On becoming a SaltSpring Islander, by Jenifer Christenson

As published in the Driftwood


I arrived on Salt Spring Island to understand what it is to be an outsider. My intention was to examine the in-migration of Albertans and explore how the residents of this community have responded.


Recognizing myself as the outsider, I was apprehensive about how I would be received, aware of the stereotypes of my home province: stereotypes that portray Albertans as rednecks, cowboys and oil tycoons. What I discovered through eight interviews is a community with tremendous capacity to coexist with others and embrace different ways of being, providing the outsider understands what island life is all about. Not an unreasonable expectation in return to call Salt Spring Island your home.


After a few interviews, I learned Albertans moving to the island is a lively source of conversation. “Historically, this goes way beyond my time,” says Abri, a 30-year island resident who welcomes the opportunity to talk about Salt Spring.


She recalls when Albertans purchased the island’s historical landmark, Harbour House Hotel, in the early 1990s. The new owners connected with community groups to understand the island way of life; however, in the end, they developed their plans based on what was best for business. Their plans included major changes to the hotel’s pub — a place that brought together hippies, loggers, pioneer families and the motorbike crew. The pub also housed two walls of murals depicting the history of Salt Spring Island and providing a great source of pride in the community. During the renovations the murals were covered by wallpaper and destroyed. The community was outraged and the pub became known as “Horrible House.”


Abri says, “Thinking they know what’s good for the community is oft-cited as a flaw of off-islanders from Alberta.”


I ask Abri if Salt Spring Islanders resist change.


“Yes, they do,” she tells me with tremendous pride. She explains how islanders value what they have and believe that to change something good is faulty logic.


“We don’t want to be destroyed by change,” she says and quickly adds, “There’s fear off-islanders are going to take over without understanding Salt Spring.”


Abri continues to share experiences she’s had with Albertans and in the end comments, “Sometimes it’s been good . . . other times bad. I suspect it’s all as daft as that.”


As we say goodbye, Abri gives me a warm embrace, in her words a “Salt Spring hug — it’s heart-to-heart.”


My next interview is at the Tree House Café. I lower my head to get through the doorway of this heritage cottage and feel like I am entering a different world, perhaps inhabited by elves and dwarves. I understand the Lonely Planet describes the cafe as a “ . . . place where a hobbit would feel at home.” I too feel at home.


As I search the café, my eyes meet another’s gaze. After several glances back and forth, I begin to wonder if this is the person I have arranged to meet. He is not what I was expecting.


In dreadlocks and sporting tattoos, he is dressed in a Baja jacket and introduces himself as Jerry. I offer to buy him breakfast and he graciously accepts. Nestled in this cozy café, we speak of his experiences since arriving three months earlier. He is generous in his praise of islanders, describing them as open, friendly and trusting.


“Where you’re from — where you’ve been . . . people around here don’t care,” says Jerry.


I ask him what they do care about. “It’s not about where you’re from, but who you are.”


Jerry is from Alberta and seems to understand island life is different than where he’s from.


He believes his attitudes are the reason he’s fitting into the community. “Things are going well for me . . . maybe it’s coming back to me because I’m putting it out there.”


Jerry tells me he volunteers to help islanders out and hopes this will prove they can count on him. In return, Jerry hopes he can count on them too.


“Here on the island people have to work together . . . be together,” he says.


The conversation takes me back to something Abri said about community: “We need to get together in the old ways as community. Not in factions fighting each other. No winners . . . no losers.”


This seems to be the context to which off-islanders are resisted. You’re not going to be welcomed if you don’t embrace the lifestyle here. I am told from those I interview that if you want to get involved and contribute to the community — they will love you for it.