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Author’s reflections give ‘snapshot’ of mid-century Port Hardy

Michel Drouin’s memoir explores growing up in an isolated rugged little coastal community
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Michel Drouin holds up a copy of his memoir, which was released by Harbour Publishing. (Juliane Drouin photo)

Michel Drouin’s reflections on growing up in mid-century Port Hardy make for a fascinating read.

Drouin, who lived in the rural northern Vancouver Island town from 1953 to 1977, decided to write a memoir about his youth, primarily because he had previously written “five unsuccessful fiction novels that didn’t go anywhere,” he stated with a laugh.

“Then I thought, ‘why don’t I write a non-fiction book, that way I won’t have to make anything up’ — well, not much, anyway.”

Drouin realized quickly on that if he sat down and wrote “a good story about growing up in Port Hardy,” that a local publishing company would “probably be interested in picking it up.”

That’s exactly what happened. Drouin spent around six months writing his first-draft manuscript, which he submitted to Harbour Publishing, and it was then published after about a year’s work under the title “Past the End of the Road: A North Island Boyhood”.

According to Drouin, the book is not just about growing up in an isolated, rugged little coastal community, but it’s also “laced with Indigenous history going back 8,000 years and an account of the boom/bust of the logging, fishing and mining in the area at the time the book takes place.”

Drouin’s story began in 1947, five years before he was born, when his father moved to B.C. from Quebec.

“He’d worked on the log drives over there so he was a natural at working on floating logs on the water,” he said, noting his father ended up in Port Hardy after working in Haida Gwaii for a few months in 1953. He was actually flying back home to Vancouver when they had to stop overnight in Port Hardy along the way.

While there, checking in at the logging camp, he was quickly offered a job on the boom and a house for his family, which he accepted immediately. His family moved from Vancouver to join him months later.

“My father liked the fishing opportunities and he liked the idea that you could just walk out of your house and go deer hunting,” Drouin said. “It was a quiet life away from the city where he could do all the outdoor opportunities he used to enjoy when he was growing up in Quebec.”

Drouin noted he grew up in a little home that was situated along the shore between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Glen Lyon River, which is long gone now.

“Approximately where the Glen Lyon parking lot is now is where one of the houses we lived in was,” he said as he reminisced on his childhood, “and approximately where the seaplane base is now is where another house we lived in was.”

His earliest memories of Port Hardy are going down to the shore and finding baby crabs and slithery eels, but also the “hustle and bustle of the grocery store, Scott’s store, which was really the center of the community.”

Drouin estimated Port Hardy’s population in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s was around “400-500 people,” and because they had built the Robert Scott School in 1955 just two years after he was born, “it was always there as long as I can remember.”

He said he spent much of his childhood wandering up the Quatse River.

“I would walk all the way there from the Glen Lyon River where we lived,” he said. “There were logjams in the water from logging debris that had washed downstream, so my friends and I would bring along fishing line and a hook and try to catch the large cutthroat trout, but we could never convince them to bite.”

During the fall season, they would go and watch the salmon spawning and “dodge bears that were doing the same thing.”

“We’d go into the woods with a hatchet, and I don’t know how many log cabins we started and never finished,” he said with a laugh, adding they would also borrow a rowboat and go out into the bay, spending hours and hours fishing or exploring the original site of Port Hardy on the East side of the bay.

They would also find trade beads in the crushed clamshells on the shore there too, he noted.

“We were free-range children, our parents didn’t worry about anything, there were cougars and bears around all the time but nobody ever got injured by a wild animal. We injured ourselves — I got whacked by an axe, shot with a BB, lit myself on fire, we did all kinds of stuff — it was an exciting time to be a kid and I have many fond memories.”

Drouin said he felt the settler population had a friendly, but not too close relationship with the Kwakiutl First Nation, whose traditional territory Port Hardy was built on.

“I used to ride my bike out to Fort Rupert (Tsaxis) and play with my school friends all the time, I felt welcome there,” he said, noting that a lot of the First Nations worked in the forestry industry and everyone was friendly when they would meet in the grocery store.

Then in 1964, the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw First Nations were amalgamated together and forcibly relocated to Port Hardy from their traditional territories on the mainland, and Drouin said there was suddenly “more tension” in the region.

“It was a big shock to everybody, they had their whole lifestyles taken away from them,” he said. “They were living in their traditional lands where they could go fishing every day, dig clams, hunt seals, and then they were all of a sudden forced into moving to Port Hardy.”

Drouin noted he wrote about this period in a chapter called “Cliffhanging”, where he tried to put down as many details as he possibly could about this part of Port Hardy’s difficult history.

As for any favourite stories in his memoir, he noted he always starts with the introduction whenever he does a reading, and there’s also a specific story about going commercial fishing with his father that sticks out.

“I remember around the time I finished Grade 1, I went fishing with him in his 31-foot boat,” he said, noting his father had only one marine chart on board, and he managed to memorize all of the islands and the channels that were listed on it.

“To me, it was almost as if the world was flat — it started at Pulteney Point and ended at Egg Island on the other side of the Queen Charlotte Straight — to go beyond that felt like going into outer space or something,” Drouin laughed, “so that was the extent of my world.”

As he grew up, Drouin went away for a year to stay with his relatives in Montreal, but then he came back to Port Hardy and entered high school, which is where he first began to explore his passion for the written word.

“Around 1966 they built the North Island Secondary School,” he said. “They started taking the senior high school students by bus there, so I entered Grade 10 in Port McNeill in 1968, and shortly after the beginning of the school year there was an announcement on the PA system that the North Island Gazette was looking for a correspondent, and I think I was the only kid in the whole school who was interested, so I got the job.”

When asked about what kind of news he covered for the Gazette, he said it was “just high school stuff — bake sales, basketball scores, lunchtime sock hops.”

He noted that in 1970, the North Island school district and the Campbell River school district collaborated together and managed to get enough students and teachers together to buy a charter to the Expo in Osako, Japan.

Drouin brought a camera with him on the trip and began documenting everything, which he eventually turned into his “first real newspaper feature in May of 1970.”

When asked if any of the different areas in the North Island socialized much back then, Drouin said there was “only a rough gravel road, so no, we never really went anywhere,” he confirmed. “Coal Harbour though, we did use to go over there and watch them cut the whales up, they were still processing whales there until 1967.”

After graduating high school in 1971, Drouin worked for a bit with his father in the log boom and managed to save up enough money to leave by the time he was 18. What was the reason he left Port Hardy? He wanted to travel and see more of what the world had to offer.

Drouin said what he ultimately wants people to take away from his memoir, is for people to have “a snapshot of what it was like there in the 50s and 60s — it was a very intimate and friendly town where everybody knew each other, and it seemed to have a very large number of unusual characters.”

Drouin noted there was a well-known coastal log pirate named Einar Johnson, as well as numerous older residents with alcohol problems who worked intermittently and some who were war veterans who were secretly suffering from PTSD.

“They sort of buried their awful memories in alcohol,” stated Drouin. “They’d work really hard when they had jobs, and then drank really hard when they didn’t.”

Drouin will be holding readings of his book at the Port Hardy Library at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15, at the Port Hardy Senior Citizens’ Society building during the senior’s lunch at 11:00 a.m. on May 16, and at The Book Nook at Café Guido on May 16 at 3:00 p.m.

The appearance at The Book Nook will be a joint musical event and reading with Sointula author/musician Jon Taylor, who will be reading from his book “Fried Eggs and Fish Scales”.

Drouin and Taylor will also take their two-man show to the Book shelf at Shop-rite in Port McNeill at 2:30 on May 17.

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