Ryerson student sets out across Canada to share ‘True North Tales’

If she were asked to write the classic “What did you do over the summer?” essay, Michelle-Andrea Girouard would probably start here.

For about two months she set off on a trip. She convinced a friend to keep her company. They dined mostly on V8 juice, Cliff bars and canned fruit. Their accommodations came out of the generosity of friends and acquaintances. When they had no offers, they slept in their car. Together, they travelled about 4,000 kilometres, and they didn’t even need a passport.

Girouard, a fourth-year journalism student at Ryerson, spent part of her summer driving across Canada and collecting stories from Canadians along the way to create True North Tales, a multimedia project about the ordinary people living across this expansive country.  

true north tales featured

Ryerson student Michelle-Andrea Girouard set out across Canada to show just how much the country, and its people, has to offer. (Courtesy Michelle-Andrea Girouard)

“Everyone always wants to go abroad and do this, do that, but no one ever focuses on Canada because, realistically, it’s not really marketed as this cool place,” she said. So she decided to make a project to showcase Canada’s range of people and its beauty.

Girouard got the idea while studying in Nova Scotia through Explore, a bursary program that funds students studying French around the country. Through it, she was able to meet other 20-somethings from across the country.

“When we would talk about what back home was like, everyone’s story was completely different.” She said she wanted to keep experiencing different parts of Canada for herself, and also for others to see.

After the program ended, Girouard raised more than $2,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to help cover food and gas expenses. Then she set out on a cross-country road trip to create True North Tales.

She drew inspiration from Humans of New York, a photography project that features personal conversations with strangers, and Vincent Moon, a French filmmaker, who posts music videos he’s created on an interactive world map.   

The website is currently under construction, but the final product will combine the personal element, with the multimedia layout for True North Tales. Across six provinces, Girouard met about 30 people and compiled 20 video interviews and 10 photo essays.

In Montreal, she met a grocery store owner named Javed Sheikh. He liked to stay connected with his customers; that’s how he competes with big chains.

“I tell them my story, I ask for their story. I communicate with the people, you know? ” he told her.

In Saskatchewan, she met a 12-year-old girl who is “infatuated with herding cows” and learning everything there is to know about them.

In Brantford, Ont. she met indigenous dancers at the Grand River Powwow, which was hosted by six First Nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora.

She said her favourite interview was with Frank Pollari, a cyclist from Thunder Bay, Ont. Frank has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that eventually causes blindness.

“It wasn’t necessarily what he’d done, he just had this energy,” said Girouard. She ended up talking to him for four hours.

“Growing up in Toronto suburbs, everything I knew about Canada was in this 30-kilometre radius.” Now, she has a better sense of the country from coast to coast.

The east coast, Girouard says, seems to be influenced by the ocean with its laid back vibe and great seafood. The west coast is adventurous, health conscious and enamoured with nature. Quebec, she says is this “fiery spirit” with “bold characters” focused on art and driven by their culture.

“There’s so many qualities in every province, in every single community. You need to take a little bit of everything to understand what it is to be a Canadian … to understand the country that you grew up in or immigrated to,” she said.

“I do wish I (had gotten) more, but it’s a project I can add to for the rest of my life.”

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