Over the last couple of years, we’ll call them the COVID years, there has been an appreciable influx of new residents into West Nipissing. Many of these people have no former connection with West Nipissing or its inhabitants. The Tribune was curious about how these newcomers were settling in, and put out a call to get impressions: the good, the bad, and the improvable. Over a dozen respondents provided comments, some engaged in lengthy interviews regarding their experiences and impressions. Most of the news is good, some a bit disturbing.
People in West Nipissing like to think of themselves as generous, responsive, engaged, and welcoming. Well, yes, we are. Given the conditions around COVID, the lockdowns and shutdowns, the vast majority of respondents, while crying about the lack of social activities available to them, still said they found opportunities, mostly through volunteering or through taking advantage of the natural surroundings. Sturgeon Falls Beautification, the Mural Project, and the West Nipissing Food Bank all featured as entry points for some new community members when it came to socializing.
Some of the new homeowners were a bit frustrated finding tradespeople to help them fix up their fixer-uppers, mostly because there is a shortage of qualified trades people in West Nipissing. One felt they were taken advantage of and felt there should be a Better Business Bureau, and others were exceptionally pleased with the quality of service they received, but said it would be very helpful to have a sort of welcome package through their real estate agent with a comprehensive list of tradespeople and shops – they want to spend their money locally. One had to hire a plumber from Sudbury.
Many started by joining social media pages to get a feel for West Nipissing. All respondents were from other regions in Ontario, many from the south, and almost without exception they were not aware of the francophone nature of West Nipissing and commented that, while they were always treated with courtesy, they would appreciate opportunities to learn French. Those opportunities could be provided in a variety of ways – free courses topping the list. There was a willingness to integrate into an established community, but also some cynicism when it came to local government, that concerns of the established citizenry seemed to be ignored.
The face of West Nipissing is changing somewhat; how will the structures in place accommodate and respond to new faces who aren’t related to anyone local? How can we address social concerns and the feelings of isolation? There is a municipal election coming up – the municipality has benefited from all this recent investment, including new tax dollars. Where’s the welcome wagon?
Jessica Somers and her husband and child live halfway between Lavigne and Verner. They moved during lockdown in August of 2020, and they love it. “We think the community is fantastic.” Jessica, originally from Chelmsford, is Indigenous. On the day of their move, she and her husband received word that their long-awaited adoption of a daughter, a child also of visible minority, had come through. Her husband commutes to Sudbury for work. The couple had been looking for a permanent home for 14 years – she was working in Chelsea, Quebec, for the Native Women’s Organization of Canada, commuting every 7 weeks. Because of her First Nations connections, she readily made contacts with people at Nipissing and Dokis, but “To move to West Nipissing was a bit of a challenge. I’m very fair-skinned; Abenaki are fair skinned… First Nations are not always so inclusive.” She found that both Dokis and Nipissing were much easier for her to make connections than some other reserves. As for West Nipissing itself, most of the difficulties she faced had to do with COVID. “I would say the most difficult was all the community events cancelled. More community events would be great. I contacted the community hall here in Lavigne to offer some workshops – that was what I did for Native Women’s Organization of Canada – that was my outreach.”
Somers felt she was in a better position than most because she has a solid background in social systems. “We found out there was a neighbourhood watch in our area, I was added to a (social media) group. Every time I had to do repairs on my house, firewood, needed birchbark – I asked on there.” Does she feel she was getting adequate representation and access to political and community structures? “They are only accessible to me because I’m a social worker; I reach out and I navigate the system, that’s my job. There needs to be more – especially for young families, more advertising on what is happening in West Nipissing.” She dealt with the municipality because she is building. “I had no issues with anything. I know what I’m doing, but new families, older families, I’m more concerned with how they connect. My husband is English, and most people here speak English, but he would take a French program [if offered] because he struggles with that.” She also remarked that there are 22 houses on her street and since they moved in, 4 houses have sold, again to people new to the area. “It would be nice to have a welcome… give a care package, a list of shops, advertising for everyone, a primer on the area, and you could sector it too – Lavigne, Verner, Cache Bay … It would have been very beneficial for us. Even now we’re still looking for a contractor to build a garage.”
Several individuals spoken to requested to remain anonymous. One couple decided to move to the area because “House prices down south were outrageous!” They visited communities from Mattawa to Sault Ste Marie and decided on Sturgeon Falls, just before the pandemic. They found local people to be very friendly. “I thought our decision was the best at the time, but in all honesty, I wish, as a parent, I looked further into other aspects.” For one, she said, in West Nipissing most jobs are posted as “bilingualism required” rather than an asset. “I had troubles in my past job with elderly [people], disgusted that I don’t speak French. I was quite hurt… As of right now there are not many activities for children, and I have been told by locals it’s always been that way.”
This couple has been looking at other communities. “We have visited Elliot Lake, and it is thriving with activities for both adults and kids and has more essential services. We have thought about moving in three years.” She did note, “This is a beautiful town. I just feel we really do need to grow with stores and services. I hope I did not hit a nerve… Just want to be honest.” She suggested a big box store “especially because we don’t even have a baby store,” plus the lack of taxi service was concerning. “I feel it is extremely important for anyone, but especially the elder public and visitors who want to enjoy dinner and drinks.” This couple said they had an excellent relationship with their real estate agent, who was based in North Bay.
Nicole Entwhistle recently moved to her new home near Crystal Falls. She loves living where she lives, although she found it difficult at first with COVID. “I don’t speak French and knew absolutely no-one. I’m settling in now and I’ve made some friends and my son (aged 16) is attending school at Northern and has made friends – which as a parent is very important. Home schooling was difficult as we live outside of Sturgeon Falls… no neighbours like we had in Brampton. He felt isolated. But we all love it now!”
Duncan Stewart is a renter who lives in Sturgeon Falls. He is also a visible minority being small of stature as the result of spina bifida as a child. Born in southern Ontario, he’s finding West Nipissing a good place to live. “I lived in Scotland for 17 years, but originally from Etobicoke. I’ve been here since January 2018 – that was a bit of a crapshoot. I was in the radio industry in Scotland and one of the guys I dealt with was based out of Sudbury.” Stewart does voice overs for West Nipissing Food Bank PSAs on Moose Radio. “I record here from my home and send it to the Moose.” He is one of those rare individuals who finds his rent “very reasonable”, but adds that there’s give and take on both sides of the coin and he doesn’t live in an apartment building “where I’m just a number”.
When first arriving in town, “I at first needed to get things sorted – I came here with nothing but my clothes, so to speak.” He had no food in the fridge and went to the food bank, “but I couldn’t take without giving back, so I started volunteering. It started with the food bank and from there told them I did voiceovers – we had food rescue at the time… I lived in a small town overseas and I thought they were givers, but here the community effort of giving back to fellow community members is fantastic! I’ve never seen such giving people! Obviously, we’ve got the other side of the coin, which you have in every town and city all over the world, but I was really impressed with how people were giving here.”
Stewart is 62 and semi-retired, doing business from home. “I had an idea it was a francophone community. Overseas I was in France – but it’s a totally different phonetic style. I love the idea of more than one language; people in the north here are very giving and very cooperative, both French and English. I haven’t seen any issues with that yet.”
Being a visible minority, he has had to deal with a lot. “I’m the short guy with the beard. Yes, the bullying, I’ve experienced throughout my life in different countries. I left Canada because of it and came back to Canada because it was better than where I was living at the time – generationally it changes worldwide. The amount of bullying I experience in WN compared to what I experienced in Scotland are two different ends of the scale… Canada has turned the corner, got more involved with inclusion rather than exclusion.” As a result of his spina bifida, Duncan Stewart’s height has maxed out at 4’8”. He has encountered some ignorance in West Nipissing, but nothing like the former misery. “In the past I would hide in the corner, but now I stand out front – it’s an attitudinal change – same person but more direct. In recent months there was a moment… I went to buy cigarettes, and somebody had to yell out ‘Smoking stunts your growth!’ It’s extremely insulting – people I know personally get angry as well when they hear these things.”
On the other hand, Stewart responds very well to the curiosity of children, because it’s not mean-spirited. If there was one thing he would like to change, in any community, it is better awareness of visible minorities. Not just people of colour, but also those with physical challenges. “People like myself have to take a stand that we’re not taking part in that anymore – any minority or marginalized group that is not allowed in the circle – it’s horrible. I grew up with it and thought we were past it.” West Nipissing still needs to take a serious look at exclusion, suggests Stewart. He also thinks town council needs to stop “airing dirty laundry” and rather “get on with what they need to do… they need to get the representatives out there to meet people… I see a lot of progress with the community with food bank and the beautification side. We need more of that and that’s why I love the community. Coming out of COVID, maybe we can get more into the entertainment side because summers here are brilliant!”