Duncan: ‘Where everyone takes in his neighbour’s washing’

It’s always interesting and illuminating to turn the telescope around and to see ourselves through others’ eyes.

It’s always interesting and illuminating — perhaps even disconcerting — to turn the telescope around and to see ourselves through others’ eyes.

Duncan citizens were given that opportunity, unsolicited, in 1921 when an anonymous visitor from the Old Country (as he identified and signed himself) filled almost two columns in the Cowichan Leader with his observations of Duncan, home to so many “fellow countrymen in such different environment and living under such different conditions”.

His visit to Canada had been inspired during the Great War and hundreds of Canadians whom he’d met serving overseas. Duncan, B.C., he’d been told in a chance conversation, was the home of egalitarianism: “the place where everyone takes in his neighbours’s washing”.

After several weeks here, Visitor wholeheartedly agreed: “Surely what my informant meant was, that the great god ‘Money,’ or rather the superabundance of it, held no sway [here], for I [found] a most excellent community, composed of all sorts, everybody or nearly everybody, doing some sort of work, no one ashamed of any work he can find to do, no loss of caste, in fact the absence of snobbery.”

Visitor, who obviously opposed class-consciousness, was impressed: “…To one who has spent many years in trying to impress on his neighbours that no honest labour should be looked down upon, that all snobbery should be, once and for all, abolished from the face of the earth,” Duncan and environs proved to be a “truly refreshing experience”.

Now, he couldn’t say with absolute certainty that the evil of snobbery didn’t exist here, he simply hadn’t encountered it. Most outstanding of local virtues, he thought, was residents’ willingness to help each other (to take in their neighbour’s washing), “general unconventionality” and lack of formality that quickly put a visitor at ease.

Not to mention the Valley’s great outdoors which he experienced through trout fishing and living in a tent for a month. Despite a damp summer, he particularly liked Maple Bay although he thought it needed a hotel to accommodate those who didn’t have their own or rented cabin. In fact, “There seems to be little or no accommodation for the would-be visitor…and I am quite sure there are few spots that can show more attractions or more natural beauty.”

Getting back to Cowichan society, he noted: “Undoubtedly [frontier] life is much harder for the women folk than for the men; there is more monotony, less variation of occupation, less fresh air in their life. For the women of some houses that I became intimate with (sic), I felt very sorry. Their work seems to be so incessant, but I think this is partly due to lack of system, for with more method the work could be done quicker and so much more free time obtained.

“There is no doubt, however, that it is a hard life for the women, and I admire them for their general cheerfulness, and for being happy and contented in it all.”)

(It would be interesting to know how some of the homemakers he alluded to received his efficiency advice and surmise of their state of humour.)

At least they weren’t slaves to fashion as were the women of larger, more cosmopolitan communities: “Clothes on Vancouver Island seem to be very expensive, and the purchase of only what is a necessity must help to encourage the simplicity of Duncan life and fashion.”

Commodity prices generally, he thought to be slightly over-priced and on a par with those in England thanks to the CPR’s “unreasonable” freight rates.

But he wasn’t done even though it meant possibly offending his former hosts. He thought Canadians in general to be untidy, their houses surrounded by uncut grass and weeds. But Duncan! “There are some very nice gardens, with good plots of turf kept mown, but they are very few; more often than not, the place is hideously untidy and overgrown. This gives the traveller, landing in Duncan and taking a walk around, a bad impression. It is not what he expects of a colony of many English people.”

Yes, life and working conditions were hard here but, surely, residents could do better with their yards and around their homes — it was just a matter of priorities! So wrote our efficiency expert who would hear no excuses: “No, I cannot forgive you for all this; it spoils the general outlook and…gives the traveller a bad impression: the impression that so many Britishers have left pride of home and garden behind them.”

Overall, however, his memories of the Cowichan Valley were of “delightful freedom, the absence of so many conventions, and the simple life and the friendliness of the inhabitants…” He would, he concluded, be back; next time for a longer stay.

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