A rich small lumber town of 6000 people situated on Highway 11
in Northern Ontario
, about 10 hours' drive north of Toronto
Mandatory roadside fiberglass animal: a moose
. Apparently Hearst is
the moose capital of the world. Who knew?
The town is mostly French-speaking, with the proviso that it's Canadian French and the
further caution that it's Northern Ontario Canadian French. Think of the
difference between the English of someone from London and someone from
Miss'hippy who doesn't come out of the forest too often.
The accent is so strong that when a woman my mother worked with called
a French-speaking company in Montreal, they couldn't understand each
other, and had to get an ex-Heartian now living in Toronto to translate.
One more thing: most people in town speak Franglais. "Alors, Renee,
donne-moi un Big Mac! N'oublies les fries, tabernac'!"
As I mentioned, it's a rich town. The rumour is that, per capita, it's
the richest town in Canada: 25 or 30 millionaires for 6000 people.
There are a lot of people making a lot of money from lumber, and the
money pretty much all goes toward pickup trucks and the customization
thereof: lift kits to make them three feet higher, big-ass wheels to
make them another two feet higher, lots of chrome, running lights more
suited to a 747 or maybe a communications satellite, a big-ass stereo
(used to play Mitsou and Bon Jovi, with maybe some Def Leppard
for the adventurous set), and a custom paint job for your name, or
your girlfriend's name, on the side: "Rene & Renee", or "P'tit Jacques"
(which may be the name of the truck or its owner).
Customizing a truck isn't just a rich person's game though; Hearst is
nothing if not democratic. Can't afford a real lift kit? Get Real at
the machine shop to drill half-inch holes in the centre of some hockey
pucks with the drill press, and lift the body that way. One hockey
puck: boring. Two hockey pucks: a real thrill. Three hockey pucks:
a dangerous rebel. Throw an old stereo speaker behind the seat,
and you've got a subwoofer. If you really take things seriously you
can carve out hunks of rubber from your tires to make those ordinary
Canadian Tire summer radials into dangerous all-terrain Monsteramas.
These trucks could successfully cross the Andes, or at least its
foothills, but are instead used for the Friday night ritual of driving
through the town's three stoplights, turning around in the hardware store
parking lot, and doing it all over again: to faire le donut.
As I mentioned, Hearst is democratic. If you don't have a pickup truck of
your own, and want the thrill of stopping traffic while you stop and lean
out your window to talk to your friend stopped in the other lane (don't
worry, everyone else is just fairing le donut and they understand),
there is a way. Ritual requires two companions in the cab with the
driver: his girlfriend and a girlfriend of hers, or two male friends.
The number of pickup trucks in town guarantees that anyone unfortunate
enough not to own one (or to have it in the shop because they rolled it
while drunk) will have their choice of seats. It's eminently fair.
Eventually, though, this wild life will wear a man down, and he needs
a good woman to make him complete. In this Hearst is no different than
anywhere else: the simple story of boy and girl is gilded gently with
the town's own ritual leading up to marriage. It's quite simple, really:
along with the stag night, and the girls' night, there is the stag and
doe party. This is meant to raise money for the couple to be used as
they like; often a thousand dollars or more is obtained this way (Hearst is nothing
if not generous).
What happens is the prospective groom is put in a cage -- big enough to
stand in, small enough to fit in the back of a pickup truck -- and parked
for an afternoon or two on the main drag. There's a sign on the truck
mentioning that the party will be on Saturday, around 8, at Pierre's,
and that tickets are $10 or $15 or maybe $20, with proceeds going to
the happy couple. Everyone in town notices the groom, the cage and the
upcoming party, and makes an effort to show up.
For $10 or $15 you don't get beer; it's strictly BYOB. Even for $20, food is not included; again, you bring it yourself. What you
do get, and what gets people to come out, is the chance to throw
stuff at the groom, kept in the cage until the party is over.
Ketchup, motor oil, potato salad, whatever you like; nothing harmful
or hard, you understand. After the party the groom is cleaned up and
handed the money.
Like most Northern Ontario towns, Hearst is trying to obtain that
precious, precious tourist dollar, and this practice of putting
people in cages worried one of the town councillors. "How," he asked
at one meeting, "will we look to people from Down South when we put
our young men in cages?" He mentioned several young men he knew
who were afraid to get married: they didn't want to go through the
throwing-food-at-the-groom-in-the-cage ritual, but knew that if they
tried to escape their friends would catch them and put them in the
cage anyway. He plead for reason, and an end to the practice.
The other councillors were aghast that someone would even
consider doing away with such a fine tradition, and refused to
discuss it further. But it was too late: the dangerous idea nearly
split the town apart. Letters raged back and forth in the local weekly
newspaper. Arguments broke up supper, and sometimes breakfasts.
Fist-fights broke out between trucks stopped in the streets for
once-friendly conversation, the drivers leaning out their windows to
pound sense into the other guy while trucks stopped behind them honked their
An end had to come, and eventually one did. After patient lobbying,
after many meetings, a truly Canadian compromise was reached: grooms
could still be put in cages and displayed on the street -- except
the two main streets of town where tourists were likely to go. There were some grumblings, but most people were satisfied.
I swear to you this is all true.