Islands: center or periphery?

Insularity gets a bad rap.

That, you might say, is the premise behind the Institute of Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island here.

"The challenge of insularity," says Jane Ledwell, conference coordinator for the institute, "is, how do we make the most of what we do have? We've had an opportunity to learn a lot about how much we have here: the richness of the land and the sea and the people."

The institute, which studies the culture, environment, and economy of small islands - always with an emphasis on Prince Edward Island itself - last month launched an official academic minor in island studies.

Courses in the interdisciplinary program range from "Land Use on Prince Edward Island" to "Literature of Atlantic Canada" to "Small States and Micro-States in the International System." Dr. Godfrey Baldacchino, a visiting expert from the University of Malta, is teaching a course this summer called "A Sociology for Small Islands," looking at such questions as the social dynamics of small groups and an island's relationship with "away," aka "the mainland."

"The counter to a sense of isolation is to feel that you're creating a center in the space that you have," says Ms. Ledwell.

Island literature turns out to be a rich field of study as well. Last summer the institute held a conference called "Message in a Bottle: the Literature of Small Islands." It considered questions such as, "Why are the heroines in novels by Canadian women always escaping to islands? The island is so frequent as to be a defining mythos."

The institute also does economic research, such as a population study of PEI, says Ledwell: "How can we make it possible to stay, move back, or settle here?"

In October, the Institute of Island Studies will host a conference on "smart community development," to consider how islands and other societies can exploit new technologies in economic development.

As the world map continues to be redrawn, many small communities have to consider whether they're better off at the center of their own map or the periphery of someone else's. On PEI, says Ledwell, "We've been struggling with those issues of center versus the periphery for years.... Having jurisdiction over your own space is critical."

Charlottetown is known as the "birthplace of Confederation" - the site of the 1864 conference that led to the launch of the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867.

The conference was originally to discuss unification of the Maritime Provinces. But representatives of Quebec and what would become Ontario invited themselves to the meeting and hijacked the agenda. PEI, then in its heyday as a rich shipbuilding port, opted not to join Confederation at first. Too much of its trade ran north-south, to the ports of the eastern United States for joining the new east-west country called Canada to make much sense. Only when it got into financial trouble building its railroad did PEI join Confederation.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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