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Atkins: A few small lessons on the road to northern sustainability

Whatever transpires, you cannot move forward without the grit, courage, determination and brilliance we encountered in a few short days on the Temiskaming Shores.
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Radical Gardens in Timmins is one of the winners of the 2017 Northern Ontario Business Awards. (Supplied)

“If we didn’t have bad luck, we’d have no luck at all.”

That’s Brianna Humphrey reviewing the kind of year she had in 2016 with her fabulous new Timmins restaurant, Radical Gardens. In one year she was targeted by vandals nine times, who smashed windows, stole the cash register, pilfered food, and nearly made off with the farm truck. Additionally, she had a broken fridge, a broken water heater, broken pipes and a broken furnace. Apart from that, things were great.

I met Brianna at our 31st annual Northern Ontario Business Awards dinner this year in Timmins. Radical Gardens won Company of the Year (1 to 15 employees). There are six magic themes at Radical Gardens. One, they grow their own food. Two, they have a sense of humour (check out Timmins billboards where they advertise their wares wearing no clothes). Three, they are digitally literate. Four, they are fierce advocates for an independent Northern lifestyle. Five, they make food you will find nowhere else. Six, they work like dogs.

Brianna will influence Timmins for many years to come. It was great to meet her and her team.

Down the highway and around the corner from Timmins is my old friend Pierre Belanger (Bison farmer, community developer, entrepreneur) in Earlton (pop 1,100).  My wife and I went down to visit after the NOBAs and it was food that was on Pierre and wife Francoise’s mind as well. They took us deep into the heart of Témiscaming, Que., to visit with Angèle-Ann Guimond, proprietor of L’Éden Rouge. It is located in an old barn next to her parents’ farm. The idea was to put the produce from the farm on the table of her restaurant and assume they would come. They did. With 70 per cent of their food products coming from local farms, much of it from their own earth, the restaurant has been a huge success. The night we were there it was full and the food amazing.

We stayed the weekend in Haileybury where we encountered two more remarkable entrepreneurs. Jocelyn Blais, a settler from Hearst, and Nicole Guertin, a pilgrim from Kapuskasing, have accumulated five beautiful homes in Haileybury, relics of the fabulous silver mining rush of the late 1800s and early 1900s. They are known as the Presidents’ Suites. The attention to art and history and culture in these homes is fantastic. You're not renting a room, you are going back to a time of excitement, risk, greed, wealth and outsized personalities who knew how to make money from the rock and spend it. It is a virtual reality tour without the technology.

Not satisfied with outstanding lodging, Nicole and Jocelyn recently  opened a restaurant that matched the quality and mission of their homes. The Café Meteor Bistro in downtown Haileybury is extraordinary. You could be eating on Queen Street West in Toronto or the cobblestones of old Montréal. The restaurant is inspired by the S.S. Meteor, a passenger steamboat that served communities on both sides of Lake Temiskaming for 40 years. It provided a vital lifeline to the outside world before there was train service or usable roads.

These Northerners are turning the bland, boring profitable corporate restaurant business on its head. They are honouring the people and history of the North with a kind of excellence and passion that is unusual and unique. It is not easy. Authentic food and experience is more expensive than manufactured mood and scaled culinary content.

Tina Sartoretto is not a restauranteur. She is not the proprietor of a hotel. She is a political entrepreneur and mayor of Cobalt. We spent a day with our friend touring the town and listening to the ups and downs of bringing a once thriving boom town back to life. Part of it is theatre, part of it is hand-to-hand combat (battling to keep schools), and much is imagination — finding a way to divine the modest advantages that present themselves. Tina is doubling down on tourism while she waits to see if demand for lithium cell phone batteries will bring back the miners to find the cobalt they left behind in the rush to silver 100 years ago.

Economic development is about import substitution and exports.

Whatever transpires, you cannot move forward without the grit, courage, determination and brilliance we encountered in a few short days on the Temiskaming Shores.

Now, for some luck.

Michael Atkins is the president and owner of the Laurentian Media Group, a diversified media company, which includes Northern Life, Sudbury.com, Sudbury Living Magazine and Northern Ontario Business.



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