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The stories that go untold when a small town loses its newspaper

Journalism

The last edition

At 147, the Packet and Times was almost as old as the town itself. Last month, its owners killed it off. It was just one of many small newspapers closed with a snap of the fingers when Canada's two biggest newspaper chains swapped more than three dozen papers. Marcus Gee spends one week in Orillia, Ont. telling the stories that won't be told anymore

Joella Shaughnessy Sidhu holds her press card from the Orillia Packet and Times from 1962 during a sendoff for the recently closed newspaper at a local bar.

By small-town standards, it was a busy week for Orillia, the "Sunshine City" in lake country a couple of hours north of Toronto. Important decisions were made and problems debated. Young residents were honoured for their achievements in sports; others were remembered, lost to drug addictions. Events were celebrated and anticipated.

The community changed in many, big and little, ways.

City leaders pressed ahead with ambitious plans to remodel the downtown. The historic core of Orillia sits on a hill that slopes down to the shining waters of Lake Couchiching, but a big shopping centre walls it off from the lake. The city (population about 30,000) plans to extend one of its main streets, Coldwater, to the waterfront and replace the mall with townhouses and condominiums, bringing in hundreds of new residents. One condo is already slated to rise on the site of an old car dealership. City council decided at a special meeting on Dec. 1 to support the waterfront plan. It still needs to attract a developer.

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Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke poses at the waterfront centre. The city plans to further develop its waterfront.


A roundtable group on the city's graffiti problem decided to ask property owners to take pictures of the damage and pass them on to the police. Investigators want to compare graffiti samples and use the evidence to build a case against suspects who are hitting properties again and again. It costs owners as much as $1,500 to sandblast tags and other graffiti.

A number of buildings were tagged last week in Orillia, police are asking residents to document the damage that occurs to their buildings.


At The Sharing Place food bank, steps from the old Opera House, cheerful volunteers handed out groceries. "I love my job, I absolutely love it," said Lynn Beaton, 56, who moved to Orillia after years waitressing in "every dive in Toronto." Like the 60 other volunteers, she tries to make the bank's visitors – 1,200 to 1,400 each month – feel comfortable. "They're people and they're struggling and I try to make them smile."

Chris Peacock, executive director of The Sharing Place, prepares a holiday food basket.


It snowed on Thursday. The plows were ready; Orillia gets around 272 centimetres (9 feet) of snow each winter. Officials decided to postpone the night's matchup between the Junior C Orillia Terriers and the Stayner Siskins because of poor driving conditions. Maybe it's just as well. The first-place Siskins have won all 27 of their games this season. The last-place Terriers have lost 21 and won three.

The Ontario Winter Games said 500 volunteers have signed up to help, just 100 short of the goal. The Games will bring 3,200 participants to Orillia and area March 1 to 4 to play 25 sports, from curling, skiing and figure skating to fencing, five-pin bowling and kickboxing. At the Orillia Winter Carnival the same weekend, organizers are staging a game of Yukigassen, a combination of dodgeball, capture the flag and team snowball fight. Yukigassen is Japanese for snow battle.

The Orillia Curling Club will host the 2018 Ontario Winter Games.


The local real estate market was holding steady despite slipping prices in Toronto, according to Broker Stewart McNeely of Royal LePage. The average house price in Orillia is $380,000. Local inventory is low and one $250,000 bungalow had 16 showings in a single day. But Mr. McNeely said it is hard to say what will happen when new mortgage stress-testing rules come in next month.

Grieving mothers told their stories of loss at a vigil to raise awareness about Orillia's drug-overdose crisis. Anne Keszely said her 31-year-old son Dorian died of an overdose on Oct. 4 in the washroom at Studabakers, a waterfront bar. She thinks every public place should have a supply of naloxone, a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses. Angela Gorog lost her son, Tyson Hunter, 19, to overdose on Oct. 3. She said she had struggled to get help for Tyson, who suffered from anxiety and depression. After the gathering, participants formed a circle outside the public library holding lit candles.


Sport Orillia handed out certificates to 12 students at its Breakfast of Champions event. School coaches chose students who stood out for their athleticism and sportsmanship.

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City council discussed an arbitrated new contract with local firefighters. Councillors complain that labour arbitration often pushes salaries above what small municipalities can afford. "I think the process is absolutely broken," Mayor Steve Clarke says.

The library served a thank-you lunch for its volunteers. Its 100 helpers have put in 4,400 hours this year and shelved 300,000 books. Gathered in a meeting room in the handsome, light-bathed library complex, opened in 2012, they ate a meal of butternut-squash soup and sandwiches, cut into triangles, made by women from the local agricultural society.

Oh, and one other thing happened in Orillia, Ontario this week. A local pub held a wake for the newspaper that used to chronicle all these events.

Former staff and supporters of the Orillia Packet and Times gathered at a local bar Friday night for a sendoff for the recently closed newspaper.


At 147, the Packet and Times was almost as old as the town itself. A bust of its founder stands in the library. It appears, thinly disguised as the Newspacket, in humorist Stephen Leacock's fictional portrait of Orillia, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.

Last month, its owners killed it off. The Packet was just one of many small Ontario newspapers done to death when Canada's two biggest newspaper chains, Postmedia and Torstar, swapped more than three dozen papers and closed most of them with a snap of the fingers. The Packet didn't get a chance to put out a final issue bidding farewell to the community it served for all those years. Orillia is left with one paper, the weekly Orillia Today.

During the wake on Friday afternoon at the Brewery Bay pub, Joella Shaughnessy Sidhu had tears in her eyes as she talked about her decades at the Packet, editing, taking photographs and covering everything from a plane crash to a royal tour. "It was my whole life. I lived for nothing else. I was everywhere."

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