The mill whistle in Corner Brook is ubiquitous with the city itself. As one former resident put it, when that steam whistle blows it’s like “that same old, familiar voice speaking to them again. ‘Hi, remember me? Welcome home, friend.’” As Corner Brook prepares to host its first-ever come home year, the mill whistle will surely sound its welcome. Last fall, city council designated July 19-28, 2019 the city’s official “Come Home Year Week.”
As the volunteer committee for Corner Brook Come Home Year (CBCHY) plans this ten-day celebration, residents and expatriates alike are taking to the event’s Facebook page to share cherished memories. A video of that enduring mill whistle has over four hundred likes and has been shared nearly 2000 times. As an expat Newfoundlander living in Ottawa, I understand the appeal. But besides the mill whistle, topping my Corner Brook soundtrack are the trickling waters of the Corner Brook Stream Trail, the church bells of the Cathedral, children playing at Margaret Bowater Park and light breezes rustling through the trees of this city in the forest.
For the uninitiated, Corner Brook is sheltered in a valley, surrounded by tree-lined hillsides and rock-faced mountains, where the Humber River and other tributaries pour into the Bay of Islands. Its full beauty is only revealed atop lookouts like Captain James Cook Historic Site and the Trans-Canada Highway, where views extend west beyond the city, past the Humber Arm to the majestic Blomidon Mountains.
The idea for CBCHY started online thanks to resident and now, the event’s chair, Gladys Batten. I sat down with Batten last spring to learn more. We met at The Carriage Room, known for its traditional Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) cuisine, at the Glynmill Inn in downtown Corner Brook. With its Tudor-style architecture and heart-of-the-city location, it’s the perfect meeting spot. Batten orders pea soup and a bun along with a pot of tea with fresh milk. I follow-suit and the conversation naturally segues to food, as is so often the case down home. Batten envisions businesses, church groups and other associations organizing events for CBCHY that celebrate the local fare. Think Jiggs’ dinners, cold-plates, lobster boils and bake sales.
As we chat, it’s clear from the frequent hellos across the dining-room and stops at our table by passersby that everyone here knows Batten and her husband, John Collins. So, although Batten is about to retire from her day-job at the Corner Brook Arts & Culture Centre (and a whopping sixty years of work altogether), she’s unquestionably the right woman to lead this event. Indeed, event-planning is in her blood. At sixteen, and to the dismay of her mother who didn’t want her daughter involved in such frivolous activities, Batten rallied up two passenger train car-loads of people to take in a big hockey game between the Corner Brook Royals and Grand Falls Andcos. Batten doesn’t recall who won, but the real victory was serving as host, a role she’s enjoyed ever since.
Last summer, Batten pitched the idea for a come home year on the “Historic Corner Brook” Facebook page. The idea quickly dominated the page’s newsfeed, so Batten launched a dedicated Facebook page, pledging to take the idea to city council for endorsement if the membership reached 3,000. Within weeks, the group was 5,000 members strong and still growing. Many members were locals, but others were expats. At last count (April 2018), the membership topped 10,000 – that’s more than half of Corner Brook’s population, which is under 20,000 based on the last Census.
“On behalf of Members of Council and the City of Corner Brook, I sincerely want to invite everyone to attend the Corner Brook Come Home Year,” says Mayor Jim Parsons. “This event will be an integral part of our community experience in 2019. Not only does it bring together members of our community, but it also will attract visitors from all over the country to return home to our great city.”
In fact, the event is likely to attract visitors from across the globe.
“There’s no doubt there are Corner Brookers and Newfoundlanders all over this planet,” writes CBCHY committee member, Terry Anstey, in a Facebook post. “Can you imagine the party we’re going to have in July 2019 if even half of the membership attends? Wow!” As an administrator of the Facebook page, Anstey compiles demographic information about the membership. So far, most are from Canada, but others hail from the United States, Australia, as well as countries throughout Europe (the United Kingdom, Norway and Portugal), the middle east (Qatar and Egypt) and Asia (Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines). In Canada, most members are from NL (Corner Brook, Pasadena and St. John’s), Nova Scotia (Halifax), Ontario (Toronto, Ottawa, Brampton) and Alberta (Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray). Meanwhile, the age range of attendees shows interest across all age groups with most 50-69 years of age, followed by the 30-49 years age category.
With ten days slated for this local celebration of regional culture, cuisine, service and arts, there will surely be something for everyone. The committee is depending on local businesses, associations and other groups to take a lead in making sure that’s the case. There’s an open call for entertainment and performance applications and interested venders may seek committee approval to use the official CBCHY logo for merchandise.
The committee is also working with the city to maximize shared resources. While the event will begin with a meet and greet at Memorial University’s Grenfell campus on July 19th, the grand opening will coincide with Corner Brook Day on July 20th with fireworks and other events in Margaret Bowater Park. The opening and closing ceremonies will also honour the traditional territory of the Qalipu First Nation.
Come home year couldn’t be happening at a better time, Batten says. The city celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2016. The event also coincides with the 70th anniversary of Confederation. In 1966, NL hosted its own Come Home Year. Then premier, Joey Smallwood, had the idea to welcome relatives, friends and tourists returning or visiting the province. According to the NL Heritage Website, Come Home Year 1966 achieved two things: “it created an irrevocable link between public funding and the arts, and it reinforced the idea of a distinctive Newfoundland ‘culture’ that could be displayed and marketed.” The province’s first arts policy, in fact, originated that year.
Fast-forward to today, this event may also assist the province’s efforts to persuade expats to come home. In February 2018, the provincial government reached out to expats “to better understand their reasons for leaving the province and gain insight into what would entice them and their families to return.” It’s part of the government’s vision, as outlined in The Way Forward on Immigration in Newfoundland and Labrador, to welcome as many as 1,700 immigrants annually to NL by 2022.
“Encouraging Newfoundlanders and Labradorians living abroad to return home helps our economy and communities,” says the NL Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour, Al Hawkins.
Mayor Jim Parsons agrees, saying CBCHY “will have positive social and economic impacts years after the event concludes.”
Granted, CBCHY is about coming home not necessarily for a long time, but certainly a good time. Above all, the event offers attendees the chance to spend time in one of the province’s and indeed the country’s most cherished cities. In March 2018, Corner Brook was recognized as one of Canada’s top twenty small cities by Cities Journal.
“Tourists are drawn to Corner Brook by the promise of beautiful scenery, a vibrant arts community, and amenities available in a safe, small city,” says Gudie Hutchings, Member of Parliament for Long Range Mountains. “The family lifestyle available in Corner Brook is something that cannot be beat by the hustle and bustle of living in larger centres. Hopefully those that visit for Come Home Year will see that Corner Brook has become a progressive, welcoming and diverse community.”
Those interested in attending CBCHY are encouraged to join the Facebook page to learn about the latest schedule of events as well as best-rated places to stay, eat and play. Consulting the City of Corner Brook’s Activity Guide and the NL Tourism website will also help in planning a memorable stay.
First published in Downhome Magazine (September 2018; Vol 31, No. 4)