'The forgotten people' of a razed Corner Brook neighbourhood revived in new book
Poet Douglas Walbourne-Gough seeks to erase stigma of Crow Gulch
"We were the forgotten people, we were."
Gazing down over what's left of where she grew up gives Margie Benoit Wheeler rare pause, its landscape equal parts abundance and absence.
We're less than two kilometres from downtown Corner Brook, but these rocky cliffsides that tumble down toward the Humber Arm are lush and wild, covered in goldenrod, alders and even a scattered crabapple tree.
There's no sign Benoit Wheeler once lived here. Or anyone did.
But as the 71-year-old looks around, she sees the invisible outlines of her old house, those of her relatives and neighbours, the vanished footpaths and the railbed, all perched on the nearly soilless, extremely sloped former slate quarry that came to be called Crow Gulch.
A community bulldozed beginning in the late 1960s, after its residents spent decades there living in poverty, and living with outsiders' racism and scorn, even as parts of Corner Brook prospered around them.
"We never had no water. We had an outhouse, no electricity," said Benoit Wheeler, of the childhood home her father built after he moved his family in from Stephenville Crossing in the early 1950s.
There, she and her five sisters and two brothers slept in one of its two bedrooms under thick blankets, with Benoit Wheeler recalling how on winter days she would wake up to her hair stuck to the wall with ice.
A pulp and paper promise
Those circumstances were the norm in the neighbourhood, which never had any municipal services from the time its first houses sprung up in the early 1920s, as people flocked to the area for the construction of the pulp and paper mill and its promise of well-paying jobs.
However, the mill also laid the foundations for a stratified society, one in which Crow Gulch ended up at the very bottom.
Townsite — the mill's original company town, with its architect-designed homes exclusive to its employees — was at the top, with other neighbourhoods cascading down, and Crow Gulch becoming known as the poorest of the poor.
A Western Star article from 1950 bears the headline "Crow Gulch Area Not Wanted By Either Town," calling it an "unwanted child" by the surrounding municipalities.
That stigma, with the neighbourhood rumoured to be home to unmentionables like bootleggers, persisted well after the City of Corner Brook came into being in 1956, encompassing Crow Gulch but without extending any services such as power or garbage collection to it.
Benoit Wheeler remembers people homebrewing, the occasional scrap, and people helping themselves to coal off the open rail cars that passed through.
But mostly, she remembers summers swimming in the bay and winters skating on it. Her family making their own Christmas ornaments, baking bread, and a sense of community that the outside world didn't seem to understand.
"[You] go to school, you see other children there, all dressed up with nice clothes on … and they didn't even want to hang around with you," she said.
"Nobody was allowed to play with the ones from Crow Gulch."
Even after her father became sick and could no longer work, Benoit Wheeler said the family got by, and she only left in 1968 when she and her husband moved across town. The same year Pierre Elliott Trudeau became prime minister and the Beatles released The White Album, Benoit Wheeler got electricity for the first time in her new apartment.
'I'm not ashamed'
In that same year, Crow Gulch's demolition began, a process brought about through the municipal, provincial and federal governments in an effort to deal with what was seen as a slum, with most of its residents moved into Corner Brook's first social housing project.
Over the years, Benoit Wheeler never forgot where she came from, although it took her years to speak publicly about it.
"That was my childhood. And I'm not ashamed of it, now. I was once, one time I was," she said.
The bravery to break her silence came, in part, after the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation formed in 2011, with Benoit Wheeler one of its founding members and now very active in the community, taking part in drumming and singing circles.
I do want people to realize the full spectrum of life happened down there.- Douglas Walbourne-Gough
It's a reversal from the way she was raised to treat her Indigeneity that she never could have predicted.
"We was told not to mention a thing about being Mik'maq, because we were already called savages and all that," she said.
"We wasn't allowed then."
While not everyone in Crow Gulch was Indigenous, many people there were Mi'kmaq, though like Benoit Wheeler, entrenched racism often drove them to hide their heritage. It was other members of Qalipu who urged her to feel pride about her past.
"People did put us down, and it wasn't right. We were still good people. At least I thought we were," said Benoit Wheeler.
Turning outrage into poetry
Crow Gulch was a tight-knit community, and Benoit Wheeler knew most people, including Rudy and Ella Gough.
The Goughs are Douglas Walbourne-Gough's grandparents, and as you open up his new book — his first, a collection of poetry — it's dedicated to them.
The book is called, simply, Crow Gulch, "so that people can say that, out loud," said Walbourne-Gough, and by doing so, reclaim it.
No electricity, no water, and no recognition: Listen to Lindsay Bird's Atlantic Voice documentary on how lasting stigma rendered Crow Gulch invisible
Growing up, Walbourne-Gough heard first-hand about Crow Gulch from his family, including his father, who lived there until he was five. But as Walbourne-Gough grew older, he realized the community wasn't talked about much in Corner Brook, except in terms that didn't fit with what he knew about it.
"I do want people to realize the full spectrum of human life happened down there, right? Not just hardship.... There was joy, and celebration, and birthdays and Christmases and love, and all that stuff, too."
In Percy Janes's seminal novel about Corner Brook, House of Hate, Crow Gulch is cast as full of prostitution, crime and outcasts, descriptions that Walbourne-Gough said "spurred me on into a bit of outrage."
It's a story that really deserves to be told.- Rainer Baehre
He channelled that into poetry, and spent nine years researching and writing Crow Gulch, which mixes family experiences, in the neighbourhood and outside of it, with snippets of historical documents and texts to create a portrait in verse.
Hard truth was she had nothing to her name/ outside eight kids and a shack that let light in/ at the corners. Didn't matter. He fell for her like a stone
While his family encouraged Walbourne-Gough's work, as he quizzed relatives he found a deep-rooted reluctance to revisit aspects of that past, a residue of the shame stubborn as a grease stain.
"There was sometimes a 'put it off, maybe some other time.' Or 'come over next time, and we'll talk about it,'" said Walbourne-Gough.
"And fair enough. There's some envelopes I just don't push."
The poems of Crow Gulch hold both affecting stories — such as one of his grandparents' lifelong bond — as well as a rebuke to how its people were treated by Corner Brook at large.
With one poem, Definition, Walbourne-Gough, who is also a Qalipu member, addresses the racism of the era.
It's composed entirely of the definitions of the word "jackatar" from the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, some of which show a racist attitude toward people of Indigenous and French heritage of the Western Newfoundland.
It's a slur that was often used to talk about people in Crow Gulch, and is still occasionally heard today.
"I was just kind of appalled," said Walbourne-Gough, at seeing hurtful definitions of the word printed out, with no additional context.
"That's the academy, giving away its incredibly colonized and privileged and clueless disposition."
Crow Gulch itself has been the subject of little historical study, and one of the few scholars who has researched it, Rainer Baehre, called it "extremely undocumented."
But as Baehre, a professor of historical studies at Grenfell Campus, has compiled what little records there are about the community, he's uncovered facts and parallels that suggest there was more there than simply people living in poverty.
Although less education, larger families and more single women than the rest of the city put them at an economic disadvantage, according to one survey, they had the highest rates of home ownership in the Corner Brook area, and while all families were below the poverty line at the time, many people held down jobs.
"My sense is there was also a greater degree of personal freedom and independence there," Baehre said, adding Crow Gulch clearly had a strong sense of community.
He also sees a parallel to another, more well-known marginalized community: Africville, just north of Halifax.
Crow Gulch was about half the size of Africville, with about 45 families, and less-deeply established and organized. But both communities were expropriated and dismantled by government urban renewal initiatives in the 1960s.
"It's the same era.… You're dealing with a visible minority. You're dealing with a community that had been operating there for at least two or three generations or more, who were targeted because of the substandard housing, because they were associated with delinquency and so on," said Baehre.
"In many ways, it's Africville-lite, but there are clearly parallels to the same response by government to urban renewal in both instances."
The next generation of stigma
When Crow Gulch was bulldozed, a few people were compensated small amounts of money for their homes, and most were moved into Dunfield Park, the city's first social housing project, which itself managed to continue some of the social problems and stigma that plagued Crow Gulch,
Dunfield Park's row houses and apartments, situated on a highly visible hillside of the city, sported brightly coloured siding, and soon was called Jellybean Square, or simply The Bean, a cute nickname for an area that became known as anything but.
"Instead of cheering up the people who lived there, it helped further stigmatize them," said Baehre. "It reinforced existing and misinformed attitudes about who these people were and how they ended up there."
It became/ the prefix for most things have-not – Looka buddy's/ Beaner-boots! or Time to scrap that Beaner-mobile./
Then there's the old joke about Father's Day confusion./ The Bean becoming an entire town's punching bag.
Walbourne-Gough's family moved into Dunfield Park from Crow Gulch, and with its heat and lights he writes "it was like winning the lottery" for them, but as the poet himself grew up there, he too began to feel the stigma.
"I remember it quite clearly growing up, being called 'beaner' or 'welfare kid,' or any manner of reference to being less than, or poorer than," he said.
"It's just a second generation of people being called 'jackatar' from Crow Gulch. It's not that much different, you just hear a different name thrown at you for it."
As his book, so long in the making, becomes real, Walbourne-Gough hopes it gives names, faces and lives to people who have largely been left out of the city's history.
"I would really hope one of he things that the book speaks, back to me and everyone who reads it, is to offer a counter-narrative to stigma," he said.
He doesn't want to change the past, he said, but add context to it.
"Erasing history is foolish. We'll make the same mistakes if we don't know we've made them, right?"
But Walbourne-Gough would also like to see his book act as a spark toward having Crow Gulch more formally remembered.
Through what was Crow Gulch, there's now a popular walking and biking path, and a plaque attached to one of the neighbourhood's distinctive boulders — commemorating a former mayor and councillor, Patrick Griffin, whom the road through the area is also named after.
Walbourne-Gough would like to see Crow Gulch get a marker of its own.
"It'd just be nice to have some co-acknowledgement," he said. "There's no mention made of it at all."
Benoit Wheeler has a similar dream of some sort of plaque, with the names of families like hers who lived there, and Baehre welcomes the idea.
"There's no recognition of that community having been there, and I think that's very sad," he said.
"It's a story that really deserves to be told."
A story that deserves to be told, and now is. Crow Gulch will be published by Goose Lane Editions on Sept 17.