Dean Robinson, journalist and historian.

This is a ‘special edition’ of the “From a Distance” series, made necessary because of an unprecedented announcement, which some people believe will cause major damage to Stratford, Ontario: the world-renowned Theatre Festival has been shut down for the year. Officials say the pandemic has plunged the Festival into the red. The total is staggering. The festival needs at least $40 million, right away.

Dean Robinson has been tracking the news from a short distance away. Around these parts, and beyond, the Stratford resident is a well-known historian and published writer (more than 20 books, including his seminal biography of hockey legend, Howie Morenz). He has worked as a reporter and editor (with the local paper), broadcaster, journalism teacher, and PR specialist for the Festival.

In this conversation, Dean talks about our city’s history, how it has shaped our present lives, and the willpower we’ll need in order to move through (and past) the biggest crisis Stratford has faced in decades.

WGF: What was your reaction to the news that the annual Stratford Theatre Festival will be dark for 2020?

DR: Given where this pandemic is taking us, not only in Stratford but in Ontario and throughout the world, I was not surprised by the Festival’s decision to put its 2020 season on hold. I think the Festival and city are in for a rough ride on several levels. Rightly or wrongly, in many ways we have increasingly come to depend on an annual Festival season. We are now forced to assess or reassess that dependence.

WGF: The city’s mayor, Dan Mathieson, told me that he believes this is a mash-up of 9/11, SARS and the 2008 financial crash. He gave me an unflinching description of the perils he thinks lay ahead: shuttered shops and restaurants, personal and commercial bankruptcies, a spike in unemployment. He’s deeply concerned. What do you think?

DR: I think the mayor is right to worry about the city, but we all should share in that worry.

The fear and anxiety related to this virus is only magnified when the flagging economy is thrown into the mix. I think it’s right to consider the mental as well as the economic toll that all of this will exact.

WGF: How does this news fit into the story of the city?

DR: This is Stratford’s most direct hit since the loss of the railway shops in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Stratford was forced to reinvent itself, and Tom Patterson [journalist and founder of the Festival, in 1952] certainly helped with that

From the research I’ve done on that period, two other people stand out: Bob Mountain and Wilf Gregory. Mountain, a lawyer, was a councillor and mayor during that period, when it was estimated that the loss of the railway jobs represented about a third of the city’s workforce. In his inaugural address as mayor in 1959, he said, “One of our prime tasks is to develop a positive attitude in ourselves and in our people, so that the employment situation can be remedied as quickly as possible.”

In 1938, in his second year as a councillor, Wilf Gregory, also a lawyer, had helped create the city’s first industrial commission. There was need, it was thought, to broaden the city’s economic base. After serving in the Second World War, he returned to Stratford and to politics. He was mayor in 1955 and 1956. By then, stories about diesel power spelling the end of the city’s (steam locomotive) repair shops were more fact than fiction. After his term as mayor, Gregory was recruited, with a few others in Stratford, including Mountain (mayor in 1959), to actively seek out and woo industrial concerns to Stratford.

WGF: We’ve had other global calamities and destruction in the past 100 years or so. World wars. Great Depression. Spanish flu pandemic. Millions of people on the move because of starvation and persecution. In your view, where does this disaster fit?

DR: While all of those were life-taking and life-changing events, they did not require the kind of forced isolation that COVID-19 has visited upon us. Social events no doubt helped the world deal with the world wars and Depression. There were shortages and rationing, but sporting events, dances and concerts continued, some of them in support of fundraising efforts for the needy and the troops overseas.

The Stratford railway shops had some of its most productive years during the world wars, making munitions and keeping aging and overworked locomotives in service. The shop workers also repaired equipment for farmers, at no cost. City factories were retooled to manufacture parts for planes and other military necessities. National Stadium was built with wood from discarded boxcars in the middle of the Great Depression.

WGF: And just so I’m clear, what is your position on comparing the economic hardships of the 1950s and early 60s with what’s happening now in Stratford?

I think there is a difference in the shops shutting down and the Festival going on hold. It was the Canadian National Railways that pulled the plug on the shops. The city didn’t have a say in it. The employees in the shops and their unions had no say in it. It was a decision thrust upon the city, from without. It was a bad situation that was not going to get better, at least as far as the CNR was concerned.

The Festival going on hold is an inevitable decision necessitated by serious external forces. But the Festival has not packed up and moved to Markham. It has not left town.

When it is safe to do so, the Festival can reopen. Like the rest of us, it will likely operate a bit differently in some ways. It may walk before it runs.

WGF: When it comes to rejigging things, Stratford’s been down this road a few times, is that right?

DR: In my mind, [launching the Festival] was not the city’s first reinvention. By the earlier 1900s, the river running through the city was lined with mills and factories and assorted other industrial concerns, whose operators viewed the river as little more than a source of water, and a dumping ground. Then Henry Eidt, a city dentist, sparked the formation of a parks commission. He saw the river and its adjacent lands as an asset, something to celebrate, something for the entire community to enjoy. It took Eidt and the commission about a decade to rid the park of its polluting inhabitants, and their efforts led to the park system we have today.

WGF: Once upon a time, you were a newspaper reporter and, later, a journalism lecturer at a nearby college. What’s the role of the media in these times—in covering what’s unfolding in our city?

Today, in Stratford, it is harder to gather and circulate factual, truthful and complete information. When I joined Stratford’s Beacon Herald in 1967, we had as many as 14 people in the newsroom. As well, there were about 80 employees overall, and scores of newspaper carriers. It was rare that something, anything, could happen in or around the city, and the BH not know about it.

In those days, there were two editions daily. Reporters covered everything that was open to the public. The weeklies of the day, though fewer in staff, were equally busy.

Those days are gone. Stratford has not been spared the dangerous decline of media outlets, and the number of journalists they employ. Coverage is spotty. And spotty coverage is never good, especially in times of crisis. Truths are always easier to hide when the fourth estate is crippled.

WGF: In terms of getting through the chaos, how might history and experience guide us, and any other forces we need to marshal?

DR: We, as a community, have shown resilience and inventiveness. We have that ability. But we must also have the will. In terms of change, I have always thought will to be more important than means. If the will and the commitment are there, the means can be found.

As we go through the healing and the rebuilding and the next steps, there needs to be an openness. Talk to someone who is waiting for medical test results, and you are likely to hear. “It’s the waiting that is so hard. Give me the results, and we can move forward from there. But not knowing is worse.”

The widespread distribution of factual, truthful, and complete information can go a long way in moving everyone forward. It can calm and unite a community. It leaves little room for rumour. I think that’s what Bob Mountain was alluding to when he talked about developing “a positive attitude in ourselves and in our people.”

WGF: What else do we need to think about in the months and years ahead?

I agree with the mayor when he says, “If we collectively work together, it could lead to an opportunity to rebuild our economy and change some of fundamentals of our community to build a broader economic base.” Over the last couple of decades, there have been some significant steps to do that. Now may be the time to ramp up that process. OK, ramp it up even more.

(W. Grant Fleming is a writer based in Stratford.)