Goin’ out West: The History and Presence of Outmigration in PEI

Outmigration became a reality on Prince Edward Island in the mid-nineteenth century, when, in the “Panic of 1857,” Island shipyard workers began to move primarily to New England in search of better opportunities.  This trend continued to grow, to the point that between 1881-1891 the Island’s population had ceased to grow; it remained completely stagnant despite the high rate of births.  The onset of the new century brought few changes to this trend; between 1901-1911 the Island’s population actually decreased by 9%.  Approximately 10,000 people left Prince Edward Island in search of opportunities elsewhere.

Islanders were not, however, leaving cities.  Even with outmigration Charlottetown and Summerside grew in population  in the first decade of the twentieth century.  Those that were leaving abandoned small, rural, subsistence farming communities to settle in more urban centres elsewhere in Canada or in the United States.  This outmigration often began with seasonal migrations for work to lumber yards in New Brunswick and New England, or to find work on the growing commercial farms in the prairie provinces.  These seasonal workers were often men who were single, young, from rural communities, and unemployed.  At first they would seek work in the spring and summer, and then return to the Island in the fall.  Some, however, stayed on at their positions.  And eventually most did.

Most expatriates, however, continued to call themselves Islanders.  Societies for Islanders were formed in centres where many had settled, such as in Boston.  And even a newspaper was published to keep expatriates up to date on the goings on in PEI.  One poem published in that paper, The Maple Leaf, captured that sense of longing and nostalgia that many expatriate Islanders felt:

    To old Prince Edward’s sand-stone shore,
        To old Prince Edward’s hills of green,
    My memory turns with fond regrets
        Though years and oceans roll between.

As expressed in the poem, Island roots remained strong despite long distances and many returned to visit the in summertime to see family or to experience that unique Island way of life once again, if only for a short while.  These visits coupled with news from the mainland brought forth mixed emotions from those who remained on the Island.  Local newspapers often published stories about the success of the Island’s expatriates, championing their triumphs as those of all Islanders.  Island historian Ed MacDonald perhaps described this phenomenon best in his book If You’re Stronghearted:  Prince Edward Island in the Twentieth Century:

There was an underlying desperation in the constant blazoning in the press of the exploits of expatriate Islanders, as if their success was proof that the Island’s fading prospects were not the fault of its people.  Given a chance, the subtext of the stories implied, Islanders inevitably rose to prominence:  in other places they became bankers and businessmen, politicians, police chiefs, clerics, academics, writers.

MacDonald’s words struck a ringing truth, one which echoes forth even today.  Outmigration is not a phenomenon of the past, but a reality of Island life today.  For most young adults in Prince Edward Island it is unsurprising to hear talk from their friends and acquaintances of going out west to find work.  Alberta has been calling, and Islanders have answered.  For many this move is simply for temporary work, like for my father when I was growing up.  They go west for a short (or long) time and return home after having reaped the benefits of Alberta’s (or some other’s) strong economy.  For many other people, though, this is a permanent move, like for some of my aunts and uncles, friends and acquaintances.

On the Island, both in the past and in the present, we look at outmigration from the perspective of opportunity.  We rationalize peoples’ desire to leave by looking at the strength of economies elsewhere.  And we do not let those people who decide to leave ever really go.  We hold on to those expatriates, claiming their successes as our own.  We forget that people like L.M. Montgomery, Brad Richards, and Stompin’ Tom, just to name just a few, left the Island to seek their success and fortunes elsewhere.  To us they remain Islanders through and through, and represent the true potential of our province.

I will, however, make a bold statement.  I believe that by looking at outmigration as the result of opportunity elsewhere, we are ignoring the problems that lie beneath our very feet.  Our youth are (and have been for some time now) leaving in a steady stream.  Many rural communities are declining.  Our urban centres are growing. Our population is aging.  Why is outmigration such a striking reality for our province?  Why does it always seem to be the youth that leave?  How does this affect our culture?  Should we try harder to retain our population?  Immigration is increasing, but how many of those immigrants are staying?  How can we make changes in our economy and in our society to make Prince Edward Island a more desirable place for youth and immigrants?  By looking at the history of outmigration, we can gain a better understanding of its social and economic consequences in the present.  For this reason, I challenge all Islanders, both current residents and expatriates, to think about the past and presence of outmigration.  What we have to gain is a more dynamic culture, one that is better able to understand and justify itself.

Any questions or comments?  Feel free to email me:  acreamer@upei.ca

For more information on the history of outmigration, and for many other topics on Island history,  please see Edward MacDonald’s book If You’re Stronghearted:  Prince Edward Island in the Twentieth Century.  It is available through the Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation.