I’ve always been a geographer. Since I was in grade two at DLG Elementary School in Mrs. Harvalias’s class, I’ve been fascinated with people and places and their stories. Mrs. Harvalias was from Greece and I spent every recess scouring the 1980s globe, almost half of which was labelled U.S.S.R., looking for Greece. I finally gave up after what seemed like months and Mrs. Harvalias had to show me on the globe where Greece was. While I was unsuccessful at locating Greece on the globe, in the process of searching for it on the globe, I mastered the location of every other country and many other geographic features.
I spent much of my childhood reading atlases and books about various countries and cultures. I collected coins from all over the world. The world came to me during Expo 86. My dad had enough money to take me in the final weeks. I got my passport stamped at as many countries’ pavillions as I could at Expo.
We didn’t get to travel much ourselves, my family, because we didn’t have a lot of money. A family vacation to Cultus Lake or Harrison Hot Springs was a big deal. My idea of international travel was going on a drive with my parents to Point Roberts to buy cheap American gas. Not exactly a cosmopolitan experience, to say the least. I was fascinated in my late 1980s jaunts across the border that the Americans still used one dollar bills. But I digress.
My first-time on an airplane was a really big deal for me. I was in grade nine and it was very hard times in my family. We were on welfare and I attended Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School on the West Side of Vancouver. My Social Studies class was divided into groups to each submit a geography research project to the American Express Geography Competition. It just so happened that my group project won second prize! I and four other students who were part of my group were treated to a weekend on the town in Toronto all expenses paid by American Express. I thought I had won the lottery. I fell in love with Toronto on that trip — a love that would only grow on my subsequent visits over the years.
When I returned home to the difficult circumstances under which I was growing up, it was clear to me that geography was my path to lift myself up. The following school year in grade 10, I was admitted into the pre-International Baccalaureate program at Churchill. I was a promising student in an elite group of kids, but I myself came from a home of poverty, which I desperately hid from everyone at school.
I was also gay and effeminate, which was not an okay way to be at Vancouver public schools in the 90s. I was up against a lot and I started going downtown to a queer youth group at the Gay and Lesbian Centre. I experimented with alcohol and marijuana. I got a job. This all made attending school, already a hostile environment for me as a gay youth, all the more difficult. I ended up dropping out of IB and not even graduating grade 12. Although, I did stick with IB Geography 12, which I completed with flying colours. I also won some other geographic competition around that time.
Shortly after high school, I got away from my dysfunctional home enviroment and moved out on my own. Well, with roommates, to be more accurate. Those were the days. Every day was a party and I lived a fabulous bohemian lifestyle at Fraser & Broadway in East Vancouver and beyond. I went on many trips…
Things didn’t get serious again until 2003 when I returned to my academic development and started working on my bachelors. I graduated Simon Fraser University in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts with First Class Honours majoring in Geography. I had a 4.12 GPA and I won the Canadian Association of Geographers award to graduating geography undergrads.
After fighting my own battle against mass eviction of all the tenants from the apartment building in which I resided while attending SFU, I turned my attention to the redevelopment of the Little Mountain Housing Project, where I had lived for a few years as a young child. I got a full scholarship to the UBC Geography Master of Arts program under the supervision of Dr. Elvin Wyly and Dr. David Ley. This was a dream come true for me and such an honour to work with such big name academics. I met this challenge with everything I had and I strove for total perfection in all my work as a graduate student. Telling the story of Little Mountain – and documenting what I could of it before it was demolished – was everything I lived for. It was more than a thesis for me, it was a labour of love that broke my heart.
What happened at Little Mountain was a humanitarian tragedy that I do not particularly enjoy recalling. After my thesis, I simply could not write about Little Mountain anymore. It was too emotionally exhausting after living and breathing and dreaming about it for almost four years at that point. I have a hard time even looking at Little Mountain as it is now and have avoided it for almost a decade. I returned only once as part of a commemoration of the 10 year anniversary since the beginning of the displacements.
For the past decade, I have almost exclusively pursued non-academic affairs. Although I have always continued to read and observe and think analytically about everything from local to world events. But I just found it too difficult to speak. Now I feel that I can no longer be silent. The world is changing rapidly and in ways that inspire fear and anxiety in us. I cannot take the privilege of silence. I want to re-engage with public and political discourse in a serious way. That is my reason for creating this blog.
It’s going to be a work-in-progress and it may be slow at times. That’s how I roll. I’m going to start just building the website by posting some old stuff that I wrote years ago. So there’s going to be a lot of stuff about Little Mountain and public housing that I wrote 10+ years ago, but that is still very relevant today, even maybe more relevant than ever. I also have lots of new stuff in the works. My goal is to write regular, original blog posts. I should have started this a long time ago. Now that it is 2020 and a new decade, the first real identifiable decade of the 21st century, perhaps that is also what is inspiring me to write again.
Tommy Thomson is back and it feels good.