Volunteering is alive and well

Priscilla Ewbank expertly carving lamb (photo credit: Nettie Adams)

On July 1st Saturna Island hosted its 73rd Lamb BBQ. I am going to make the challenge that it is one of the most exceptional Canada Day parties in the country. And here’s why. The most remote Southern Gulf Island accessible by ferry has only 400-something permanent residents, yet at a time when most communities lament the absence of volunteers Saturna gathered over 220 people, young and old, many of who began planning and organizing months in advance to put on a feast for their friends, neighbours and visitors.  

This year 27 lamb carcasses were trucked from the Campbell Farm on Saturna to the Community Hall. Each one was split open and “racked” on a 7 foot thick, hand-made iron stake with a cross bar. With just-cut vine maple branches and stainless steel wire the lambs were secured to the stakes and ready for delivery to the BBQ site where the fire had been going since 4:30 in the morning. For Priscilla Ewbank, who has been roasting the lambs since the 1970s, the preparation is an act of respect. “To do it well, to get the lambs racked up just right for maximum enjoyment and use of these sentient beings, is a good honest skill.  Each of us was taught by someone else who cared to do the job right and to pass on the skills and reverence.”  

More than 1700 people attended the celebration. Saturna-ites served over 1100 meals of BBQ lamb, rice, salad and island-made rolls. If lamb wasn’t to your taste you could have a Saturna veggie burger, a hamburger, fish tacos or a hot dog. There was popcorn and ice cream cones, a wine tent and a beer garden, book sales and crafts. There were games for kids of all ages, a tug-a-war, nail driving competition and live music and dancing.  

People came on the ferry in their cars, by foot, on their bikes and motorcycles. They came on the Aqualink (a new passenger ferry service linking the Gulf Islands) and the seaplane and on more than 160 private boats, which moored in Winter Cove, across the street from the BBQ site.  

Robin Robinson attended her first Lamb BBQ in 1951. She was 8 years old. Her family spent their summers on Saturna and the BBQ was a highlight of her stay. “It was so much fun,” she remembered. “There were races and games and at some point there was even a pig diapering competition.” She missed the celebration when she moved away but now she’s back on the west coast she won’t miss again.  

It all started, as the story goes, when, after a bad winter, a farmer on the island sold off his sheep and donated the lambs to the community for a BBQ. They charged $.50 a dinner. The money they raised supported services like the women’s club and fire brigade.  

The tradition continues. Not just the tradition of the Lamb BBQ but the tradition of giving back to the community. It wasn’t only about having a good time. The BBQ was and still is the major fundraiser for the island. Saturna Island looks after itself. And that’s why I think this is the greatest Canada Day celebration.

Saturna’s party is an act of generosity, from Saturna inhabitants to their friends, their neighbours and to anyone fortunate enough to find their way to the island on July 1st. The visitors show their appreciation by showing up and supporting the islanders.  

As relative newcomers to the island my husband and I quickly came to understand that living on Saturna is about reciprocity. Those of us privileged enough to reside in this magnificent place know that its secret is in the give and take. Everyone brings something to the table.  

As one visitor said, “This BBQ is a stunning demonstration of what everyone is looking for these days…the security of knowing that when we really need each other the community knows how to mobilize and look after itself.”