Kamloops — how do I love thee? Let me count the ways

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ten years ago, a small advertisement in the Globe and Mail caught my eye.

The timing was fortuitous. I’d left a 25-year career at a large daily newspaper in Ontario, only to discover that working for the federal government was not the relaxing, normal, peaceful gig I thought it would be.

My husband, having also left an equally long career covering Parliament, was finding his own post-journalism job in communications at the University of Western Ontario was also not the relaxing, normal, peaceful gig he anticipated.

And there it was, an ad seeking applications for a job teaching journalism at some place called University College of the Cariboo in some community called Kamloops.

“Here, apply for this,” I suggested over dinner. “At least you’ll get a trip to B.C. out of it.”

A couple of months later, we had a massive moving van crammed with all the things a family of seven accumulates through the years — including the 34 boxes of Alan’s books — and were heading west.

Now, for a girl who had never been further west — in Canada — than Thunder Bay and who had lived for her four-plus decades in the same city, this was one emotion-filled trip.
I was leaving behind my mother and my father died just a couple of weeks before we left — a move that, at the time, had me convinced was calculated to stop us from heading to what he derided as a “pulp-mill” town.

I also had to say goodbye to a huge group of incredible friends, including Catherine, my oldest and dearest friend.

And so we drove west.

Alan takes great delight in telling people of my first reaction to the Rockies.

I cried.

Thank god he was driving because I couldn’t do much more than gaze and weep. It’s one thing to know they exist, but quite another to see them.

We beat the moving van to Kamloops — I spent countless hours learning to say it with the emphasis on the first syllable — found the house we had rented unseen over the Internet, had our introduction to the glorious pizzas Panago makes, bunked the first night on the floor in sleeping bags and set out the next day to learn more about the place we were now calling home.

That was the day I declared that, in a previous life, I must have lived in Kamloops because everything about the city just felt right.

Felt familiar.

Felt like home.

Felt like a great place for the kids to grow up.

I mentioned this to a friend recently, who gave me her patented “you are so strange” look and announced she had no idea why I would feel that way. How could I possibly think Kamloops is an incredible place in which to live?

I’m chalking that ridiculous statement up to the fact she’s about the same age as my daughter and finds the idea of pondering retirement complete unfathomable.

But there are so many reasons to love Kamloops. Here are just a few:

Music in the Park. The Farmers’ Market. The Thompson River. The hills that can be seen from almost any place in the city. Riverside Park. The way people just stop if you look like you’re trying to cross the road. Western Canada Theatre. The way people are so willing to help others.

The list of incredible people I’ve met in the past decade would be too long for this space, but each of them makes Kamloops a wonderful place to live.

Now, before some of you e-mail writers start warming up the keyboard, there are downsides to Kamloops as well, but their impact is insignificant — and often inspirational, especially when it’s time to come up with another column idea.

I still go back to London every year to see the grandchildren and check in on the ones who’ve flown the Kamloops nest. I hang out with Catherine, who delights in driving me around the city that has grown exponentially since we left. But, after about a week of gridlock, flat horizons, way too much rain and people who seem to be on a constant caffeine kick, it’s time to come home.

And that’s here. Can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Rural schools are the heart of what defines B.C.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Thirty Canadian geese swam up to the dock today.

A baby duck jumped onto Alan’s kayak.

And, when I went to buy newspapers — it’s an addiction, what can I say? — and bread, the lady behind the cash register remembered me.

This is rural B.C. It’s what we all brag about when we talk to our friends and relatives back East.

It’s what we talk about when we explain why this is God’s country.

More than Cambie Street or Robson Street or the proximity to Washington state, it is the grandeur outside the 604 exchange that truly describes what British Columbia is.

And it’s why talk of closing schools in rural areas of the Kamloops area is simply wrong.

Rural B.C. isn’t the same as Vancouver or Victoria. It’s not even the same as Kamloops. It’s those communities where everyone knows everyone else. Where they nod their heads as they drive past you. Where they tell you to have a great day and you get the feeling they really mean it.

It’s where their schools are more than just a collection of classrooms. They’re as much a part of the hub of the community as those halls and arenas that host the local artisans with their craft fairs and the tiny-tot hockey teams every winter.

Take away a rural community’s school and you’ve killed much of its heart.

You’ve taken away yet another reason why these pioneers — and that’s what they are, even today — choose to live the tough life that defines much of rural British Columbia. You might as well close their legion, shut down the mom-and-pop grocery store and roll up the streets.

Closing their schools is more than just a smack upside the face. It’s a death blow -- and these are people who do not deserve that kid of treatment.

Which is not to say School District 73 isn’t facing tough times and has some tough decisions to make. But let’s be honest. Close a neighbourhood school in Kamloops and all those affected families will simply have to learn to become part of some other school community.

We’ve done it with our children who, because we have chosen to send them not to our neighbourhood elementary, but to Beattie School of the Arts, have had to learn to become part of a community created from throughout Kamloops.

It’s hasn’t been that difficult. If the guys want to go visit with some school chums, they have to take a slightly longer bus ride. They don’t have to ask us to drive them to another city.

Close the school in Pinantan, Heffley, Westwold or Savona and you’re forcing the children to leave their home community and ride on a bus for a ridiculously long time to attend a school whose community can never really be their own.

What is most galling is that all it takes is a majority of the board to enact these cold, callous decisions. And that same majority doesn’t have to rely on the rural vote to be re-elected.

Can’t you picture it? It’s so simple.

The Kamloops trustees — a majority — shut down the rural schools. They don’t lose a lot of votes in the city because, heck, they didn’t do much in Kamloops. The few rural trustees rage and rail and condemn — a surefire way to guarantee re-election next time we go to the polls.

Nobody loses — except those who live in Pinantan, Westwold, Heffley, Savona and all those other communities that really define what British Columbia is.


May Henry be the last to perish on the cold city streets

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Henry Leland never had an easy life.

He was kicked out of his band at Squilax when he was just a teen — albeit one who was already headed down the path that would take him to the streets of Kamloops.

His mother was beaten to death in Vancouver.

He was estranged from his father, who died just before Henry’s frozen body was found out front of the Knights Inn, snow piled around him.

No one had noticed.

The anonymity of the street life may have been Henry’s legacy at one point but, thanks to the AIDS Society of Kamloops, his name now defines what was once called the Whistler Inn.

And, it’s hoped, the other part of his legacy is that, as social agencies strive to provide housing for those who are hard to house, Henry may be the last street person to die.

Tina Baptiste loves the sentiment, but doesn’t expect that reality.

As someone who thought of Henry as a brother — and who fought for him when he wasn’t strong enough to apply for a disability pension and the other fundamental cogs in our province’s unravelling social-safety net — Tina has seen too many friends die.

And they’re all her friends, the street family, as she describes those who many Kamloopsians try so desperately to not see as they walk downtown.

“He was just so lost,” Tina says of Henry.

“It’s been so hard to let Henry go.”

Tina has spent years working with people like Henry.

She took an advocacy course years ago with Skylark Disraeli — and then headed out to help.

As with Henry, she’s helped members of her street family get the benefits they should be receiving.

She’s learned how to keep smiling in social-assistance offices, even when she wants to scream at the wait — which can go on for hours.

Today, she’s hoping to see changes come with the opening and occupancy of Henry Leland House, a building that — despite massive cost overruns to deal with a building constructed at a time when the rules weren’t so rigid — is filling a gap.

ASK executive director Bob Hughes agrees.

In fact, he’s been adamant the times we’ve talked about this program — and yes, we’ve had pleasant and not-so-pleasant conversations about it — that Henry is going to be the last person in Kamloops to die on the streets because he had no home.

Last winter, with just the rumour of another homeless person being found frozen to death, Hughes was desperately trying to find out the facts because it’s his mission to provide housing for the hard-to-house.

He’s not the only one.

No matter how you feel about the Victory Inn or Georgian Court, you have to agree the John Howard Society — and, in particular, its CEO, Dawn Hyrcan — has led the way in building low-income housing.

Despite losing a crucial Interior Health Authority contract, Tim Larose and the New Life Mission are doing everything they can to continue to provide even more needed housing for women.

The Kamloops branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association has its Emerald House, which provides housing for women.

Interior Community Services probably owns more housing it uses for its clients than most Kamloopsians know.

The agency for which I volunteer — Kamloops Society for Community Living is also heavily invested in providing housing, but for disabled adults.

These are just some of the organizations that quietly, determinedly, persevere in their goal to get our brothers and sisters, our sons and our parents off the street or ensure they never end up here.

Henry Leland House is the newest one on the block, so to speak, but one has to hope it won’t be the last.

Because, although we all desperately want to believe it, it’s unlikely Henry will be the last person to die in the cold on the streets of Kamloops.