Approaching truth from another direction

Tuesday August 18th

Having been somewhat immersed in the local native perspective, I find that I’m curious about what the white townspeople have to say about the logging blockade.

We have some free time in the afternoon so I go for a wander – wondering where I might find such a perspective. I consider the strip bar but don’t think I’ll find what I’m looking for there. And then I find myself on a corner and as I look back over my shoulder – there’s the big windows displaying local art – the place Meg had told me about. A storefront on the historic Kendricia Hotel.

The proprietor is a white-haired, white-bearded friendly sort. He’s wearing a workshirt with pockets stuffed with pens and notes and such. I ask him what he’s been reading and he tells me it’s a story about Residential schools. Hmmm…

Don is curious about where I’m from and what I’m up to here in Kenora. I find he’s quite happy to chat and answer my questions. A few customers come and go and he takes care of them and then returns to our conversation.

I ask him what impact the blockade has had on the local economy and he says “not much”. I’m surprised. What about when Abitibi Pulp and Paper shut down? (the operation made the decision to stop clear-cutting in the late nineties when the Ontario government finally began to respond to Native concerns and the future of their cutting contracts seemed murky.)

Don says that most of the workforce at Abitibi was older. They were happy to receive their compensation packages. Turns out Don was working as an employment counselor for the federal government at the time and knows quite a bit about the local workforce.

I tell him about my friend’s sister’s report that there is high unemployment in Kenora and he shrugs. “There’s definitely a lack of steady high-skilled jobs that provide benefits. There’s no shortage of part-time service jobs and the tourist industry is a big seasonal employer. There’s a new stud mill scheduled to open up this fall but they’re having trouble finding local skilled labour. There’s also plans for a Casino – one of five across the north – but no official announcements yet.

“The federal and provincial governments had departments here that were big employers. But MNR (provincial Ministry of Natural Resources) is now a fraction of what it once was. The Service Canada department where I worked has moved most of its jobs to a centralized, computerized location.”

I try to dig a bit deeper asking if there was much reaction to the blockade. He shakes his head, “A neighbour who was a heavy machine operator – doing road building – wasn’t too happy when his work stopped. But he’s a high-skilled worker and he just moved on.”

We chat about the number of independent retailers and restaurants downtown and he says it’s a struggle to keep things going through the winter months. His own operation fronting the historic Kendric Hotel seems to be more of a retirement pastime than a moneymaker.

“Oh I could go on” he says “but we’d need a campfire to get into it.” He shows me some of the local art hanging in the café. There’s a stunning charcoal portrait of a first nations woman. Don tells me the artist couldn’t afford to frame it and was willing to take the best price Don could get for it. We talk about what the market might provide for such a piece down south. He says it’s a different story up here.

After he serves another customer, we get into a short discussion of the Energy East pipeline. It’s a hot question locally. CPTers joined local townspeople and native activists just last week on a walk to protest this new development. Transcanada pipeline plans to convert a natural gas pipeline into a tar sands pipeline has raised concerns about spills.

“What I’d like to hear about is better safety regulations. I think that’s the common ground here. They tell us that their safety controls can respond within half an hour. That’s not good enough. What if someone’s asleep at the switch? A lot of damage can happen quickly. Our municipality should demand five minute warning systems and a fund to deal with clean-ups.”

I buy some ice cream and a few used books. The money for the books goes towards a local Cat Rescue Shelter. Don is obviously a guy with a big heart. His love for Kenora and the great outdoors is as clear as his generous nature.

Don’s perspective is one of those four ways (or twelve ways) of approaching the truth I was blogging about a few days ago. I thank him for the chat.

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