BY JULIE MANNELL
Special to the VOICE
When I was young, my father and I would go for long drives along the rural routes of Pelham. We’d blast George Thorogood and roll down the windows because we loved the smell of the breeze, the sensation of crisp Niagara wind beating our cheeks and tangling our hair against our summer-kissed skin.
My father was not a sentimental man. He worked in factories and had a Gordon Lightfoot mustache and never shed tears over injuries.
Yet something about the Pelham landscape, the hilly backdrop to his childhood and the childhoods of our ancestors, drew him in. He’d stop by a farm or a gathering of woods and, surrendering his manly veneer, tell me a story about the town.
This place is precious. This is the earth that granted us life. Here is the place where we happened upon love or here is a site of devastation.
On one particular drive sometime in the late ‘90s we stopped at a tree with a plaque.
“This tree looks dead,” I said to my father.
“It sure is getting there, Julie.”
The Comfort Maple is supposedly Canada’s oldest maple tree. All trees are dying trees but this one seems to want for death especially desperately. It has been kept alive through man-made means: wires, concrete, and bricks. The more suspicious might entertain that God wants it dead, given its history of lightning strikes. Even its leaves circle around its trunk and bald centre like a halo.
“Dad, why do they keep this tree alive?”
“They think it’s Canada’s oldest maple tree.”
“Think?” I scratched my head.
He responded, “They found an old photo and so they just decided, and now that is what it is.”
I was still confused. I wanted to understand why a dying tree was being propped up like that and why it was being advertised as Canada’s oldest maple tree when this claim wasn’t verified.
Then my dad imparted the lesson of the tree. He said, “Sometimes people tell lies so much and so often that everyone just accepts the lie as a truth, even if it is not.”
I have reflected upon the lesson of the Comfort Maple my entire life.
Recently, I thought of the tree as I watched Donald Trump employ lies as truths to win votes—especially rural ones—through a campaign promising a return to the values of the past.
While it is tempting to gaze towards the past with rose-tinted lenses, it is important to also be mindful of the political climate our memories occupy. A comforting return to Wonder Bread sandwiches for some simultaneously is a return to mass incarceration, the policing of bodies, identities, and space for others.
These issues impact us, even in a small town.
The insularity of ruralness can falsely lead us to believe that we are somehow living outside of the changing political landscape. It is easy to buy into the idea that we’re exempt from the outcomes of injustice or the calls to action of activist movements.
We are small, but that does not mean we are insignificant.
In Pelham we are still a part of the world, still participants in both justice and injustice. Our actions have consequences for which we must hold ourselves accountable.
So Sam Oosterhoff was elected. Nice. We did that.
Oosterhoff is anti-choice, anti-women, and anti-gay. For those concerned about his experience, he achieved a whole semester at Brock University. Think about the message his election sends to residents of West Niagara. What does this look like to women, people of colour, LGBTQ citizens of our town? It looks like we are saying only certain people are wanted here. We can do so much better than this. We are capable of so much better than this.
If anything is a signal, then this has to be a signal that something is going awry in the community. Something ugly.
Oosterhoff and the Comfort Maple are of a piece, they hold the same symbolic currency.
The Comfort Maple is emblematic of our failure to change and our refusal to let go of the past. It is nice to say we come from the home of Canada’s oldest maple tree, even if we don’t. It is comforting to think our way of life is the best and only way of life, even if it excludes and hurts many people. It feels good to feel good, even if that goodness means accepting a lie as a truth. It is uncomfortable to learn that perhaps our good times were made possible by the disenfranchisement of groups more marginalized than our own. For example: the Town of Pelham was built on Ojibwee and Haudenosaunee land.
I wonder what story of Pelham the Comfort Maple would tell if it could talk.
Perhaps the Comfort Maple does speak to us with its decaying body—it tells us it wants to die. We refuse to listen. What other manufactured philosophies do we cling to at the expense of the truth? How much does the illusion mean?
Denying a truth is always the price we pay when we maintain a lie. What truths are we writing over for the sake of archaic ideologies that are false but comfortable?
I can’t help but reflect upon the fact that suicide rates among young women in Welland (no statistics are available for Pelham) have been steadily rising for decades. Now we have elected a teenager who may or may not still be a virgin, but thinks he knows what’s best for women’s bodies. It sends a message that we do not believe in our women, we do not see them as capable, autonomous people. We see them as objects to be owned and legislated like property. Telling a woman what to do with her own body is like telling Mossimo’s how to make pizza.
I returned home this Christmas to find my mother had redecorated my childhood bedroom. She left the string tied to the ceiling fan. There was a time I was too little to reach it, so my father tied the string to the cord so that I could turn on the light.
When I was twelve I found my father dead in our living room. It was as if a light went off inside me, a light without a string attached. Maybe it was my childhood switching off. It was shocking to me because I’d always believed my father to be immortal. In all of his stories, Death grasped at him but always missed. My father’s mortality was a hard fact for which no lies or legends could disguise, cover up, or enchant.
This is when Pelham kicked in. People came to our house en mass, delivering food and offering help. Never in my life had I seen so many casseroles and lasagnas. We didn’t have enough room in our fridge. Neighbours volunteered to drive my brother and me to sports practice and music class. Nobody asked about our religion or our politics or the details of our sexuality. It was irrelevant. We had been dealt a bad hand.
The town that I know and love takes care of one another regardless. The town that I know picks up the weight of everyone and carries it with them. If one of us can’t reach the light, we tie a string so that everyone can turn it on. We are a people who take care of our own.
Niagara is known for its grapes. Each year a thin veil of ice washes over the orchards, and pickers spend all night harvesting fragile grapes for ice wine. The fruit is handled meticulously. Each individual grape is significant—its relationship to its vine unique and arguably singular. The picker notes the relationship between grape and vine and then handles it accordingly. I think we ought to treat people the way we treat grapes.
Sometimes when we are new to identities, stories, ideas, they can seem threatening. We are at our worst when we are afraid. We are at our best when we demonstrate compassion and love. Change is uncomfortable, it’s true, but discomfort doesn’t entitle us to behave in hateful ways. We are not a hateful people.
Living in different places has allowed me to meet and befriend people with stories unlike my own. Hearing other people’s stories did not detract from mine, it made me better and more aware.
As we watch our neighbours to the south attempt to ban immigrants and return to legislating body parts and dehumanizing LGBTQ identities, I hope that we remain true to the best possible versions of ourselves. I hope that we move away from the juvenile mantra of Sam Oosterhoff and towards one of love and acceptance of all people. It will make us a better town, a place of open arms instead of closed fists.
This summer I wrote to the Mayor. I wanted to encourage him to seek out and promote underrepresented voices in Pelham. The better we know those different from us, the better we understand ourselves. We all deserve to hear the voices of people of colour, LGBTQ people, differently abled people, immigrants, and women.
The Mayor stopped responding when I wrote about my history of sexual assault and my desire to bring my former partner, someone who recently transitioned to being a woman, and someone whom I love very deeply, to see the place where I grew up. I wanted her to taste the same wind that characterized those long drives with my father and to understand what I meant when I spoke of “home.”
I implore the Mayor to revisit our conversation. I ask that he not excuse himself from discussions of equity and social justice; it sends a message that he doesn’t care, that he feels these issues do not matter enough to be given the same consideration as potholes and parades.
There are symbols everywhere if you look closely. Symbols beyond the dying maple tree and the election of a kid who is the embodiment of a teen-movie villain. There are the washroom doors in a Fonthill restaurant that designate gender as “nuts” and “no nuts.” There is the Nativity scene where all the figures are white and not remotely Middle Eastern. Around the Nativity scene are miniature buildings paying homage to Pelham in the ‘50s, an era characterized by stigma and marginalization. We are so much better than this.
For now my heart is with the gay kid on the hockey team at Pelham Arena. My heart is with the trans youth with the dress buried at the bottom of a drawer. My heart is with those who, because of the colour of their skin, are constantly asked where they are from.
They are from here.
My heart is with the Muslim family without a mosque, that walks by each church and wonders where to place themselves. My heart is with the wife covering up bruises. My heart is with the rape survivor who feels nobody is listening. My heart is with the abuse survivor and it is with those still being abused. My heart is with the smart girl told to be quiet and decorative. My heart is with each person in each bedroom in Pelham that is burdened with the stigma of outsiderness—those who feel the air being sucked out of the room right now.
I see you. I believe you. I will fight for you. There are others who are with me and they love you. We love you. You are loved. You are believed. We will fight for you.
Not surprisingly, Ms. Mannell’s essay has generated passionate responses from all sides, which range of letters we will publish next week. We encourage anyone who wishes to contribute to the discussion to send the Voice their thoughts at [email protected]
Since a large part of Ms. Mannell’s argument hinges on the perceived social and political views of MMP Sam Oosterhoff, in the interest of balance and commensurate public exposure we present below a statement received from him today.
To the Editor:
I felt impelled to respond to the special column from Ms. Julie Mannell in last week’s issue of The Voice. The unsubstantiated claims Ms. Mannell made about me and the residents, families, and voters of Pelham were not only in poor taste. They would be outright offensive if they were not so ridiculous and misinformed. I grasp the difficulty Ms. Mannell may have in understanding the fine people of Pelham, since she lives in Montreal. However, I find it remarkable that she so condescendingly reprimands the very place she grew up in.
The picture she paints of a grimly intolerant, backwards, and discriminatory town bears no resemblance to the Pelham I know, or its people. I grew up in Lincoln, and often visited Pelham. During the campaign last fall, I had the opportunity to meet and speak with many of the residents, students, and business owners of Pelham.
What I found was completely different than the regressive dystopia depicted by Ms. Mannell. The people and town of Pelham are warm, welcoming, and inclusive. They are neighborly, generous, and community-minded. They are open to those of all backgrounds, and care deeply for the marginalized and persecuted.
[Responding to the Voice’s request for comment] I had the opportunity to congratulate Ron Kore for being honored as the Fonthill and District Kinsmen’s Pelham Citizen of the Year 2016. Ron’s deep commitment and love for his community, and all the people in it, serve as an inspiration to many of us. Ron characterizes the unique and wonderful nature of the people of Pelham. From his working with our senior citizens, to his involvement with the Special Olympics, and his fundraising for Nutrition Partners, Ron is a caring and compassionate man who wants what is best for his community and the people in it.
I have never met Ms. Mannell. Nor have I made any statements that support her claims. I was and remain disturbed that without basis she would write such blatantly false and arrogant prose about me and the town I love, and seek to serve.
I hope to meet her one day, when she comes back to Pelham.
If she would allow it, I would like to take her to the churches where members welcome refugees regardless of faith or background, and introduce her to people at the Legion and Community Care who dedicate themselves to helping those less fortunate. Perhaps we would run into Ron, or the thousands of people like him in this community. I hope that this would give her a deep appreciation for those who have spent their lives in this community, improving it, and making it a home for all who come here.
Ms. Mannell seems to fear there is something ugly about Pelham and its people.
I couldn’t disagree more. Pelham is beautiful.
MPP Sam Oosterhoff