Porch Views: Who is a local? Diversity or division in the Madawaska Valley

At the end of last month’s piece I included the title of this one to encourage return readers. The topic certainly touched a nerve because the majority of online comments were anticipating this column. Comments included:

We moved to Wilno in ’76 and still aren’t considered local; If your grandparents were not from the Barry’s Bay-Wilno area, you’re not local!

My hubby has been here for 30 years, and he claims he will never be thought of as a local.

It doesn’t surprise me as I have heard these and more from many folks over the years. One acquaintance told me that even though he has belonged to a local parish for 18 years, an individual whom he sees daily has yet to speak to him. I also remember that a few years ago comments made in reference to woodpile art and locals drove a wedge between residents. After a flurry of letters in what was then the only community newspaper, that conversation died down. However, the fact remains that Madawaska Valley residents should be working together to promote development and growth, not dividing themselves according to a length-of-stay criterion. This attitude is unwelcoming, discriminatory, and it has the potential to jeopardize the future of the Madawaska Valley.

What we can learn from bingo

I heard a great story recently about the late Teresa Mask Beanish, a life-long resident of the Madawaska Valley and a true community builder. About 40 years ago, a newcomer won the jackpot at a bingo in St. Hedwig’s parish hall and a number of local ladies were overheard grumbling,

She’s not even from here.

Teresa turned to them and spoke with authority:

You be quiet. She bought her cards just like everyone else.

I think that says it all. I could wrap up this piece right here, but there is a lot more to consider.

Local and localism

The noun local, as in “They’re not locals,” means an inhabitant of a particular place. So, any resident (full-time or part-time) of this particular place, the Madawaska Valley, is a local. Former Madawaska Valley mayor, David Shulist agrees:

To me a local is someone who lives in our community. Once you are a resident,
you are a local citizen.

We are all locals, but some of us (and I do think it is a minority) exhibit a discriminatory attitude we might call localism. When we fail to welcome, recognize or seriously consider the views of newcomers who have chosen to live, work, shop and pay taxes in the Madawaska Valley, and we justify this behaviour by saying they are “not from here,” we are committing this injustice.


One former local pastor, recognizing the local-homeschooler split in his parish, coined the term heritage families. I kind of like that – a gentler us-and-them. In my experience, some of us from the heritage families divide ourselves by ethnicity (Kashub or Polish or Irish or German or Wendish or French or Aboriginal), by religion (Catholic or Protestant), by community (Barry’s Bay or Wilno or Combermere), and by politics (Liberal or Conservative or NDP). It is interesting that when newcomers arrive and try to get involved in our community, we temporarily let go of those internal prejudices and join forces. We label ourselves locals and them outsiders, from-the-city, DPs, cottagers, hippies, draft-dodgers, high school teachers, artists, homeschoolers, Muslims, Academy people, and churchies. Even though these terms are often used negatively, they actually represent a remarkable diversity which could make our community rich, interesting and vibrant. Imagine what we could accomplish if we celebrated our differences and worked together for the common good.

Not unique, just wrong-headed

Localism is not limited to the Madawaska Valley. In 2016, Canadian Treasury Board President Scott Brison campaigned to ban the pejorative come from away used by Maritimers to identify newcomers. In an article in the Toronto Star, Brison explained that the term which signifies suspicion, hostility and indifference discourages population growth, investment and tourism. All of which are needed to offset Atlantic Canada’s economic problems. Population growth, investment and tourism … sounds familiar. Closer to home, Whitney native Roy MacGregor has weighed in on this phenomenon.  His comments referring to the local-tourist relationship in the Algonquin Park area are quoted in Joshua Blank’s book, “Creating Kashubia” (2016):

The defence mechanism is to look down on those who come, before they can look down on those already there …

Suspicion and insecurity

Combermere resident Lynne Boehme Yantha reminded me recently that our immigrant ancestors bequeathed to us “a pretty high degree of suspicion of outsiders.” This may explain our tendency to localism because the larger ethnic groups who settled here had bad experiences with outsiders. The Irish were fleeing England’s repression and refusal to alleviate the Potato Famine; the Kashubs and Poles were escaping Prussian or Austrian rule and Bismarck’s Kulturkampf; and the Germans and Wends were seeking refuge from Prussia’s wars, conscription and state control of their churches. Once they obtained their own land in the Madawaska Valley a new set of outsiders “lorded it over” them. The landowners, magistrates or captains were replaced, sequentially, by lumber barons, railway officials, whiskey detectives, mining executives, government officials, rich American cottagers, summer residents from the cities including the middle-class, professional Poles who spoke “High Polish.”

A Two-Way Street

I sympathize with residents who don’t feel accepted because they lack a provenance of four generations in the graveyard, but I think to fully explore this topic, we also have to recognize that newcomers have not always treated the locals with respect.

There is something to be said for living in a place for a while, learning a bit from the locals before criticizing or trying to change things. Rural folk may not have a lot of formal education, but they are wise and know the lay of the land. Newcomers who recognized this, like Catherine Doherty or Barney McCaffrey, got to know their neighbours and sought their advice when they first moved here. They integrated successfully and are legendary.

An unfortunate Catholic school principal who briefly lived in the area was not so respectful. He turned up to make a presentation in a professional development course I was taking in Arnprior through the Renfrew County Catholic School Board in the early 1990s. After living one year in the Madawaska Valley he spoke of his frustration with his parish priest and parish. They were backward and had no sense of liturgy. He felt it was his duty to bring them up to date. He had no idea that Arnprior was still in Renfrew County and that at least four teachers with personal connections to the community he was trashing were sitting next to him. It was pre-social media, but within a few hours the community knew what he thought of them.

Localism Hurts Development

Several years ago, when I was attending the Wilno parish, the pastor spoke bluntly from the pulpit. He was responding to some “heritage family” parishioners who resented cottagers from Kaszuby retiring to the area, joining the parish and purchasing lots in the cemetery. The priest invited them take a look at the register and see how burials dramatically exceeded baptisms and marriages. Some of the baptisms and marriages weren’t even for people who lived in the parish, although their parents or grandparents did. He suggested that if they want to keep the parish open, they would have to be welcoming to “outsiders.”

He got it. We need newcomers. The Madawaska Valley is experiencing the same problems as other rural communities in Canada — youth out-migration, decline in the birthrate, and an aging population. We are struggling to maintain our population, so we should be attracting and welcoming new residents.

I recently heard from local historian Joshua Blank who had this to say about the topic:

Every time I hear someone “local” mention the term “outsider” or “tourist” with a negative connotation, I’m left with goosebumps. In today’s mobile world, small centres, like Barry’s Bay, that rely on seasonal visitors to sustain the economy need to recognize that the future is dependent on “outsiders” or “tourists.” I can’t, offhand, think of anyone from my grade 13 class at MVDHS who is gainfully employed in the Bay. Most have left. Those who have lived in the Madawaska Valley for a long time need to realize they need to continue to promote and develop history, artistic and tourist activities in the area. I have many friends and fellow teachers who visit the Madawaska Valley throughout the year. They enjoy these activities and contribute to the local economy. Using labels like “outsider” or becoming complacent with initiatives that attract people from elsewhere will only lead to negative effects for residents down the road.

Education and New Blood

Since I am a teacher, let’s just look at education. While there are lots of children in the homeschool sub-community, the birthrate among residents who will send their children to publicly-funded schools is low, and local schools have closed or are closing. When faced with declining enrolments, high schools can’t offer a lot of elective courses or run a full range of extra-curricular activities. If we can’t attract families, our schools will continue to shrink. Will teachers, medical professionals or entrepreneurs want to relocate here if there are limited opportunities for their children?

In terms of post-secondary training, residents have to leave to attend universities and colleges and obtained training. Once in urban centres, they often remain. We can’t even get our act together to support a PSW course that will keep people close to home and train them for jobs that are needed right here, since our population is aging.

If the families don’t come and residents don’t stay, our tax base will continue to shrink. Who is going to serve our seniors if there are no schools? Who will work in our hospital? Where will the money come from to maintain our infrastructure? When one of my high school friend’s great aunts learned that she was marrying a French Canadian from Ottawa, they said,

New blood is good. 

The Madawaska Valley needs new blood. New blood in the form of population.

Progressive attitudes

Thankfully, not all heritage residents are localists. Lynne Boehme Yantha, like most folks in the Valley, has a welcoming and progressive outlook:

For me, if a people integrate with the community in work, school, volunteerism and take part in events, they are local.

Lynne’s mention of volunteerism reminds me that I have noticed that boards of our institutions, organizations and service clubs are often made up of people who have moved to the area in the last 20 or 30 years. I thank them for taking an interest in our community and for their hard work in making the Madawaska Valley a better place. If some locals resent this, then they should ask themselves why they are not stepping up to the plate. If we think it’s ours, we better get off our duffs to nurture it. Otherwise, we are squandering our inheritance.

Valley pride and the last word
Writing this piece has been a challenge because there is so much that could be explored. Actually, it would probably be an excellent thesis for a student seeking a doctorate in sociology – or maybe a book by a high school teacher who hopes to retire in a few years. Anyway, I hope it provokes a healthy and insightful discussion on an issue that we need to name, deal with and put behind us. I am looking forward to the online comments.

In July 2002, my mother, Gwen, and I took a rail trip to the East Coast to celebrate her 80th birthday. While we were in Halifax, we took the obligatory day trip to Peggy’s Cove. After walking around for a bit, looking at the lighthouse and “nearly getting blown away,” as she would say, we got back in the van to head back to our hotel in the city.

What did you think of that, ma’am?

the driver asked. Gwen didn’t beat around the bush:

It’s all right, but it’s not as nice as the Madawaska Valley where I come from.

That’s what we need – a healthy dose of Madawaska Valley pride. We live here, raise families here, work here, pray here, go to school here, shop here, play here, pay our taxes here, get sick and get well here, and die here. We are all local.

I think Bernadine Roslyn, a Madawaska Valley resident for over 35 years, deserves the last word. Her online comment from the Madawaska Valley Current expresses it best whether we were born here, moved here, or moved away and returned:

We all live here because we love the area. And all together we make one heck of a strong community.


About the author: Descended from railroaders and hotel keepers, Mark Woermke has deep roots in the Madawaska Valley. A high school teacher in Ottawa, Mark spends as much time as he can in the Madawaska Valley gardening, writing and enjoying its cultural wealth and natural beauty. Mark also blogs at https://prussianhillsblog.wordpress.com and manages the group Renfrew County Germans on Facebook.


  1. Barb Cardwell

    Really enjoyed this article. I’m also one of the newest residents of Barry’s Bay, having moved here less than a year ago. I have to admit I was a bit worried – I’d never lived in a small town before and had heard that some are quite unwelcoming to newcomers. My experience has been very much the opposite and everyone has been welcoming, friendly and helpful. I find I’m met with curiosity more than anything else. I have always lived in large cities (most recently Calgary) but have yearned for rural life for years. I had spent a great deal of time up in this area prior to moving to Calgary 13 years ago, and knew this is where I wanted to live when I was finally able to retire.
    I know I have a lot to learn about the community and the history here, as well as about rural living in general. The help and support I’ve received has been incredible and I feel very fortunate to now call this place home. Your article has helped me understand the viewpoint of those from heritage families on us newcomers to the area, but I have yet to encounter any negativity. I’ll continue to work on integrating myself into this wonderful community and finding ways that I may also be able to step up through volunteer opportunites.

  2. William Enright

    Great article Mark. Although I live in Bonnechere Valley Township, it resonates. I’ve been visiting here since 1980 but moved here only four years ago. The best way to integrate and feel “at home” is to volunteer and embrace the diversity that is here already.
    I can imagine that it was a tough article to write but I think you nailed it! Keep up the good work and I’ll buy a copy of the future book on the subject…

  3. Dennis Corrigan

    On the subject of hometown proud, this reminds me of one lonley, dark night back in 1978 when I was working alone at our chip wagon on Opeongo Line. A Cadillac with Pennsylvania license plates pulled up and the elderly man stepped to the window and ordered some fries. As we waited for the fries to deep-fry, the man asked me what my name was. Corrigan, I replied. Oh, you’re not from here, he came back with. I grew up in Barry’s Bay so for me that will always be home, and I replied, absolutely I’m from here. Lived here all my life. What’s your name? Smith, he said, to which I replied, oh you’re not from around here. I definitely am he said! We left Barry’s Bay in ’15. It goes to show the extent of hometown pride. The Smith family owned a hardware store and funeral parlour in Barry’s Bay, and even though the family had moved away over 60 years ago, he was still adamant (and proud) that he was a local.

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  5. John & Beth Hildebrandt

    Mark – this is a most amazing and inspiring article. It is a perfect description of how this community evolved – from the contributions made by the original settlers of different ethnic backgrounds to the more recent arrivals. We have created a unique community that we should be very proud of and call home. How different it might have been if the indigenous peoples had decided that they did not want to share their land with newcomers!! We need only to look south of the border to see what happens to a society when they begin to think of each other as US AND THEM. Let us NOT go there!!!!

  6. Eileen and Dave Leslie

    Dave and I do consider ourselves part of the Madawaska Valley. We are grateful for our career at MV. We were fortunate to raise our family here. We have been proud to volunteer in many activities and areas in our community. We love to travel, but there is no place like home.

  7. Elisa Hildebrandt

    Funny, but I was in a local establishment a few years ago and the woman who served me said my mother wasn’t local. Seriously? After 50 years!!? Oh well….loved your article Mark.

  8. Thank God I do not have the terminology problem of “localism” and “new comers” as I consider my family more in the global tradition as “Islanders” as I was born on Mask Island 85 years ago.

    My father, Paul B. Mask, purchased the Island in 1918 and our family celebrated 100 years Anniversary last year in 2018.
    My father and was the longest running and continuous Mayor of Barry’s Bay and surrounding townships for 18 years , 1930 to 1948 and built the first Mask Island Dairy in Barry’s Bay.

    My congratulations to the Author on his excellent and superb mastery of the subject matter.

    Don Mask

  9. Katherine Kelly

    I am as “newcomer” as they come, as I have been a resident of the Madawaska Valley for just a few months. Although I do not try to claim the title of “local”, I have been warmly welcomed by those in my workplace and parish and around the area. I’m happy to be here, and I humbly offer one small correction to this excellent article: it is now possible for the “locals” to earn a university degree right here in the Valley, since the “Academy People”, as mentioned, are now proudly a “College People”! Congratulations, residents of Madawaska Valley, on now having an institution right here, where you can study history, literature, philosophy, theology, maths, sciences, etc. and finish with a Bachelor’s degree!

  10. Miriam and Gary Hedderson

    A wonderful read, Mark…really made us think back twenty years to when we chose this most wonderful place for our retirement location. We knew no one here, but wanted a simpler, quieter life with fresh air, clean water, access to lakes and trails, really good people and a vibrant community. We noted the hospital, the library, the variety of local businesses, the charming railway station and gorgeous Kamaniskeg Lake.

    We arrived from Burlington with no knowledge of rural living – wells, woodstoves, chainsaws, snow quantities, really cold temperatures and the need for careful and adequate insulation – and bought a ‘fixer-upper’ that, it turned out, needed a lot of fixing. Right from the beginning and over our time here, we can say that we have never been treated as ‘outsiders’. Many talented tradespeople have helped us with challenges as they arose,
    and have become our friends. It has been very wonderful twenty years and we have met and know many superb people here…some of the most interesting, genuine and wise are from Heritage Families!

    We know that we made a great choice twenty years ago and feel a strong sense of belonging in the Valley

  11. Excellent Article Mark! (And nice to see your smiling face 🙂 ) As an “outsider” it was pretty tough in grade school. However, when I attended Palmer Rapids Public School for 8th grade and later MVDHS, I was happy to be a sort of “free agent” and made friends from all the surrounding communities. I didn’t feel that I had to be “loyal” only to the people in my neighborhood. It’s funny, when I lived in Canada, I was considered American. Now that I’m back in the states, I’m considered Canadian. I consider myself a person of the world 🙂

  12. Doug DeLaMatter

    As it was explained to me many years ago…
    You are a “local” if an elderly woman asks you a particular question and she understands your answer.
    The question: “Who you offa?? ”
    Translation: If she knows your parents, you are a local. If not, you will never be.

  13. I certainly enjoyed your article Mark. I lived in Killaloe from 62 to 78… my teenage years. No jobs other than in the lumber or service industry so I went to Ottawa, then Kingston where I live now, since 1981.I’ve always come back whenever time permits. I have worked at Queen’s University for 28 plus years as a custodian and while there received my degree in Sociology. Truly, I think the “local” and “others” is an accurate idea that needs to be studied. Is others a derogatory term, or is it the valley peoples’ way of communicating their thoughts of the unfamiliar.
    We, and I do include myself as a local, have a particular way of communicating when it comes to people we are unfamiliar with. There are people who have moved here and left because of lack of long term opportunities, as I did, but we still return as often as possible and have for many years. I am very proud of my Madawaska Valley Heritage.
    You have hit on a major point though, and its not so much about we and others, but about training, education and inviting business, manufacturing, and agricultural business into the area to keep our youth here. Its a simple thing. You can’t stay if there is no work. That involves all our municipal governments putting in the work to attract businesses to our area.We have land, natural resources, and trainable labour, so they must get involved and be leaders, rather than let opportunities pass by.
    Our villages have always had their different large families, and most of these families I know are very friendly and open to new Ideas, especially the younger ones. We just need someone to start the fire and keep it going.
    I have created a Facebook page to let people know whats up in the area, so that we all can plan to see each other more often and see what others are up to. I have also been a member of the Killaloe Farmers Market for several years, and have been a member of the Heritage and Ecology Society in Killaloe. I am trying to give back to the community of people that helped me become who I am now. My hope is to do as much as my time permits to bring together people in the whole area, and help create a sustainable future!
    Thank you for the excellent article.

  14. Diane Devereux

    My husband and I have been here (Combermere) six, almost seven years. We spent the first few years paying attention, seeking our place. We asked for help to learn about life here and we received it. We still do. Without exception the people of the valley have been very generous and welcoming to us. We are now past the newbie stage, but still practice respectful integration. We believe people that have been here much longer than us have valley wisdom we do not. We have skills and knowledge to share and we strive to add value to our community, but to us moving to a small town means you respect the people and their village. You invest some time to find your place.
    We believe, to some degree, the way you move into a community influences how you are received.

    We have lived in beautiful small places before that threw the doors open in the name of development and growth. Sometimes it works and the place holds the charm it had, but not always. We understand people wanting to protect their way of life, especially these days, when this kind of living gets harder and harder to find.
    Having said all that though, we also believe it is important to welcome new people and give them a fair chance to become locals some day.

  15. btconway

    Very interesting article. Not certain there is any solution to the “us” vs “them” false dichotomy that plagues a lot of communities worldwide. For my part I find it interesting that, though I spent the first 20 years of my life here I spent 40 years living elsewhere in North America and yet I would be considered local. Also, I find it ironic many of us locals find our cultural if not ethnic souls not in Canada but across the pond in Western Europe. So what really does local mean? Still, I for one can attest to the ridiculous animosity some locals direct to “outsiders.” On two separate occasions, I have returned to the area driving automobiles with, in one case Quebec plates and, more recently, New York plates. I was shocked at the level of animosity directed towards me because somebody mistakenly didn’t believe I was their equal. It told me in no uncertain terms that we have a serious problem that needs to be addressed. And so I thank you, Mark, for raising the issue. For my part, there is no “us” vs “them.” There are only decent human beings who all pass through this wonderful place. And you can do that with good will towards all or you can chose to be a complete and utter knuckle-dragging nincompoop!

  16. Mary Jane Elmslie

    I enjoyed your article Mark. I have lived in the area for 45 years and I know that I am one of those high school teachers (although retired) rather than a local. Part of that designation, though, is true because I still do not know the complex web of family relationships – who is related to whom and how far back that relationship began. I learned never to gossip about anyone to someone “local” because they were probably related. On the other hand, there are more people who know who I am than there are people I know. But the support I received from people when I had my bout with cancer some years ago and the care my aunt got at the Valley Manor as an adjunct family member was heartwarming and humbling. I feel at home here and, from the experience of seeing friends die at St Francis Memorial hospital I know they are treated as family, so I hope to die here as well.

  17. Nels Boehme

    Great stuff !
    I was born and raised in the Valley. I have operated a business and been a professional person here and depended on folks, whether “local” or “Outsiders” for my livelihood.
    However – there remains the fact that if one was NOT born here and raised by a “local” family then they are really not a “local” no matter how long they may reside. The lady who won the bingo will continue to reside here and die and be buried here BUT….she is and was not a “local”.
    It is a fact of life. Do you think that should I move to China that I would be called “CHINESE” – do you believe that I would EVER become a “Local”?? – I’m afraid not.
    The word “local” is something that everyone must take and view as their own. Yet if you MOVE here and become a citizen of the Valley – you are NEVER really a “local” are you?
    I think not.
    Now there will be folks who disagree with my view of course – that is always the case but please – think hard !
    Please do not become excited and castigate me because this is MY view and you may reply as nasty as you like , but “local” is a word!

    • Mark Woermke

      Thanks for reading Nels. Good point. “Local” is a word and we certainly can use it to identify ourselves and others. I am sure you agree with me, however, that it should never be used to make our fellow residents, neighbors and even relatives who have moved to the Madawaska Valley by choice (or for love), feel like they are not full members of this wonderful community. We are all local.

  18. Elena Afelskie

    Good stuff, Mark! My aunt and uncle, Combermere residents for 30 plus years, joke that I did for them in one marriage what they were unable to do in decades of living here! I joke that my married name gives me street cred in the Valley!

  19. William (Bill) Shulist

    So impressively true!!
    This conversation of being “local” actually came up during Hunting season during breakfast. Many in our gang are not residents (myself included), half have definite Valley roots but the others are “imports”.
    It was brought up by one person that living here for many years still hasn’t,as he felt, obtained the handle “a Local”. This is an individual who works, provides, adds to the growth to the Valley. We all disagreed with the attitude of that segregation, feeling it did not promote growth and community. How to change it? Well there wasn’t enough coffee in the pot to solve that problem.
    Thank you for putting it down on paper, front and center, so maybe these words might aid in that changing of attitude and building a stronger more vibrant Valley that I am still very proud to call HOME.

  20. Interesting read Mark. I was born in Round Lake in 1966 and lived there before moving to Killaloe and then Barry’s Bay before finally going to Waterloo for university. While I have lived in Toronto for the past 30 years I still have strong ties to the area with family living in Brudenell and Wilno. I also own land in Rockingham and keep in touch with local news via social media and a number of kind folks. As development in Toronto chokes many people out of the city, I too have thought about moving back to the valley and to a more simple life style. I would like to think all people who wanted to move into the area, whether or not they had any historical or family ties, would be welcomed with open arms.

  21. Lynne Yantha

    “There is something to be said for living in a place for a while, learning a bit from the locals before criticizing or trying to change things. Rural folk may not have a lot of formal education, but they are wise and know the lay of the land. Newcomers who recognized this, like Catherine Doherty or Barney McCaffrey, got to know their neighbours and sought their advice when they first moved here. They integrated successfully and are legendary.”
    I love this! It’s true!
    I think you allude to one idea a few times, and it’s true in general…listen and learn first, then take action!
    Thank you for this great piece! A base for a great thesis, it would make. : )

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