For so long I thought that my upbringing was uninteresting. I never talked much about where I grew up. It seemed mundane and boring subject matter to me. Upon reflection, I realize what an unusual beginning it really was. I was raised on the inside.
After the Second World War a POW Camp in Northern Ontario, (as Captain Mal says “at the corner of No and Where”) was expanded and became a two years less a day prison farm. Burwash village was created on the site to house the guards and their families. My dad was a school teacher and was also the vice principal of the public school within the village.
The Burwash village of my youth doesn't exist anymore. The prison was closed down in the 70's and the buildings have long been dismantled. The land is now used by the Canadian Armed Forces. I think they play war games there.
I will share with you a bit of the hometown life I remember. The prison farm had its own dairy. I woke up every morning to the jingle of the milk wagon (horse and sleigh in the winter). All work crews in the village consisted of the boys in blue. They collected the trash, delivered our hear (coal and wood slabs) and maintained our streets. Our houses were painted inside and out by the prisoners. I remember one inmate paying a great attention to detail when he painted the trim around a light fixture. He said “I should have been an artist instead of a thief”.
The biggest deterrent around any prisoner breaking loose was the ever present supply mosquitoes and black flies. If a Go-boy ran for the bush, it wasn’t long before they were running back. If they were unlucky, they didn’t get caught right away and the wee vultures would just about finish them off.
There were funny rules in the village in the shadow of the block: No leaving clothes on the line after dark, a 10 p.m. curfew for everyone unless there was an official event. No shorts were to be worn by any girl over the age of 12. We were always under surveillance and ‘not getting caught smoking cigarettes’ was the creative local sport for teens. My older brother and sister remember their growing up years here as a time of great sociability. They remain good friends with many of their peers even to the present day.
There were dances and a free movie showing Friday night for the adults and a showing for the kids Saturday morning. There was a large local ice rink for hockey and an ‘in house’ winter carnival. Rocket Richard was a guest one year. Local softball games were a big deal. This is where the ‘ins’ (prisoners) got a chance to play against the ‘outs’ (villagers). One afternoon the game had to be suspended while a pack of dogs crossed the playing field. The rule was that dogs where to be tied at all times. To my mother's embarrassment, it was our dog leading the way. I guess big egos come in small packages and Skippy just couldn't resist the opportunity.
I remember this remote place (in a good way) with its vast farmlands, woods, gullies and ravines. This was probably one of the safest places for a child to grow up, and we had a lot of freedom to roam, explore and play. Climbing a sheer granite cliff face called ‘Red Rock” was a rite of passage for every young person. (I, who am terrified of heights, was impressed to have a go at it and survived).
A fond memory I have of this isolated northern experience was spending a day skating five miles along a water system. My dad drove a friend and I to our start point near the main gate of the village. According to my sister is called Nealy Lake. We skated across the lake then followed a series of creeks and rivers all the way to Cemetery Lake. I remember the vast landscape with no sigh of civilization and the thrill of skating on see-through ice between the grasses and bulrushes. It was a memorable experience. After some fun with frozen feet and hot chocolate her dad drove me home.
The civil service jobs available here created a really interesting social mix that wouldn't have happened under normal circumstances. In this village of about 100 families there were many different cultures expressions of faith and walks of life all thrown together.
It really isn't difficult for me to think in terms of 'One God'. There was only one church building in the village, and every denomination had its time slot, except for the Salvation Army who used the public school as its meeting place. I was in two choirs at the same time and only had to change my gown in between services and remember to turn in the other direction.
I think that this experience created in my psyche a foundation where I can appreciate a diverse and interesting world community. I have an appreciation of the natural world. When I need to get rooted and find my anchor in the universe, this is where I see myself.
So all in all, not a normal upbringing, but I guess, like most people I certainly didn’t appreciate its uniqueness at the time.