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The new Wellness Centre is a beacon of can-do spirit


Of course, North Rustico’s Mayor, Heather McKenna, remembers that day in April of this year, when the old arena fell to the bulldozers. How could she forget? For 50 years, kids had learned to skate there.       

“It was five o’clock on a Friday afternoon,” she says. “I shot a little video
of them taking the last swipe at the Zamboni room.”

Of course, she was sad to see it go. She also knew the time had come for something better—the new $10-million Wellness Centre, which now looked even more spectacular standing next to the wreckage. As she hovered on her back porch, she thought about the next 50 years. “I was thinking about the new arena,” she says, “and how it’s going to be phenomenal for our grandchildren and their kids.”

A phenomenon may be the only way to describe it.

By all rights, COVID-19 should have wiped this town of barely 800 off the face of the map. It very nearly did. The tourism economy—which once attracted thousands of visitors to its Canada Day celebrations—ground to a halt. Local enterprises put their plans on hold. People held their breath. “It was devastating,” McKenna says. “Apart from fishing, tourism has been our mainstay; and, over the past two years, everything has been pretty well closed.”

Happily, following the return of Canada Day festivities last month, business in the town is booming, and the Wellness Centre—built entirely during the worst of the pandemic—is scheduled to open in September. People are still holding their breath; but, this time, it’s in gleeful anticipation.

According to the information circular issued by North Rustico’s town council, “The new facility is much more than just a rink…The North Star Arena [had] been an integral part of its communities: North Rustico, Rusticoville, Rustico, New Glasgow, Oyster Bed Bridge, Wheatley River, Hunter River, Cavendish, Hope River, Mayfield, Brackley, Breadalbane, and St. Ann’s. But it [was] in need of replacement.”

Now, town mothers and fathers gloat, the new wheelchair-accessible centre (funded in a three-way split among the federal and provincial governments, totalling about $6.8 million, and private funders) will be “something for everyone.” Particular somethings will include an Olympic-size ice surface, and a fully-equipped fitness centre next to a 590-foot-long, eight-foot-wide, heated walking track.

Farming and fishing are two mainstays of the local economy.

There’ll be a “community hospitality room with kitchen, deck, and canteen…dedicated cultural and heritage space…offices, meeting space, and boardroom for staff and other associations [and] additional space on the second floor for future programming.” Athletic types will even be able to do their laundry there.

McKenna says that after the finishing touches, the facility will also be something of an engineering marvel: “It’ll be green. All the emissions from the refrigeration will be used for the heat and air-conditioning … It’s a really good project.”

That, says George Noble, is an understatement. The retired cop and corrections officer served as the new centre’s chair of major and corporate sponsorship. For several years, he was also the administrative head of the old arena. About that, he says, “Even back in 2001, I said that rink had about five years left. But somehow, between duct tape and baling twine, the community kept it together until we got the new one.”

He adds: “Not only does this centre have a whole new type of refrigeration system that’s never before been tried around here, the roof system is completely different. The structural steel had to be done by experts from away.”

Just in time, perhaps. The paint isn’t even dry on the high-tech interiors and the place is already luring new opportunities to the town. The 2023 Canada Games has announced it as one of their host facilities for short track speed skating and figure skating events. Meanwhile, the prestigious Mount Academy—a Charlottetown-based university-prep school, famous for its high-performance hockey programs—plans to move in later this year.

“I think the migration to North Rustico moves us towards a more permanent boarding school location,” Kenny MacDougall, the school’s headmaster, told the CBC in January 2021 about his decision to transfer his high school hockey program and four teams to the new centre. In the same piece, McKenna said, “It’s good for the town because it’s a 10-year commitment [which] will make the arena sustainable.”

Those plans are on track. But McKenna says the new centre means more to the town than just a way to pay its investment forward. It’s a declaration of self-determination. North Rustico found a way to chart its own course, despite the pandemic. “If you want to know the truth of it,” she says, “I think we did fabulous.”

On paper, there’s nothing about this Gulf Shore community that suggests comeback kid. Its civic resumé sounds vaguely familiar to anyone who studies Maritime history. There’s the founder who gave the place his name: in this case, René Rassicot, a fisherman circa 1790. The official record continues, more or less in a straight line from there: “The region was home to an Acadian population who fled British deportation during the Seven Years War, 1754-1763. English, Scottish and Irish settlers moved into the area during the remainder of the 18th century and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Eventually, in 1954, “North Rustico became an incorporated municipality and obtained town status in November, 2013. The primary industries [now] include fishing, tourism, and agriculture. Approximately 40 vessels [are moored] in the small-craft harbour. Much of the fleet [fishes for] lobster…during May and June. From July to September, some boats offer deep-sea fishing excursions while others fish for various [species] such as mackerel, cod, herring, halibut and tuna.”

As one of the island’s most popular destinations, “the town has direct access to the Prince Edward Island National Park and has a free, public beach. During a warm summer evening, dozens of people come out to enjoy the view while strolling on the town’s waterfront boardwalk, which overlooks the bay and fishing docks.”

North Rustico is also known to locals and other Islanders as “The Crick”, but don’t bother asking anyone why. You might as well ponder the unsolved mystery behind the fact that “Rustico” figures in the names of not one, but five, villages in this particular neck of the island’s woods.

“I know on [an] 1880 map they indicate [a] little village or area as S. Rustico, meaning South Rustico,” Acadian historian and folklorist Georges Arsenault told the CBC in 2020. “But for people living in that area, for them, they always called it Rustico.”

Elsewhere, he said, “Rusticoville used to be called New Bridge…probably when they built a new bridge on the river there. They decided they needed a better name, so they voted for Rusticoville. It’s located between North Rustico and Rustico.”

As for North Rustico, proper, it’s the only “Rustico” that qualifies as a provincial municipality. Arsenault explained: “For a while, it was quite poor. Most of the people, a lot of the people, didn’t have farms; they just fished.”

To off-islanders, this can be confusing, but to anyone from PEI, it’s perfectly rational and reflects the province’s deeply rooted sense of communitarianism—the idea that places like Rustico survive in proportion to the quality of their relationships with nearby towns and villages. Certainly, Margaret Goulding thinks so. Born and raised in Rustico, she spent decades working and raising a family in Ontario. When she returned in 2018, she jumped back into the community, becoming a town councillor. She’s now the municipality’s chief representative on the new arena’s organizing committee.

“We try to get everybody involved here,” she says. “For example, this is everybody’s Wellness Centre; it’s not just for North Rustico. The communities all work together—all 13 of them—and so this all just fell into place.”

McKenna tends to agree. She’s never spent more than six months at a time off-island. “This just feels like home, and there’s no place like it,” she says. “If you go away, you always come back, because this is where people are friendly; they help each other. Something happens and everybody helps.”

George Noble certainly does not beg to differ. But while he concurs with the view that islanders are naturally inclined to help one another, he insists the Wellness Centre would not have launched without the specific and deliberate leadership of certain individuals, particularly McKenna.

“I really have to give it all to Heather,” he says. “We all decided about 12 years ago that we needed a new rink. The good things started happening when the town took it over about four years ago. At the time I was kind of worried about it, but it was a smart move because they could get into the grants and the applications (for federal and provincial contributions), and we [at North Star Arena] couldn’t do that.

“Before you know it, the mayor got a hold of the Canada Games and said, ‘Why not?’ And the Canada Games said, ‘For sure’. And I got to talking with the people at the Mount [Academy]. And they were thinking of moving, and I said, ‘Well, we’re building a new facility.’ The next thing you know, we got a school out here. So we added on the classrooms.”

Individual leadership or not, one thing was clear: It took a village to keep the project moving during the dark days of COVID-19. “First of all, construction was delayed because we couldn’t get materials,” Nobel says. “Then, when COVID finally hit the island, the whole roof crew got sick one week. Then it went through the inside of the building and hit the electricians and people like that.”

Still, he says, “We all had our eye on the ball. We’d all come a long way. We just kept on going to make sure it happened.”

They still are. As of May 31, the town had raised two-thirds—including $1,275,000 in sponsorships and advertising, and more than $500,000 in general donations—of its $3 million goal. Says McKenna: “It just seems like everybody is wanting to get out after after being locked down for two years or more. Everybody seems to be chipping in and donating. Considering everything, we’re coming along great.

And that’s “phenomenal.”

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