Nestled in Ontario’s lake country between North Bay and the nickel city of Sudbury, Sturgeon Falls is a picturesque town surrounded by the rolling green hills and gentle forest of the lower Canadian Shield. It is also the hometown of Gayle Primeau, who like many folks from rural Canada, left to pursue higher education, becoming an elementary school teacher with a focus on the sciences. Returning in 2016 as part of her retirement, Gayle realised that her hometown was in need of some TLC.

“When I came here, I couldn’t believe it,” says Gayle. “It wasn’t at all what it looked like when I was a kid. It looked run down, with a lot of garbage.”

Refusing to abide by the mess, Gayle set about organising a number of community beautification initiatives, beginning with PITCH-IN. “We’re trying to create awareness,” says Gayle, “educate people through Facebook and talking to people. People think it’s a joke, but they don’t realise their cigarette butts and coffee cups end up in the river.”

Part of the district of West Nipissing, Sturgeon Falls is close to the lake of the same name — the fifth-largest lake in Ontario. Located between the Ottawa River and Georgian Bay, the lake is renowned for its fishing and camping.

“People are getting a lot more vocal,” says Gayle, about keeping the community clean. Thanks to the visibility of the PITCH-IN clean-ups, community members are becoming more aware of the negative environmental effects of litter and waste.

“Realistically, I started by myself,” she says. “I started with cleaning a bench, and from there it snowballed, to cleaning a park, to cleaning a street, with maybe 10 people with me that first summer.” The momentum lead to the Sturgeon Falls Beautification Group which has since lobbied for better garbage cans and cigarette receptacles, organising everything from clean-ups to community donations of plants for public spaces.

Now these community members have become good friends. “It’s nice to be a part of a community, to have that sense of pride,” says Gayle. “I’ve seen the difference in our downtown, how people respond and what they say when they see the improvement. It’s validating.”

For Gayle, the environmental benefits of cleanliness are matched by her passion for public art. Over the years, she’s organised artists to paint murals downtown, painted fire hydrants, lobbied Council for aesthetic lampposts, and is now working with sculptors on creating iconic works that reflect the town’s spirit. In summer 2021, two new works will be installed by artist Laval Bouchard that speak to the town’s close relationship with the lake: a mermaid, and a sculpture of the namesake sturgeon, affectionately named “Stella.”

“Every year I present to Council, give them something of a summary of what we’ve accomplished, and then do a request for a budget,” says Gayle. The funds are handled through the municipality, which takes care of ordering and procurement.

Recent times have not been easy, says Gayle. “With Covid there’s been this extreme need to clean up,” she says. With the pandemic has come a rise in medical waste — the all too familiar surgical masks strewn on the ground — yet the situation has not stopped Gayle from organising socially-distanced clean-ups as the snow melts.

Cleaning up from the snow melt is something of a Canadian pastime. “I haven’t found a dead body yet,” she says, although she has found everything from dog poop bags to liquor bottles, toilet seats to undergarments — everything save for cash, unfortunately. While Pitch-In hopes that members keep their communities clean, it’s not meant to be a special episode of CSI Canada. And if you do find cash — it’s yours to keep!