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‘Cupids is divided terrible’: The Newfoundland cove where 17th-century history meets a 21st-century mess

A commercial fishing vessel leaves Newfoundland's Cupids Cove from Spectacle Head. Cupids, a town of 750 in Conception Bay, claims to be the site of the first permanent English settlement in Canada, but some dispute this, and the influx of government heritage grants has sown division in the town.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The brown envelopes began arriving in April, sealed at both ends with white, rectangular stickers and up the back seam with clear tape.

The photocopied documents inside, which were addressed to The Globe, were accompanied by a cover letter, also photocopied, handwritten in all capitals on foolscap and reliably stamped in faded red ink: “CONFIDENTIAL.”

Beneath the stamp on the first letter were the names of the people and corporations who won their town $10-million in government grants to commemorate the centuries-old historic founding of Cupids, N.L. Beneath those names were members of an opposing group who allege a conspiracy to rewrite Cupids’ history has taken place. They say the events that the romantically named town is famous for never happened there at all.

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A cove town of about 750 carved out of Conception Bay in southeastern Newfoundland, Cupids’ claim to fame is hosting the first permanent English settlement in Canada, erected in 1610 by British colonist John Guy. Although small – there are no restaurants or stores – Cupids is rich in breathtaking scenery that is quintessential Newfoundland: colourful clapboard houses, a white church and steeple, the main drive curving against sparkling shore, a hem of rocky cliffs that stretch between sky and sea.

This beauty belies the underlying acrimony in the town, which has had four mayors in less than two years, seen more than half its seven-person council resign at one point, required the RCMP to defuse an altercation between two councillors and had the province take the unusual step of removing one from his seat.

“Cupids is divided terrible,” said Winnifred Bishop, a lifelong resident and former schoolteacher. She did not mail the brown envelopes, but her name was listed inside one of them as skeptical of the town’s historic fame. Ms. Bishop has long been outspoken about her view that there has not been enough oversight or transparency in Cupids since government grants began pouring in to bolster its place in history.

Winnifred Bishop, left, and her daughter, Connie Penney, sort through documents at Ms. Penney's kitchen table.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Bishop and her daughter, Connie Penney, have amassed thousands of documents – historical maps, municipal plans, accounting ledgers, affidavits – and have written about their concerns to every relevant government official from St. John’s to Ottawa. They have long hoped to spark some kind of investigation into what they believe were backroom dealings that shaped Cupids’ transformation into a provincial historical darling, a status they argue it does not merit.

“You can’t get through to the government,” Ms. Bishop said. “I’m labelled in Cupids because I’m vocal. But I don’t care. This is about control. Of land and of power. All that’s going on in Cupids is because of that John Guy site,” she said, referring to the settlement he established in Cupids.

Of course, Ms. Bishop has personal interest at stake. She has fought attempts to expropriate her land for historical exploration for two decades. Her home sits in Cupids’ core, most of which is now designated heritage property – meaning development is mostly limited to archeological digs – thanks to the determined efforts of the local historical society.

The Cupids Legacy Centre is managed by a non-profit historical society.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

It was back in 1995 that members Roy Dawe, Lloyd Kane and others who volunteer with what was then called the Cupids Historical Society set about putting their town on the map. The 400th anniversary of Guy’s arrival in the cove was on the horizon and would be an occasion for a celebration of national significance.

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“Most Canadians do not know the early English history of Canada,” Mr. Dawe said, pointing out that Newfoundland only joined Canada in 1949 and its history hasn’t always been included in textbooks.

“We wanted to make sure it got told in the proper way,” Mr. Dawe said. "But nobody knew where [Guy’s] site was. Nobody had a clue.”

His group decided to contract Bill Gilbert, an archeologist doing work nearby. He had written a paper on Guy as an undergraduate history major and agreed to come to Cupids for eight weeks of exploration.

“After about a week, we found the site. We were really lucky,” said Mr. Gilbert, who has now been excavating for more than 20 years in Cupids. Three “clues” to the whereabouts of the site were gleaned from historical letters – it placed Guy’s settlement 240 paces from a lake, close to a stream and on the landward side of a saltwater pond. These led the archeologist to unearth historic gold in the first trench he dug.

“We struck the corner of the building,” Mr. Gilbert said. “It was the original dwelling house from 1610.”

Skeptics demurred, citing the lot’s numerous owners over the years and the various structures that were built and torn down.

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Archeologist Bill Gilbert untangles the English flag at the Cupids Cove Plantation historic site.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Gilbert steps into the dig site for the dwelling and storehouse, which is now the site of a museum commemorating the 17th-century English colonists.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Lupins surround tourists' cars at the historic site in Cupids. In 2010, the town played host to a celebration of the 400th anniversary of colonist John Guy's arrival.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Gilbert’s discovery was rocket fuel for the historical society’s momentum. In addition to the 400th anniversary celebration, they now envisioned a new 5,000-square-foot museum to commemorate the colonialists. The volunteers began meeting with provincial and federal government representatives to try to secure funding.

“We were laughed out of a lot of offices,” Mr. Kane said, recalling how difficult it was to convince politicians of the importance of Cupids’ history. “You could write a couple of chapters in a book about the obstacles that we’ve had.”

Their toiling paid off. Former prime minister Stephen Harper travelled to Cupids in 2008 to announce some funding, and, the next year, Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, visited. In all, at least $10-million was pledged by federal and provincial government departments, including the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) and Canadian Heritage, to various local groups tied to the historical society between 2006 and 2010, when the big celebration took place.

Based on Mr. Gilbert’s archeological work, the province gave the Cupids site official historic status.

“We pushed out the designation … to maximize the bang of 2010,” said Gerry Osmond, director of arts and culture with the provincial Department of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation. “It still took some years for people to wrap their heads around, ‘Is this real? Is this it?’ It took the archeologist some time to convince people that it was."

“Academically, it’s verified," Mr. Osmond said. "I don’t think there’s any question for 99 per cent of the people. That’s everybody.”

Not quite. Remember the envelopes?

Poring through archival maps, Ms. Bishop points to "Cooper's Cove." Several of her documents mention this place under different spellings, but 'it's not Cupids. It just sounds like it.'

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The documents inside of them – a combination of legal case files, historical letters and e-mails between government and historical society officials – claim “Cupids Cove Plantation," the name of the provincial historic site, does not appear in the historic records used to underpin its authenticity. Similar names – Cuper’s Cove, sometimes spelled Cupper’s – are mentioned in letters by early colonialists, but not Cupids.

In addition, Ms. Bishop argues that because some historical records suggest the 1610 settlement was near Salmon Cove, a place known now as Avondale some 18 kilometres south of Cupids, there is more reason to doubt Cupids’s claim.

“I’ve got a map of where Cuper’s Cove was to,” Ms. Bishop said of a photocopied map from an old historical textbook. “It’s not Cupids. It just sounds like it.”

Controversy over these historical details has created factions in Cupids and led to broader political tension that has affected town governance and, at times, grounded official business matters to a halt. At one point last year, council had only three members, not enough for a quorum. Suspicions of financial misdoing at town hall were aired on a Facebook group of Cupids residents. And a batch of unsigned posters was put up in town after the election last fall, ominously warning departed councillors: “Don’t forget to pay what you owe this town.”

A forensic audit last year caused more strain. Its scope stretched back to 2009 and included some spending related to the 400th anniversary celebrations and museum build. The auditor’s final report flagged several concerns about accounts and payments that did not reconcile. It also raised flags about the management of money at the town hall.

Mayor Carl Butler said his council, elected last fall, “stepped into the most controversial state that this town has ever been in.” It was not in favour of launching a deeper forensic probe, though.

Ms. Penney, who lost her bid for a town council seat last fall, was incensed.

“The forensic audit would have brought it all out, the skulduggery that’s been going on for years,” she said.

Mike Power, a town councillor who was removed from his post by the province, has been pressing for a broad forensic audit of Cupids' finances.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Sitting beside her at the kitchen table with his own pile of documents was Mike Power, the town councillor who was dismissed from his role by the province last year. It is alleged that Mr. Power overstepped his bounds by having a contentious sewer pipe removed from a private property.

He contests this. As a councillor, Mr. Power was outspoken about the need for more transparency in Cupids and a broader forensic audit. He believes he was scapegoated because of his views.

“It’s got nothing to do with the pipe,” he said. “It’s all got to do with the audit.”

At first, town residents rallied around Mr. Power, who has asked the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador to compel the province to rescind his dismissal. That process is unresolved.

Nearly a year later, Mr. Power has lowered his public profile and has backed down from his role as a loud critic. His discomfort underscores the tensions that continue to fester in Cupids despite its tranquil appearance to outsiders, including the thousands of tourists who will visit its historic site this summer.

“We’re having a wonderful time, even now,” said Mr. Dawe, who led the fundraising efforts for the 2010 celebration and the Cupids Legacy Centre, which is owned and managed by his non-profit group.

“Please don’t go printing things about community opposition,” he said. “Negativisms like that set us back. We have a couple of people saying that John Guy didn’t discover Cupids … and oh, jeez, someone’s got to be pocketing money,” he said, adding: “That’s just foolishness.”

Spokespeople for Canadian Heritage and ACOA, which combined have spent at least $5-million in Cupids since 2008 through contributions to the historical society, now Cupids Legacy Inc., said the group’s spending was in compliance with department rules.

Ms. Bishop is undeterred by this clearance and said she is holding out hope for some form of deeper investigation.

“I knows people thinks I’m foolish,” she said. “But they takes busloads of children through there. Little youngsters goes up there and learns this nonsense about history and that kills me,” she said. “If you’re going to learn something from way back, you might as well learn the truth.”

What might that be? In spite of the five envelopes and the hundreds of pages within them, the town is no closer to burying the dispute.

Lupins are silhouetted as the sun sets behind Spectacle Head.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

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