Casting The Net of Opportunity

An unlikely business partnership brings friendship and hope to a County venture

The Dewey family home lies down a country road outside of Picton, at the end of a long driveway, among woods reclaiming old farmland. The setting is beautiful, comfortable, and familiar – for anyone raised in eastern Ontario. For someone raised in Syria, it might as well be the far side of the moon.

Vehicles cluster in the clearing around the low-slung pine log home. A small wooden sign on an outbuilding announces locally caught fish for sale. Four generations of commercial fishing on the Great Lakes are represented by that modest sign. That’s the history of the Dewey family fishery. And in a twist of fate, its future may now be in the hands of Slieman Abdel-Malek al-Jasem, a twenty-two-year-old former Syrian refugee.

Inside the Dewey place, open rooms are lit by daylight through big windows. The view from the dining room is of jays and juncos, flitting from tree to feeder and back. More birds adorn the walls; Bateman prints – a little faded and a little crooked. The kitchen is small and well-used, with coffee constantly on the go. A woodstove warms the cosy living room. Cigarette smoke lingers familiarly in the air. Kendall and Joanne Dewey sit side-by-side at the dining room table. At 66 and 58, they might be a retired couple enjoying the country life – if only they were not constantly working. Behind them, a shelf holds a row of reference books: a library of the great outdoors.

“Do you wanna start, dear?” Kendall Dewey asks his wife, Joanne. Born in England, still possessed of a particular sort of English good cheer, she spins a yarn that leads her, as a young woman, across the Atlantic to Canada, where she embraces the natural beauty of a land too big to comprehend. Her love of the outdoors led to studies, that led to jobs, that led to meeting and marrying Kendall Dewey. A marriage, family, a move to the woods, a working life… and here we are.

“Here” meaning in this home, together, in the later stages of a shared career spent mostly outside, much of it working side-by-side with Kendall on the family fishery they now run out of their home. Here, meaning plotting the next steps of the Dewey family story and figuring out how to retire. Here, meaning the beginning of another story, the one where Joanne and Kendall welcome Slieman Abdel- Malek al-Jasem into their lives.

Slieman (the Deweys pronounce it “Sleeman,” like the beer) sits across the table, discreetly puffing on a vaporizer, occasionally giving off a cloud of odourless nicotine mist. Cheerful, comfortable, Slieman might be a nephew or a neighbour of the Deweys. Where their greying hair and tanned faces show the weathering of their lifetimes, Slieman’s hair is dark and sleek, his face light, at ease. He listens attentively, with the air of someone who’s heard it before, as Kendall Dewey turns the pages of his own Ontario life.

“If I’d known I was going to wind up commercial fishing…” Kendall begins, recalling with a mixture of bemusement and pride the life he has taken on, the fourth generation of his family to do so. “The last year that Dad fished, I worked that summer for nothing.” There’s nostalgia, but little romance in the stories of Kendall’s childhood spent in a family of fisherfolk, plying their trade on Lake Erie.

What romance there might once have been was wiped out with the St. Lawrence Seaway. It was an engineering marvel, and an ecological disaster. The mega-project of locks and hydro dams built during the 1950s would allow oceangoing ships to ply the waters of the Great Lakes with coal, oil, iron ore, wheat, and aggregates. The construction of the Seaway introduced invasive fish species like the lamprey, the smelt, and the alewife that all but doomed commercial fishing on the Great Lakes. By the time Kendall was seventeen, working for nothing that infamous last summer on his dad’s boat, he couldn’t see the future of the fishery.

Instead, he went to college, though his heart was always on the land and on the water. Summer jobs led to long-term work with the government: conservation, fish and game and wildlife. But that wasn’t Kendall’s way. “I’m not a good government employee,” he grins. Meaning, he likes to be his own boss, or put another way, he can’t stand taking orders from people who don’t know what’s what. “I began to see some irregularities happening,” he says, “so we decided…” And the story inevitably winds up here, again: this log home, built on the land, back in the 1980s, in the hopes of using and connecting with the natural world. Here they built their fishery; they built their lives. Home.

Slieman’s father built the home he and his ten siblings grew up in, in Hama, Syria. Slieman doesn’t know if it still stands. Slieman speaks excellent English for someone who couldn’t speak it at all three years ago. But he has few words to describe the fate of his home, or his homeland. “It wasn’t like a war when it started” is the phrase that sticks. At first, Slieman and his family watched the growing catastrophe that shattered their country on television. It seemed very far away.

As trouble grew into full-blown civil war, Slieman’s father feared his sons would be drawn into the conflict against his will. Slieman, the eldest, was sent away to Lebanon as a young teen. It was difficult, and lonely – as a Syrian, Slieman was vulnerable. His studies fell away as he worked difficult jobs under worsening conditions. His parents discouraged him from returning: it was getting worse in Syria, they said. He should stay in Lebanon, where he was at least safe. But eventually he couldn’t stand it. He went home anyway.

Home, that is, to his childhood house; home to his mother and father and family, and to the little market store the proceeds from which they tried to live and prosper. But war was no longer an abstraction, rumbling on the horizon; the bombing was getting closer. There were tanks in the streets of Hama. Like so many others, displaced by war, the al-Jasems ultimately had to leave home, to try to find home elsewhere.

The al-Jasems left the house they loved, the city they knew, and drove across the border to Lebanon. They were not headed for Canada. They’d never heard of Ontario, let alone Prince Edward County. They were simply leaving a place where they could not stay. Slieman’s family spent four years as refugees in Lebanon. When the subject comes up around the dining room table, Joanne radiates sympathy; Kendall, a quiet fury. Slieman demurs. He doesn’t want to dwell on the negatives. As a teenager in Lebanon, Slieman worked to feed his family – as a quarry labourer, for example, under conditions few would like to recall. “Exploitation” is Kendall’s curt one-word description.

This, from a man who is no stranger to work. Kendall, at 66, works 70 or more hours weekly, and Joanne likewise. The Dewey fishery is a labour of love – it takes a lot of love to endure that kind of labour. It’s a multi-faceted enterprise that would exhaust most couples half their age. Fishing is what the Deweys love best, in boats, with nets, out on the Bay of Quinte and Lake Ontario. That’s the part they’d like to keep doing, for a while at least, though they’ve already sold off one of their licences to ease the burden. But you can’t fish the way the Deweys do without the processing operation: a labour-intensive, hands-on endeavour of cleaning and packing and freezing and shipping. And then there’s selling the fish: figuring out pricing and margins; making connections, building relationships. The Deweys can’t manage all that. They’re aging out.

If it was even a little bit easier, maybe fishing on the Great Lakes would attract young folks. People like the Deweys were when they came to the County in the 80s. People who care about history, heritage, and a healthy connection between land, work, and food. Kendall proudly points out that Lake Ontario fish is more rigorously tested than chicken or beef: it’s a traditional food source whose time ought to have come again. But fishing on the Great Lakes isn’t something you do for the money. When the Deweys began looking for likely candidates to take on the processing and sales aspects of the business, they couldn’t find anyone.

That’s when they saw SponsorLand on TVO. The documentary tells the story of Slieman’s family, their arrival in Toronto and relocation to Prince Edward County. The al-Jasems landed en masse at Pearson Airport: Slieman, his ten siblings, mother, father, and grandmother. None of them spoke English. Their sponsors, a group of volunteers called PEC Syria who had only just met a few weeks before, greeted them holding signs written in Arabic. They gathered the family’s luggage, clambered into a large coach donated by Franklin Tours and headed straight along Highway 401 to Prince Edward County. Having only known that they were flying to Toronto, Slieman’s father began to panic on the drive east. What would become of them? Were they to be killed? Of all the random places in the world, distant, rural Picton would now be home.

The story of new Canadians making the most of opportunity is irresistible. But hope is not enough. Amid the laughter and the tears that SponsorLand inevitably evokes, Slieman’s optimism and persistence shine through. The documentary shows Slieman taking cooking classes; dressing up for Halloween; working to complete high school in English. In a poignant moment, Slieman realizes a Canadian student he’s meant to tutor in Arabic reads it better than he does, because he’d missed so much of his own education due to the war.

Still, what Kendall and Joanne saw in Slieman, on the television screen, was enough to qualify him for a unique opportunity. They reached out to Carlyn Moulton, the founder of PEC Syria. Would Slieman like to get involved in the fishery?

Slieman could barely speak English. He knew few people beyond his family and sponsor group. He knew nothing about boats or fishing. But he had a proven work ethic, and an admirable attitude. He was the eldest son of a family in need. He would try. “If you could master the spring yellow perch you should be able to master anything.” says Kendall. He’s talking about filleting the small, delectable fish that are a Bay of Quinte specialty. They have to be processed by hand, a tedious job. Plenty of fishermen would rather toss a perch back, than clean it. For Slieman, processing hundreds of pounds of locally caught perch was a trial. “I hated it!” he freely admits. Smelly, slimy, and slow, the work challenged Slieman and the Deweys both. Sometimes Slieman’s mother, sister and brother stepped in to help him keep up. “It takes a lot of time,” says Kendall. “It takes a LOT of time.”

Kendall says things like that a lot. He doesn’t just mean filleting fish. He means everything connected to it. Nurturing hopes that their fishery would be carried on, Joanne and Kendall made it possible for Slieman to step in, learn the processing, and begin to earn his way in the sales end of the operation. Like the sponsors who embraced him and his family, the Deweys have taken Slieman in. It’s a deep immersion, for all of them. The Deweys have invested in Slieman, made equipment and facilities and financing available to him. With help from a local opportunities grant, they got him working. They continue trying to make it possible for him to succeed. All the while, they remain aware of how difficult it’s been, even for them – with history, family, language, and education all on their side.

Kendall and Joanne are solicitous of Slieman, much as they would be of a son. Accustomed to hard work, they have also enjoyed the blessings of abundance and opportunity that Canada afforded them. Slieman knows their generosity is uniquely focused on him. “I probably wouldn’t do it with different people,” he grins. He believes he can succeed. He also knows he has little to lose.

The Deweys have a different challenge. They want the fishery to continue, but they can’t afford to just hand it over to Slieman. Even if they could – licences, boats, trailers, fishing nets, processing equipment, freezers, facilities, premises, contacts, experience and all – there’d be no clear and easy path ahead. Their own history shows it. It’s a tidy story, to suggest Slieman Abel-Malek al-Jasem is the heir-apparent to a fourth generation Great Lakes fishery. But the reality is more complex.

Down a country road outside Picton three unlikely compatriots have been gathered together into history’s net. Fisherfolk: one born in England, one in Ontario, and one in Syria – in a home that’s no longer there. But perhaps home is always a place of constant change, however we may wish it otherwise.

The shared, unfinished story of Joanne and Kendall Dewey and Slieman Abel-Malek al-Jasem is familiar and strange all at once. It’s a story of rapid ecological change. Of war, displacement, and the old world falling away. Of chance, misfortune, and plain old good luck. It’s a story of opportunity, and also of uncertainty. It’s a story of people leaving home, to find home somewhere else. It’s a story that seems to offer a happy ending. After all, there’s a whole group of volunteers in Prince Edward County, dedicated to the sole task of helping the al-Jasem family make themselves at home.

The outcome of a story depends a great deal on where and when you think it begins. Pick a moment: When the bombs first fell in Syria’s most recent conflict? Or in England, after its last war? In southwestern Ontario, a few generations ago? Or that summer when Kendall worked on his old man’s boat for nothing? When the first Loyalist farms were cleared in the County? Or when mound-builders lived in its ancient woods? When a group of volunteers decided to sponsor a refugee family? When the Al-Jasems landed at Pearson airport? Or when a young fishmonger sold his first packet of perch at a local market? When a young, outdoorsy couple decided to make a home together – or when they opened the door of that home to welcome a stranger?

Around the dining room table in Prince Edward County, there’s hot coffee in mugs decorated with the freshwater fishes of Ontario. Lots of smiles and some good-natured ribbing punctuate a rare Saturday morning spent in relative leisure. The forest is quiet, the woodstove warm. The blue jays and the juncos make it a scene worth savouring. The visitor leaves with a bag of fresh-frozen, locally caught yellow perch. It’s a gift given with pride, and received with pleasure; after all, three people worked together to catch and process and package that meal.

“A fish’s natural tendency is to go from shallow to deeper water,” Kendall says at one point. He’s talking about fishing. But he could be talking about a lot of things. He might even be talking about the search for home.

Story by:
David Newland

Photography by:
Johnny C. Y. Lam

[Spring 2019 features]