Life In A Northern Town
by Marc Tardif, now living in Mississauga, Ontario

Mr. Kirwan:
I recently happened to come upon your Valley East Today web site and read Wendy Bisson's article ("Wendy Bisson, Former Resident of Valley East, Shares Her Childhood Memories") in the July 2004 newsletter.  This inspired me to write the attached article, "Life In A Northern Town", because I am also an ex-resident of Hanmer, having grown up there in the 1980s. 

Every once in a while, you hear a song on the radio that brings you back to a place in time.  Though long ago recorded, the images and sounds of yesterday are instantly retrieved from the vault of your memories, and you see and hear them now as you saw and heard them back then.  There is a song playing on the radio now, and that song is “Life In A Northern Town”, performed by “The Dream Academy”, more or less of a one-hit wonder from the mid-1980s.  The song might as well have been called “Life In A Northern Town Called Hanmer”, because to me that is what the song is all about.

It was the spring of 1986 when I heard the song for the first time on the 105.3 FM radio station.  The smell of spring was in the air.  The vacant lot beside our house was still covered with snow, but I swear I heard it melting because the air was so warm.  That is what I first remember when I hear that song, and soon after, all the memories from my childhood come flowing through the corridors of my brain.

I have fond memories of the years I spent growing up in Hanmer.  My father, working for Transport Canada, had been transferred to the Sudbury airport from Timmins in 1979.  After staying in various temporary residences in Sudbury, our family moved in to the yellow house on the corner of Dennie Street and Maurice Street (4532 Dennie Street) in July 1979.  I was five years old at the time.  My childhood was just beginning.  The lot on the corner of Dennie and Maurice Streets was vacant and in the summer of 1979, a small patch of sunflowers grew there.  My fascination with sunflowers continues to this day 25 years later!

The years that followed saw me grow up and live my life pretty much according to Roch Carrier’s passage on the back of the current five dollar bill: “The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons.  We lived in three places – the school, the church and the skating rink – but our real life was on the skating rink.”  My childhood revolved around being a student at École Notre-Dame, attending Sunday mass at the Église St-Jacques and skating at the Centennial arena and sliding down its hills.  Though I did not play hockey, which is the life on the skating rink that Roch Carrier alluded to, I probably should have with a name like mine. 

Hanmer was a fun place to grow up as a kid.  I enjoyed my childhood to the perennial rhythm of the seasons.  The schedule for each year looked something like this.

bulletSliding down the slopes of the Cortina Hills and the Centennial Arena.
bulletGoing skating on Friday nights at the Centennial Arena.
bulletBuilding snow forts in the vacant lot beside our house.  That vacant lot received the snow that was ploughed out from the neighbouring driveways, so there was always a “mountain” of snow in the wintertime.
bulletSmelling the first whiff of that warm spring air as it started to melt the snow.  I remember the snow banks being much taller than I was by the time March rolled around.  Also around the Spring Break, we would go on a school trip to the sugar shack for a sweet treat.
bulletBicycling through the streets and trails of Hanmer, not because I had to get somewhere, but because it was fun!  I remember that my dad used to, on occasion, buy us ice cream from the store at the corners of Côté Boulevard and Laura Street.
bulletGetting our fill of sand in our shoes when we played around at the “sand pit”.
bulletBlueberry picking in August.  I have yet to taste better blueberries than the ones that grow wild in the Sudbury area.
bulletJumping in the piles of multicoloured leaves in the fall.  By the time October rolled around, you could smell it in the morning air that winter would be coming soon.  And then there was Hallowe’en to look forward to.
bulletMaking snow angels in the first blanket of freshly fallen snow.  Back then, the first snowfall seemed to have a way of always occurring around Remembrance Day.
bulletCounting down the days until Christmas morning would be upon us.

It’s time for me to stop rambling on, the performers are about to sing.  Let’s listen to the words, shall we, I mean really listen.  Don’t just hear them, listen to them.

A Salvation Army Band played

And children drank lemonade

And the morning lasted all day,

All day

This reminds me of the Valley East Days parade in September.  I remember standing in the crowd at the Centennial Arena watching the parade go by.  People were drinking various refreshments, lemonade included.  The days just seemed to be longer back then.  I guess when you’re a kid, there is nothing else to do but have fun.  The “Theory of Fun” goes like this: the more fun you can pack into a day, the longer it will seem.

And through an open window came

Like Sinatra in a younger day,

Pushing the town away


Memories of summer, when the windows are open and you can hear music playing on the radio from inside the house.  I’m sure I heard Sinatra playing on the radio back then, but I didn’t know who he was at the time.  And I do remember hearing The Beach Boys.  There is something more to the sight of the town on a summer day when the soundtrack that accompanies the image has a nostalgic feeling to it.  The song has been tested and it stood the test of time.


Ah hey ma ma ma

Life in a northern town.

This is the chorus of the song.  Quite simple, really, but that is really the point of life in a northern town.  It is simple and exempt from the worries that accompany life in a big city like Toronto.

They sat on the stoney ground

And he took a cigarette out

And everyone else came down

To listen.

I was part of the 13th St-Jacques Cub Pack and camping expeditions were part of the curriculum.  I remember this one particular leader who smoked a lot and always made us sit around in a circle while he sat in the middle and dispensed his wisdom.  The wisdom he was dispensing was lost on me, but I do remember the ground being stoney!  That’s par for the course living in the Sudbury area.

He said "In winter 1963

It felt like the world would freeze

With John F. Kennedy

And The Beatles."

I remember a little bit of a panic in 1983.  The world was supposed to end in 1984, or something like that.  Credit goes to George Orwell for that little bit of drama.  I think that was more of a scare that existed only in the world of children, for I doubt that adults would have really believed that the world would end in 1984.  But when you’re a kid, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy are all real, so why not the concept of the world ending in 1984?  For a while, it really did seem like the world froze, but in 1983 it would have been with Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson.


Ah- hey ma ma ma

Life in a northern town.

Ah hey ma ma ma

All the work shut down.

With so many people being employed by Inco or Falconbridge, when the miners went on strike, it really did seem like all the work had shut down.

The evening had turned to rain

Watch the water roll down the drain,

As we followed him down

To the station

And though he never would wave goodbye,

You could see it written in his eyes

As the train pulled out of sight


This does not bring back a memory in particular but speaks to the phenomenon of exodus from the small town.  The sun sets on a childhood and it is time to face the worry-laden life of an adult.  The sunshine gives way to rain, the smile gives way to tears.  Younger friends follow the eldest to the train station to bid him farewell.  The eldest does not want to leave but he knows he has no choice.  In his heart he wants to stay but in his mind he knows he has to leave.  When the heart and the mind are in opposition, teary eyes are the result.  Then finally it really is goodbye as the train to adulthood disappears into the horizon.


Ah hey ma ma ma

Life in a northern town.

Ah hey ma ma ma

Life in a northern town.

Another one has gone but life in a northern town continues.

Would I ever like to live in Hanmer again?  In a heartbeat.  But then, as it always does, money rears its ugly head and shatters that dream like a broken mirror.  The problem is how to pay for a house and all the bills that go along with it when gainful employment is hard to find?  That has been the subject of a great many number of articles about the mass exodus of young people from the smaller northern towns to the urban sprawl of southern Ontario.  The pattern seems to be that once you grow up, you pretty much have to head south in order to make a life for yourself and your family like the life that your parents made for theirs. 

In 1989, my father was transferred to the North Bay airport and I finished my high school years at École Secondaire Algonquin.  Then in 1993, I left North Bay to attend York University in Toronto.  I wanted to go into the computer programming field, and there just was not enough demand for this career in the north.  And so I remain in the south, working in my chosen field, and realizing that in all probability, as things currently stand, that this is where I’ll stay because my livelihood depends on it.  Maybe that is part of the quandary.  If the economic engine of the north mirrored that of the urban south, I wouldn’t be writing about growing up as a kid in the north the way I did throughout this article.  The song would then have to be “Life In A Southern City”.

If you would like to send Marc an email, his address is:


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