Last month, I had the privilege of giving the commencement address to the graduating high school students of Peninsula Shores District School in Wiarton, Ontario, the town where I grew up—and the home of Canada’s most famous groundhog, Wiarton Willie. Here’s what I said.
The writer Flannery O’Connor once said that by the time people reach the end of childhood, they have all the material they need to tell stories for the rest of their lives.
Graduates of 2017: you’ve arrived at the end of childhood, the end of high school, and you’re entering your grown-up years. What stories are you going to tell?
It’s an important question. Who we are, who we understand ourselves and others to be, is largely made up of the stories we tell—and also the stories we don’t tell.
Ever since I graduated from high school and moved away from Wiarton to attend university, I’ve had to ask myself certain questions when faced with telling stories about who I am.
First of all, should I say I’m from Wiarton? And if I do, should I be the first one to mention Wiarton Willie? Or should I wait for the other person to do it?
How should I react those times when people say, “Wiarton—isn’t that the place with the chipmunk?” Because if I don’t correct them, then in their minds I’m from the town that worships a chipmunk. If I do correct them, then in their minds I’m from a place that worships a groundhog. What’s more, I’m from a place that worships the groundhog pedantically.
After I left Wiarton, I learned that for things to go well in the grown-up world, you need to work hard, and you need to be lucky. In my case, I was lucky enough to get a scholarship that let me study literature in England and tell stories about myself there. And there, in the land of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, I spent a year reading short fiction by someone who’d grown up in Wingham.
Many of that writer’s stories were about people in small towns a lot like Wiarton. They were about childhoods spent outdoors, or indoors reading about far-off places that seemed much more exciting than southwestern Ontario.
But again and again, as I encountered in these stories the details and the secrets of people’s lives, the writer’s work impressed upon me that small-town life can be just as rich and exotic as life elsewhere. I started to see that growing up in a little place can be a big advantage in terms of the stories you get to tell and the person you get to be.
The writer of the stories was Alice Munro, and four years ago she became the first Canadian author to win the Nobel Prize. Did I mention she’s from Wingham? Wingham doesn’t even have a chipmunk.
When I was in England, nobody there knew about Wiarton Willie. In some cases, the only thing people knew about Canada was that Celine Dion was from there. So if I was going to tell them I was from Wiarton, I had to think about what else I’d say.
That reflection grew more intense when I started writing a novel about a small town in Ontario. The town is nothing like Wiarton. Let me prove it by sharing with you a few lines that describe a character arriving at the place. He observes this: “A row of houses appears, then another, and finally the road descends through a rock cut into the town itself: a few hundred roofs reflecting the moonlight, hemmed in by cedar forest and limestone escarpment on three sides, . . . a long, narrow bay on the fourth, the highway bisecting it all like the needle of a compass and climbing again through rock at the north end.”
Now you’re probably wondering, “Where does he get such imaginative power? It’s like Willie’s power to predict the weather.”
I should also mention that the town in the novel is in the traditional territory of a First Nation, but encroachment by European settlers forced the First Nation to cede its lands, bit by bit, until it was left with only a small part of them, including a reserve near the town.
Of course, that part of the novel is true. It’s the story of Wiarton and the Saugeen Ojibway Nation. And it’s a story I hadn’t been telling when I’d just been telling people about Wiarton Willie.
For a long time, I didn’t know that before the Bruce Peninsula was called by that name, it was called the Saugeen Peninsula. One reason I wish I’d known about the name “Saugeen Peninsula” is that my dad’s name is Bruce. Do you know what it was like for me as a child, visiting the Bruce Caves, the Bruce Nuclear plant, travelling around the Bruce Peninsula and Bruce County all the time? I’m still dealing with the emotional fallout.
When I wrote my novel, I left out all mention of characters or places named Bruce. But even though my book was fiction, I knew that people were going to grant a certain authority to its picture of this place, because I’d grown up here. And so I knew I had a responsibility to be a better storyteller than I’d been.
And that meant I had to learn stories I hadn’t been told. I started to read history books I hadn’t read before. I started to read the work of Ojibway authors such as Basil Johnston and Lenore Keeshig. I started to see this area through new eyes. And I began to recognize that even Alice Munro hadn’t said all there was to say about a place like this one.
It was once said of the novelist George Eliot that she wrote stories “for grown-up people.” In other words, she didn’t tell fairy tales with heroes and villains and tidy endings. She told stories of life as it really is, with all its complexity, its ambiguities, its details that many storytellers pass over. It can be hard work to tell Eliot’s kind of story, even about the place where you live. Sometimes especially about that place. It can be easier to let people focus on the groundhog.
But graduates, I’m excited for you, because you have ahead of you many opportunities to tell grown-up stories about yourselves and your places, whether you’re from Oliphant or Oxenden, Colpoy’s Bay or Neyaashiinigmiing. You have the chance to reflect on the stories you tell and to seek out new ones; to learn other people’s stories, and to think carefully about those stories, too.
You have the chance to use your imagination and all you learn to make the stories you tell better ones, whether they’re about the past, about the here and now, or about the future you want for yourselves and for the world.
And you don’t have to do it alone. You’re leaving this school with the support of family, teachers, and friends who have passed on their stories to you, who’ve helped you to tell better stories, and who’ve shared experiences with you that will always be a part of the stories you tell.
On your behalf, let me thank them for that support. Let me congratulate you on their behalf. And let me thank those of you in this room who had a hand in naming this school, back when it was founded, and who chose not to call it the Bruce School. That might have been a bit too much for me to handle.