A Tale of Two Islands

Am I the only one who feels that there are two Prince Edward Islands?  There is the one that we are constantly being told about by government--the “Mighty Island” that’s “on a tear” and where everyone is “getting ahead together.” On this Island, no matter what the question, the answer is economic growth, population growth, export growth, growth, growth, and more growth.   If you say anything negative on this Island, you can be sure the Premier will respond with a big confident smile and cherry-picked statistics to prove just how well we are doing, as he did recently in O’Leary when he was asked about the closure of the Cavendish plant and the loss of 40 jobs. Instead of addressing the workers’ anxiety, he reminded us that employment is up overall, so we really don’t need to worry about the 40 families who will be impacted.

Then there is the other Island, where the rest of us live.  On this Island wages are still the lowest in the country, farm incomes are down, people are anxious about the quality of our water and soil, and expenses keep increasing while income is stagnant.   On this Island there’s a front page story about a woman living in her car in the Walmart parking lot, and most of the calls coming to my constituency office involve vulnerable Islanders--the young, the poor, the elderly, the disabled--who are terrified they may be homeless by the end of the month. Now, don’t get me wrong, I also see lots of successes and reasons to be optimistic, but I also recognize that a large number of Islanders are being left behind by an economy on a tear.

Recently I have noticed that these two Islands are starting to clash, as can be seen in the backlash against government’s recent repatriation campaign.  Since its launch we have been inundated with fancy videos and perky radio ads telling us how wonderful things are on PEI and that it’s time for former Islanders to return home.  If there was ever a strategy designed to pit one Islander against another it was this campaign. First of all, one must question the timing of the campaign. Government just launched an action plan strategy to belatedly address the housing crisis it helped create through its population growth strategy. Is this really the best time to encourage people to move home when there is in fact no place for them to live?

Then there is the obsessive cheerfulness of the ads.  Everyone is smiling brightly and marvelling over all the wonderful opportunities on PEI.  In this version of the Island, anyone can be an entrepreneur, live the good life and enjoy personal and financial success.  Yet imbedded in the message is the thinly veiled implication that if you are not lucky or smart enough to be flourishing, it’s probably your own fault.  Those that are being left behind by an economy “on a tear” not only have to face losing their homes, living with food insecurity, and suffering the physical and mental stresses of poverty, but they are also being reminded that there is apparently another Prince Edward Island where everyone is doing much better.

And let’s not forget how the campaign has stirred up the age old debate between “true born Islanders” and “come from aways”--a debate we should have left behind with the arrival of the Selkirk settlers.

Yet, when there was a social media backlash to the campaign, Islanders who are struggling were shut down (sometimes by government employees) with accusations of being too negative and not appreciating how great PEI is. It became clear that those living on Wade MacLauchlan’s version of PEI don’t want to be disturbed by the petty worries or complaints of the rest of us.

Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised by any of this.  In 2015 when MacLauchlan stepped up to accept the leadership of the Liberal Party, he declared loudly and repeatedly that he was volunteering to be the “optimist-in-chief.”  If a pessimist says the glass is half empty and an optimist says it’s half full, then an optimist-in-chief says it’s always full regardless of the amount of liquid. But the other PEI, the one where most of us live, needs more than optimism and boosterism. It needs strong leadership.  It needs someone who is willing to acknowledge problems and begin to work on them. It needs a leader who is willing to make difficult decisions. It needs a leader who has the compassion and vision to see both Islands and care about all the Islanders who live here.