Leslieville Lives; Stories from the ‘Ville: Jo-Anne Cameron
Meet Jo-Anne Cameron. A born and bred eastender, Jo-Anne is the 2nd oldest of 7 kids (6 girls, one boy). She grew up on Boultbee Ave., and has pretty much lived in the area her whole life. She married her husband Ian in 1970 and together they crossed the great East York/Riverdale divide, moving over to Riverside in 1984, where they still live today.
Straight out of school, Jo-Anne worked at Dominion for fourteen years; from snack girl to price check gal, you name it, she did it. In 1985 Hollinger (read Conrad Black) sold the chain, which, over time and many owners, eventually morphed into the Metros we see now. Having always had a passion for cooking, Jo-Anne left Dominion to study Culinary Arts at George Brown College – the last course to be held at the Kensington Market campus. This fateful decision would springboard into some interesting employment in the food world, including several years as a guide, leading food tours in Riverside and Leslieville for Scott Savoie, who launched the Culinary Adventure Co. in 2010, and more notably, her time working at the Don Jail.
My immediate question listening to Jo-Anne’s tales about the Don is, ‘Was it like that TV show Oz?’ She laughs. ‘That show was bullshit except for the violence part. And that jails are a place of desperation and misery’. Her easy going nature, great smile and sense of humour seem contrary for someone who spent ten years among maximum security prisoners; first in the kitchen, then as a Correctional Officer and finally Sargeant. Our journey over cups of green tea is fascinating. I learn about how the jail worked, how groups formed, the infamous inmates such as Texieira, Sticklus, Roby and Demeter. There was The Pen – white biker-type guys, The Jungle – black prisoners who gave themselves that name, Protective Custody – child molesters, rats and vulnerables; transgenders/transvestites, male prostitutes, The Health Care Unit – inmates with HIV/Aids, addicts suffering withdrawals, Mental Health – schizophrenics, bipolar inmates, The Workers Unit – low risk prisoners who earned more privilege, Super Protective Custody – high profile offenders like Texieira, Sticklus, Roby and finally Segregation – for the Bernardos and Demeters of the world.
As a Correctional Officer, no two days are the same. ‘You could be going to court, taking someone to hospital, doing inspections, breaking up daily fights, even watching a cellblock wedding! When you work in a prison, you want to check the lunar calendar’. Jo-Anne laughs adding, ‘On a full moon, look out sister!’ So it’s not a myth that the full moon brings out extremes in our behavior? She gets wide-eyed. ‘Absolutely not! During that time, the suicide count skyrockets and/or the fight ratio doubles’. When I ask if she went to work terrified every day, she replies, ‘No. We always worked in tandem. And there was always the Blue Button if things got out of hand’. Read Help. ‘No COs carried weapons at any time. They could be used against you’.
Ironically, one of the guards Jo-Anne worked with would later become a prisoner in the Don. A guard that she and Ian opened their home to, renting one of the rooms out to him only a year or so earlier. Some of you may remember the story of Dan Johnson, who, while under the employ of the Don as a cell guard in 1992, killed 26 year old transsexual prostitute Grayce Baxter. Him. That guy. He lived in their house. Equally harrowing was an attempted sexual assault on Jo-Anne by a prisoner, who was quickly escorted down to solitary to learn a lesson or two.
In 1997 Jo-Anne, not surprisingly, suffered from a bout of PTSD and handed in her keys and badges, deciding it was time to move to the ‘light’ side. She had been going to school part time at George Brown while working full time at the jail and graduated in Career & Work Counselling in 1999. Almost immediately she was hired at St. Stephen’s (a community based social service agency) as a Job Developer for Youth at Risk and after 3 years left to work at JVS (Jewish Vocational Services) as a manager, writing the curriculum for their training programme called BEST (Bringing Employment Standards to Tomorrow). The course was aimed at teaching people on social assistance how to become job developers. The programme ran thirteen times, but even with a 78% success rate, funding was pulled and the programme shut down in 2006. At this point in our conversation, I’m on my 3rd cup of green tea thinking, ‘Wow, what hasn’t this woman done?’ There’s more. Better grab a green tea/coffee/drink.
In 2010, Jo-Anne began volunteering at Ralph Thornton where she met Scott Savoie and started doing the food tours, while at the same time helping out back at St. Stephen’s, filling in for a colleague on sick leave. Today, Jo-Anne works at Interval House (Canada’s first centre for abused women and children) as a Job Developer in their Community Programme. Clearly a woman with a big heart and a lot of compassion, she has not only worked with the vulnerable, the marginalized and the dangerous, she and her husband Ian have been opening their doors to Homestay students for 4 years now. Most are with them on average 6 months at a time, while learning English at various schools around Toronto. She smiles as she describes her latest resident, a young Mexican student, then pauses. ‘They’re all such great kids’.
If that’s not enough, Jo-Anne is also a Silver Medal winner in Ballroom Dancing and acts part-time in commercials and made-for-TV shows such as Motives and Murders and Handsome Devil.
If you’re ever at An Sibin Pub at Broadview & Queen, and see a short woman with a fab head of burnt orange hair hanging out with her ‘kids’ ie; the young locals and staff, no doubt regaling them with one of her great stories, tap her on the shoulder and say ‘Hi’. And be prepared to stay awhile.