“You’re from the city, aren’t you?”
That was the then-mayor of Shawville, watching me walk gingerly through the mud during the groundbreaking ceremony for what would soon become the village’s day care centre. It was the fall of 2003 and I was covering the event as a reporter for the local newspaper. For various reasons I lasted all of five months in that job, but it gave me a crash course in the town, the surrounding countryside and the MRC du Pontiac in general.
Yes, I was from the city—I grew up in suburban Winnipeg—but Shawville, a town of some 1,600 people, most of whom anglophone, about 75 km northwest of Ottawa, seemed somehow familiar. I spent a lot of my childhood staying with my paternal grandparents in Hartney, Manitoba, a village two thousand kilometres away and about one-third the size. But there were some similarities: both communities served as service centres for the surrounding farms. And both had demographics that tilted elderly. To me, it felt like moving to Shawville was like moving in with elderly relatives with whom you had to mind your manners and steer the conversation away from politics as much as possible, but apart from that you loved each other to bits.
“So, where are you from?”
We got that question a lot when we arrived. When I said “Winnipeg” and Jennifer said “Saint John, New Brunswick,” the eyebrows invariably shot up. Not just because they wondered how two people from opposite sides of the country could meet (answer: a rat snake at a wildlife festival), but also how on earth the two of us could end up in a little town like Shawville.
Small towns expect their young people to move away. They hope that their young people will come home. They are quietly astonished that someone else would choose to come there.
Jennifer and I moved to Shawville, Quebec in August 2003. She’d just been hired to teach high school science in nearby Campbell’s Bay, and according to the house rules we had in place at the time, whoever got the permanent job first determined where and whether we moved. She found a job before I did, and commuting out from Gatineau seemed impractical and expensive (not that it stopped other teachers from doing so), so off we went.
We opted for Shawville rather than Campbell’s Bay or Bryson because it was a larger town with more services: more amenities available within walking distance. We moved into a cramped apartment above the jewelry store on Main Street. We had no idea how long we’d be there. To be honest, I kind of expected to be run out of town by a pitchfork-wielding mob: a couple of irreligious, snake-keeping weirdos would never fit in, I thought. That sentiment was buttressed by other people who moved to the Pontiac, who complained that they had never been seen as part of the community.
Time passed. My reporting job ended badly, but my blogging career took off, if such a thing could be said. We moved to our current digs, a three-bedroom town house. The high school in Campbell’s Bay closed and Jennifer was transferred to the school here in Shawville. I did some volunteering but otherwise kept a low profile; meanwhile, Jennifer began teaching entire cohorts of the community’s children.
There’s a certain rhythm to teachers working in small communities. They work a few years, build up some experience, then transfer in to a school in the city when a position opens up. That goes double when the city schools are run by the same school board, as is the case here. Every so often a position would open up at one of the two English high schools in Gatineau and one of Jennifer’s co-workers with more seniority would leave. But there were few positions and a lot of co-workers. Eventually, though, we knew we’d have to decide whether to move back to the city—back to Ottawa and Gatineau—or put down roots out here.
We debated the pros and cons for years. On the one hand, there weren’t any jobs that made sense for me out here, and commuting into the city was too hard on my fragile health; on the other, we could afford to live out here on one solid income plus freelancing, whereas we couldn’t do that in Gatineau (and Ottawa was even worse). On the one hand, our social life now came with a minimum two-hour round trip added to every event, which made us skip a lot of social functions; on the other, Jennifer found herself enjoying her students and her co-workers, and wondering whether she could say the same at either of the two city schools.
We spun around like that for years, largely because we could: we weren’t yet in a position to buy a house out here, and no positions were opening up in the city. We started making plans for both eventualities at once: looking at houses out here, figuring out neighbourhood services in Gatineau. But at some point the waveform would have to collapse: it would almost be determined by which eventuality came first—a house out here we wanted to buy or a position in the city?
But something else was happening—something we didn’t notice. It turns out that fourteen years of teaching everyone’s kids—most years Jennifer teaches every section of grade nine science, so yes, she’s teaching everyone’s kids—has a way of earning a community’s acceptance, particularly when you work as hard and give as much of a damn as Jennifer does. So too does actually living in the community where you work, which not every teacher does (or, to be fair, is able to do). I may have kept a low profile, but Jennifer didn’t. She didn’t go unnoticed.
It was when a local service club handed Jennifer a cheque, unannounced and unexpected, in the wake of her cancer treatment that we realized that, no, the pitchforks weren’t ever going to make an appearance. Tears welling in our eyes, we realized that, to our considerable shock, we’d been accepted.
“That settles it,” I said. “Now we have to stay here.”
That would prove easier said than done. Once the dust had settled from her convalescence and our wedding, as well as a couple of other matters that needed resolving, we had to find a house we could actually buy. This turned out to be a major obstacle, because Shawville’s available housing stock is, in a word, terrible: a mix of the uninhabitable and the unaffordable. Older houses in poor shape with decades of deferred maintenance on the one hand, and on the other, recent builds listed at a price higher than locals can afford (because otherwise the seller would lose their shirt)—both categories lingered on the listings for years.
House-hunting was, in fact, a frustrating process: while our present digs had served us well it was definitely time to move, and there wasn’t anything in town that we could consider. Meanwhile, in Gatineau there were plenty of recently built row and semi-detached houses—not the kind of house found in Shawville, but the right size for our purposes—at manageable price points. Would we, having decided that we could stay out here, find ourselves forced back into the city because a position opened up there before we could find a house out here?
In the end, no. In February, three years after we first started looking, we found our house. It’s a 1,200-square foot split-level on nearly an acre of wooded lot along a quiet and private street. It’s 30 years old and in remarkably good shape; there are a few rough edges that will not be difficult or expensive to get fixed. The house is inexpensive enough that we’ll be able to afford to repair and renovate it, and in good enough shape that we won’t have to hurry.
After three years watching houses not move on the market, we suddenly had to move fast. We were the first to see it and the first to put in an offer. That offer was accepted. Today, we take possession. Jennifer picked the keys up from the notary just minutes ago.
For the first time in my adult life there’s a permanence to where I live. It’s not about the cult of homeownership, which I’ve given the side-eye to for a long time now. It’s about consciously deciding where to live, rather than letting it be determined by life’s vicissitudes. We came to Shawville by happenstance. We’re staying by choice.
We’re mindful that a small town like this is not necessarily a safe long-term bet. The future is in cities, we’re told repeatedly. (Something something Richard Florida.) And in the 14 years we’ve lived here we’ve seen more than a few local industries close down and more than a few shops close up. We’ve often asked ourselves what Shawville and its surroundings will look like 20 years from now. Will it still be a viable place?
We’re going to stick around and find out. Whatever the future holds for this town, we’ve decided to have some skin in the game. This town has been good to us; we’re going to do our best to return the favour. Do our best to help Shawville survive and thrive.
We no longer currently live in Shawville. We’re from Shawville.
And we’re staying.