By David Heinimann
Getting soaked in a deluge one morning last summer while walking to Coffee Culture in my hometown of Tillsonburg, Ontario, put me in mind of my sometimes too soggy West Coast home of 20 years now, Terrace.
Back there for a family visit, I compared Terrace and Tillsonburg, where I spent my first 20 years. Despite the distance between them, similarities outweigh differences to suggest a shared identity and aspiration.
The most notable difference is the landscape. Terrace, in the middle of the Coast Mountains and in the majestic Skeena River valley, has snow-capped mountains and rainforest.
Tillsonburg is on the dirt bottom of the old glacial Lake Agassiz – now the Great Lakes – with hardly a rock to be found, though the massive trees of the Northern Hardwood Forest surround it (lots of maple syrup!).
The seasons are less definite here than in Tillsonburg. Autumn there, the brilliant colours bedazzle. The rain here just slushes into snow, almost before you can change your sandals for boots. The snow goes faster there, and the spring is drier.
Still, Terrace can be hot – it set a national record recently – but without Tillsonburg’s humidity and wild thunder and lightning, which makes the rain here pretty boring.
So much further north, Terrace’s summer days last from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m., but the winter nights are equally long. Tillsonburg, in Canada‘s banana belt, is late in the morning and early in the evening.
But that far south doesn’t mean tropical. While mild Pacific air moderates our occasional Arctic fronts, Tillsonburg, at the edge of the Canadian Shield, freezes its butt most of the winter.
Long-settled, Tillsonburg sees only deer and coyotes now, though I have noticed far more big hawks than when I grew up there, and wild turkeys are making a comeback. You might spot an occasional wild pig.
Terrace, isolated in the wild country, still sees the big animals. Moose sometimes wander into town, and bears are a common sight – more than once, one has popped out of the bushes before me, though it just sat and looked at me until I clapped to shoo it away.
Around Terrace is a unique genetic strain of black bear known as a Kermode, for the scientist who researched it. Popularly known as the Spirit Bear, there is something spiritual, even ghost-like, to it.
If the salmon fishing is internationally known, Lake Erie perch is also exported globally, a basket of it with pickled mayonnaise a local treat. And the bugs are the same each place: they bite, you scratch – but the fish like them, so what the hey.
Where Tillsonburg has boating in the big bay formed by a 30 kilometre forested and marshy sand spit called Long Point, Terrace hits the river or goes to the coast at Prince Rupert or Kitimat. Sadly, there are no hot-sand beaches here like Lake Erie’s Turkey Point or Port Dover, just ice-cold mountain lakes.
Long Point, on the Arctic migratory flyway, also offers world-class bird-watching – no comparison there. Still, to see our bald eagles soaring or scooping up a salmon from the river makes some people misty-eyed (Skeena in the native language means ‘Misty’). However, nothing out here compares to the scarlet flash of a cardinal.
Blue jays are the same – loud and scrappy – but back there, the blue jay is white-streaked, the Steller’s Jay here blue with a black head, and it’s also bold, even swooping to steal food from your hand.
Tillsonburg has long had mourning doves, whereas they’ve newly arrived here, seeking more moderate climate as global warming moves north, which is maybe why they screech more than coo.
Crows are everywhere there, but no ravens. Thriving scavengers, these acrobats and clowns barrel-roll and croak and whistle as if in a jug band. They‘re called tricksters for their antics, which, so it’s said, can include stealing a salmon from an eagle in mid-flight. Native myth says they created humans, and the clowns among us would agree.
What most makes a town, of course, are its citizens and their interests. Terrace, like Tillsonburg, is a strong working-class town, well served by the usual professionals. Both towns are built around a single main street, with similar business diversity.
Tillsonburg, longer settled – Terrace is half its age – has the architecture of the mid-19th century, with Annandale House, famous for Oscar Wilde’s influence, now a National Historic Site.
Brick is the material of choice in Tillsonburg. Most noticeable in Terrace is the absence of brick: everything is wood, stucco, and, increasingly, vinyl, which leaves the impression of impermanence and, it has been said, liquor store boxes.
Agriculture has been Tillsonburg’s mainstay, with its tobacco (that’s right, Stompin’ Tom’s song) well-known, also its ginseng and now vineyards, but tobacco is going the way of forestry in Terrace. Decline has meant diversification.
While Tillsonburg is much more industrial, Terrace is hoping for mining to lift it, and with the government support for a major electrical line from Terrace to the northwest of B.C., that hope will finally be realized.
While the Ontario Liberal government supports a plant there to make massive blades for wind turbines, the federal Conservatives oppose funding and are less friendly, leaving Tillsonburg less hopeful.
Still, just as Terrace was Hockeyville, this year Tillsonburg got the Stanley Cup, thanks to Boston’s Greg Campbell, whose father Colin might be chewing out Don Cherry about now.
The native people – the Tsimshian – have been here for thousands of years, while the native Onia’gara were driven out 350 years ago by the Iroquois, allied with the British, from America, who were fighting the French. The present southwest Ontario native communities descend from them.
Tillsonburg’s burgeoning retirement community sustains business there. The doctors and denturists thrive, as do the stately churches and a renowned gemologist.
Like Tillsonburg, Terrace has a downtown mall, though struggling because northwest B.C. is still in the economic slump. Terrace has more variety, though, its main street retail fully occupied with everything from a dressmaker to the expected world-class fishing tackle store.
Tillsonburg, also like Terrace, is Hog-wild. Harley-Davidsons cruise the Lakeshore Road, just as here it’s the Skeena Valley – both cruisin’ heaven. If not a rider, pistonheads in Tillsonburg, as here, love their oval track and classic cars. The A&W hosts regular Show-and-Shines for fine vintage metal.
The big 4×4 is also a vehicle of choice, but only for farmers, who also have their name and rural route address painted artfully on each side.
Otherwise, just like here, it’s beaters and the occasional Beemer.
Both towns have fine recreational centres, pools, and rinks. If the golf here is a fine stroll beneath the mountains, though the footwear includes gumboots, golf there is in a lush creek valley whose heat guarantees 10 pounds lost.
And skiing? Forget it. Once you’ve been west of the Rockies, nothing but the Alps comes close.
Culturally, though isolated, Terrace, like Tillsonburg, has a live theatre community, as well as a modern multi-plex cinema, but it doesn’t have our winter concert series, which keeps us from feeling too bush.
Still, if being on a less beaten path makes you fly to Vancouver for the really big show, it also promotes local talent, in everything from dance – there’s a school – to visual art – the library’s gallery is always showing something – to music – whether the local symphony society or kids testing out new tunes or oldsters singing the blues. Nothing like that there – just the drive to London, which is like going to Rupert, sort of, if Rupert were Victoria.
Moreover, and because of that very isolation, Terrace has Northwest Community College and a branch campus of UNBC, offering training from trades to medicine. Tillsonburg, like all Ontario towns, relies on the city down the road for that.
Finally, both towns publish award-winning local newspapers, though The Terrace Standard is much livelier for editorial and letters content, as is BC generally. Ontario is still pretty conservative that way.
Back in Tillsonburg for the summer, I witnessed a steady and sturdy pride in community, with leaders, like those in Terrace, who are intent on making the best place possible for families and retirees, as well as business and industry. If the rest of Canada compares as favourably, our collective future is pretty bright.
Dr. David Heinimann, born and raised in Tillsonburg, now teaches at Northwest College in Terrace, B.C. An original version of this article was written for the Tillsonburg News. It has been slightly modified.