Carolyn Bennett standing in front of a Downtown Brockville map. Photo by Dan Nostbakken

Surviving and Thriving

One year later, Carolyn Bennett reflects on making the move from Toronto to Brockville, Ontario

By Carolyn Bennett  |  July 6, 2023

It’s been almost two years.

My partner and I relocated to Brockville from Toronto in 2021. I wrote an article about the experience for Ontario Culture Days in 2022. It’s now 2023.

I’m not going to lie – I’ve felt grief.

Hundreds of artists have left cities across Canada, by choice or by necessity. I was renovicted from my apartment of 24 years when a new landlord began demolishing the ground floor while I still lived on the second. I felt every pound of the sledgehammer as he ripped apart the walls. I contacted the city to see if he had a permit to do the work. He did not. By that point though, I felt pushed out of the neighbourhood I had called home for over two decades. My partner talked me into buying a house, something I had never considered . Purchasing a house meant leaving Toronto.

If leaving the city that I loved was traumatic, at least there was a trade-off. Rents and housing are more affordable in smaller centres. There’s not as much traffic. The pace of life is slower. But truthfully, I’ve felt culture shock. It’s real. For instance, when I first arrived, I was a guest on a local podcast. I gave myself an hour to get to the producer’s office. I was there 55 minutes early!

I hit the ground running when I arrived, vibrating with Toronto energy, an electricity that comes from living in a 24/7 environment. I saw Brockville as tabula rasa, and I would fill it with endless creativity.

I’m learning that I can’t replicate what I had in Toronto. There’s no urban hustle. Brockville is a small town in a rural setting – no amount of electro house will change that. I had to change.

I’ve had to slow down – not an easy thing to do after a lifetime of city living. I’ve had to leave my competitive mindset behind. I’m coming to terms with my new reality. I’m happy to say the grief lessens with each passing day.

What’s helped me adapt and enjoy life in Brockville? Here are my tips on how urban artists  can embrace life in small town Ontario:

1. Put Yourself Out There

One of the first things I did when I arrived in town was to join the Brockville Newcomers Club, a sort of welcome wagon for new arrivals where members can join various activities and meet new people. I attended a few “newbie” meetings for those fresh off the 401. It was there that I met Carolyn Ciccoritti, a relative newcomer to Brockville herself. Originally from Toronto, she had lived in the small town of Carleton Place for decades and raised her family there. We started talking and things got interesting. “There’s someone else you should meet,” were her words.

Left, Carolyn Ciccoritti. Right, Lois Lorimer. Photo by Dan Nostbakken.

2. DIY

In April 2022, I launched the River City Reading Series, a gathering of emerging and established writers who read from their work at From Here to Infinity Gallery and Bookstore in downtown Brockville. Carolyn, a long-time contributor to the Ottawa Valley newspaper The Humm and a spoken word artist, poet, and social activist, was one of the writers. The person she wanted me to meet was Lois Lorimer, an actor, writer and educator who originally hails from Brockville and had returned after three decades living and working in the GTA.

Today, we meet to exchange our work and encourage each other’s projects. I am in awe of their talent and generosity. After living and creating in small town Ontario for years, Carolyn is used to seeing culture in 360°. “Art that’s all around us – along with the people imagining, planning, and creating it – are an integral component in building a community that thrives. It underpins everything else, not simply by virtue of the splendour and vibrancy art manifests, but because it engenders collaboration. Many hands are needed to connect the artist to the public, the benefactor, the producer, and the support networks necessary to enable others to do the oohing and aahing.”

Lois recognizes how nurturing it was growing up as a young artist in Brockville. “Arts and culture have always been a big part of this town in one way or another, with the Brockville Theatre Guild, the Operatic Society and touring shows that come to the Brockville Arts Centre. It’s easier to see things here, there’s less commuting, and there’s a groundswell of interest when you go to something.” Lois has started Poetry Brockville, a group that features readings with a poetry and spoken word focus.

Make friends with like-minded people in your new community. It’s a godsend.

Kathleen from Medium Effort holding up The Fishwrapper arts and entertainment newspaper. Photo by Dan Nostbakken.

3. Communicate: The Fishwrapper

The second River City Reading series happened in the studio space at Medium Effort, a downtown art supply store. Owners Kathleen and Tim offered their studio space gratis for the 2022 Ontario Culture Days event. Earlier this year, Kathleen pitched the idea of an arts and entertainment newspaper, inspired by Toronto alternative papers NOW and eye weekly. As a former contributor to both publications, I was all ears.

“Tim and I had been thinking about it for at least three or four years,” says Kathleen. “We started doing little bits to work towards it, pulling in a good friend to teach us some basics. When Tim carved the linocut for the masthead, we decided it was time to make it happen. We had no idea what we were doing, but we knew how we wanted it to look, so we just did it.”

The Fishwrapper gets content from local writers, myself included. It’s a volunteer endeavour, and an opportunity to help shape the St. Lawrence Seaway culture. As Kathleen says, too many Facebook groups and pages dilute information. “When we opened the art store, we started to meet many interesting people doing interesting things – we wanted to share that, and we wanted one place to find that. We have regular contributors from Cornwall, Johnstown, Cardinal, Brockville, and Gananoque, and our distribution runs from Cornwall to Kingston. We want each other to thrive.”

Sweat equity is worth it.

Annie Ly, owner and operator outside of Sweet Ofelia Cafe, Brockville. Photo by Dan Nostbakken.

4. Support New Entrepreneurs: Sweet Ofelia

One thing I had to get used to was the lack of coffee shops on every corner. Sure, there are a smattering of coffeehouses in Brockville, but nothing on the scale of a city, where you can park yourself at a shop with your laptop and work for a few hours. When a new cafe opened downtown, I quickly became a fixture.

Annie Ly moved with her partner and young daughter last year, and followed her dream of opening Sweet Ofelia, her own business. “I wasn’t happy with my soul sucking corporate job [in Toronto] and felt like I was just living to work,” says Annie. “ I decided to do something different. I knew it was a huge risk leaving my city and moving to a small town where we didn’t know ANYONE. But I longed to have more freedom and to be able to do something creative.”

Besides offering delicious food, Sweet Ofelia imports goods and snacks from all over Asia, the US and the UK. It also hosts open mics night for poetry, spoken word, and music. Annie recently brought Art Battle to Brockville, and she plans on producing more shows. She has some advice for artists and creatives considering making a move to a smaller town. “Don’t wait too long! If it feels right and you’re curious – why not take that chance to explore something new and different!”

Hang out in creative spaces.

Jonathan Hanna inside the auditorium of the Brockville Arts Centre. Photo by Dan Nostbakken.

4. Get a Job. Or a Side Hustle.

Writing is a solitary occupation, and the pandemic-induced move disrupted the routine I’d established working on a short story collection. It’s tempting to insulate myself online because I’m on my computer anyway. But it’s not good for mental health. Having a place to go to be around people and contribute to society helps alleviate that loneliness.

You will be asked to volunteer in a small town. A lot.  But volunteering does not pay the bills. Find yourself a side hustle. I did, and in the process I feel like I’ve struck it rich – in spirit anyway.

My boss, Jonathan Hanna, is the Administrative Coordinator for the Brockville Arts Centre (BAC), a 700+ theatre celebrating its 165th year. Jonathan never felt the pull of the big city. Employed at the BAC for almost 20 years, he progressed from part-time box office ticket seller  to chief supervisor. “I was super focused on where this place could go,” he says. “You put in the time because you believe in something, and now I get to be a part of the leadership role which can choose the BAC’s direction.”

As Brockville grows, the Cultural Services department for the city is in the process of developing a strategic five-year plan. Jonathan sees this as an opportunity to build on the BAC’s record of inclusion. “Ultimately the BAC is for everybody. This is where people step on the stage for the first time. It’s also where people remember the first time they saw that big show or big talent.”

It’s exciting, and a privilege, to play a part in this renaissance.

Being home

The Toronto I knew is gone. The Brockville I know is here. If the urban landscape with its vibrancy and energy was grist for my mill, Brockville’s proximity to nature invites me to experience its calming effects and loosen the grip on who I think I am. An artist today needs to be flexible.

I still have my network in Toronto and the reading series I run at Hirut Cafe on the Danforth. There’s still my circle of friends only a three-and-a-half-hour train ride from Brockville. The 24/7 of major cities is close by. The only difference is that they are there, and I am here.

And here, I’m realizing, is a good place to be.

Writer/Comic Carolyn Bennett’s latest short story Moral Support Desk, can be found in Canadian Notes and Queries issue 112.