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A Sense of Community

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My fondest memories of living on Bonaventure Island are the beautiful beaches. Bonaventure Island has some of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. I remember when I was a child I was told to stay away from the cliffs, as they were very, very steep and my aunt and uncle were afraid that I might fall off or that something terrible might happen to me. They were very protective of me.

It was like this: I was my mother’s seventh child and she died in childbirth of the Spanish Flu. She was only 32 years old. My father already had six children at home to care for, so the family decided it would be best if I was to leave the mainland and go live with my aunt and uncle on Bonaventure Island.

I was not born on the island, but I was raised there and I raised my own family there as well. When I was growing up, there were only eight families living on the island. I think there were about 50 people in total and everyone was English-speaking. We didn’t get to hear any French. Our little world was 100% English.

We had one little schoolhouse where the Protestants and Catholics learned together. I remember a wonderful teacher from Barachois. She was a product of the nuns. At recess, she used to teach us how to square dance. Can you just imagine if the nuns ever found out what she was teaching us? I bet that she would have been out of a job in a hurry. She stands out in my mind because she was so kind and caring with us. When I was little, I would play in the ponds and brooks with the little boats I made with my own hands. There was a big ridge of rocks behind our house and I remember that I had to be very careful there because it would have been very easy to slip and fall; but it was also a good lookout and I could watch anybody passing up or down the road. It was my private spot. No one knew about it and I could go there and feel as though I was all alone in the world.

In those days, you were either a fisherman or a farmer or both. Preferably both; because that was the only way to make any kind of a living. Everybody had nine or ten head of cattle; half a dozen to a dozen sheep; hens and pigs -- everything it took. We would kill a pig in the fall and salt it for the winter, because there were no refrigerators in those days.

In late October of every year, my uncle would kill a pig and he would take a piece to each neighbour. Each family on the island did this, so in the fall we were always guaranteed some fresh meat. Then my uncle would salt the pork to keep it for the winter. Back then, neighbours looked out for one another.

If a farmer needed a new barn, everyone on the island helped him to build it. No one thought twice about who he was or whether they should help or not, they just did it. That’s the way it was growing up on the island. We all helped one another survive. If one family was going through difficult times, we’d all be there to lend a helping hand. I believe we were much closer as a community because we were so isolated. We had to rely on one another.

I used to fish lobster on Bonaventure Island, as a kid -- about 15 or 16 years old. I fished lobster for a cent and a half a pound, so it’s a big change from today. We didn’t have gasoline motors or anything like that; we just had the old-fashioned poverty sticks -- oars, of course. We called them poverty sticks, but they were oars.

Codfish was the same. I fished codfish for a little better than half a cent a pound. That was for fish under 23 inches long. It wasn’t a question of making money; it was a question of survival more than anything else. By 1942, I was getting four cents a pound, which was considered very good. And twenty or forty bucks a day in 1942 was good money. Can you believe that I left it to go work in the Army for a dollar-thirty a day?

I met my wife on the island. In fact, she was my next-door neighbour. And there’s nothing like a Gaspé girl, you see. In the summertime and fall we could take a boat to the mainland. At that time, there was an ice bridge that built up between the island and the mainland for two or three months during the winter. It took a combination of correct temperatures, tides and winds for the ice bridge to develop and it would only harden once every three or four years. Sometimes, we would be stuck for weeks before the ice bridge would be hard enough for us to travel over it. Those days proved to be very long.

Well, the last year that I was there, I was caught in the water for over four hours and then had to stay on the mainland overnight before I could return to my family. When I returned after that disaster, I told my wife that I had decided that we had had enough of island living and it was time for us to move to the mainland. She agreed and that spring we moved.

It was a big adjustment for us, but you know there are good and bad in all things. On the mainland, the children learned to speak French and English, something that is a real gift. They did not have this opportunity on the island because the island was only English-speaking. On the other hand; on the island, we had a close-knit community, something we never really experienced again on the mainland.

*Louis was born in Grand River in 1918. He was the captain of a tourist boat around Bonaventure island and was also a game warden for a period of time. Louis has kept busy with his cabin rental business. He has also done his share of farming, cod fishing and motor boating. He resides in Percé.