Lawron Ingersoll interviews Laurie Murison
My name is Laurie Murison (LM) and I am the Executive Director of the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station among other things. I work on a whale watch boat, do public education work, and since 2008, I’ve taken on the preservation of Swallowtail Lighthouse with my husband. My first experience with Grand Manan was in 1982, so I’ve been here a long time.
My name is Lawron Ingersoll (LI) and I am a student at Grand Manan Community School. I’ve lived on the island my entire life, which is 15 years.
LI: My first question is, as a community, as a whole, how do you feel about Grand Manan?
LM: I think it’s a great community. I’ve lived in lots of small towns and villages and for the most part, Grand Manan is a wonderful little place. You have to remember though that it is a small community and everybody knows your business and if they don’t know your business, they make it up, which can be very intimidating for people who have always lived in the city because Grand Manan is not anonymous. There are people who come here and just get blown away by the fact that people talk about you.
LI: Comparing Grand Manan to larger places that you have lived before, what can you say the main striking differences are?
LM: I used to really notice when I went back to Guelph, where I was doing my master’s degree, after being here in the summer, that people living in the city don’t like eye contact. They avoid it. When you go to the grocery store the clerks often won’t even say hello or look at you. Living here on Grand Manan you have to take more time. If you’re going to the store you have to remember that there are going to be people there that you’ll see and you’ll visit with and it takes you twice as long to buy your groceries. The speed of things is very different. You get used to walking quickly in cities and running for buses and trains. The anonymity you have in cities, you don’t have here. It is a much slower pace here on Grand Manan. However, there are some punctuated island things that speed the pace up: rushing for the ferry to get off the island, for example. If you work on the water like I do, all of a sudden you have to react very quickly. The pace is different and the actual human contact is very different in a small community like this compared to a larger one. The first thing I have to remind myself when I leave here is to stop waving (makes hand motion of one finger up). In Black’s Harbour, people still do it because it’s a small community, but you have to remember certain things: lock your vehicle, and remember your city skills. Your city skills are very different than the skills here. One of the biggest problems I have is remembering about pedestrians when I’m driving in the city, because we don’t have pedestrian crosswalks here on the island.
LI: So, about this island, there seems to be a good amount of things for people to do, but it is still very limited. As far as career options, education, and in terms of living here as a young person, what do you think are the benefits and the downfalls of Grand Manan?
LM: The benefits are that you have a lot of contact with your educators. You’re not in huge classes. But, that can also be a downfall because you may not strive to your full potential because people know your reputation. “Oh yeah, she’s really smart so we’ll just mark her higher” because your reputation follows you. I’ve been in a lot of schools and it’s not like that when new people come in all the time.
When I first came to the island, school was of low importance for most people. School was split into two tracks: industrial and academic. The students in academic were usually kids who wanted desperately to get off the island. They were going to finish and get off. The kids in industrial were the ones who were going to go into fishing, or who were going to get married and not leave, or maybe not even bother to finish school. The graduating class was quite small even though the school population was probably larger than it is now. Most people didn’t make it past 16. They were out making money or they were pregnant and getting married. School was not a big influence in their lives, except if you desperately wanted to leave then you paid attention.
Once the fishing industry changed and there weren’t as many jobs after the decline in the ground fish, there weren’t as many summer jobs. There weren’t jobs to put you through all year. That started changing things, there were more people trying to go to community college and university. But the one thing I find even still, many more kids leave for programs after they graduate, but there is a huge amount who don’t make it to Christmas. My personal philosophy behind it, is that they are suffering form what I was talking about before ,about being a city dweller vs. a small community dweller. They don’t know how to be anonymous. It’s very intimidating. When you live in a place where everyone knows who you are, when you buy a ferry ticket, you don’t even have to tell them your name, they not only know you, they know your mother, your father, your uncle, your grandfather; they know the whole family. When you leave, suddenly none of that is there. You don’t have that security blanket around you. I find a lot of people really suffer from that. Even when people go travelling, I find a lot of Grand Manan families travel together. Even when they’re going to Florida or wherever, you find 10 families in the same resort, so they’re never really alone.
LI: That happened to me!
LM: That is very daunting when you’re young and you’re away from home, suddenly you’re in a place where absolutely nobody knows who you are.
LI: I mean that’s a challenge for anybody going away for higher education, but perhaps one level up here.
LM: For me, I was living in a city and going to University was no different. I knew how to exist in the city because I knew how to live that way. For kids here growing up, they don’t necessarily get that opportunity. They go on exchanges, but they go as a group. It’s a big reason why I think there is a huge failure rate for some of the kids. The one thing my mom did even though she was a single mom and had no money, we always had our two-week vacation, we always left and went somewhere. We experienced new places and went all over. We might do it on a super tight budget, but we went and experienced the world. That’s so important. My uncle, his philosophy, was if you want to keep the boys on the farm you don’t let them go anywhere.
LI: That’s a great segue into my next question. I wanted to know if you feel that fishing has become sort of a default because peoples’ grandfathers, grandfathers, grandfathers have done it?
LM: No, actually it’s hard to be a fisherman because of the costs. If you don’t have that behind you, you’re going to be a deckhand. You may make a lot of money but you have no training of how to keep it. The fishermen and farmers are very similar. The one big thing with farmers is that they have the opportunity to go to university for two years to get an agricultural certificate, which teaches them how to be a businessman. They know how to run their farms, know how to market, know the business end of farming, as well as mixing the chemicals, pesticides and herbicides and all of that kind of stuff, managing that and safety and all those kinds of things. With fishermen here, you’re literally just thrown on deck. You’re thrown out there to sink or swim. The whole business end of it is not emphasized. That’s where a lot of people run into trouble. You’re making $100,000 in a year and you don’t know what to do, you spend it like crazy and then you get an income tax bill for $50,000 and you don’t have any money because you spent it all. That business acumen is not there, unless you come from a long line of fishermen, if you’re the Bensons, you run fish plants and they bring every generation up in that business and they are very much aware how to run your finances. So, fishing is not a default anymore. It’s limited, there’s lobster fishing and there’s just a few other small fisheries you can do. I know a lot of people complain about having to work for Cooke Aquaculture, salmon aquaculture because they are used to those big spurts of money and they’re not used to working on a set wage and working for someone else who is always telling them what to do. If most of the kids here had to start jobs like city kids do and work at McDonald’s or Walmart or whatever, it would be a super rude awakening for them. They are used to walking into high paying jobs and expecting to be at the top and not going through any of the bottom stages. The job mentality here is very different than in the city because there aren’t necessarily those opportunities. In the city you can’t walk into a $500 per day lobster job for banding lobsters, like what a lot of them are paying now. You just don’t find that in a lot of places.
One of the other things about the school system, they don’t use enough of the resources that are here to teach the kids. Hands on education is by far the best education you’ve ever had. Looking at things in a textbook or at slides someone has put up about the lobster industry, or something that’s going on in the community, it doesn’t bring it home to kids. I took anthropology as one my classes when I was doing my Bachelor’s. One of the essays we had to write had to do with racism and bigotry in communities. My grandfather lived in tiny little community in Saskatchewan and during the 1930s, the Klu Klux Klan came up from the U.S. and tried to spread through western Canada. They came into lots of little communities. My grandfather was already one of the Odd Fellows, and a member of the Legion. When the Klan came around he said okay another organization, I’ll attend a few meetings. It sounded not too bad at the time, but they had someone came into community and they tarred and feathered him, put him on a train and shipped him out. My grandfather was like, ohhhh, this is not something I can stand for. After fighting for freedom during the First World War and seeing what they did to that person, it was like, no way. That was the whole point of the essay, you don’t have to look very far, to look at what you’re doing close to home, instead of looking at the Southern U.S. or South Africa or somewhere else where things are happening. These things happen at home. There are so many fantastic things because there is a lot of history here that the kids could learn about. You know the War of 1812 was here, but how many kids know anything about it? They don’t. We had pirates that sailed up and down the coastline. We were part of the underground railroad for slaves leaving the U.S. and going to Nova Scotia and other places. All of that was part of the area and most kids don’t know about that.
LI: To a tourist who is just stepping off the boat for the very first time and sees this island as this sunny, beautiful, magical place, which it can be, what are some of the more dystopian things that you want them to know?
LM: That I want them to know? Do I really want them to know that?
LI: Or maybe you don’t want them to know!
LM: It’s their vacation. I’m not sure. People say, Oh, I love Grand Manan! It’s such a beautiful place, and it is physically. It is. There are these great little houses. But people don’t realize that it is also a community. Every community has its issues and some are better than others. It has a really long residency so there are a lot of generations of people that are here. It tends to be a little conservative (small c conservative) in that people don’t change their ways as quickly. If you go to the west coast of Canada it’s very different. People haven’t been there as long. There aren’t as many rigid, you’ve got to do it this way, you know this has been in my family for 9 generations. They are much more quick to be more “small l” liberal and adopt things more quickly. At the same time fishermen are very progressive in changing things that will make their lives easier.
The layer that is presented is that people are friendly. And people are friendly for the most part. It is a beautiful island. There are problems like everywhere else. Is there a drug problem on the island? Of course there is. What community doesn’t have a drug problem? What community doesn’t have an alcohol problem? The one thing that is a little different in a small community is that you have multiple generations that are socializing together and that doesn’t happen as much in urban environments. You won’t have 16 year olds partying with 65 year olds. That can be a little strange in some ways.
Here, if you use a lot of marijuana and everybody knows it. And that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with it. If that’s your choice in life, that’s your choice. If you’re an alcoholic, everybody knows you’re an alcoholic. If you molested your daughter, everybody knows that but they still associate with you.
LI: Yeah, except for behind your back.
LM: Yes, that is the thing, it is behind your back, but it isn’t because everybody knows that they’re talking about you and everybody knows the same stories and it goes really quickly on this island. Even before facebook it was really quick. That’s when people who have never lived in a small community find it incredibly daunting to live here because that information is so out there. If not, they literally make it up. If they don’t know anything about you, they will make it up. The fellow who cooked on the boat today, he was telling a story about a house in Pettes’s Cove, and I know the story, and it was completely different. It was just like, okay, I won’t correct you, but that’s not how it was. If you work with someone in the city, you’re not going to know all their background information unless they are the type of person who tells you their whole life story in the first five minutes that they meet you. Most people have those filters or blocks, so they have their work face, their close friends, their associates and you don’t know all those layers. But, here you know all those layers. That’s small communities. When I used to visit my grandparents on their farm, it was interesting to listen to their conversations. They would talk about the person and then they would figure out how old they were, so it was always about how they fit into the structure. “Oh, yeah he’s younger than us,” then they’d go through how many brothers and sisters and then they’d go through who they were related to. It was keeping this oral history of their community in their heads. Every time they talked about somebody, they made sure they remembered the context for that person. People do that here to a degree as well.
LI: Yeah like you’ll see someone and they’ll say “how’s John’s boy?” or whatever. And you’ll know automatically who they are talking about.
LM: People do tend to use first names here a lot. Do you know about Rachel? And I think, oh, which Rachel?
LI: There are at least five on the island, but…
LM: And nicknames! Phew.
LI: Yes, I can think of at least five Buddy’s.
LM: Yes, and Ken’s family all his great uncles, I didn’t even know their real names. They were all Winks or Smiles. I think everyone had a nickname. I know Ken’s generation, people still do it, but you’re generation do people have nicknames?
LI: Not so much.
LM: Everybody used to have nicknames.
LI: Of course I’m not in with the fishermen or soon to be fishermen-people.
LM: I’m not even sure if it was just the fishermen.
LI: Have you ever gotten bored of the island, even momentarily?
LM: Gotten bored of the island? No. When I’m super frustrated because something is not going well, I will sometimes step back and say why? I look around me and say this is such a gorgeous place. I’ll go down and walk on the beach, go for a stroll, go out to a lookout, and say wow this is amazing. But, I’ve also had a lot of experiences in my life and I’ve been to a lot of places and I’ve chosen to be here.
LI: Exactly. You’ve done your traveling, and you’ve experienced that so that’s not something you’re missing.
LM: Boredom for me, there’s no such thing as being bored. There are times when I can be very contemplative, but not bored.
LI: Do you know understand how for a person like me, a person who is young, who hasn’t really been many other places for a long amount of time, can you see how Grand Manan would seem like a road of dead ends?
LM: Yes, definitely. I’m going to relate to my biological background here. Juveniles of any species are the ones who want to go. They want to spread their wings and take off. It’s part of the whole spreading of the species. Usually the place where you are becomes very difficult for you because if you’re a seal, all the big seals beat you up. They won’t let you eat the fish they are eating and you tend to go elsewhere. It’s the same with people, you look at your surroundings and you’re like, I want to go somewhere else, I want to go somewhere else. That’s a natural phenomenon with young people. There are a few who have no expectations of going anywhere and they are quite happy where they are. But it’s normal to want to do that because the whole world is out there. What are my options? Can I do that? It’s good to have parents who allow you to spread your wings. Because some don’t. Some think this is the only place you should be. Like my uncle, he thought the worst thing you could possibly do was let any kids travel because they have to work on the farm and they can’t have expectations of being anywhere else. In some cases it was like that. You’re supposed to fish and this is where you have to be. But it’s not like that anymore in many families. In some families it is, they just want their kids to take over what they were doing.
LI: An old cliché that you hear all the time, or at least I hear all the time because I want to leave, is give it a few years and you’ll come right back. Do you believe in that?
LM: Some people do come back. They come back when they’ve had their lives and they come back to a quieter, comfortable feeling. But usually by that time it has changed. It’s not the place you grew up in. There’s a lot of people who that’s their goal, to have a successful life, but then they know that Grand Manan is home and that they can come home at some point. Some are successful with it and some aren’t.
The other issue which I find was very striking when I came to the island, was roles. Roles of women, and roles of men. I still am flabbergasted sometimes when… Women will say “Oh, that’s a man’s job”
LI: I see, gender roles. I’m glad you’re bringing this up.
LM: And I’m like “Excuse me? I can use a hammer, give me any power tool you have, and I can do that job.” It’s not a “man’s job”. They might be able to do a little bit better, but I know my skills and I can probably do the exact same job that you can. Or saying that, you know “That’s a woman’s job” you know? You can’t do laundry. It was very, very traditional. I found it even more so, because I worked on the water, and they were very few women who worked on the water.
LI: Did they take you seriously, or no?
LM: The men did, yeah. And they were quite happy to have a woman working there that could actually have a conversation with them, and knew the fishing terms and all of that, that they could talk to. But I had more problems talking to women.
LI: So you had no problems with the men, though?
LM: Well, they offered to help a lot, to do the heavy stuff and I always told them no. If I feel that I’m not capable of doing it, I will let you know. And once I said that, you know, they were fine, the people that knew me. The guys who didn’t work with me, they just were kind of like “whoa.” There are a lot more women working on the water now, so it’s not as obvious. But I had serious problems having conversations with women a lot of times. Family was not a part of- you know. I don’t have kids, I wasn’t interested in listening to you tell me about your cesarean section…
LI: Your three am escapades with crying children…
LM: You know, washing diapers, and all that kind of stuff. I wasn’t interested in that. I’d much rather have a not a high brow, but a more esoteric conversation. Something practical, not about how do you run your house, which is fine when you’re talking to other women who that’s what they’re doing. But those weren’t my goals when I moved to the island. So it was difficult trying to find common ground with women. It was actually harder than to relate with men because I did what they were doing. So, having a friendship with the woman I was working with, who’s a captain, was easier because she grew up that way. And she can do anything: a “man’s job” or a “woman’s job,” quote, and she was fine with it. And, you know, she doesn’t have kids either, so it was an easy relationship. But that was very obvious, the man/woman roles. And I still mock them. Like “What do you mean, I can’t use a power tool?”
LI: Yeah, I mean it was very pink and blue, so to speak.
LM: And it still is, as far as some of the expectations and role models for women on the island. They’re still very much nurses, teachers, mother, people in grocery stores, whatever. And it’s not the “I’m going to be a captain of a fishing boat,” or “I’m going to be the captain of the ferry,” or “I’m going to drive a truck.” There are a few women here who do drive trucks now; there are women who work on the boat, but it’s slow. And it is very conservative here. And, again, if you go to the west it’s very different because they haven’t had those seven generations of male fishing captains.
LI: And I feel like with every new generation it’s either they want to stay the same as the old generation and they either want to adhere to that really closely or they want to break free from the prejudice and whatever that they had. So it’s either that they want to completely progress on from it, or they want to stick to what they know, you know?
LM: And that’s the “small c” conservative aspect.”
LI: Yeah, yeah.
LM: And, you know, you have to find your way. And I always tell people it’s never a waste to go to University. It’s never a waste to go to community college, even if you never use the degree because you learn so many other skills. You’re exposed to so many other things. I had finished my bachelors before I went out to a marine station, and it was all hands on, all field courses. And if I had done my bachelors with all field courses, wow. It would’ve been fantastic. It was nice, but it would have been even better. There are a lot of things that should be taught hands on.