When I first moved to the Hart eight years ago, I told people I was now in South Mackenzie.
Folks in College Heights, where I had been living before, laughed.
Folks in the Bowl smiled.
Folks in the Hart smirked and nodded. They’ve heard all of the jokes and that one was less annoying than most.
The irony is rich because the way some Prince George residents (not exclusively College Heights) look down on people living up the Hart is exactly the same as the way many folks who live in Kamloops or Kelowna or Vancouver or Victoria turn their noses up at Prince George.
Sadly, the Kelly Road high school naming controversy this spring fed into that stereotype of longtime Hart residents as inbred racist rednecks. Not going to deny or apologize for the hate speech of some. It was vile, unnecessary and weakened the case to have the new Hart high school keep the Kelly Road name.
Those views also don’t reflect most Hart residents, in the same way that they don’t reflect Prince George. Racism is alive and well in the Hart and in Prince George, just as it is in British Columbia and in Canada. It’s neither accurate nor fair to label the Hart as a hotbed of racists, just as it was not accurate or fair for Liberal MP Hedy Fry to claim years ago that Prince George people were burning crosses on their front lawns.
What didn’t come across nearly as well as it should have (and as the editor of a local media outlet, I regret that) is that the Hart, like Prince George, is a unique place with a unique history. Part of that history is a high school named Kelly Road, located on Handlen Road, that has served as a community centre for area residents for generations.
The passionate supporters of naming the new school Shas Ti Secondary (I am guilty as charged) didn’t see the irony of dismissing the Kelly Road proponents for making such a big deal about the name. If the name isn’t important, then why does it matter so much to call the new school Shas Ti?
The Hart was amalgamated into the City of Prince George in 1975 but the community retains many of its distinct characteristics from the rest of Prince George.
Besides being geographically separated from most of Prince George by the Nechako River and being at a higher altitude, the Hart has seen far less commercial and residential development in the last 20 years than the rest of the city, particularly College Heights. In other words, change comes slowly.
Furthermore, there’s no question in my mind (based on anecdotal evidence only) that there are more multigenerational families in the Hart than there are in any other Prince George neighbourhood. My wife, a Kelly Road grad, and her extended family are part of that demographic and they are certainly not unique.
To give me a deeper, historical understanding of the Hart, I turned to my friend and longtime Hart resident Shirley Gratton with a basic question.
What’s so special about the Hart?
To boil down her long answer to me in one word: family.
Shirley’s kids, grandkids and great-grandchildren attended the previous and the current Kelly Road school (that’s right, there was an elementary/secondary school called Kelly Road before the high school about to be replaced).
The Hart attracted young, hardworking families with plenty of cheap land to settle, sustaining themselves in forestry and agriculture. That work ethic and direct connection to the landscape as a source of livelihood remains firmly in place.
That also forged bonds between families. All three of Shirley’s children met their spouses in the Hart and are still with them to this day.
Those connections then branched out, as Kelly Road was used by community groups for meetings, sports, craft fairs, Girl Guides, Boy Scouts, parent advisory committees and religious gatherings.
The school and the Hart became not just a gathering place for local residents but for the outlying rural people from Chief Lake, Reid Lake, Ness Lake, Nukko Lake, Salmon Valley and Summit Lake.
“It is a community getting together with card games, picnics, pie socials, fund raisers, concerts, weddings and funerals that makes and builds a strong community just like Kelly Road,” Shirley wrote.
And just like Prince George residents find themselves on the defensive down south when they tell people where they’re from, Hart folks have found themselves in the same boat with other Prince George residents for decades.
“It seemed we were always defending ourselves! People thought it was too far to travel, we had more snow, we lived in the bush etc. etc.,” Shirley recalled. “Looking back, maybe defending ourselves is what made us all stronger and proud of where we lived. Proud of our community, proud of our heritage and proud to be living in the best part of Prince George. Where we have gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, where the air is fresher and no pulp mill smell and where you can get out and enjoy the countryside just by stepping out your back door.”
So many Prince George residents inform friends and family down south that they came to the city for two years and are still here 20 or more years later because of the people.
That’s the Hart right there. New resident or fourth generation, you are welcome.
Perhaps the thing that’s impressed me most about the Hart, compared to any other Prince George neighbourhood or any place I’ve ever lived in my life, is the class makeup. The Hart has its affluent neighbourhoods – Hart Highlands, Valleyview, Christopher Drive just outside of city limits – and its poorer, rougher areas but most parts of the Hart are blended.
Greenforest Crescent, not far from Glenview Elementary, is a mix of new $600,000 homes with older single-wide trailers. On North Kelly, heading out to Ferguson Lake, and on Chief Lake Road past city limits, visitors will find country estates next to the stereotypical redneck acreage stocked with rusted-out old vehicles.
The common ground that links those people together is the Hart – its history, its geography, this place.
There was certainly a loud and ugly racist element opposing naming the new school Shas Ti but for many more Hart residents, it simply boiled down to outsider meddling fixing something that wasn’t broken, no different than how Prince George residents react to earnest Lower Mainland residents “Van-splaining” to northerners how to think and what to believe on social issues.
Kelly Road Secondary’s Twitter handle is @hartnation and I suspect that won’t change, regardless of the new blended name.
That’s how the Hart rolls.