Flickers of Light - Part One
What makes a person want to live in a certain place? One of our guiding ideas at young & free press is that we like to feel at home wherever we go, and allow others to feel at home, too – and we know that all this takes work. This is especially true in our hometown of St. Thomas, where we sense the horizons of small-city life acutely – are we content, or do we want to escape? Teenagers feel this tension in a certain way – this may be home, but there must be bigger and better things happening elsewhere. Adults experience this dilemma in a slightly different way, and might ask this question: do I want to live in this place for the rest of my life?
Over the past six months or so, we have had a lot of unique experiences, and the opportunity to conduct some significant interviews. Initially we planned to write about these moments one-by-one, but we started to develop the idea that it might be more compelling to let the stories unfold a bit. Why be in a rush? We can utilize social media for the quick stuff. For a full article, let the strokes of paint accumulate, and perhaps the artwork will become richer.
Late in March, members of our young & free press team met with Constable Frank Boyes of the St. Thomas Police Service to talk about ‘social disorder’ in the city. Drugs, particularly opioids. Mental health. Homelessness. Addiction. Crime. Recidivism. Urban decay. Also, we wanted to ask about youth – where are the doors that young people walk through in the city that lead to drug use, crime, and violence? This is a figurative and literal question – where are the condemned houses? Which buildings precisely are the focal points of drug trafficking?
Two of our teenage journalists, Jenn Klassen and Maddie King, chatted with Constable Boyes, along with our owner and editor, Andrew Gunn. This article is a blend of our three voices, weaving together the perspective of youth with the viewpoint of someone with a bit more experience. Our ride-along with Constable Boyes marked a turning point of sorts for us. We started to look at our community a bit differently, and decided that we wanted to refresh our approach to how we report on news, events, and culture. Instead of just asking questions of others, we wanted to challenge ourselves, too. W.B. Yeats wrote that “we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Call this journalism in search of truth and beauty.
Constable Boyes works in the street crime unit and focusses on drug trafficking. He showed us around the impressive new police station on CASO Crossing in downtown St. Thomas before taking us on a tour through the city. We asked a lot of questions. What are the unique dynamics of opioid use and trade in St. Thomas? What gaps exist in the system that prevent drug addicts from getting help? How often do you have positive experiences in your job?
Constable Boyes took his time and provided answers with genuine depth and insight. Looking at the city from inside a police vehicle forces one to look at everything through another lens – the snapshots through the windows may be just moving images of everyday life, but all the scenes are imbued with a bit of darkness. Before we left the police station, we chatted briefly as well with Alex Paterson, the mental health response worker who joined the police service in 2017 as part of a new collaboration with the Canadian Mental Health Association. When we met Alex, long-term funding for her position had not been secured, despite the clear need for someone who could assist police officers locally with calls that required a mental health professional. In 2018, the St. Thomas Police received 1,401 calls involving people experiencing mental distress, and Alex responded to over 300 of those calls. Eventually, in late May, the Province of Ontario committed to providing funding for the position on an ongoing basis. The photo at the top of this article features Alex Paterson and Frank Boyes alongside Maddie and Jenn.
Afterwards, we talked about how the issues that we discussed with Alex and Frank were deeply intertwined with other problems that we had been exploring in various interviews and conversations. For example, we had the opportunity to interview Laura Elliott, Director of Education at the Thames Valley District School Board, and asked a lot of questions about the school system. This was especially interesting, as she was heading into her final months on the job before retiring at the end of June. We covered a number of events leading up to the JUNO Awards in London as well, and learned a lot about the challenges involved in hosting large-scale events and trying to kick-start new economic activity in a downtown neighbourhood. Also, we had recently met with our Member of Provincial Parliament for the riding of Elgin-Middlesex-London, Jeff Yurek, who was Minister of Transportation at the time and now serves as Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks. Our questions for Minister Yurek revolved around how the Doug Ford government is approaching education, transportation, and the environment.
Take all these various elements, shake everything together, and consider the following questions: how did opioid use become so widespread in St. Thomas? Why does there seem to be so little commitment to innovation and change in our education system? How are kids, especially those from low-income backgrounds, supposed to have a true chance at success? Why have we allowed downtown areas in many small cities and towns to become so overwhelmed by decline? For anyone who cannot afford a car, or would prefer not to drive, how do we enhance transit links? Why has concern for the environment become so heavily and ridiculously politicized?
Faced with all these issues, we started to look at police officers, educators, and politicians as people with never-ending tasks, like Sisyphus in Greek mythology, the king who was punished in the after-life by having to roll a boulder up a hill again and again, only to watch the boulder roll back down each time. How can a police officer continue to try to stem the influx of drugs into a community when the drugs just keep on coming? How can a school board administrator try to transform the education system when the need for change is obvious, but financial resources are limited and the ‘old ways’ of doing things are so entrenched? How can a politician try to imagine a transit system that could work for rural southwestern Ontario, knowing that any built infrastructure will only work if individuals simultaneously transcend the North American obsession with the personal automobile and embrace the pleasure of trains and buses? All of these issues seem overwhelming. In this light, how can we feel content in our community and want to make a positive impact, as opposed to becoming alienated and just wanting to leave?
Again, the easiest approach would have been to write short articles on each of these issues individually. Reporters and commentators tend to consider such matters in isolation: one article on class sizes and cell phones in the classroom; one post on a new social media trend; one column reflecting on a significant cultural event; one interview on some proposed transit project; or one video to capture a specific local scene. There is just so much content now, and common reference points are few-and-far-between. Community conversations break down and fade away, except perhaps during elections when everything is simplified and framed as a contest. We wanted to take our own approach and find commonalities in disparate corners by writing an article that reflected our experiences as authentically as possible. Hopefully everyone can identify with our search for how to feel content and at home.
We traced the roots of some of our thinking about these issues back to mid-February, and felt like we hit a kind of natural resolution of these themes in late June. Teenagers rarely get to pile up the sorts of interactions that our team collected in that span, including lots of ups and downs. This article is the result. Look for Part Two soon. Here is the set-up: in February, we were starting to develop some of our own projects aimed at changing the atmosphere and culture of downtown St. Thomas, and we found real inspiration in what was happening behind-the-scenes at the local level in advance of the JUNO Awards in London.