Geneviève Gazaille is Apt613’s correspondent at Synapcity, Ottawa non-profit for civic engagement, connecting people across diverse communities to share perspectives and create positive change.
On November 14, Synapcity co-founder and board member Ken Victor will be hosting a poetry reading at the Vimy Brewing Company for the publication of his book of poems, “We Were Like Everyone Else”. A recipient of a National Magazine Award for poetry, Ken’s work has been featured in leading literary journals in both Canada and the United States. The Montreal Review of Books said his book “addresses ugly realities with grace and intelligence”.
At the event, Ken will be joined by fellow poet Jean Van Loon, who will read from her collection “Building on River”, a poetic journey into the life of J.R. Booth, one of Ottawa’s most significant figures. Jean was nominated for the Ottawa Book Awards and the judges citation described her book as “a carefully researched, richly imagined, finely written, and masterfully constructed collection that not only tells the story of Booth himself, but that of a river, an industry, an era, and the emergence of Ottawa as our young country’s new capital”.
Proceeds from the book sales will be donated to Synapcity.
Synapcity took the opportunity to discuss all things Ottawa with the two writers.
Synapcity: Tell me more about your books.
Jean Van Loon: I’m Ottawa born and bred. I got intrigued by a figure I kept reading snippets about, JR Booth. My father’s office was on Booth Street and I decided to explore what he was like. The more I explored, the more interesting he became. He was very passionate about business. And the city was amazingly different back then. When Booth came, Ottawa was a supply center for the timber industry. During his time, that industry was transformed into a saw and lumber export industry which brought great wealth to this city. Ottawa became an industrial centre with the largest sawmill of the world operating at Chaudière Falls. My fascination for Booth came out in poems.
Ken Victor: “We Were Like Everyone Else” had been in the works for many years, writing and publishing in literary journals for over 30 years. But I didn’t have something I could make into a book until recently.
It’s a mix of philosophical and political. A lot of the poems discuss family – being a father and being a son. They address a lot of political things that happened in the last half of the 20th century. It’s a philosophical stance on the human journey. On some levels, the perspective is a bit dark, it’s not a book full of glowing optimism. The darkness of humanity is balanced by our capacity to love. What redeemed us in order to love despite the horror we inflict on each other. It’s the dual part of our nature.
Ken, would you say your experience with Synapcity influenced your perspective and your writing?
K: There’s something I deeply believe. Democracy is best when it stays local and we as humans are best when we are in face-to-face relationships, when we are connected to each other. But the more abstract politics gets, the more difficult it is and it’s why municipal politics leads to making a difference that is far more meaningful and far more tangible.
Democracy is best when it stays local and we as humans are best when we are in face-to-face relationships, when we are connected to each other.—Synapcity co-founder and board member Ken Victor
Jean, what was Booth’s greatest legacy?
J: If you asked him, he would probably point to the employment he provided. At the time, the population of Ottawa was 45,000 people. He was employing 6,000 men which was huge. His first big contract was to supply lumber to build the Parliament Buildings.
K: I knew nothing about Booth until I read Jean’s book. This book is so compelling and when you read it, you realize you’re reading about history, biography and poetry all in one. You wonder “how did Ottawa not know about this story?”.
Was is the greatest opportunity faced by Ottawa at the moment?
K: Globally, the world is becoming more urban and Ottawa just hit the 1 million residents mark. What should municipal policy look like? As we go forward and grow, media and technology is allowing for different ways of engaging and younger people are wanting tools for better engagement. What does municipal democracy look like as it evolves so that it is vibrant and inclusive and allow for a diversity of voices to be heard?
City Hall cannot do it all. It needs citizens. What does that look like?
J: We have a strong federal presence which is a benefit, it offers the benefit of national institutions like the NAC and the museums but it also adds a challenge as it introduces another layer of government. It’s hard to get people to pull in the same direction at the same time.
K: Ottawa is a jungle of jurisdictions!
What do you think it means to be an engaged resident?
J: Where I live, we have the benefit of a very accessible and responsive councillor [Jeff Leiper] and we take advantage of that. My husband has been active in trying to ensure adequate public library resources for our area.
There’s a lot of people around me who are deeply involved in a variety of things like the Parkdale Food Centre. Also, so many people get involved in our city through the arts and it makes it a more vibrant place. One of my neighbors organizes choirs. My daughter-in-law organizes yoga classes. All of these things are what make it a more livable and happier city. And through poetry, I’ve made new friends of all ages. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know people in their 20s, 30s and 40s and that’s a great richness.
K: Intergenerational relationships are becoming so vital and Synapcity is doing more work on that level, partnering with iGenOttawa to bring different generations together for the benefit of community. The social bonds are so valuable but at the same time, community-making often happens out of sight, although it’s so vital.
J: Something that is really important is that most of us can pay attention to what is going in the city – what issues are developing and where politicians are coming from.
K: If you have inclinations to get involved, you should always take steps.
The book launch of “We Were Like Everyone Else” is Thursday November 14 from 7:30-9pm at Vimy Brewing Company (145 Loretta Avenue). Entrance is free. Advanced registration is encouraged. Proceeds from the sale of the books will be donated to Synapcity.