Howdy Neighbour

An interview with Joan Barrett.

Written by Sarah Faerman.


How long have you been at Winona?
Fifteen years. Since 1989.  


Where were you bom?
In Winnipeg but my father worked in gold mines in Northern Manitoba and Northern Ontario so we were always moving from one place to another.


Tell me about your family.
My dad was originally from England and when he arrived in Canada, he worked on a farm in Alberta, which he loved. However, he had a wanderlust and would have kept on moving if my mother hadn’t put her foot down.


My mother had grown up in India until the age of 14. I could only appreciate later how difficult it was for her to follow my father from one mine to another. Often she was the only woman in the place and as someone who had grown up with servants, she now had to fetch water from wells and do without most of the amenities.


However, she did play violin and often would play with other musicians who worked in the mines. I was an only child but the year before I was bom, on the same day as my birthday, my older brother was bom but he did not survive. My mother never liked Canada and wanted to return to England so we moved back . I didn’t like it at all and I became sick with pnemonia so we came back to Canada - to Port Arthur.

What was important in your family?
All the old values - ‘the Protestant Ethic’, namely ”you won’t get anywhere unless you work hard”; “Don’t tell lies”.


What schooling did you have?
I liked school in Port Arthur but my mother didn’t think much of the standard of education there so after grade 8,1 was sent to a private boarding school for girls in Winnipeg. I didn’t like it at first because there were no boys and there were too many rules and regulations.


I made good friends and we called ourselves “The Three Musketeers”. We would raid the kitchen. We had heard that if you combined aspirin and coke, you would get drunk. One of us tried it out and was so sick from it. I also learned to smoke there. I later realized, however, that I did get the best education there. In addition to French and all the other subjects, I continued with violin lessons that I had started years back .


I studied harmony and composition and had a music teacher who looked like Einstein. I thought he was old, but he could have been only 45. At the boarding school, on Sundays, all the girls, in hats and gloves, would go off in single file to church.

Weren’t you lonesome being sent off on your own to boarding school at 13 years?

No. Actually, I was excited to be travelling on my own. I would have loved to go back-packing around the world but it wasn’t done in those days - not girls anyway.

What else did you do in Winnipeg?
From early on, I wanted to be a figure skater like Sonja Henie and I took lessons. I also took dancing lessons and found that I was more suited to this. In Winnipeg I studied at the Winnipeg Ballet under Gweneth Lloyd.


I took the Royal Academy of Dancing exams and got good marks. I was there 3 years and my dream was to be part of the Winnipeg Ballet Co. but my parents moved to Calgary and insisted that I join them there.


I kept up with my violin lessons and music exams and played second violin in the Calgary Symphony Orchestra. There was no possibility to progress in dance in Calgary at that time so I went to the Banff School of Fine Arts for 3 summers to study ballet. I was later on the staff at Mount Royal College teaching ballet. However, I still had dreams for myself and decided to move to Toronto to further my own professional goals.

Tell me about your dancing career in Toronto.
It was 1952 and T.V. was just starting here. I went to many auditions and danced on many T.V. shows such as: “The Big Review” (Norman Campbell was one of the directors); Midge Arthur’s “Canadettes” at the C.N.E. (Blanche and Alan Lund choreographed there) ; “Canada Hit Parade”; Junior Magazine”;“Showtime” and “The Wayne and Shuster Show”. There were many music shows then.


Did you stop dancing once you married?
Not entirely. We moved to Aurora and it was nice to be home looking after my daughter, Laura. There was the occasional show and I also taught jazz and ballet.


I had my own school of dance and choreographed some shows. I was in Aurora for 17 years and after my divorce, moved back to Toronto. My daughter, who now lives in Nova Scotia with her husband and 3 children, was studying to be a jazz dancer in Toronto at that time.

Were you able to resume your career in Toronto after all those years?
I had done a bit of acting all along but no longer had the contacts. Also, there are not so many jobs for older people, especially if you are not known. To this day, however, I do get bit parts as an “extra” in movies such as “Serendipity” with John Cusack. I did work full time as a supervisor at the Bay and would go with a fellow employee to Jazz clubs after work. I met Des at one of the clubs and then again on a Jazz Cruise. I decided to go back to school and earned an honours B.A. at York University.

What is your favourite leisure activity?
Reading, crossword puzzles, walking, meeting friends. Particularly walking around neighbourhoods and trying out different restaurants.


What would you say is a priority for Canada?
To keep our own character. To be independent of the U.S. We have a very good democratic social fabric and I worry about all the talk of integrating our economics and borders.


What is the best thing about Winona?
The sense of community. You have the choice to go down for coffee every day but you are not pressured to go.

What would you change at Winona?

People should just relax and accept people for what they are.

Do you have a philosophy of life?
I tend to accept things as they are and make the most of it. On the whole I guess I’m a survivor and have landed on my feet.