Features  Small world

Kian Slobodin remembers her upbringing on rural Denman Island, and worries about the future of such tiny, eclectic communities

As a child, I was mystified by Wonder-bread. Growing up on Denman Island, B.C., I was weaned exclusively on my father’s crumbly, homemade brown bread. Through the television at my grandmother’s house in Vancouver, I glimpsed an alternative reality: a fascinating world in which children drank soda pop and ate white bread and were so, so clean.

As I flip through family photographs, I am amused by images of my sister and me – smiling, tangle-headed flower children. I once asked my mother, “Didn’t you ever brush our hair or wash our faces?”

“We just let you be,” my mother replied. This was a sentiment echoed by most of my friends’ parents at the time. Within the Denman counterculture, some brought the ethos of laid-back childrearing to a whole new level. Some of my friends’ parents were so nonchalant that they rarely answered the telephone. In contrast to this, my parents were considered relatively straight – even conservative. They didn’t grow weed in the backyard, and they hadn’t named me or my siblings after river systems or tree varieties. Still, I am grateful for the small eccentricities of my childhood, and for the quirky, alternative bubble within which we lived.

Denman Island is one of many small Gulf Islands scattered between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. It is home to approximately 1,000 full-time residents. There are no police, stop-lights, or chain franchises; instead, the island is filled with artists, hippies, and old people. It was against this eclectic backdrop that my friends, siblings, and I were raised. We attended a four classroom elementary school, and referred to our teachers, janitor, and secretary by their first names. After elementary school, we had to choose between homeschooling and a daily commute via ferry to Vancouver Island. Town kids sometimes asked us if we were bored, deprived as we were of video arcades and shopping malls. I recall my childhood as far from boring; it was vibrant, messy, and full.

In truth, we received a large part of our education through interaction with the natural environment. My sister and I waded through the marshes, forests, and fields that surrounded our house. We helped with the haying and the gardening. I recall watching a trembling calf emerge from its mother’s slippery, red placenta. On the beaches, we dug for clams and gooey-ducks, and hunted purple sea-shells, shards of beach glass, and smooth, white stones. We flipped over barnacle-encrusted rocks to reveal scuttling masses of glistening black crabs. If you held a crab carefully, with a finger and thumb on its lower back and stomach, it couldn’t pinch you. In the summer, we swam in an ocean that was about as warm as glacial meltwater. 

At the General Store, we side-stepped sweating, sunburned tourists while we lined up to pay for popsicles and five-cent candies. Mike, the store owner, hit small children on the head with the stack of brown paper bags that he kept next to the cash register. Every so often, we were allowed to hit him back. Old men sat in the café at the back of the store, drinking black coffee, gossiping, and killing time. In such a small community, local figures have the capacity to become legends. With the aid of a walker, Dora Drinkwater of the Dora Drinkwater Library trekked from the little yellow house on the corner to the General Store every day. When she died, the community restored the little yellow house and converted it into an arts centre in her honour. Similarly, people become known according to their professions or other distinguishing features. Among Denman’s cast of characters were Bill from the Bakery, Peter the Volunteer Fire Marshall, and Doreen the Doctor. One man who worked for some time at the café was known simply as Café Pete, and could be found under this listing in the local telephone book.

It’s hard to write about the spirit and activities of any community without resorting to generalizations; it’s even more difficult not to romanticize. Denman was, and is, plagued by the same ills which beset any community: alcoholism, drug abuse, and alienation. As a child, if you did not get along with the ten to 12 other individuals in your peer group, you literally had nowhere else to turn. Despite this, Denman provided a soft place to fall for the many individuals who might have a hard time fitting into mainstream society. As unlikely and clichéd as it may sound, the Denman community embraced diversity in the truest sense of the word. The message that was imparted to me by the adults who surrounded me in my youth was that people were first and foremost people. A drunk was not merely a drunk – he was a member of our community and an individual with feelings and needs, even as he wobbled unsteadily along Denman Road at nine on a Sunday morning. Growing up within such a community broadened my understanding of “normal.” I was not expected to view a woman with multiple cheek piercings and facial tattoos as any more significant or interesting than my kindergarten teacher.

The gap between my idealized memories of Denman Island and its actual reality grows larger with time. Like many who have grown up and left home, I expect the people and places I love to remain fixed in time during my absence from them. When I return to the island to visit my family, I often feel like an outsider. “When did that get torn down?” I’ll demand. “Who said they could put that there?” Whether I am there to witness it or not, the offbeat community of my childhood has evolved with the passage of time. With the rising cost of gas and ferry tickets, many lower-income families can no longer afford to live on the island. As a result of this demographic shift, the four-classroom elementary school has shrunk down to two.

Twenty years ago, many families moved to Denman Island to raise their children away from the mainstream in a beautiful, serene location. This same beauty and serenity has attracted tourists and summer people with available funds to invest in oceanside property. Summer houses, largely the second homes of the affluent, have popped up like toadstools in recent years. It’s hard to view these “outsiders” without hostility. “Who are all these people?” I asked my brother during a trip to the Store. “Where did they all come from?” Locals joke wryly: “How come its called Tourist Season if you can’t shoot them?” Although it is clear to me that such prejudices are no different from the views articulated by mainstream culture against “dirty hippies,” it’s hard to come from a rational place when considering the recent changes in a community so close to my heart. Still, I recognize that these biases are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the rest of the community. To some, summer visitors provide an essential source of income.

When I am home, it is clear to me that the apparent differences between the island and the “rest of the world” have begun to shrink. In the years before the Internet really took off, I grew up without television reception and was largely ignorant of the ways of the world. In third grade, I thought Sailor Moon had something to do with intergalactic space navigation. My little brother, on the other hand, seven years younger than I, was exposed to the Internet since an early age. He downloads from iTunes and watches silly videos on Youtube. In these respects, he is not much different from a suburban 13-year-old, minus the fact that his house is surrounded by trees. My mother assures me that Denman is not changing nearly as much as I think it is, that my anxiety about its supposed transformation has more to do with my nostalgic view of childhood than anything else. To some extent, she is probably right. Yet I continue to watch apprehensively for signs of modernization and gentrification on Denman. With globalization swelling to its peak, I hope that the core characteristics of small communities can survive.

Photos by Kian Slobodin and Courtesy of the Walkley-Slobodin family