Just a small-town boy … living in a big city world …
So…I was that kid. I was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, while my dad was going to mining engineering school, but quickly upon graduating, we began the nomadic mining brat way of life. My parents moved our family pretty much every year at the end of each school year.
We would get our final report cards and ask, “Where are we moving?”. “Vancouver Island”, “The North West Territories,” and “Northern Ontario,” were actual responses.
As kids, we loved it. Every new move held new adventures. Ocean fishing, digging clams, and prying abalones off rocks in Port McNeil, B.C. Hunting, snowmobiling, and fishing in the NWT. Boating, fishing, and camping in Red Lake Ontario.
Regular everyday life was like something out of a Canadian Audubon magazine.
But guess what? They don’t put mines next to big cities.
Mining towns are typically very, very remote. On Vancouver Island and in the NWT, it is worth noting that the popular survival series, Alone, has filmed multiple seasons within an hour of where I lived in both BC and NWT. Mining towns are built wherever the precious deposits are found, and for the most part, it is rare for any existing population or industry to have predated the mine, save, of course, for first nations’ presence.
For example, during the Red Lake gold rush, which started in 1926, Howey Bay on the actual lake was the busiest “airport” in the world, as the area could only be accessed via float plane. And until my family moved to Sussex, N.B. (population 3,000 in 1978; now 4,400 (2021)), I had rarely lived in towns larger than 1,500 people.
So, most people in the U.S. think Canadians are “friendly”. I’ve heard hundreds of Americans say that Canada’s first city, Toronto, “is so friendly!” To Canadians from outside of Toronto, “The Big Smoke” is all big city hustle and bustle, and is about as friendly as a grizzly bear emerging from a six-month hibernation.
My own theory is that all cities become increasingly less friendly as they grow larger. Contrastingly, when you’re from a town of 800 people, virtually everyone in the town is known to you, and if you didn’t know someone, you certainly wouldn’t hesitate to say hello and chat with them.
I was THAT person on the subway train …
So small-town boy Brent moves to Canada’s largest city for law and business school. Yep, I was THAT person on the TTC subway train, striking up conversations with whoever happened to have the (mis?)fortune of sitting next to me. Stone-faced and cursory responses were the best that I could expect; most often, people would continue to stare blankly forward, not acknowledging that I had spoken to them, and certainly never making eye contact with me.
Many would even get up and move, taking a seat further away in the train car.
The first few times this happened, I did a sniff check on my armpits and double-checked to ensure that my pants zipper was done up. And then it dawned on me—I was breaking The Rules of Public Transit—staring downward and blankly ahead, speaking to no one and never, EVER making eye contact.
As I didn’t like making people feel uncomfortable, I learned how to ride the transit system in the same way that everybody else did.
Rescuing a kid from NB
One day I was riding the 106A Express bus from the northernmost subway station at the time, Wilson Station, to the university campus. Suddenly those of us standing at the back of the bus were being crushed by people pressing deeper into the bus, and there was some form of commotion going on at the front.
I tuned into the loud voice coming from the front and could hear someone introducing himself, explaining that he was “Mike from New Brunswick”, and that this was his first time visiting Toronto, and asking if anybody could help him by letting him know when to hop off the bus.
I smiled (inwardly only, of course), thinking that this pretty much had been me only a few short months ago. I fought my way to the front of the bus (“excuse me”, “excuse me”, “sorry”), and found “Mike”. He wasn’t hard to spot, standing in a wide-open space in his red and white jacket with the big “UNB” letters on his back.
He was pretty sure he knew me from New Brunswick; I assured him that he didn’t, but he could just hop off the bus when I hopped off, and he’d be good.
He was extremely appreciative and then proceeded to explain (again) that this was his first time in Toronto. You don’t say?!
Fast forward to life today
After university, I practiced corporate law (securities and mergers and acquisitions) in Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary, all sizable cities. I worked on multi-billion dollar transactions and provided advice to C-suite corporate officers and high-caliber boards of directors. I have since quit practicing law, and now run a boutique executive search (headhunting) firm, and have had offices in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, Houston, and New York.
But I absolutely have never, ever lost my small-town friendliness. I’ll comfortably have lively discussions with global heads of investment banking for major international banks; I equally treasure my conversations with the gentleman who is my regular go-to for shining my shoes.
I consider all to be my friends. When I travelled back to Red Lake and Balmertown in northern Ontario last summer, it felt like I had never left.
Just a small-town town boy living in an increasingly smaller world.