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Edward MacDonald is the go-to guy when it comes to P.E.I.’s history. He’s the author of many articles and books about the island, including If You’re Stronghearted: Prince Edward Island in the Twentieth Century and most recently a history of island tourism, The Summer Trade, with co-author Alan MacEachern.

 A busy volunteer, he’s served on about 35 boards and committees. He’s a popular and award-winning teacher, researcher, and history professor at UPEI, where he got his BA and where, today, many students refer to him as Dr. Ed. Saltscapes spoke with MacDonald about indoor plumbing, adventure stories, and unruly cats.  

Where did you grow up?

I’m from Newport in eastern P.E.I., the youngest of nine children. My father was a fisherman, farmer, and carpenter. The year I was born, we got electricity and a television. I grew up without indoor plumbing and started my education in a one-room school. I was on the cusp of a period of major modernization on P.E.I. Sometimes, I weave it into my teaching.     

Were you always interested in history?

I fell in love with history early on. The most important part of the word “history” is story. I grew up loving history and literature. My father was a great storyteller. My mother was a homemaker, and she instilled in us a love of reading and an admiration for the beauty of words. I loved adventure stories and devoured my siblings’ books, textbooks and readers, as they were called. 

Do you remember any of those books? 

I loved adventure stories. In Grade 5, there was a book called Pirates and Pathfinders, full of daring explorers over the Age of Discovery. There was a Grade 9 history book, Proud Ages, about glorious battles, victories and explorations, completely ignoring the unsavoury aspects of imperialism, but wonderful storytelling.   

Did your interest in P.E.I. history start in school?

The most boring book I encountered was a history of P.E.I. It’s ironic that I made my career trying to make island history interesting, because I grew up thinking of history as knights, battles, and castles in Spain. I gradually came to realize that our own lives are worthy of study. My family’s story, my community’s story, my neighbour’s story were also part of the fabric of history and often more interesting. 

Your approach to history reminds me of Pierre Berton’s.

He was a journalist fascinated by the past. Too much history was written by scholars for other scholars. I wanted to have a career on P.E.I. to contribute to the society that had nourished me. I wanted to write history that would help everyday people understand the world they live in. Good history doesn’t have to be boring. Good history can be accessible and useful to people.

Why do you think your classes are so popular?

I think students like me because I like them. They’re interesting people with interesting stories. I’ve never forgotten what it’s like to be a student, but I had to learn how to be a teacher. I try to make my classroom an enjoyable place and a safe place where they can be treated with respect. Also, as I tell my students, I’m the youngest of nine, so to have people actually listen to what I’m saying is so unusual. The only one I could order around when I was a kid was the cat, and the cat wouldn’t do what it was told.    

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