Ellen Wolper’s relationship with Orillia is, simply put, complicated.
The experiences she has had during two decades of running a business downtown have both kept her here and tempted her to leave.
“Within these four walls, it’s wonderful,” Wolper said while sitting inside Paper Kapers, her arts-and-crafts shop, “but the outside world — the way it’s been in Orillia — has been awful.”
She has been outspoken about a number of issues: city bylaw enforcement, police foot patrol downtown, homelessness, addiction, mental illness.
During the first few years after opening Paper Kapers, merchants downtown were “largely left alone” by the local government and bylaw enforcement officers, she said.
“When I look back at those times, I think, ‘Oh, it was nice they left us alone.’ Having said that, we were paying a heck of a lot of tax dollars for nothing, for not much,” she said.
Hers was one of a number of shops targeted when the city began enforcing its sign bylaw 16 years after the document was created. She and other business owners were fined for being in contravention.
Wolper made her feelings known about that matter, but she has been even more vocal about the need for more police foot patrols downtown.
They were needed before the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, but she feels they are needed now more than ever.
Prior to the pandemic, she would call police two or three times per year to report illegal activity and other disturbances downtown. Those types of situations are happening more frequently, she said.
“Over time, it just got more aggressive and there wasn’t a lot of follow-through. There seems to be a high acceptance for abusive language, a lot of swearing,” she said, adding police will sometimes “pass over things like verbal abuse and sexism and homophobia.”
One person who was “especially abusive” was charged with mischief, Wolper said, after he went onto Paper Kapers property and took down paper signs she had posted at the beginning of the pandemic, with innocuous messages such as “be safe” and “be kind.”
“All the other stuff he had said before that was racist and sexist and homophobic, and the drinking in public — nothing,” she said.
Concerning behaviour downtown has become “progressively worse,” she noted, since a methadone clinic opened four doors down from Paper Kapers in 2018.
“I’m of two minds. Obviously, I support the idea of a clinic, but it’s on the most famous block of downtown,” Wolper said.
She isn’t the only one who had concerns about the clinic opening in that location, but she is more on her own in terms of how she interacts with the less fortunate members of the community.
Rather than shooing them away, she has allowed some people to sleep under the covered entrance to her store.
“I have been dismissed by other merchants. I have been told, ‘You’re asking for it. You’re asking for these troubles because you’re letting people stay here,’” she said. “Staying here is conditional, too. It’s conditional on good behaviour. The people who stay here, they are people. We’ve become friends. They look out for me, too. It’s mutually beneficial.”
They are her “posse,” as she put it.
“I’ve got my own security. I’ve got my own policing. I’ve got my own posse in the sense that we’re looking out for each other.”
Wolper has been trying to strike a balance as both an entrepreneur and an advocate. The latter comes naturally for the woman with an activist bent.
The 52-year-old was born in Ottawa, a first-generation Canadian whose parents immigrated here from Germany after the Second World War.
As a teen, she attended numerous peaceful protests in the capital, rallying against apartheid and opposing efforts to encourage kids from low-income families to join the military, among other causes.
It didn’t sit well with her parents — “typical immigrants,” she said, who wanted their kids to “go to school, work hard at school, make something” of themselves.
“I think they were somewhat mortified that I was involved in protesting,” she said. “You don’t rock the boat. You don’t make waves.”
For Wolper, that ship sailed years ago.
She had considered getting into a career in social work, policing, law or teaching. She ended up studying history and English at university in Ottawa, and she became a French teacher. She still teaches the subject part-time at Lions Oval Public School.
She taught French immersion when it was essentially a pilot project.
“I owe a lot to that because most of the jobs I’ve gotten are because I’ve (taught) French,” she said.
She landed in the Orillia area, where her husband is from, in the late 1990s, and the two bought a house. In April 2002, she opened Paper Kapers.
The business is unique enough that she could take it elsewhere. The thought has crossed her mind many times, but something is keeping her here.
“Since the pandemic, I’ve felt more solidarity with people, with social justice issues. I don’t want to give up on that,” she said.
She has demonstrated that in a few ways, including advocating for more foot patrols — the goal not being to round people up and take them to jail, but to have police presence be a deterrent to crime while also having officers provide assistance and referrals as needed.
Wolper has also addressed the Orillia Police Services Board and has used the open public forum at city council meetings to urge local politicians to do more for members of the community who are dealing with homelessness, addiction and mental illness.
As long as she’s in Orillia, she doesn’t plan to let up.
“I feel like I have to embarrass people before anything happens. It’s an awful position to be in,” she said. “I don’t know how many times I have to ask for the same thing over and over again.”
Asked what’s next for her, Wolper sighed.
“Good question,” she said. “I’m lucky that I have a sense of humour because if I didn’t laugh about things, I would cry.”
Something she isn’t laughing about is her frank feeling about the city.
“It’s embarrassing to live here,” she said. “I’m embarrassed to be part of this, to be part of Orillia.”
This feature appears each Monday. If you have an idea for someone who should be profiled in this space, send your suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org.