As a teenager in the late 1970s, Rachelle Niemela was part of the massive local regreening efforts to reverse environmental damage. Scores of people planted thousands upon thousands of trees on barren landscapes scarred by decades of smelter emissions.
“I feel good to have been part of the solution,” said Niemela, who recalls what the environment was like growing up in Little Britain in the city’s West End. “The neighbourhood kids would be playing outdoors until the air turned yellow and our mothers called us inside to avoid the choking stench of sulphur.”
Those early experiences laid the groundwork for her passion for the environment, social justice, food security and a true appreciation for the outdoors.
Working the land in Greater Sudbury originates back to Niemela’s paternal ancestors. Her great uncle, Jim Levesque, owned a large expanse of farmland that was subsequently developed into Levesque subdivision off Hwy 17. “All the streets in the neighbourhood are named after his children and many other members of our family.”
Gerald Levesque, Niemela’s late father, worked as a mechanic at the Inco Refinery and her late mother, Jacqueline, worked for many years at Canadian Tire.
“My parents were deeply invested in family values. My brother and I were busy with family get-togethers, BBQs and church activities. I fondly remember my paternal grandfather’s Réveillon (a traditional French-Canadian meal after Christmas midnight mass). Our family also travelled a lot in our trailer. We camped in many local provincial parks and saw Canada coast to coast. That developed my love for travel.”
The family always supported Niemela in whatever she wanted to try, including playing the piano and singing in the St. Eugene Church’s Rhythm Mass. She skied with her father and the family enjoyed skating at Elm West Playground. At age 12, Niemela bought her first bike with babysitting money. She also developed a passion for canoeing, sailing, hiking and sports in general.
“I played volleyball and hockey in school, soccer for 17 years in the Sudbury Ladies Soccer League and squash for 34 years. I am now a confirmed ‘Zumba-aholic’.”
Niemela was a student at École Secondaire Macdonald-Cartier and then attended the University of Toronto. She worked at Cambrian College for almost 25 years, retiring in 2010 from her IT management position.
Upon retirement, she wanted to start giving back to the community while still focussing on physically active lifestyles and her concern for the environment. She likes to support grassroots organizations that work with residents to make Greater Sudbury a healthier and more liveable city.
“My first outreach was to the Rainbow Routes Association, a local charitable organization that built the Trans-Canada Trail sections in Greater Sudbury, and which now builds local trails and promotes their use.”
That led to joining the Sudbury Cyclists Union (now Bike Sudbury/Vélo Sudbury) in 2011. The following year, Niemela became a nationally certified CAN-BIKE instructor through Rainbow Routes’ Sudbury Cycles program and she has chaired Bike Sudbury since 2015.
“We promote building infrastructure and programs to make it safer to bike in Greater Sudbury. For many years, we’ve been working collaboratively with the city and other community groups to encourage people to discover the joy of cycling. We especially like to support initiatives like kids bike exchanges and bike rodeos. Biking is great for your physical and mental health and there’s lots of great neighbourhoods to explore in our beautiful city.”
In 2011, the late councillor Fabio Belli held a community visioning session to establish a Community Action Network (CAN) for Ward 8. Niemela became a CAN member and has led the group since 2013. As CAN Ward 8 chair, her goal is to work on priorities identified by residents and to give all residents a voice in local decision-making.
“We have developed relationships with our area playground associations and work in partnership with many other community groups to make our ward the best it can be.”
CAN works closely with Ward 8 Coun. Al Sizer and has implemented enhancements to local playgrounds, parks and trails. They run neighbourhood clean-ups, community gardens, organize New Sudbury Days, help run Keeping Seniors Warm, and are installing a new splash pad at Twin Forks Park.
“We also involve local schools in a seed start program in which students plant their nurtured vegetables and flowers at local community gardens in June.”
CAN reaches out to engage all demographics by hosting information ‘pop-ups’ and having a presence at numerous festivals and events. Niemela is currently working on the Home Garden Program that is offering free soil and seeds to local families who want to start small gardens.
Niemela loves to keep busy. She is an executive member of the Coalition for a Liveable Sudbury, president of the board of the Junction Creek Stewardship Committee, and member of the Sudbury Road Safety Committee and the Sudbury Community Garden Network.
She especially enjoys being a part of the Cycling Grannies, an informal group of older women who get together to socialize and explore the city by bike.
“Sudbury has a lot to offer people who want to bike. You can do road racing through the Sudbury Cycling Club, join the Walden Mountain Bike Club to learn or enhance mountain bike skills, or join Bike Sudbury to learn safe cycling skills on our fun urban rides.”
Niemela encourages fellow Sudburians to register with Volunteer Sudbury.
“They work hard at matching people with organizations. You’ll find something that matches your interests.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has opened peoples’ eyes to what’s truly important in life. It’s not our material things that define us. Our sense of self-worth and our mental and physical wellbeing are strengthened by respecting the planet and being involved in improving our communities.”
Niemela’s mother lived at Pioneer Manor before she passed last year. “I have the greatest respect for the medical staff and front-line workers who are working under extremely challenging conditions. They were so great to my mom, and we can all learn a lesson from their heroic dedication: Look at your own life and be the best you can be.”
Rachelle Niemela’s Words of Wisdom
You are not limited by who you are at this moment. Try something new!
My special heroes are David Suzuki, teenage climate change activists Greta Thunberg and Sudbury’s own teen climate change activist Sophia Mathur. Respect the planet. Pay it forward.
Let’s all work on a ‘new normal’ that creates a kinder, better world.
Marlene Holkko Moore is a local communications professional and occasional contributor to Sudbury.com.