NEWS
03/03/2016 15:51 EST | Updated 03/04/2017 00:12 EST

Bid to set up Stompin' Tom commemorative centre a tough, 20-year ordeal

SKINNERS POND, P.E.I. — Like the man they want to honour, the people behind a plan to build a centre in P.E.I. to commemorate the life of country-folk legend Stompin' Tom Connors have faced their share of adversity over the years.

For more than two decades, the residents of Skinners Pond have been trying to scrape together the money to build a cultural centre and preserve Connors' boyhood home and the nearby schoolhouse he attended.

Anne Arsenault, general manager of the economic development group Tignish Initiatives, said Connors' legacy extends from the western tip of P.E.I. and across Canada in a way that few other artists could claim.

"He was fiercely Canadian," she said, adding that the patriotism of the sometimes cantankerous singer-songwriter was remarkably undiluted.

"He made it known in his songs and in his life. We want to be able to tell that story to keep his memory alive ... He came up from the grassroots. He was authentic. It wasn't contrived. It was the source of who he was."

But the group's road to success has been a bumpy one, not unlike Connors' early, troubled life.

"Sometimes it's like one step forward and two steps backwards," Arsenault said.

According to his autobiography, "Before the Fame," Connors was born in Saint John, N.B., to an unwed teenage mother, who would later take him hitchhiking as a toddler.

He was begging on the street by the age of four, placed in the care of Children's Aid at age eight and adopted a year later by a family in Skinners Pond.

He ran away four years later to hitchhike across the country and, eventually, perform his own songs with an old guitar to support himself. He wrote hundreds tunes, many based on actual events, people, and towns he had visited.

In the 1970s, Connors purchased the Skinners Pond schoolhouse, which was opened to the public to show off some of his memorabilia. There were gold records on the wall, a pair of well-worn cowboy boots and outside was a truck he used while touring across Canada.

"It was quite an attraction," said Arsenault. "Many people stopped by."

But the site was eventually closed and Connors' keepsakes were shipped to his home in Ontario.

Before he died in March 2013 at the age of 77, Connors made it clear he considered Skinners Pond his home and he supported plans to revive the museum and build a cultural centre.

“He was at peace here," his widow Lena Connors said last August when plans for the site were unveiled. "This was tranquil for him. He loved this area."

Last July, Ottawa and the province announced nearly $1.7 million in funding for the $1.9-million project.

But the plan fell apart last November when $350,000 from Heritage Canada was denied because Tignish Initiatives isn't considered an arts or heritage organization.

Since then, the group has had to scale back its plans. A decision will be made later this month whether to again apply for federal and provincial money.

Former Tory MP Gail Shea, who knew Connors and is from Skinners Pond, said tourists still stop to have a look at Connors' home.

"He wrote songs about every corner of the country," she said. "People have come to like his songs and feel his passion for the country."

Shea said she was disappointed when Heritage Canada pulled its funding based on a technicality, saying that would have never happened if Connors was from a large city.

"Stompin' Tom was the definition of Canadian culture and heritage," she said.

"He sang for the Queen, received the Order of Canada and had his own postage stamp ... If this was in downtown Ottawa or downtown Halifax, would it be scaled back? We're no less a part of Canada because we're a small rural community."

— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax

The Canadian Press