The following story is part of a volume of stories collected from the residents of the R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. For more information on this project, click here.
Joan was born in 1934, in South Shields, beside the River Tyne in County Durham in England. After her dad’s death, her mom, Marjorie, met a Canadian soldier, George Dillon (“Dill”), and in 1946, after he was demobbed (discharged), the family sailed to Halifax aboard the 4-funneled Aquitania. Tragically, her two-year-old brother died on the voyage.
Joan was an athlete. She became the badminton singles champion for Antigonish town and county, and her softball team once came second in the provincial championships.
Joan’s real claim to fame is her creation at St. Francis Xavier University (StFX), in 1965, of the X-Project, with an initial 13 student volunteers, with the primary goal of bringing education to marginalized communities. The project has created programmes in Pictou Landing, Upper Big Tracadie, Lincolnville, and Paq’tnkek, where there is a street named after Joan. There have now been well over 4000 student volunteers, including present StFX president, Sean Riley, who made a movie documenting the X-Project’s many activities. About 100 StFX students travel every week to these communities, as well as scout camps they have helped to establish, and X Project will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2015.
Joan has had several major health issues, including cancer, in recent years, but she continues as vital and inspiring as ever. Her oncologist considers her total recovery from widespread cancer—without the benefit of any radiation and chemotherapy—nothing short of a miracle.
This is a summary of my three meetings with my new friend, Joan Dillon, who indeed seems to already be a friend to just about everyone around here! Joan is a lively and eloquent woman who told me many wonderful stories of her life and her work. She is, however, very modest and is rather reluctant to be recorded directly on tape. I will include here just a few direct quotes of our conversations.
Joan was born in 1934 in South Shields, beside the River Tyne in County Durham in northeast England. This makes her what is called a “Geordie”. Geordies consider themselves to be a separate nation, independent of both England and Scotland! Her dad died when she was two, and her mom, Marjorie, moved with her to the town of Tilford in the county of Surrey, near London. There Marjorie met a Canadian soldier, Charlie Dillon (“Dill”) who had been based in England. Dill and Marjorie married, and she and Joan took his name. In 1946, after Dill was demobbed, they set sail from Southampton for Halifax on board the Aquitania. “She was a 4-funnel ship, bigger than the Queen Mary,” Joan told me. “She had been used to carry troops and medical personnel across the North Atlantic during World War II, and now carried many ‘war brides’ to North America.” Tragically, her little brother died of dysentery on board, but the rest of the family soon settled in Nova Scotia.
Joan said that she was able to return to England on six separate visits with her mom. The last one was in 1999, after her mom died at aged 93, which was a special trip to take Marjorie’s ashes home and scatter them in the North Sea back in County Durham. To make sure they weren’t confiscated, she hid the ashes in a Kleenex box inside a Sobey’s bag. “My mom had a dream in which she was walking from the beach out to sea on a moonbeam,” Joan told me. “She called it a silver path streaming right up to her window. So, I know that was her wish when she died.”
Joan was always an athlete, and competed at softball, ice hockey and badminton. “Badminton was my best sport,” she said. “I was Antigonish town and county singles champ. And we came second in the Nova Scotia softball provincial competition one year.”
In 1965, when Joan was in her early 30’s, she heard about a potter , Gil Gaudry, who was working on a First-Nations reservation, and who had just died. Joan was already working in Lincolnville as a potter, and so she and her two girlfriends volunteered to go and take on this work. It was this that led to Joan, helped by Joe Webb and Roly Chiasson at StFX, to create the X-Project, with an initial 13 student volunteers. From then until now they have had well over 4000 student volunteers, and 43 student presidents, including Sean Riley, StFX’s current president, who made a movie documenting X-project’s many activities. The project will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2015, and a group is now gathering together an archive of all the records to publish a book about it.
The X-project was built on the foundation of social justice, of working in service to the community, giving for the greater good, not for glory, and of “each one teach one.” “X” stands not just for StFX but also for the unknown factor – meaning that every one of us have something within us to contribute. Joan added that their motto was: “I would tell them ‘Aim for the moon and you might just hit a tree’”. The group has established X-project communities in Pictou Landing, Upper Big Tracadie, and Afton (Paq’tnkek, pronounced Bucktengeg). They were all either African Canadian or Mi’kmaq communities. The initial entry to the Mi’kmaq community was through Father Anthony, who was made an honorary Indian chief in Lincolnville. Joan now has a street – Dillon Street – named after her in Paq’tntek.
Joan recalls the early presence of African Canadians in Antigonish, and the initial racism: “In 1972, there was a riot, because the blacks got into trouble with the bouncers at a dance at the Parish Centre. The white guys chased them all the way up Church Street and along St Ninian’s Street, yelling racial slurs and cuss words at them, and eventually the police took them into the town gaol to protect them.”
One of the project’s early student volunteers was Father MacDonnell. “Everyone says he was a saint,” Joan said. When it came to his ordination, she decorated his ordination cake, which was made of a combination of pound cake and fruit cake. “I can’t cook, but I can decorate. He was a piper, so I put a piper on the top of his cake.”
The X-project finally got a bus to transport the students, and later campers when they established cub scout camps (“DYB, DYB, DYB – DUB, DUB, DUB” – Do your best, do our best ). This bus had 67,000 miles on it already and cost them $10,000. “Several of the student volunteers were handy mechanics and used to maintain it,” Joan told me. Later, with the aid of a loan, they were able to buy a bus which only had twenty thousand miles on it! There would always be guitar playing and singing on the bus, and it became a familiar sight parked outside Joan’s little house near the university.
Nowadays, 75-100 students travel every week by bus to the several X-project communities, and the students spend their time supplementing the children’s education. They also bring groups of children into Antigonish for recreational activities, which involve new experiences in leadership and social and cultural interplay. “We had to learn to discipline the children sometimes,” Joan told me. “It was a bit easier with the boys, who just got into fights and quickly got over it. The girls, though, they could be a little bit catty with each other.”
Before he died in 1987, Joan’s stepfather, Dill, got very involved in the X-project. He had been a cook in the army, so he was great at producing all kinds of food. When he was still an enlisted man, it had been nothing for him to produce 700 pies for the fighting troops by dawn’s early light. “You could never leave his house without a bag of cookies or a couple of pies,” she said. Gill also had a reputation for making ginger snaps. One day, his old school teacher from Charlottetown, Stella Walsh, now in her 80’s, showed up and asked him for a dozen ginger snaps. When he presented them to her, she gave him a dollar bill: “Have yourself a treat,” she said.
Dill was especially gifted with the children. If a child was homesick, he or she would seek out Dill, who would soon get them through it. At one of the camps, there was a boy who was sleep-walking and sleep-talking. He was relating how he was being attacked and had to defend himself. Dill just listened in and asked him questions, like “How many are there now?” and “Are they getting closer?” The boy seemed to enjoy them, but Dill knew not to wake him suddenly and scare him. And, once, when they made a trip to PEI in the bus, Dill was driving, and he insisted on stopping all the way along to pick up the many hitchhikers, so the bus became crammed full and there was lots of sharing of jokes and stories.
One big feature of the X-project has been a literacy campaign, and often both children and their parents join together. “The children often catch on quicker, so they get to help the grown-ups,” Joan told me. “But we had one 91-year-old lady, Granny Jane Desmond, and I taught her to read in twenty minutes!”
Many of the student alumni keep in close touch with Joan. She just got a longhand letter from one, Richard, now a school teacher in Arviat, Nunivut, who has just adopted a baby girl, Elise, from a First-Nation family.
Joan has been at the RK for about fifteen months and has had a number of health issues in recent times. Some while back, she told me, she developed breast cancer which spread to six different bones. She didn’t take either radiation or chemotherapy, but she is in a complete remission now and her latest scans confirm this. “This is a real miracle, my oncologist, Dr MacCormack, says.”
It’s been a special delight to make Joan Dillon’s acquaintance. She has led an amazing life, and I am proud to have known her. – John Graham-Pole, November 2011
Article by John Graham-Pole. All photos by Kathryn Collicot.