Growing up in Northwestern Ontario, in a small town far from urban centres, I never realized just how isolated my childhood was until I was about twelve or thirteen. It never struck me as odd that we only had one movie theatre with a single screen, and because it took so long to send the reels of film to us we didn’t get to see the movies until sometimes months had passed since their release. It never dawned on me that we had to drive over an hour in any direction just to reach another town. I never clued in to the fact our men were sequestered into jobs in forestry, mining, and trucking because that was all we had to offer. That and prime fishing and hunting real-estate. I never questioned that the only name worth something in our community was an NHL hockey player who after several years seemed to forget where he came from.
But as I grew older I started to hear the same thing from the people around me, “I want to get out. I will not get stuck here.” And so that became my mantra as well. I promised myself I would go away to school, somewhere far enough that I could leave the North behind, but close enough that I could return for holidays. And for six years I went on a journey of self-discovery. During those years I found creativity and passion, I found new friends who saw the world in different ways. My eyes were opened to all of the possibilities I knew must have been out there, I just couldn’t see them for the trees and lakes and the promise of home. But now that I was looking an entire world was waiting at my feet.
The more I learned about the world, the more I understood that something terribly wrong was happening to my home. Every time I had to explain where I was from, I realized just how much people didn’t know about us. If I had a nickel for each time someone tried to tell me Northern Ontario was Parry Sound, Barrie, or Sudbury, well I could’ve probably walked away from school debt free. While I was learning about this beautiful and destructive world, I learned something frightening. People didn’t know we existed. People thought the world stopped just a few hours north of the Greater Toronto Area. People from the West skipped over us. A rest-stop on the way to greater things. People from the East didn’t even think there was anything there.
It was devastating to realize that my home and the people in it had been forgotten, had been overlooked. It was even more devastating that I didn’t originally care. I was still concerned with getting out.
I knew I couldn’t ignore the problem any longer when I was doing a reading contest with a category for choosing an author from or a book set in your hometown. Well, I would never expect to find writers from Northwestern Ontario on the best-seller list, and I would never expect someone to choose my “dying town” as a setting. But it was the fact that I wouldn’t expect that, it was the fact that I was right, that got me. There are so many voices in the North, so many stories that go untold.
We are a people that live through some of the harshest winters in Canada. We search to find a balance with nature and animals so that we may live in peaceful co-existence. We struggle to maintain our infrastructure when the province often forgets that we need safer roads. Our highways are a deathtrap, our forests are kindling waiting to go up in flame at the first sign of lightning, our health care is reliant on a cycle of doctors, most not willing to stay out the storm.
But do not take this for weakness. We are strong. We are a proud people and we will weather the cold. Each year we continue to survive, and we persevere until once again we can thrive. We are families, artists, athletes, brains, hands, and hearts. We will not sit idly by and let our stories go untold. We are the North. And we are here.