’s population were of Scottish descent, making it the most Scottish province in Canada. It was also the most Celtic, since another 25% of the population was of Irish extraction. Montgomery’s own people (Macneills and Montgomerys) had arrived in the early 1770s.
Perhaps the most distinctive badge of Highland identity was language, and even in the 1860s, Gaelic was the second most spoken language on Prince Edward Island. A generation later, it was in rapid decline. In long-settled Cavendish, Gaelic was dying out by the time Maud Montgomery was growing up. The Scottishness she embraced may have been more obviously literary rather than linguistic, yet Montgomery's eventual husband, the Rev. Ewan Macdonald, was prized as a minister in Cavendish because he spoke Gaelic and could pray in Gaelic with the older parishioners.
While Protestant Irish were numerous elsewhere in North America, the bulk of the Island’s Irish were Roman Catholics. So was the province’s fourth significant ethnic group, the Acadians. Descendants of French-speaking survivors of the “Grand Derangement,” the devastating wave of forced deportations from the region during the Seven Years’ War (1755-1763), the Island Acadians had learned to keep to themselves (and local prejudice kept them there). They had gravitated to previously unsettled parts of the colony, until British settlement gradually filled in the empty land around and between their communities.
Beginning in the 1860s, the “Acadian Renaissance” had instilled a new sense of pride and identity in the Acadian community, although that rebirth was not in Montgomery’s line of vision. What she saw, and what Anne conveys, may have drawn upon the nearby Acadian fishing community of North Rustico, but it probably reflects assumption as much as observation. Casting about for help with the farming, Marilla sniffs, “There’s never anybody to be had but those stupid, half-grown little French boys, and as soon as you do get one broke into your ways and taught something he’s up and off to the lobster canneries or to the States.” In the end, it is just such a boy, Jerry Buote, who does get hired, and, true to Marilla’s prediction, he is gone by the end of the novel.
For a Scots Presbyterian such as L.M. Montgomery, the Acadians had two strikes against them: they were French, and they were Roman Catholics. Similarly, Irish Catholics belong to a different social order than her heroines’ families. Even sympathetic characters such as Father Cassidy in Emily of New Moon (1923) and Judy Plum from the two Pat novels of the 1930s are somewhat stereotypic.
Reading Montgomery’s fiction or journals, one would never guess that somewhere between 30 and 40% of the Island’s Scots were actually Roman Catholics. Perhaps that is because the nearest Scots Catholic community of any size was miles away in Indian River. Even the Irish, who had settled in a rough arc of communities just behind coastal Cavendish, are more shadow than substance in Anne’s world.
It is not surprising that the remaining 5% or so of the Island’s population, which included Lebanese newcomers, a handful of Chinese immigrants, Black Islanders descended from slaves, and a smattering of other ethnicities, get short shrift. After all, except for the Lebanese, many of whom “went to the country” as pedlars, selling odds and ends (even hair dye!), almost all of them lived in Charlottetown or Summerside.
The First Nations
When rising sea levels turned what would become Prince Edward Island into a proper island about 5,000 years ago, Indigenous peoples had already been present for 5,000 years. Where the Mi’kmaq had adapted skillfully to their environment, the European settlers of the 18th and 19th centuries bent that environment to their will. A century of European colonization, first French and then British, had radically transformed the Island’s landscape by the time in which Anne is set. The Mi’kmaq people, though they never formally ceded Epekwitk (or Abegweit, as incoming Europeans rendered it), found themselves dispossessed and increasingly demoralized within it, fenced out of their traditional food sources by “private property” and decades of deforestation.
Yet, even in Montgomery’s time, Mi’kmaw families continued to travel the Island from the bases provided by a handful of reserves such as Lennox Island and Scotchfort. They camped in familiar haunts and marketed various handicrafts—oars, paddles, axe handles, baskets—farm to farm as they tried to eke out an independent subsistence in a white man’s world. It was hard. Pushed to the margins of Island society, they were not quite invisible by the late 19th century but were generally regarded as exotic relics of a distant past. They seem a natural subject for Anne’s romantic imagination, but they are curiously absent from her world.1
Together and Apart
Good fences make good neighbours, even if those fences are based on ethnicity and religion. Compared to other parts of Canada and the British Empire, the Island’s different ethnic and denominational groups co-existed with only a modicum of friction in the late 19th century, their daily interactions governed by an elaborate but unwritten set of social and political conventions.
In rural Prince Edward Island, especially, the different racial and religious groups tended to mingle without really mixing.
And yet, overwritten on those fractious, sometimes conflicting loyalties was a shared pride in being Prince Edward Islanders. In the end, what bound them together remained stronger than the history, loyalties, and biases that pushed them apart.