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Douglas Fetherling - The International West Coast
by Douglas Fetherling

In the 1840s, a time of mass credulity not unlike our own, William Miller, an American farmer turned self-ordained divine, convinced his flock that Judgement Day would fall on April 23rd, 1843. The cult members forgathered expectantly. Nothing happened. Consulting the Scriptures again, Miller recalibrated and announced that the End would come on a specific day in October 1844. Once again, he was disappointed. In fact, he would see his prophecy fulfilled only to the small extent that he himself dropped dead in 1849. By that time, most of the Millerites, as they were called, had moved to Canada.

'Twas ever thus. In a recent number of Canadian Literature, that journal's new editor, Eva-Marie Kroller, notes how often in American writing (and by extension, life) "Canada is posited as a purer version of the American dream, a kind of utopia." But of course it's not only people in the U.S. who have idealized Canada this way. This is proved by the extraordinary number and diversity of utopian experiments and communes, the so-called intentional communities, that have been a part of Canada's unofficial, alternative existence for so long. We think first of the Doukhobors and the Hutterites, who have been so generally successful that they tend to obscure everyone else. Or we think of the communes of Canadian and American hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, a style of living together that can still be observed today in shadowy corners of British Columbia and certain remoter places in Atlantic Canada. In fact, the number of nationalities involved has been quite enormous, though the old saw that the longest-living communes are those held together by common religious beliefs (rather than by ethnicity) is probably true.

I've long believed that someone (or I myself, in the absence of any better-qualified contender) should write a general history of communalism in Canada: I've been building up files on it for years. Accordingly, I am pleased indeed see the matter attacked so intelligently on a regional basis in Justine Brown's All Possible Worlds: Utopian Experiments in British Columbia (New Star, $16 paper).

Brown comes to the subject from an interesting angle. She was born in 1965 on a Gestalt therapy commune inhabited by her parents and their friends, and she has vivid childhood memories of the grownups practising their primal screams in the bush. Also, she is acquainted with a lot of other former commune brats who share her discriminating response to their elders' experiments in community (praising their idealism, for example, while dissing the sexual licence). She thinks clearly and writes well, beginning with some basic definitions.

"A `utopian community' can be defined by its isolation, communalism, and idealism, and also, perhaps, by an inclination to imagine everyday life differently," Brown states. "As often as not, communalism is the ideal that glues the group together. Sometimes, idealism overcomes simple communalism. Generally speaking, the utopian community imagines itself, self-consciously, as an experiment. But occasionally it will spring up more fortuitously, anarchically, and this is a recurrent pattern in British Columbia culture. Our utopian impulses are clearly reflected in our literature." She cites, for example, Jack Hodgins's novel The Invention of the World, in which one of the characters remarks of Vancouver Island that the whole place "is littered with failed utopias." An argument could probably be made that the tenor of many of these experiments was more a phenomenon of the Pacific Northwest in general than of B.C. specifically: a view suggested by the almost simultaneous appearance of an American book, Utopias on Puget Sound, 1885-1915, by Charles Pierce LeWarne (University of Washington Press, US$18.95 paper).

Brown's chapters are all wonderful stuff. She tries to be representative, not comprehensive, dealing with only a handful of B.C. utopias. The most famous (or notorious) was that of Brother XII (secular name: Edward Arthur Wilson), an Englishman who plays a role in communalism similar to Grey Owl's in aboriginal culture or Soapy Smith's in mineral exploitation. His Colony of Truth, where the sin was free and mainly to XII's benefit, operated on an island off Nanaimo between 1927 and 1934, and has produced a vast literature, some of it sensational, some serious.

Dispensing with Brother XII as though he were compulsory, Brown goes on to discuss some far more typical communities, from Metlakatla, near Prince Rupert, where renegade Christians in the 1860s set up what became the most famous Canadian example of its type, to some of the various Scandinavian communal settlements along the coast, in the general vicinity of Bella Coola in the 1890s and later. She might as easily have chosen to include the Finnish socialist colony on Malcolm Island (renamed Harmony Island) between the B.C. mainland and Vancouver Island, near Alert Bay, established in 1901, under the leadership of Matti Kurrika, the famous Finnish radical; it lasted four years. Or she might have written about the Star Brethren settlement on Vancouver Island or the socialist communes of the same period at Smithers and at Cloverdale. One of the most interesting, and most fleeting, was a colony organized about 1950 by Fred Brown, a descendant of the martyred American abolitionist John Brown. What makes this equally short-lived example so rich is the way it reminds us of the experiments in living carried out by African-Americans, both escaped slaves and freemen and freewomen, coming to Canada from the U.S. in the first part of the nineteenth century.

Central Canada already had a record of intentional communities, for utopias were a feature of the frontier, wherever that happened to be at any given moment. In 1827, for example, an Englishman named Henry Jones, who had actually met and known the great Welsh utopian Robert Owen, the most influential of the age, recruited a lot of poor Scots with advanced ideas and set up a colony near Sarnia in what is now southwestern Ontario. Jones called it "the Toon o' Maxwell", Maxwell being the name of Owen's home in Scotland. This is the same part of the province known for its colonies of former slaves. The American abolitionist movement, including the Quakers, assisted several schemes, John Brown himself once visiting Chatham for the purpose of assessing the progress. One of the best documented of these colonies, a few miles from present-day London, was called Wilberforce, after the great British anti-slavery agitator. It was founded by freed African-Americans from Cincinnati in the wake of race riots there. It began with nearly thirty families on 800 acres. Like all or most such intentional communities, however, it soon started to ebb. Another important ex-slave community was the Buxton settlement, in Kent County, in the late 1840s. But black immigration was by no means an eastern monopoly. How many holiday-makers on Saltspring know that the island was first settled, in the 1850s, by refugee American blacks?

Not that the social climate in Canada was always welcoming. Despite, for example, the role of the Canadian government in accommodating the Doukhobor way of life (with a little urging from Count Tolstoy and Prince Kropotkin), the decision would always be a contentious one. And one can trace a tough streak of anti-utopianism in Canadian intellectual history. It was strongest, of course, when the utopias themselves were strongest, from, say, the 1890s, when Goldwin Smith denounced communalistic ideas in Essays on Questions of the Day, to 1920, when Stephen Leacock, in his less remembered role, as a conservative social critic, wrote "The Land of Dreams: The Utopia of the Socialists".

Such is the obverse. The reverse is perhaps summarized by George Woodcock (one of whose early works, after all, was called The Basis of Communal Living). Writing in 1858 in Reg Watters's British Columbia: A Centennial Anthology, Woodcock said that such brave and fragile social experiments "contributed, in developing the land, in adding new elements to the population, in contributing unorthodox ideas, to British Columbia as we now know it." I agree. Obviously Justine Brown agrees, too. But I think the statement could be made national in scope with no loss of accuracy. l

Douglas Fetherling's next book, Way Down Deep in the Belly of the Beast: A Memoir of the Seventies, will be published in September, by Lester.


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