How does tragedy taint a town? Woodstock residents say they'll rebound once again

Woodstock, Ont., used to be known as the Friendly City, but it's been marred by tragedy in recent years. Those who live there, though, say that outsiders can't see what's really happening in their community.

Alleged killings in nursing home are horrific, but no reflection on the town, locals say

Melanie Burns has lived in Woodstock, Ont., all her life and loves the sense of connection. She said she's determined to help youth feel connected, too. (Laura Fraser/CBC)

Jack Wettlaufer grew up in a town with a one-room schoolhouse, a humming economy and a sense that his future lay in the place he was born.

At 72, he still lives in Woodstock, Ont. He raised his children here and now they're doing the same with their own.

In 1970, he founded The Bright Cheese House, which, at its peak, employed 270 people.

He loves this city. Its sense of community. 

But he acknowledges that it's changed. Manufacturing plants began leaving in the '50s, hollowing out the economic heart of Oxford County, wedged between Kitchener and London, Ont. 

"The city was kind of on a downward turn for a bit," Wettlaufer said. "But Toyota came to town about 10 years ago and that gave us a boost again."

And then the city became synonymous with tragedy to those who know it largely through headlines and newscasts. 

Drugs, death and disconnection

In the last week, police charged Elizabeth Wettlaufer — no relation to Jack — with eight counts of first-degree murder. The nurse stands accused of killing seven elderly residents in her care at a Woodstock nursing home, and one in a London facility.

Before then, Woodstock was tied to Tori Stafford, the eight-year-old girl kidnapped and killed by a drug-addicted couple in 2009. Michael Rafferty, one of the two people found guilty in the girl's death, was denied an appeal earlier this week.

Downtown Woodstock has lost some of its business to the big box retailers that have sprung up in the south end of town, former businessman Jack Wettlaufer says. (Laura Fraser/CBC)

His trial highlighted how prevalent OxyContin had become in Woodstock. There's still a methadone clinic on the main street, in a town of 38,000 people. Rafferty and his girlfriend Terri-Lynne McClintic, who was also convicted of murder, had been high when they kidnapped and killed the child. And McClintic knew Tori's mother, Tara McDonald, because she had bought OxyContin from McClintic's dealer, the court heard.

This spring, teens from five schools in the city staged a walkout to draw attention to the number of suicides and suicide attempts this year. Five youth committed suicide in four months in Woodstock, police said in June. None had committed suicide in the previous year. 

'It doesn't represent us'

But tragedy is not endemic to Woodstock, Melanie Burns said. 

"That definitely put us in the news, but it doesn't represent us," said Burns, one of the founders of the Youth Suicide Prevention Facebook group and the mother of an 18-year-old son.

While Stafford's death and the charges facing Wettlaufer are horrific, they could have happened anywhere, she said.

Tori Stafford, 8, was kidnapped while walking home from school in Woodstock in April 2009. Her killers both pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, although Michael Rafferty appealed his conviction this week. It was dismissed. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

And Burns said she and others in the community are trying to improve access to mental health support for youth in crisis. She helped to organize a mental health conference last spring that featured sports broadcaster Michael Landsberg, hockey coach Mike Babcock and one of Woodstock's native sons, L.A. Kings defenceman Jake Muzzin.

When the suicides came to light in the spring, several students talked about feeling depressed and disconnected. But it's unclear what sparked the spike; professionals at CAMH told CBC News at the time that it was representative of a crisis happening across the country.

"It's not the community's fault, there are deeper underlying issues there," Burns said. And schools, businesses and parents are now publicizing where people can go for help, something that she said is more representative of a "small town where everyone knows each other." 

It's something she passed on to her son, asking him to say hi to kids he doesn't know at his school. If he sees someone sitting alone at lunch, he knows his mom wants him to go and sit with them. 

"Back in the day, they called it the Friendly City and I think it still is," Burns said. "And I hope we don't lose that."

Billy Stevanovich and Jennifer Peace-Hall moved to Woodstock in November 2015 to open the Finkle Street Tap and Grill. (Laura Fraser/CBC)

Perception and reality

It's that "friendly reputation" that drew Billy Stevanovich and Jennifer Peace-Hall to the city last November. They said they knew little of Woodstock's connection to tragedy after coming from the northern Ontario mining town of Kirkland Lake. 

What matters to him is the city's location — close to Highway 401 and the Greater Toronto Area, but right in the heartland of farm country. It means fresh vegetables and fruit for the restaurateurs who opened the Finkle Street Tap and Grill, which on this weekday lunch hour is warmed by fireplaces, a pizza oven and the buzz of a full house. 

​The recent events wouldn't have affected his decision to move here, he said. Nor should it say anything about the town itself, he said, which has embraced him, his wife and their business. It's almost impossible to go somewhere and not end up in a conversation with a stranger or an acquaintance, he said.

"People are so nice," he said. "They're almost possessed by niceness."