Eastern raised, northern based: Karen MacKinnon shares story

Karen MacKinnon felt like she was entering a different country.

With her flight about to land in Flin Flon, her new hometown, she glanced out the window at the wilderness below.

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“I thought for sure we were going to land in the lake,” recalls MacKinnon. “Then when we drove into town, I was totally shocked to see all the rocks.

“Not knowing much about the West at the time, I thought I was coming to the Prairies.”

It was June 25, 1977, the day after MacKinnon’s 20th birthday. Layoffs at a steel plant in Sydney, Nova Scotia, had prompted her husband to take a job at HBM&S, now Hudbay.

While she was reluctant to leave the East Coast, she had learned early on that life requires sacrifices.

Growing up in Sydney, MacKinnon was the third of five children born to Neil, a meat cutter, and Margie Reid, a credit reporter. Her older twin sisters, Christine and Doreen, died in infancy.

MacKinnon and her siblings, sister Debbie and brother Roddie, were the only children in the neighbourhood whose mother worked outside of the home. Only later did the siblings realize the family’s second income was not optional.

“I had no idea that we were not well off growing up,” she says. “My parents both worked very hard to provide for us and did everything they could for us. We never did without.”

As a little girl, MacKinnon wore curly bangs and a playful grin. She was as curious as she was sociable.

“I wasn’t shy and loved meeting people – some things never change,” she says. “I would go knock on doors and visit neighbours, even the ones who didn’t have children – something you would never let your child do these days. I would visit and chat. I would learn a lot in those visits.”

Turning point

A turning point in MacKinnon’s life came when she was 14. She and a friend were waiting for a bus on Charlotte Street, Sydney’s main drag and a cruising strip for teenagers.

A boy named Barry MacKinnon and his friend offered the girls a ride and invited them to a party. Karen and Barry immediately found chemistry.

Karen graduated from high school in 1976. That same year, Barry returned to Sydney after a labour dispute interrupted his brief stint as a miner in Thompson, Manitoba. Earlier, he had been laid off from the now-defunct Sydney Steel Corporation.

Eager to start a life together, Karen and Barry married. Barry had a chance to return to Sydney Steel, but with the plant gradually winding down, he opted instead for a position at HBM&S, which was actively recruiting in Sydney.

At the time, many people were departing the Maritimes for jobs out west. Barry made the 3,000-km-plus move to Flin Flon in May 1977 to begin work and find an apartment.

“At that time Flin Flon’s population was a lot higher and there were not as many apartments for rent as there are now,” Karen says. “You had to grab The Reminder first thing in the morning and go ASAP to get an available apartment.”

After the initial shock of her flight into Flin Flon, Karen slowly adjusted to Flin Flon. It wasn’t easy.

“I was so homesick,” she recalls. “I missed my family so much and you could only afford to talk on the phone for about five minutes every week.”

Karen found some solace in her career. After only two weeks in Flin Flon, she landed a job in sales at the now-defunct The Bay on Main Street, then one of the community’s busiest stores.

“It was the best thing that could have happened to me,” she says. “I was so homesick and it put me in a place to meet so many people. I made lifelong friends at The Bay and I still have people say that they can remember me working there.”

After several years in Flin Flon, the MacKinnons felt settled enough to start a family. They welcomed daughter Maggie in 1982 and another daughter, Chrissy, in 1985.

“I love being a mom,” Karen says. “I believe that I am a good parent and I have proof: our two beautiful, kind, strong, caring daughters.”

As the years went on, she made numerous friends through work and social outings. After The Bay, she worked at Modern Food, H&R Block and a trio of local transportation companies.

By 2006, the year she joined The Reminder and Cottage North magazine as sales and promotions manager, residents were suggesting Karen take her dedication to the community to the next level by running for Flin Flon city council.

“I thought they were crazy,” she says. “I mentioned to Barry one day that I had been asked and he said that I should: ‘You’d be good at that.’ I told him that he was crazy, too. But I believe that it is important to contribute to your community, so I decided that I’d give it a go.”

Karen joined council in October 2006 and is now in her third term. She is unafraid to speak out on policies, even if she is a lone voice. One example came last year when she cited some residents’ respiratory concerns in opposing backyard fires within city limits.

Serving on council, she says, has shown her the high level of commitment many people have to Flin Flon, but “there are always challenges.”

Personal challenge

One of Karen’s personal challenges has been her weight. Though never thin, she started to put on excess pounds in her late 30s, when her arthritis began causing severe soreness during exercise.

“There is such a stereotype out there that ‘fat’ people are lazy and they could lose it if they wanted,” she says. “That is not always true and it is not that easy.”

While Karen condones a healthy lifestyle, she also rebuffs any feelings of shame because her body may not conform to societal expectations. That lesson was hammered home a dozen years ago when she went to an aquasizing class at the Aqua Centre a few months before a hip replacement surgery.

“I was too ashamed to put a swimsuit on, but I was in so much pain by that time I decided to go,” she recalls. “The first time I went there, I left the change room very slowly. I was using a cane by that time to walk. I just came out of the change room. A young teenage boy stopped in front of me, stared up and down at me and made a very rude comment regarding my legs. I was horrified. I slowly walked to the pool and down the stairs, and by the time I made it into the water I was laughing so hard I was crying. I thought to myself, ‘It isn’t going to get any worse than that and I’m
still here!’”

Today at age 59 and awaiting a knee replacement, Karen continues to work on her weight loss by swimming, walking and watching her diet. She has shed 60-plus pounds in the past year and is grateful to the boy who insulted her, adding he has grown up to be a true gentleman.

Now retired from The Reminder, she stays busy sitting on committees, attending church, taking photos, reading and listening to music, among other passions. She is also very active in the lives of her two young granddaughters, Mattie and Hollie.

While Karen and Barry had debated whether to retire back east, the choice to remain in Flin Flon was an easy one after he left Hudbay in 2014.

“I have two places I consider home: Cape Breton and Flin Flon,” Karen says.

Looking back on her nearly six decades, Karen has no true regrets. For her, life is about evolving as a person.

“Good or bad, I believe everything happens for reason,” she says. “Have faith in God and stay strong.”

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