In the early 1920’s, the Canadian economy was wavering, and jobs were difficult to find. The country’s farmers were trying to adjust to the sudden post-war drop in the prices they were being paid for their produce. The men were all back home from overseas. Nearly a million and a half immigrants had come from the United States into Canada in the last few years.
Canadian newspapers depended for much of their important world news on American correspondents. The popular magazines, the motion pictures and the radio shows that Canadians enjoyed were, by and large, American. The big stars of the day were Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. They were, of course, stars of the American cinema. Even those stars who were Canadians by birth were famous because of the American theatre.
Prohibition was embarked on by the United States. So was it in almost all of Canada’s provinces. In the United States, prohibition spawned the gangster. In Canada, prohibition produced the rumrunner to keep the prohibition gangster supplied.
American women took on a new look, which included the illusion of smaller busts and hips, a boyish hairstyle, and developed a taste for cigarettes and gin. The young Canadian woman soon imitated her American cousin. However, it was the Canadian woman who was the first to get the right to cast her ballot in elections.
The Ku Klux Klan started in Dixie, and in Saskatchewan, a group tried to follow suit, but the lack of blacks soon discouraged them. After burning a few crosses on the lawns of Chinese laundrymen and in front of Oriental cafes, they disbanded.
Canadians, however, did have some important originals of their own. The Group of Seven was at that time travelling through the country and painting astounding landscapes that would cause controversy and would continue to influence Canadian painters for many years to come.
Sir Frederic Banting discovered insulin, and in so doing, saved the lives of countless diabetics. Canada was beginning to try for an identity of her own, although being drawn to the American ways almost against it’s will.
It was during this rather diverse period of time that an ad appeared in the newspaper asking for applicants for the post of Lighthouse Keeper and Postmaster on Heron Island.
Stella showed George the ad, but he was only mildly interested, since there were always hundreds of applicants for each job available.
She urged him to apply, but he kept putting her off. Finally, he told her if she really thought that it was worthwhile, why didn’t she just fill out the application and mail it to the government for him? This she did, and soon they found that they were on their way to start a new kind of life that neither of them had really thought that they would ever adopt.
The year was 1921. The three of them, George, Stella and their little daughter, Beatrice, arrived to find a red and white lighthouse, a red and white house and a red and white storage shed, perched on the edge of a cliff on the north side of Heron Island. The lighthouse had a red door and a little porch with red steps, and inside, it had a spiral staircase that led up to the tower that housed the light. The storage shed was filled with large wicks, oil and cleaners, along with extra glass and paint.
They settled into the house, but it was soon apparent that this would not do. They needed a garden space and a safer place for the child to play. They shortly moved into a large house, located more centrally on the island, and stayed there while George built the little house, just north of the wharf, that was to be their home for the remainder of the total of nineteen years that they spent on the island.
Each afternoon, George would make the trek over to the north side of the island, about a mile away. There he would climb the stairs and light the light to keep ships from running ashore onto the island. At first light the next morning, he returned to douse the light. Then he trimmed the wick, washed the glass and the reflectors, and refilled the oil supply. From time to time, as needed, he repainted the lighthouse, and the little buildings that were near it.
There were several families already on the island when they arrived. The nearest neighbours were the Pettigrews. They had a big, beautiful home, with large outbuildings. There was a large field in front of the house. In the field there were numerous apple and cherry trees. As the LaPointe family grew larger and the children grew older, Mr. Pettigrew would get them to do things around his place, such as dig up his potatoes at harvest time. In return, he would let them pick cherries and apples to take home for Stella to “put up” for the family’s use. When Mr. Pettigrew butchered an animal from his beef herd, he often made a gift of one quarter of the beef to the family.
These kindnesses from “Les Anglais” were a bit different for Stella. She had been raised in an area where the french speaking children were all but denied an education. They were never called on to participate in the learning process at school. Further, they were shunned or picked on and beat up on by their fellow students, who were all english speaking. Even the english speaking teachers ignored them.
There was also, at that time, much misunderstanding between the Catholics and the Protestants. James Mercier, Stella’s father, had a beautiful singing voice. He was the choirmaster in the Catholic Church at New Mills. When Jim was asked, as he was on many occasions, he would agree to go to sing in the Protestant church for a wedding or a funeral. Many of his Catholic neighbours were shocked and refused to associate with, or even speak to, him or his family. Father Delaguarde, his parish priest, told him not to give up the practise, as he was, with his beautiful voice, helping to make the weddings memorable or helping to console the grieving families. The priest felt that there could not possibly be any harm in it. An enlightened attitude for the day.
So the kindness of all of the english speaking islanders to the family was perplexing but certainly welcome.
The little school house that stood just a short distance from the LaPointe home had once been used by the children of the other islanders. The island had, after all, been inhabited since somewhere around 1850, by white Anglophone families. They had been granted the land, which had been divided into farm lots, during the time when that sort of land granting was being done to encourage people to move to Canada. Many of these families, in the course of the seventy- odd years since, had undoubtedly borne children, and they had been educated right on the island. But the last island teacher, Miss Myrtle Cook, from Blacklands, had left, and the school was closed. The LaPointe family had the only school age children, so there were not enough students to justify keeping it open. The family used the little building for storage.
Mrs. Simonson, one of the neighbours on the island who was always ready to lend a hand to her neighbours, had accumulated all of the school books from grades 1 to 8. These she made a gift of to Stella so that she could instruct the children on her own. She had tried sending them off to school on the mainland, but, because of storms, thin ice and all the problems that getting on and off a small island, a place that must put up with the whims of nature and it’s four seasons, attendance at school was sporadic, at best. They nevertheless learned, but at home.
All the books were in english, so they slowly began to speak more and more english in the home. Any given discourse would fluctuate from english to french very naturally. Perhaps two people would be speaking english while the others were speaking french. It must have driven unilingual visitors wild. English was George’s first language, while Stella’s family had mainly spoken french, but both were fairly fluent in either tongue. Stella never quite trusted her ability to speak english, though, and always began every english conversation with an apology. All of her written communication was in english, and very well written since she had gotten what education she had at an english school. Still, she was never comfortable with the english language, not even in front of her own family.