Living on Island Time: Gabriola Islander Sheila Malcolmson

Sheila Malcomson

Sheila Malcolmson stands on the shoreline near her home on Gabriola Island, in the Gulf Islands east of Nanaimo. Photo by Liam Moriarty

There are more than a thousand islands in the Salish Sea. Some of them are home to good-sized towns, others are inhabited only by wildlife. Either way, the island experience is one of the signatures of this region.

This week in our series “Reflections on the Water,” KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty takes a ferry to Gabriola Island, in British Columbia, population about 4,000. He talks with Sheila Malcolmson about the joys and challenges of island living.″

Click to listen to the story

Liam Moriarty: It’s a rainy, misty, November Salish Sea sort of day. I’m on Gabriola Island in a very cozy little house on the shoreline with the fire going and I’m sitting here with Sheila Malcolmson.

How you doing, Sheila?

Sheila Malcomson: Really good, Liam.

Liam: What’s the community like up here?

B.C. Ferry

The B.C. ferry is a vital link between Gabriola Island and the much larger Vancouver Island. Gabiola Islanders call Vancouver Island "the mainland." Vancouver Islanders don't. Photo by Liam Moriarty

Sheila: It’s a real mix. You can actually look at the cars at the ferry line-up and get a pretty good sense of where we’re from. There’s lots of people on bikes and scooters. You’ve got trades coming back and forth, and really high end, really expensive cars, and lots of beat up rusted out Subarus with kayaks on the roof.

Liam: I lived on Orcas Island for 16 years from the mid-80s until 2002 or so, and island communities are different, even different from other small rural communities. How does that play out in the composition of your community on Gabriola?

Sheila: I guess people need to make a commitment to get here. They have to choose a certain amount of both isolation from the mainland and also lack of privacy or anonymity.

Liam: One thing I noticed when I moved to Orcas was that if you make an enemy of somebody, you’re going to see them at the post office, you’re going to see them at the grocery store, you’re going to see them at the community center. That creates an imperative where you kind of have to nurture your relationships more carefully than you might in a larger, more anonymous place.

Sheila: No question. People are passionate about issues, whether it’s development decisions or anything. So strong words can be said but I do believe people make a special effort not to make it so personal that they make it uncomfortable at the next pot luck dinner.

Another thing, though, beyond being just a small community, I think on an island we have a real reminder all the time that we have to be inter-reliant in case of an emergency. Power goes down a lot. If there ever is the big earthquake or the huge wildfire that means we have to evacuate the island. So it’s not just we have to get along when we end up pumping gas next to each other at the gas station, but we are vulnerable if we’re not a tight community.

The lighthouse on Entrance Island

The lighthouse on Entrance Island, off the northeast tip of Gabriola, has been in service since 1876. It is one of only two manned lighthouse remaining in Gulf Islands. Photo by Liam Moriarty

Liam: Do you find that islands tend to attract people who come here to kind of get away from other places, you know; and perhaps they get so passionate about defending the place because they feel like their back’s against the wall – this is where they came and there’s just nowhere else to go.

Sheila: For sure. I work in local government. We see that kind of passion and that kind of commitment to protecting the place all the time. We certainly have a lot of examples of other islands that have just become completely overrun and damaged. But as well, there’s another side to that; there’s a lot of people who have moved here to escape rules. So it’s very interesting to bump into both the passion to protect the place but also the very strong resistance to being regulated and told to protect the place.

Liam: Regulate the other guy but not me.

Sheila: We hear that all the time. All the time.

Liam: You work with the Islands Trust. Can you explain a little bit what that is?

Sheila: Islands Trust is a unique governance structure; doesn’t exist anywhere else in Canada. It was put in place 36 years ago when the Gulf Islands were under huge development pressure. Governments in Vancouver and Vancouver Island were just allowing subdivision to just go out of control. So the provincial government put in place the Islands Trust Act which had a mandate to preserve and protect.

Liam: Are there things that island communities have to teach mainland communities?

A view from Drumbeg Provincial Park on Gabriola Island

A view from Drumbeg Provincial Park on Gabriola Island. Photo Courtesy of Islands Trust

Sheila: I think we have a lot of great examples to show of self sufficiency, of resiliency, of living conservatively and lightly on the land; on trying to make tough decisions in a civil manner that means we can retain our relationships and all get along after the fact.

Liam: Everybody who comes to an island has a story. How did you end up here?

Sheila: Yeah; it was random. I came out the year that I graduated from university; came west. I’d never been beyond Manitoba at that point; came on the train. It was all very romantic. Did a bunch of wilderness-based trips, and then with friends that I met on a kayak trip in the Queen Charlottes, they said why not come back to this great island where we live. If you’re just still traveling, we can get you a little work when you’re there and so I drove on to Gabriola and was instantly enchanted. Almost stayed at that point. It actually took me about five years to extricate myself from the rest of my life.

Liam: You seem pretty happy here.

Sheila: How could you not be? Look at this place! It’s gorgeous.

Liam: Well, Sheila; you’ve got a lovely island here. Thanks for inviting me out and thanks for sitting and talking to me today.

Sheila: Thanks for making the trip, Liam.

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3 Comments to “Living on Island Time: Gabriola Islander Sheila Malcolmson”

  1. Liam,
    I wish your programs were downloadable
    Putting them on my i-pod would be nice

  2. hi my name is leeann malcolmson scott, im trying to trace ancestors and i was wondering if any of your ancestors came from rothesay in scotland. im originally from ayr in ayrshire in scotland in britain.

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