You don’t have to know me well to know that one of my personal idols is Joni Mitchell. It’s not just that I’m a sucker for all things Canadian — her songs have brought me joy and comfort since I was a kid, and since getting older I’ve also loved her matter-of-fact, shooting-from-the-hip manner of speaking. She’s grown older, but is not a quiet mouse or gentle, grandmotherly type. Want proof? Her recent interview on Q with Jian Ghomeshi should tell you everything you need to know.
Here’s one thing I’m beginning to learn I have in common with Joni — we don’t look upon our hometowns with great pride. In fact, Joni Mitchell recently went on record denouncing any plans to be a part of any tributes to her in her hometown of Saskatoon — calling the city “extremely bigoted” and “unworldly.”
Saskatoon has decided to go ahead with tributes to Joni anyway, of course respectfully disagreeing with her assessment of their city.
Now, it’s hard for me to identify in direct parallels to this event because I’ve never been fully sure where my hometown is. I was born in 1989 in London, ON and by 1990 was a full-time resident of Kapuskasing, ON, where I lived for ten underwhelming years. At age ten I moved to what appeared to be a booming metropolis next to Kap — Timmins, ON. My formative years were spent getting buzzed with other angry adolescents at hardcore shows in Timmins’s shittiest dive bars and clomping around the cigarette butt-littered streets in my ski jacket for six months of the year. I was lucky enough to move to North Bay at age sixteen, and four hours South seemed to make all the difference. My parents moved once again in late 2008, this time to a suburb of Oshawa, but I was just about to spend four years in Kitchener-Waterloo attending university anyway (this was when my personal dilemma of answering the “where are you from?” question first arose).
I’m now a full-time resident of Toronto along with many of my other Timmins friends. It seems we can’t have one get-together in which we don’t dissolve into a conversation about how messed up the town can be at times, often masking our disdain with incredulity and laughter.
In late 2012, Timmins unveiled a not-yet controversial rebranding strategy. The reason the strategy was not so controversial was because no one really knew about its details. When two of my friends were bored waiting for a flight, they took a look at the details of the branding strategy and found themselves scratching their heads at both the juvenile branding techniques (seriously, even a word cloud would have been better) and the content itself — “Tim Hortons, not Starbucks”? “Steak, not sushi”? “Hockey, not ribbon dancing”? It was that kind of underlying discomfort — we could all sense that the true message of this rebranding was a very stick-in-the-mud, white-is-right, Western-centric, we-ain’t-no-girly-men-here kind of view of the town. Feeling disappointed, I vented my frustrations the only way I knew how — through writing. To my surprise, my letter was published. The outrage was unsurprising at first — but it built into an issue that continued to be discussed and rehashed in council meetings and local news (only stretching on even longer when my awesome drunken friends decided to write a song about it — oh, and they managed to get CBC coverage while your’s truly sat in her Toronto-based castle made of golden newspapers drawing designs for her CBC tattoo).
For awhile I cushioned my statements when discussing the issue, eager to prove that I was proud of where I came from — very proud, in fact! I loved living a simple life of sledding down tiny hills in the winter and springing into murky lakes in the summer, watching kids zoom into the school parking lots on their snowmobiles every morning, the stench of gas soaked into their coats. I told myself that I loved being a small-town, Northern girl.
But every time I visit back there’s this lingering feeling of subtle hostility — was Timmins proud of me? What had they done to encourage and foster my own skills? There had always been an underlying elitism for pickup trucks, four-wheelers and Molson Canadian, one that I even took part in as a team. There was even, in my eyes, somewhat of a disdain for higher education throughout much of the town. It was optional. Take a fifth year of high school, work for awhile. With Timmins’ booming economy, you could easily get a job in the mines — or even the local inbound call centre — and buy your first house in no time. Settle down with your sweetheart. Add a dog and a yard, boom, you have your permanent life.
It’s a place where people I know have had rocks kicked at them because they were gay.
I’ve resigned to the fact that I’m not Timmins’ prodigal daughter. Maybe North Bay and Kapuskasing want me, but Timmins does not. For awhile I felt lost, like I didn’t really hae a hometown. I’d always identified Timmins as the fill for that blank because, well, 10-16 are important years. All my friends were from Timmins. I had my first kiss in Timmins, got my first job there and had my first taste of alcohol. Now essentially a pariah, I really felt I had no place there.
Recently, following some extended family drama, someone I know made the decision to distance himself from his own family for much of the same reasons I’d condemned Timmins in my letter. Though I worried at first that he would find himself a man without a family, he has seemed happier than ever. Perhaps that’s because he has his own family now, one that he’s made for himself. He may not be proud of where he comes from, but where he comes from is not proud of him — why do them that favour?
I’ve told myself the same thing. Instead of worrying about having a fill for the blank next to the “hometown” question, worry about where I am now. Instead of struggling to find something good to say about the place that didn’t support my dreams and my uniqueness, focus on finding good things to say about myself.
You don’t have to be proud or pay lip service to your hometown. Especially if they weren’t proud of you.