Earlier this summer, on a tiny island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Anglicans from All Saints Memorial Church gathered on a patch of land beside the rector’s cabin and started planting a garden.
At first glance, this may seem like an insignificant activity for members of a small rural community to be doing, but for the people who live on Entry Island-the most isolated of the isolated Magdalen Islands-it is both an attempt to reclaim a disappearing heritage and a defiant act of faith.
“Right now, our community is a dying community,” says Candace Aitkens, one of the driving forces behind the All Saints Garden project. “There’s probably 60 people in the winter, and it’s an aging community…we thought the community garden would be one of the best ways to try to get the community together.”
Aitkens grew up on Entry Island and is committed to the place and its people, but she has few illusions about the island’s future: she knows that her own children will not stay to build lives there. “We lost our school, we just lost our priest, and there’s not a whole lot we have left here,” she said. In the last 15-20 years, an exodus of parents and children has left the island largely inhabited by seniors and middle-aged people.
The sense of decline and malaise is not just demographic, however; it is also cultural. While older members of the community recall a time when they were basically self-sufficient, many of the old traditions-including gardening-have died off.
“When the fishing in the ’70s started becoming more popular…people just didn’t grow their own gardens anymore,” Aitkens said. “People started buying everything, and the community just changed. Everything was more about money and yourself-not helping each other anymore and things like that.”
While many in the community mourned the changes in lifestyle, the spark that got the project going was the arrival in 2013 of a new priest, who would turn out to be the last priest posted to the islands.
The Rev. Jeffrey Metcalfe spent his first few months on the islands visiting parishioners in their homes and listening to them talk about their hopes and concerns, and he began to notice a pattern emerging.
“One of the things that people said again and again was that they really miss being able to go outside and garden,” he said. “Everyone used to help each other, and you hear this from the elders a lot…that they had their own cows and made their own butter; they grew their own vegetable gardens…they were sustainable.”
Going from house to house, he heard the same lament over and over again: “Oh, those were the days! I wish we could go back to that.” So one day, he asked them, “Why don’t you?'”
With Metcalfe’s encouragement, and the help of a $15,000 grant from the Anglican Foundation of Canada, plans to build a greenhouse and set up a beehive operation were set in place. Last summer, the group planted a variety of vegetables experimentally and ended the season with a community-wide potluck. With the construction of the greenhouse this summer and the establishment of two beehives, this year’s produce is expected to yield more, despite a cold spring and shorter than average growing season.
Metcalfe said that while the impetus for the project came from the church, “the desire, the interest and the work came from the community.”
Aitkens admitted that setting up the garden and getting people interested in volunteering was a slog at first. “Things on Entry Island go slow, because people are kind of wondering, ‘Is this going to work or is this not going to work?’ ” she said. But interest has been growing and there are more helpful hands in the garden.
Earlier this month, Metcalfe completed his posting on the Magdalen Islands, and the garden is now completely in the hands of the islanders, as is All Saints Memorial Church.
But Aitkens, who gave a presentation on All Saints Garden at a Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund-sponsored food security course at the Sorrento Centre in British Columbia in July, is cautiously optimistic about the future.
“Just because some people don’t like change, we’re not going to give up just because of that. They have to change with the times.”
Will the garden save the community of Entry Island in the long run? Probably not, said Aitkens-but then, that wasn’t the point.
“It’s something to look forward to each year,” said Aitkens. “If we only have 10 years left, we might as well do something we enjoy instead of fighting.”