The Renfrew County community consultations leading up to the June inquest into the deaths of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam were held in different parts of the county to make it easier for people to get to them wherever they lived. As a result, I did a lot of backroads driving getting from one to another and back to where I was staying, using up the better part of a tank of gas over the course of just a few days. I learned a lot from my travels, which had a profound impact on how I understood what people shared during the consultations.
The landscape of the county is dotted with more than 900 lakes: Golden, Bark, Mink, Dore, Muskrat, Mud, to name just a few. While the highest point in the county, Mount Ryan, at 526 metres, is far short of Ontario’s highest spot (Ishpatina Ridge, 693 metres), it’s high enough to provide a beautiful view of the surrounding area – and it’s easy to get to because there’s a road right to the top.
In my meanderings, I passed Trillium Lane and, while it was too early in the season to see any flowers in bloom, the plants were there in profusion. Acorn Trail was lined with oak trees, with acorns sure to be on the ground come fall. Had I driven along Wildlife Road at dusk, I would likely have encountered deer and maybe even a fox or two.
Kingston has its share of evocative street names, too, but I wager that it has been a very long time since the condominiums on Terra Verde Way have seen anything approaching real earth, green or otherwise. Ditto for Begonia Court and Huckleberry Lane. These are names intended to stir feelings of tranquility and peace in potential home buyers, thus nudging up the purchase price; reality be damned.
Who lives here?
In 1858, the first Polish immigrants to Canada settled in Wilno, a tiny village between Golden Lake and Barry’s Bay, because the landscape reminded them of their homeland. This history lives on: in the Polish names of many of the streets and roads, tales of a local vampire (check our the cemetery for proof!) and traditional Polish food including pierogi, cabbage rolls, Polish sausage, pickled herring and spiced red cabbage, served at the Wilno Tavern.
The population of Wilno may be fewer than 500 people, but more than 2,000 hungry eaters appear on Labour Day weekend for the annual chicken supper, which ends with a slice of apple, raisin or coconut cream pie, all homemade by volunteers in the area.
With a community numbering just 432, the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan are a small but mighty First Nation. The father and son team of Mathew and Maurice Bernard built the world’s largest birch bark canoe here in 1957, which is now housed at the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. The first Algonquin woman chief hails from Pikwakanagan.
Logging was once at the heart of Renfrew County’s economy and, while its prominence has receded in favour of less resource-based employment, it has not entirely disappeared. Tourism employs a growing number of the people living in the county, but the real jobs are to be found in military-related work.
Canada’s largest army base is housed in Petawawa, which occupies approximately 300 square kilometres of land. More than 5,300 armed forces personnel and almost 1,000 civilian staff work at the base and are active members of the community.
Canada’s nuclear laboratory, Chalk River Laboratories, employs more than 3,000 people and is the largest single complex in Canada’s science and technology sector.
Making the connections
Over the four days that I spent listening to what people wanted to share with me about the impact of the 2015 murders of Carol, Anastasia and Nathalie, I found myself thinking about my drives around the county.
More than anything, I thought about how distance affects absolutely everything for people who live in rural communities. I also thought about Acorn Trail, Trillium Lane and Wildlife Road, as people talked about their attachment to the land despite the related inconveniences and, in some cases, lack of safety.
These are not things that are easily understood by us urbanites unless we spend time outside our cities. We may know in our brains that cell service is not reliable in all parts of this province, that rural communities do not offer the diversity of services or shopping and entertainment options that we take for granted, and that, for some people, just getting groceries or going to the library requires planning, a car and lots of time. We may think we know what all of that means for women being abused by their partner who need a quick police response or access to medical care or legal attention. We don’t.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Renfrew County over the past two decades, but it was the few days I spent driving the backroads and sitting in a small community resource centre, the upstairs of a legion hall and then two community libraries, listening as carefully as I could, that helped me more fully understand the implications of rural realities as they relate to responding to intimate partner violence.
Let’s hope that next month’s inquest will allow others to develop that understanding so the systemic changes that rural communities need and deserve can be made.