Oh, I do love me a good seafood restaurant. Perhaps that’s because I’m a native of an island nation, no part of which is more than an hour or so away from the sea, so when Dad was home on leave from Nigeria, fish was always fresh, plentiful, and on the menu. Or perhaps it’s because I spent most of my first decade living just south of the Sahara, in a place where salt-water fish was simply unavailable, and fresh-water fish was largely suspect. Whatever the case, I really started to get my fish fix on in 1967, when I was twelve years old and my family traveled, for the first time, to Canada’s smallest province, the place known to the indigenous population as “Abegweit,” (meaning “cradled in the waves”), which was called by the French settlers, Isle St. Jean, but which has been known to us, since Confederation in 1867, as Prince Edward Island.
We had other goals on that long-ago trip–we visited Expo 67 in Montreal, and explored a bit of New Brunswick on the way over, and Maine on the way back. We weren’t terribly well-off, so we camped on our travels, and had rented a small beach cottage in Cavendish (at Shining Waters Lodge) for our stay on the Island, which I think was about ten days. Confining my large (physically speaking) and boisterous parents, my sister, who was six at the time, and myself, in any sort of close quarters was always a dicey proposition, but we did so well that, three years later, we returned to PEI, and then repeated the annual performance for several subsequent years of idyllic and sun-drenched summers. By that time, we’d bought a 19′ trailer, and augmented the family by one (my brother, born in 1968), and added a dog, and on occasion, a friend, so space was still pretty tight, and we were still on a shoestring budget. But we managed, and I’m glad, because the memories of those many years are totally worth the price of admission.
Typically, we left home the day after school finished in early June, not returning until the day before it started up again, right after Labor Day. Our destination each year was the North Shore, up and down the provincial shoreline between Cavendish and Robinson’s Island, and after a year or two we found a very congenial campground at which we could park our trailer and settle in for the summer. (Note to self: Sometime, I must tell the story of the year we arrived to open the place up–we often arrived before the owners, who were based in Boston–and found that a family of loons (not the feathered kind) had taken over the house, and were parked there with shotguns, insisting that they owned the place, that it was permanently closed, and that they would shoot anyone who attempted to pass through the gates. That sort of approach was always a mistake, when Dad was on the other end of the encounter, and this little debacle proved no exception to the rule. They departed in disarray, and we moved in shortly after we arrived.)
Our particular friends, situated in North Rustico Harbor, were a fishing family whose patriarch and matriarch were Beecher and Ella Court. Beecher and his five sons fished commercially, and took out tourists on deep-sea fishing excursions, as the “Court Brothers of North Rustico.” Dad found their company congenial and, I think, reminiscent of his boyhood holidays in the Welsh fishing village of Pwllelhi, and it wasn’t long before he and I were going out to pull lobster traps, and cod lines and mackerel nets at 4AM and I was learning how to make, and repair, fish nets (not the stockings, which are instruments of the devil and quite useless, but actual nets to catch fish in). I also became a dab (see what I did there) hand at quick and filling meals featuring several kinds of fresh fish and the ubiquitous PEI potato, and frequently cooked lunch for “Beecher and the boys.”
The Court Brothers wharf was a tourist destination all its own, and several times a week, a parade of large Greyhound and Trailways buses would arrive and disgorge, from each one, dozens of tourists out to see the sights. I was, for many years, one of those sights myself, and had my photograph taken hundreds, perhaps thousands of times, being frequently mistaken for Gracie Finley, the actress who played Anne in the Charlottetown Summer Theatre musical production of Anne of Green Gables, or simply for being a bit unusual–the barefoot young girl with the British accent among the blood and fish guts, standing on the wharf filleting cod, mackerel, hake, and flounder for hours at a time, just like a pro.
The venue was historic. The Court Brothers were, by the early 1970s, the only family at the harbor who’d been continuously fishing, passing the livelihood from father to son, ever since George Court, whose family was from Stratford-on-Avon, was granted his “fishing station” by Queen Victoria in 1872 (corrected date). (The Crown set up a Fishery Reserve along the North Shore and deeded the fishing rights to local residents, with the price to be “one peppercorn of yearly rent to be payed upon demand” direct to the monarch.) The “fish house” was an ancient structure, dating from those early times, although the family home was newer and much bigger than the original, built to accommodate the seven children–five brothers and two sisters–of the twentieth century Courts.
So opportunities for short (3-4 hour) and relatively inexpensive fishing trips to catch cod and mackerel (2-3 miles from shore), as well as the sale of fresh fish, lobsters and clams, an evocative location recalling much Island history, the story of the five fishing Court Brothers, and many chances for picturesque photos, brought the tourists in, in droves.
But no-one fascinated, charmed, and reeled them in faster, and more completely, than the man who, for many decades, was probably the most photographed man on Prince Edward Island.
His name is Emard Court, and he was the second of the Court Brothers to enter this world, if memory serves, on December 20, 1923. In a few months, he’ll be 97 years old. (You can see him on the cover of the 1990 Lands’ End catalog at the top of this post.)
Like most of his brothers, he left school early to join the family fishing business. Unlike his older brother Quinton, who was exempted due to family need, and his younger brothers, Myron, Veard, and Vance (who were too young), Able Seaman Emard Court served in World War II, aboard HMCS Fort William, a Royal Canadian Navy minesweeper, deployed in the English Channel to clear shipping lanes of German mines preparatory to the invasion of Normandy. His duties as a spotter left him, like many of his comrades-in-arms, permanently hard-of-hearing. After the Fort William returned to Canada in September of 1945, Emard quietly rejoined the family fishing business and, like so many of the greatest generation, just got on with life. In so doing, he became part of Island history.
Spend some time on Google, or your search engine of choice, and you’ll see what I mean:
You might say 92-year-old Emard Court is still fishing these days — not for lobster, cod or mackerel. Instead, he sets bait to catch tourists.
The retired captain sits by the window inside his little yellow house, right next to the North Rustico Harbour lighthouse, watching for the next tour bus.
As the tourists scramble off the bus, they head straight for the iconic lighthouse, and that’s when the captain makes his move, with the help of a walker.
He shuffles out the front door onto his veranda.
He’s every inch the image of an old fisherman: A long, white wispy beard, a red plaid shirt, topped off with a black sou’wester (a fisherman’s rain hat).
Suddenly, like fish to bait, the tourists wriggle closer to snap photos with Court, and the captain once again has his catch of the day.
It’s a scene replayed all summer.
A black-and-white photo of North Rustico fisherman Emard Court has earned Island photographer Berni Wood a nomination for a major international photography award.
This year the California-based Black and White Spider Awards attracted more than 7,500 entries from 71 countries.
“It was just the glint in his eyes and it was the way the sun was located,” Wood told CBC Radio: Mainstreet’s Angela Walker, who was urged by a friend to enter the photo — which she noted is in no way touched up.
She first photographed Court in colour, then changed it to black and white because she thought it better highlighted his personality rather than calling attention to the several patterns of plaid he was wearing.
“I absolutely love talking to Emard Court, he’s got wonderful stories,” said Wood. “He always lets me take his photo.”
A Second World War veteran from North Rustico, P.E.I., received one of the highest military medals from the government of France Monday.
Emard Court, who served as a spotter on a minesweeper and fought at Omaha Beach on D-Day, has become a member of the French Legion of Honour.
Lovely, that last one, which is from 2014 and part of a project launched by the French government (of all things!) to seek out still-living members of the Allied forces who were part of the Normandy invasion in order to honor and thank them for their part in liberating France.
And, sadly then, there is this.
The Courts have a long history in the area where Emard and his brothers built up the land in dispute by shoveling in dirt and clay to bring it above flood levels.
Family lore also has it the lighthouse stands where it does because it fell into the water after the land eroded beneath it many years ago. Members of the Court family fished the lighthouse out of the water and brought it back on land near their home, inadvertently setting off the chain of events that led to the dispute many years later.
In 1915, the federal government expropriated land around the lighthouse, including where Emard’s house sits.
The family, which has never had a deed for the land, has been involved with court cases and attempts to settle the land titles for more than 20 years [emphasis mine].
When asked why he doesn’t just move, Emard had a simple answer.
“No way,” he said.
Make that, more like 50 years. It started in the early 1970’s and I still have the rather large file folder, set of deeds and grants, and maps and documentation for the North Rustico Fishery Reserve to prove it. I expect, now that my Dad is no longer with us, that I know more about the history of that area than anyone else on earth. Unfortunately, though, Canada didn’t get a pass when it comes to the greed, graft, chicanery, lying, and self-interest of what we in the US would call the “deep state,” and the Court Family’s last years at the harbor were made miserable as a result. What a disgraceful and sorry mess, and the sad end to a wonderful chapter of Island history.
I, and millions more are grateful to have so many, and to have seen and known such a place and such a man.
Emard Court, it’s been an honor, a privilege, and a pleasure. Thank you, Sir. Fair winds and following seas, wherever the next 97 years may take you.