As It Happens

Why returning to Newfoundland was the 'toughest' and best decision this woman ever made

The documentary film Dropstones follows Sonya Foley as she escapes a default marriage and makes a new life for herself and her children in her hometown on Fogo Island.

Dropstones follows Sonya Foley as she flees a difficult marriage and raises her family on Fogo Island

Sonya Foley, subject of the documentary film Dropstones, is pictured here on Fogo Island as the wind blows through her hair. (Caitlin Durlak)

Story Transcript

When Sonya Foley was a teenager on Fogo Island, she thought to herself: "I can't wait to get out of this hole."

But decades later, after escaping a rocky marriage, she decided to leave Grand Prairie, Alta., and return to her hometown off the northeast coast of Newfoundland to build a new life for herself and her children. 

"I am resilient. I didn't go back and forth; I just made my decision and I did it and I went home, and it was the toughest thing I've ever done," Foley told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"I had small babies and I was doing it myself, and it was hard. But, you know, being home made made it cushion the blow, I would say. Home [has] always done that for me." 

The new documentary, Dropstones, follows Foley's full-circle journey back to her roots and she raises two young boys in the small island town where they are free to roam and everyone's a neighbour. It's streaming at Toronto's Hot Docs Film Festival until May 9.

Toronto filmmaker Caitlin Durlak has been fascinated by Fogo Island since she watched a series of films about it from the National Film Board of Canada.

So when she got a chance to spend a summer working at the Fogo Island Inn, she snatched it up. It was there that she first met Foley.

"We were working together in the back kitchen and serving the guests, and it was so clear to me how passionate and contagious her energy was and how much the guests gravitated towards her — just completely contagious in terms of her passion for the island," Durlak told Off. 

"She just clearly seemed to me like a movie star."

The documentaries she'd seen about Fogo Island tended to centre on the men who worked in the fishery. But she was curious about the women who lived there.

"I felt that when I was there as a tourist, that there was sort of a disconnect between the perspective of seeing this beautiful place and the wonderland that it was, and sort of the reality that it took to live there, and the resilience of the women who I was working with," she said.

"Yet I kept hearing all these stories of women who wanted to come back, and that this was the place that they needed to be to raise their kids and to teach them a type of independence and freedom that truly formed their identity."

Foley and Durlak met while working at the Fogo Island Inn, a luxury vacation destination that Foley says has provided tremendous employment opportunity on the island. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

To Durlak, it was a foreign concept.

"I have never once thought of my suburban town to be a place that I could trust and come back to if I was going through a hard time in life. And Sonya had told me that the island was the only place she knew she could count on for sure," she said. "That was so awe-inspiring for me."

It was the best life you could ever possibly have growing up as a child here. You had just utter freedom.- Sonya Foley, Fogo Island resident

Over the course of about a year and a half, Durlak travelled back and forth from Toronto to Fogo Island, where she would stay with Foley and her boys and film the intimate moments of their everyday lives — the good, the bad and the ugly.

"We definitely didn't put on airs, I'll tell you that," Foley said. 

It wasn't until they were well into the production that Foley first realized Durlak's documentary was going to be all about her. 

"That's usually how things happen in my life. I have no idea what I'm getting into until I'm into it. So then there I was, into it," Foley said.

"I really pride myself on being authentic. I mean, life is hard enough. Just trying to put up pretences is just not worth it. So she filmed, and I just went with it."

Foley's sons and their friend try their hand building a fort on Fogo Island. (Caitlin Durlak)

Durlak says the Foleys made her feel like part of the family. Especially the boys, Luke and Sean, who allowed her to act as a fly on the wall as they engaged in outdoor adventures on the island — watching whales, catching cod, mowing grass as tall they were.

"I think I became an 11-year-old girl all over again and just lived through their eyes and was excited to experience anything they were doing," Durlak said.

She remembers filming them while they were building a fort, and the two brothers got into a massive fight about the best way to go about it. 

"It was just, for me, the perfect example of why Sonya wanted to raise her kids here. There they were learning conflict resolution and fighting over what's the best way to build a fort, and then arguing to the point of tears," she said. 

"That can be hard to film sometimes, when you're there just to observe. But you have to remember that this life would have happened without you there. And it was just exciting to see how they did resolve their arguments. I felt like ... my childhood self grew during the time I spent together with the boys."

Caitlin Durlak, the filmmaker behind Dropstones, poses with her camera on Fogo Island. (Caitlin Durlak)

Foley resented her hometown when she was young, she said, but now she sees it differently.

"They always say hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, it was the best life you could ever possibly have growing up as a child here. You had just utter freedom. You just got up in the morning and you just went everywhere. You could go in anyone's house to get a lunch," she said.

She doesn't think she'd be the strong, resilient woman she is today if she didn't grow up with that level of community and independence. That's the kind of life she wants for her boys.

She remembers coming home for a visit one summer from Alberta, where she lived with her ex-husband. One of her sons was heading out for a bike ride. Accustomed to having limits on his freedom, he asked how far he was allowed to go.

"And I was like, 'Well, here you just go on your bike.'"

Dropstones is named for the geological phenomenon that occurs when an iceberg carries a piece of rock from one location to another. When the rock reached its destination, it stays there forever.

"It just felt like such the perfect metaphor for Sonya and her family," Durlak said."This is where they feel like permanent fixtures in the landscape."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Caitlin Durlak and Sonya Foley produced by Lisa Bryn Rundle.


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