Finding your first home is no easy task. But for long-time nomad and artist Alphiya Joncas, living at a fixed address is opening new horizons
TEXT AND PHOTOS Catherine Bernier
IN PARTNERSHIP WITH
This is part of the Dossier First Home Stories.
A thick fog has rolled in over the shores of the Magdalen Islands. For the past few days, it has drifted from village to village, leaving timid glimpses of milky light in its wake. I meet up with Alphiya Joncas at L’Îlot, a café-bistro in Cap-aux-Meules that serves as a perfect port of call. Joncas’ gentleness immediately puts me at ease. Everyone in the village agrees: she is a real treasure.
We head over to the café’s boutique space, where Joncas’ works are currently on display alongside Marilou Pelletier’s textiles (under the name Borlicoco & co). I let myself get lost in their twinned worlds that stir with a singular island poetry.
Joncas’ photographs, texts, and sculptures adorn the café’s walls and shelves. Fluctuating coastal landscapes, close-ups of golden chanterelles, rocks proffering shelter, capes dotted with vernacular homes, and imagined houses rising out of immaculate dunes: Joncas’ desire to anchor herself in the land emerges clearly across all her work.
An avid forager, she collects berries and mushrooms to share with her loved ones. Joncas is constantly learning more about the land on which she lives — as a way of knowing herself and nourishing her creative process.
“I’m obsessed with redefining how a person can belong to a place, which probably comes from the fact that I was adopted,” she confides.
Born near the border of Kazakhstan and Russia, Joncas was adopted by a couple from the Magdalen Islands when she was two years old. She’s never really left. Even while she was pursuing her studies in visual and media arts in Québec City, she’d return each summer to her parents’ home in Havre-aux-Maisons to escape the city heat.
She moved back to the Islands year-round in 2018, though not to a fixed address, instead finding a series of house- and pet-sitting gigs. This way of life also helped her save up.
But when the housing crisis on the Magdalen Islands reached unprecedented proportions, Joncas dreamed of setting aside the poetry of her nomadic lifestyle and putting down roots. “The pandemic happened, and the people whose homes I was used to taking care of weren’t leaving anymore. It became harder and harder to find a place to live,” she explains.
“When Lyse decided to move away, she reached out to me. She wanted to sell her place to someone who lives on the Islands year-round, at a reasonable price.”
Joncas is grateful to have been given this opportunity, and her home being fully furnished was a big plus. “Lyse left me everything, even her tools. The only thing I bought was a bed!”
In the spring of 2023, she bought a bungalow in Fatima, a village not far from her parents’ property, where she creates her sculptures in a garage workspace she shares with her father. Her bungalow had belonged to a woman named Lyse, whom she met on the board of AdMare, an artist-run centre. Lyse had made up her mind to leave the island to join her sisters, who live near Montréal.
Over the past few months, Joncas has made the house her own by incorporating artworks she’s accumulated over the years: cushions crafted by Marilou Pelletier in her favourite colour, royal blue; a large black-and white photograph by Sara Tremblay; a multitude of books, especially poetry; rocks chosen with care; and a few of Joncas’ own paintings.
After she gives me a guided tour of her home, we settle into the living room to chat about this new step in her life.
How did you manage to buy a house on your own? How are you handling the responsibility?
I’m lucky to have support from my parents, who co-signed for my mortgage from Desjardins, seeing as I had little to prove my financial viability. I also use other strategies to support this project: for example, I rent the house out during the summer, and I have a second job at AdMare, in addition to my work as an artist and businessperson.
I’m planning on renovating the basement and taking care of most of it myself: redoing the plumbing, putting in dividing walls, and adding electrical outlets for better lighting. I have a bit of experience in the area; my father and I built the garage at my parents’ place together, and I like working with my hands. It’s also part of my goal of being self-sufficient as a woman. I’m lucky to have a group of resourceful female friends; we help each other out, doing rounds of teamwork on our respective projects.
What have you learned from buying your first home?
I’ve learned that I grew up in a comfortable and privileged environment, with parents who taught me to work hard and save. I’ve benefited from housing security, always having a place to stay at my parents’ home if I need it, at a time when many young adults on the Magdalen Islands are in a precarious situation. It’s given me the time to lay the groundwork for this big investment almost entirely on my own.
What new projects will your house help you achieve?
I’m especially keen to see how putting down roots will change my creative process, as well as my relationship with my materials and the Islands. Up to now, my artistic approach has been strongly influenced by moving around a lot. Not only do I have my own house now, I also have an amazing space in the basement that will become my studio. That’s really what I’m most excited about.
The wind is rising. Joncas goes out to hang her sheets on the clothesline, which she pitches with a stick — a typically Magdalen Islands technique. It reminds me of a figurative device in one of her poems — “le drap des vagues,” the sheet of waves. Alphiya Joncas may have dropped anchor by buying a home, but the ever-shifting landscape of the Islands remains her natural habitat.
For over 120 years, Desjardins has been supporting its members and clients in their financial autonomy, putting money in service of human development. In summer 2023, the co-operative launched FSHA, a new registered savings account that allows people to save money tax-free to buy a first home. desjardins.com/celiapp
Catherine Bernier is a creative director, a freelance writer and photographer, and the co-founder of The Parcelles, a seaside retreat for artists in residence in Nova Scotia. The influence of nature and culture on human choices and stories remains one of her core interests.