Listen to Honourable Antoinette Perry

Bold = Her Honour the Honourable Antoinette Perry, Lieutenant Governor of Prince Edward Island

Italics = sound effects

Regular = Fiona Steele (narrator/storyteller)

Origin Story: Honourable Antoinette Perry

(Audio clip of Antoinette Perry greeting people inside the Stompin’ Tom Centre in Skinners Pond, PEI): Hello! Hi! How you doing? (music plays in the background) So nice to see you!  

By Island standards, Her Honor Antoinette Perry is pretty well-known. After all, she is PEI’s current Lieutenant Governor, which is why she has the title Her Honour. She’s also known for being the first Acadian woman to be appointed to the role. But if you go to the small community of Tignish where she’s from, she’s hometown famous not for her government position, but through a lifetime of service to her community.

Welcome to Island Digital Voices. For this installment, we visited Tignish with Antoinette to see the place she calls home through her own eyes.

So, if the audio sounds a little off here and there – it's because we’re driving for most of our visit. Okay, so we start at the Tignish Inn and Gardens, where Antoinette said she’d pick us up.

Light wind and bird sounds.

It’s a testament to PEI hospitality that Antoinette just picked us up in her car to take us around.  It’s probably not something you could even do with a Lieutenant Governor in other provinces. Instead, there might be multiple cars and security - or at least a designated driver.

Anyways, she shows up in her Subaru Forester with a big wave. We pile into the car, set up the mics, and off we go.

A car engine starts, revs up and driving sounds.

Before we start on Antoinette’s life, it’s important to know about Tignish and the Acadians who first called it home.

And this is where the first settlers came. So I'll get off the road just for a second and give you a little bit of history here. So our settlers came in, right where the boats are there. They came in under there and they settled just beyond that clump of trees there that's jutting out.

Right now, we’re parked along Founders Lane, with the Tignish Fisheries Co-op Association behind us looking out toward the water.

And you see there's a little bridge? Yeah, so just on this side of it, that was the first settlement. And 8 Acadian families came, and it was the Mi’kmaq who guided them in by canoe. And some of them broke, one of them broke their paddle, I guess, and they said Mtagunich so that - Tignish that's how it got its name. M-T-a-g-u-n-i-c-h, I think. And then they came in this way. So the English, like they did for the French names, they anglicized it and they put T-i-g-n-i-s-h.

The actual spelling of Mta’qanejk [m dah ga -nehj] is M-t-a-’-q-a-n-e-j-k Mta’qanejk, and in Mi’kmaq it means paddle place.

Antoinette is descended from one of the 8 families who came here in 1799, as are many Acadian people living in Tignish today. So, there’s close to 1,000 people and what you need to know is that it’s small town. Everybody knows everybody and community is huge here.

Antoinette was born right into the community too, as her parents owned E. C. Perry’s Grocery located at the center of town. Today, it’s called Eugene’s. There were 9 children in her family: 2 boys and 7 girls.

Being around the store was part of her childhood.

And we were in the center of the action for everything. So if there was a fire, the alarm went, people would call the store and say where's the fire? You know, there was a connection there.

Antoinette was born in the early 1950s. There was no internet, so you couldn’t just google the news. You learned by word of mouth. And in a small town like Tignish, word travels fast.

So, Antoinette grew up in the heart of the community and when she got to grade 4, she started working in her parents’ store. That’s when she really began serving and connecting with her community.

So there was one golden rule that carried me throughout my whole career, my whole life:  no matter what language a person spoke to us in the store – so we began in grade four to be able to serve the customers – we had to answer in that language. So we knew it was an Acadian person who spoke to us in English, we had to answer them in English, because number one is respect. You see, language is always secondary to respect.

Even though Antoinette grew up speaking French before she spoke English, she was expected to serve customers in whatever language they spoke.

Like many kids growing up, Antoinette saw her mother, Anne Marie, as a role-model.

Throughout my life, I watched her in the store. So especially with people who would have been illiterate, or with the French people who really didn't have a grasp on the English, especially with the business language, she would fill out forms for them, or she would help them if they had a need of help from government in any form. You see, so she was always that connector, and then I consider myself to be a connector. I do it all the time. Just automatically just, yeah, it's one of my things.

Besides being a connector, Antoinette’s mother was also a teacher before she started working in the store. This influenced Antoinette to become a teacher herself. She taught music, special education and French. But more than being a teacher, learning in French was huge for Antoinette and her mother.

My mother was a teacher, by the way, and she taught French in the country schools, even though you weren’t supposed to, but there was only one family, I think, in each district, who spoke English. So they learned French, because their little playmates spoke French, you see. So she kind of bent the rules there.

Antoinette spent her entire teaching career in Tignish: 32 years in total. That’s probably why she seems to know everyone in the community. In 32 years, you’d teach a lot of students and meet a lot of parents. Then again, in a town of 1,000 it’s hard not to know everyone.

Outside of her career, she served on a number of committees we’re not going to list for the sake of time, but we’ll touch on what she views as one massive achievement for her community: restoring the Tignish Pipe organ located inside St. Simon and St. Jude Catholic Church.

Sounds of a pipe organ being played.

Have you ever heard a pipe organ before? Just listen to it: (Pipe organ music plays.)

What makes a pipe organ cool is that it sounds like an entire orchestra. By pressing pedals and pulling these knobs called ‘stops,’ you can recreate the sounds woodwind, brass, string, and percussion instruments make.

If you saw Antoinette playing pipe organ, you wouldn’t see a serene lady sitting quietly at a keyboard. Instead, picture this:

First, if you’re standing beside the pipe organ it’s about 16 feet tall. That’s taller than a school bus. When it’s played, the floor vibrates a little bit.

When Antoinette’s pressing the foot pedals, picture someone whose feet look like they’re dancing. They never stop moving.

She’s rocking back and forth, feeling the melody. Her eyes closed on the long notes, and a smile forms as the last one echoes through the church.

Pretty mesmerizing, eh?

It's not a wimpy thing. Yeah, there's 1118 pipes.

This massive pipe organ was built in 1882.

Back in 2007, the Tignish community decided to get the organ restored completely, which cost 150,000 dollars. Antoinette was part of a group of people who helped raise that money, much of which came from the community.

The process involved dismantling the organ and sending it to Montreal to be restored. Although it took about six months, it was a sound investment according to Antoinette. Even with her busy schedule as Lieutenant Governor, she makes the trip from Charlottetown to Tignish every first and fifth Sunday to play the pipe organ at mass.

When I was appointed to the position of Lieutenant Governor, and one of the conscious decisions I made was that I was going to continue my regular contact with my community. Just recognizing the fact that this is the reason that I, that I was appointed, I believe, is for my engagement in my community, my contributions to the community. Not that I did anything for accolades, but it's just, that's just the way I am – a vested interest in my community. So it was important for me to continue my music ministry at church. I really felt the need to continue that. Plus, again, it keeps me in touch with my community, which feeds me. So the first Sunday and fifth Sunday of each month, I come home and I play for the French mass at 9, and at 11 o'clock, the English liturgy.

Beyond this community connection, Antoinette also plays the pipe organ for her mother.

And you know what, I promised my mother on her deathbed that I would do all I possibly could to continue her dream, which was to have the French mass with the French music. Actually, she taught me my first Christmas carols in French.

The first Christmas carol Antoinette played on the pipe organ was for the Christmas mass. She was nine years old and had proudly learned “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” just for the occasion. At nine years old, she couldn’t reach any of the foot pedals, but everyone has to start somewhere.

Antoinette has always connected with her God and her spirituality through music.

It's my connection with my spiritual realm. And I believe that it's a gift that's given me and that I was fortunate enough to be able to develop it. But it's how I can speak more profoundly to my God, my spiritual connection through music.

Pipe organ music fades.

Another way she connects with her spirituality is at her favorite spot: on the shoreline at North Cape. North Cape is on the very tip of Western PEI.  

Sounds of the ocean sounds, birds and wind.

When you’re standing at the tip of North Cape at low tide, you can wander out along the sandbar. There’s horizon as far as you can see, and up on the cliffs, windmills are scattered along the landscape. But when you’re down on the sand, you kinda forget that there’s anything else around you.

Part of that could be wind that makes it almost impossible to hear the person beside you. But then there’s the view. That’s the real attention grabber.

Erosion has changed this place for Antoinette over the years. Some of the shoreline has been lost where she used to go think and pray. Still though, if you’re at the tip of North Cape at sundown, it’s pretty incredible. You can see all these beautiful colours – pink, lavender, orange – without anything obstructing your view because it’s just water in front of you. Antoinette said she’s been known to chase a sunset or two.  

That’s my spiritual spot. If I’m out of sorts, I’m out of whack, whatever it might be, I just go and stand on the tip of the island, and I just get grounded again. (Narrator: What do you mean by a spiritual spot?) (Antoinette:) It’s where I’m in close contact with my God, besides church. That’s my nature spot. It just feeds me.

It’s where she goes to reconnect with what’s most important to her.

There’s no distractions, see. You're looking out at the tip you see the reef, okay? Where's my path going? So, it’s kind of a metaphor I suppose. (Narrator: How does it feel when you ground yourself? (Antoinette:) I just drive back home to Tignish feeling renewed.

Ocean sounds fade away.