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Focus on Canada

By Joan VanSickle Heaton
Volume 9 Number 4

THERE ARE MANY CANADIANS in rural areas whose feelings of isolation make them ambivalent about the affairs of their country. In these regions, life does not change very quickly. The pattern has been similar for generations: leave high school, marry a school friend, get a job nearby or on the family farm, have a family fairly soon, attend the same church and social functions as the rest of the neighbors, and enjoy a retirement surrounded by old friends and family members. These sensible comforts have produced the backbone of the Canadian population. However, the current generation of Ontario's rural young people is finding that the prospect of staying near home after finishing school is uncertain and that the trek to the West is the only solution to the problems presented by an insecure financial future.

Sydenham High School, perched on a chunk of Ontario's Frontenac County limestone, is representative of the community of rural people described above. Small towns -- Godfrey, Elginburg, Harrowsmith, Bellrock, and Verona as examples -- send their young people by bus to Sydenham. But lately, they have also been sending them by train to Alberta upon graduation from the school, to places in the Northwest whose names they have only recently learned. Canadian studies as a course in grades 9 and 10 cannot be expected to supply students with the kind of familiarity necessary to make the trip away from home easy or less uncertain.

In an attempt to make students more aware of their country, three of its teachers, Brock Laing from the business education department, Leif Wilson, the geography head, and Joan VanSickle Heaton, the school librarian, coordinated a project called Focus on Canada. The aim of Focus was to provide contact between important Canadians and the rural community to turn it from its accustomed introversion into a more active participation with the nation it will have to meet face to face. There were two approaches used in accomplishing this ambitious task. One Focus venture took the form of a conference held mid-year during which students and other community members had the opportunity to learn more about Canada's heritage and future. Sessions were conducted on literature, computers, national defense, sports, native art, telecommunications, publishing, nuclear energy, and science. Canadian films were included in the participants' timetables, and the day ended with a Wintario draw from the school's gymnasium.

The other Focus program was a series of visits to the school by notable Canadians throughout the year. These visits proved to be the most spontaneous and rewarding aspect of the project. The committee, aided by the word processor of a local firm, sent about a hundred letters describing the program across the country to virtually every Canadian it thought might be interested. Joey Smallwood, Jean Drapeau, Steve Podborski, Governor General Schreyer, Peter Lougheed, Joe Clark, Ed Broadbent, Prime Minister Trudeau, and many others received a description of the community, the hopes of the co-ordinators, driving instructions to Sydenham and the offer of lunch, which, with a souvenir T-shirt was all the honorarium the budget would support.

Montréal Mayor Jean Drapeau answered the letter personally. Although he expressed regret at having to decline the invitation, he gave the idea great support. Comedian Dan Aykroyd, busy in New York, took time to "applaud the initiative." And the Treasurer of PetroCanada, Fred Grant, came in October to tell about Alberta and the oil industry. Barbara Amiel regretted not being able to accommodate Focus in her schedule; but Dave Broadfoot brought to the gymnasium his wit and his characters, Sergeant Renfrew of the Mounties and Bobby Clobber to express his ideas about the need for Canadian humour that neither divides nor ridicules. No reply came from any of the hockey players invited, but Steve Podborski drove to Sydenham, single handedly, having dislocated a shoulder, and talked to the whole student body and to a group of admiring fans for most of an afternoon. Opposition Leader Joe Clark was accompanied by a retinue of eighteen, including newspeople from the three national networks. Sydenham saw itself on the national news in three versions that night. Dr. John Meisel, originally from Czechoslovakia, communicated his enthusiasm for Canada and explained aspects of his role in the CRTC. David Trumble, 113 year-old author of When I Was a Boy, entertained with tallish tales of life in an age most students learn about only through their history books. Lieutenant Governor John Aird outlined his position as the Queen's representative and demonstrated his vice-regal powers by granting a day off school. Educator Lloyd Dennis challenged the students to defend themselves against his accusation that they, as Canadians, had squandered their country's natural resources. Saxophonist Paul Brodie gave a lesson in advanced musical technique amid a short concert, and the then Minister of Community and Social Services for Ontario, Keith Norton, enjoyed lunch and a talk with a group whose need for government programs is often strong.

All of the participants left the school feeling that they had contributed in a personal way to making the students more aware of national affairs. Always encouraged by a warm welcome and besieged with questions and requests for autographs, they were glad to have taken the time to get to know members of a group whose presence is not felt in the larger centres. Community members who attended various of the sessions were delighted to see the news items of the nation addressed in personal terms. Teachers in the school prepared their classes for the visitors by discussing pertinent issues in advance. The staff's involvement in logistical arrangements and ancillary projects such as photography and yearbook features proved their support for an idea which, at first, had seemed far-fetched. Local businesses co-operated by lending such items as a 20 x 40 foot flag to serve as a backdrop for some addresses and occasional pieces of electrical equipment. As a result, the assemblies were polished and well-run events that interfered as little as possible with the regular daily timetable.

The success of the project was best measured by the response of the students. Their ideas for speakers, their attentive involvement in the presentations, their assistance in the peripheral duties -- poster-making, lunch preparations, T-shirt screening, reporting for the school and the local newspapers and preparation for assemblies -- gave to the co-ordinators the gratifying sense that Focus had struck a vital nerve and that its effects would be long lasting.

Although the initial aim was to make Focus on Canada the project of a single school year, inevitably, because of its success, it was necessary to schedule some of the suggested speakers for the fall of 1981. With each additional event, the scope and impact of Focus increases. More and more, Sydenham High School is made to feel involved in national affairs, and its self-esteem as part of a small rural community strengthens. Sydenham has put itself on the map of Canada, and there is no longer the feeling among its students that it is just another isolated place, bypassed by the big concerns and ignored by the rest of the country. The students, after all, now know Canada personally.

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