A NATION OF ISLANDERS © David Watts 27/03 & 16/05/2010

To call Canadians “A Nation of Islanders” seems to stretch the limits of credulity.

Sure, Canada has some pretty big islands but these are mostly in the uninhabited north and our sovereignty over the waters between them is still at issue in international conferences.

We also have a few fair sized islands further south. One of these is a province by itself.

So we can understand PEI or Newfoundlanders or even Vancouver Island people calling themselves “islanders” with a sense of insularity. But Canadians as a whole? How do you fit that with our sense of ourselves as a “dominion from sea to sea to sea”?

It does fit if we think of “island” not as something all alone and isolated, but in a body of water connected to each, to other land and to a larger whole.

The three islands we’ve just mentioned all meet that condition. Newfoundland is part of the larger Province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Vancouver Island, once a province in its own right, is now a distinct yet connected part of the Province of British Columbia.

And Prince Edward Island, a freestanding province, is physically connected to the mainland of New Brunswick by the fixed link of the Confederation Bridge across Northumberland Strait.

Confederation began on this Island at the 1864 Charlottetown conference, out of Islanders’ desire to be less alone and part of something larger: maritime union or Canadian federation.

Few who don’t live on islands and many who do don’t realize how much our country is islands.

Finland and Sweden each claims to have the most in the world. But theirs are primarily coastal.

Canada almost certainly surpasses them. When we add in the uncharted islands in the freshwater lakes of the Canadian Shield, our estimated islands probably total a quarter of a million.

This includes some of the world’s largest in area. Baffin, Victoria and Ellesmere Islands in our Arctic rank as fifth, eighth and tenth in the world’s Top Ten.

Other large Canadian islands include Newfoundland (#15), Vancouver Island (43) Cape Breton (77) and Anticosti Island (90) in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Manitoulin Island (172), the world’s largest island in a freshwater lake, itself contains 17 lakes that contain islands.

On our west coast is the chain of islands from Vancouver north that make up what we call the “inside passage” to Alaska. Many of these are the tops of mountains rising from the ocean.

What makes some of them islands, besides the height of the ocean, is the action of glaciers that chiseled out the fingerlike fjords inletting on the coast, and separating one peak from another.

If the oceans rise further with global warming, some low peaks that are now part of the mainland will become islands. If the sea level falls, some peaks now underwater will emerge as islands.

So what makes an island an island depends on external factors and its connection to other land.

Farther off the Pacific Coast are two larger island groups: Haida Gwai, once called the Queen Charlottes, off Prince Rupert, and 250 mi/450 km long Vancouver Island, on the US border.

Both are travelers: islands that originated in what is today the South Pacific, and drifted northeast with tectonic movement over eons, coming to rest against the North American Plate.

We know this because their geological structure is different from anything else on the Pacific Coast, and has rocks and features such as lava flows like those in Hawaii and farther south.

Off Canada’s east coast, too, are islands that drifted across the Atlantic from what is now North Africa. These include our two island provinces, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland.

They also include a one-time island province, Cape Breton Island, joined administratively to Nova Scotia in 1820, and later joined physically by road and rail with the Canso Causeway.

Were it not for the Isthmus of Chignecto that joins Nova Scotia to the mainland through New Brunswick, they would include Nova Scotia which also drifted across the Atlantic.

Large islands often have smaller nestled beside them, like the Broken Island chain of the west coast of Vancouver Island, or the Georgia Strait Gulf Islands on Vancouver Island’s eastern side.

And there are islands in rivers in their channels, at their deltas and where other streams join them:

the Thousand Islands in the Saint Lawrence off Kingston and Mille Iles to the north of Montreal.

Montreal is our most populated island: in the Saint Lawrence where it’s joined by the Ottawa. The City of Prince Rupert is located on an island in the mouth of the Skeena River. And much of the south of Greater Vancouver including its airport is on islands in the delta of the Fraser River.

Well known solitary islands are Banks Island off Toronto and Sable Island off Nova Scotia.

Spirit Island in Maligne Lake is Canada’s smallest and most photographed solitary island. When the lake level falls, a neck of land connects it to the shore, and it’s no longer an island.

From this survey of some of the hundreds of thousands of Canada’s islands, four points emerge:

First, they encompass a wide range in size, shape, location, geology and habitability: from red soil of PEI to lava flows on Vancouver Island, from the sandy waste of Sable Island to craggy rocks of Newfoundland, from the northern tip of Ellesmere to Pelee Island in the Great Lakes

Second, they come from different places. A few have come from far away, originally as parts of other continents that split off and migrated to our own. Some come from beneath the sea, others were formed from deposits at the confluence or estuaries of rivers, or by changing river courses.

Third, what makes an island an island is relative. Falling water levels in Maligne Lake can make Spirit Island part of the mainland. Rising sea levels could make Nova Scotia an island again.

Where we draw the line between islands and mainland is often in our minds. Australia looks like an island but is ranked as a continent. Some Canadian islands are bigger than mainland countries.

Apply this to the Canadian Shield. At present it is a mass of rocks interspersed with lakes. Raise the water level a few metres and the lakes join to form an inland sea punctuated by islands.

It’s not so farfetched then to see Canada as a nation of islands. This applies socially: from Innu hamlets to Métis settlements, Newfoundland outports to logging, mining and farming villages.

Each of these types of communities is a different world from the others, even if they speak the same language. Our transport, communication and political systems link these islands together.

Like our islands, our people come from many places: some from the land on which they live, some from distant continents, and some whose conditions have been changed within the country.

Poet John wrote “No man is an island.” He meant that each individual is part of a larger whole.

Canadians are A Nation of Islanders, parts of an archipelago in the ocean of a shared humanity.