The long way home Why some Fort Frances natives return after years away

It is difficult to escape news reports about the declining population of Northwestern Ontario and how young people are moving away in droves.
Last month, the Times ran a front-page story about the aging workforce in Rainy River District—and the potentially disastrous effects it could have on the local economy.
Statistics Canada tells us the population of Fort Frances went from 8,790 in 1996 to 8,315 in 2001—a 5.4 percent drop in just five years.
But the news isn’t all bleak. While some people do move away to find their fortunes elsewhere, some also come back to reclaim their roots and make a home for themselves in the town where they grew up.
Maureen LeMesurier is one of these.
LeMesurier, née Maguire, grew up in Fort Frances and worked as a hairdresser at Celeste’s for eight years before deciding to move to Thunder Bay.
“I just wanted a change of pace. There really wasn’t a lot for me here,” explained LeMesurier, who also is known as “Sparkle” to her friends.
While in Thunder Bay, she met and married Paul LeMesurier, and lived in Thunder Bay for another eight years. But as their daughter, Maggie, approached school age, the couple began to think about moving to Fort Frances.
“We liked the idea of raising a family in a small town. There’s a little more security,” she remarked.
Also, LeMesurier’s husband was working at a mill in Thunder Bay and with many mills closing, job security became an issue.
The decision to move involved some big changes. Both of them needed to find work here, sell their house, and find a new one. But fate seemed to be smiling on the LeMesuriers.
Through a friend, LeMesurier was able to find work at Nirvana, the new salon and spa on Scott Street that opened in January, while her husband found work with a local trucking company.
“It’s happening pretty fast, but it’s really good,” she said.
And once they had made the decision to move, “we sold the house in a week,” she recalled. “We were meant to be here.”
The family arrived in Fort Frances in early February and while they still are working on finding a house here, the decision to come back has been the right one.
“We have family and friends here to support us,” LeMesurier said.
For Patty DeGagne and her husband, Maurice, the decision to move away from Fort Frances was about making a fresh start. The couple moved to Winnipeg in 1991 with their two sons.
“It was time for a change. We were looking for something different, a new beginning,” DeGagne said.
The couple’s oldest son soon would be starting university, as well. “We wanted to be close to our son so he could stay at home and go to university at the same time,” she explained.
DeGagne took a transfer with her job at the Toronto Dominion Bank and the family lived in Winnipeg for 11 years. But by 2002, both their sons had moved out and they started to consider moving back to Fort Frances.
“We just missed home. We missed family. It was time to come back,” DeGagne said.
Like the LeMesuriers, the DeGagnes had little difficulty making the necessary arrangements once the final decision had been made. “For us, it all kind of fell into place. It was just meant to be,” she explained.
DeGagne was able to find work right away at NorFab and eventually ended up back at her old job at the TD Bank. “We even bought back our old house. Basically, we did a complete circle,” she noted.
For some, the decision to move away isn’t so much about looking for change as taking advantage of opportunities. Local chiropractor Neil Cooper was born and raised in Fort Frances, BUT left in Grade 12 to play junior hockey in Thunder Bay.
From there, he went to St. Cloud University and Bemidji State University for a couple OF years each, where he continued to play hockey.
After finishing his degree, Cooper attended the chiropractic school in Minneapolis, which required another few years of study.
Then with licence in hand, Cooper decided to move back home. He worked as an intern in International Falls for several months before setting up his own practice in Fort Frances just over a year ago.
“Everything I like is back this way, from sports to hunting and fishing. The whole works,” Cooper said.
But the area holds more than just fun pastimes, he explained.
“It’s a tight-knit community. It makes you feel welcome,” he stressed. “People here supported me all the way up.”
Even after having lived in various towns and cities, Cooper said he was glad to come back.
“All of my friends and family are here,” he said. “It was a pretty simple decision.”
One of Fort Frances’ most recently returned sons is Ryan McMahon. The 27-year-old left town in 1996 to play hockey at Rainy River Community College in International Falls and then made his way to Toronto in 1998.
There he attended the Centre for Indigenous Theatre for one year, then the Second City Conservatory from 2001-02. “It was exactly what I wanted to do in life,” McMahon said.
He spent almost six years in Toronto before deciding to return to Fort Frances. But why would a trained actor and comedian decide to leave the entertainment capital of Canada to move back here?
“I couldn’t connect with most of the mainstream theatre that was happening there,” he explained. “I decided I would much rather create my own company and tell my own stories.”
McMahon has founded MooseGuts Theatre here, dubbed Northwestern Ontario’s only First Nation Theatre Company, which staged its first public performance Saturday night at the Townshend Theatre.
“Fort Frances is a town that needs diversity in terms of arts and culture, and Fort Frances, I believe, can support it,” he said.
McMahon cited a talented population and the Townshend Theatre—“a state-of-the-art facility”—as additional incentive to relocate back home.
“When I thought about coming back to Fort Frances, my mouth watered,” he noted. “I came from Fort Frances. It has shaped and molded a large part of who I am, and I wanted to give that back.”
McMahon’s ambitions don’t end with MooseGuts Theatre. He currently is organizing a festival for minorities in comedy, featuring performers from diverse backgrounds from across North America.
He also is planning to produce a one-man improv show called “The Bratface,” scheduled to run this summer.
McMahon said he’s thrilled to be back in Northwestern Ontario—and that he’s not the only one. “I see more and more people my age that I went to school with coming back to town,” he remarked.
“As a town, we have to start opening up and offering different things. As we start to give more to young people, they’ll want to come back and give back to the community,” he reasoned.
McMahon is optimistic about Fort Frances’ present—and its future. “It’s my favourite place on earth. There’s nowhere I’d rather be,” he said.