Newish to Manitoulin: Ben Cruickshank and John Hill

EDITOR’S NOTE: Manitoulin is being transformed with the influx of new residents and business owners who bring with them fresh ideas, experiences and perspectives that are enriching the area. Some individuals and families are still unpacking boxes, having only moved in the past month or two, while others made the move over the last few years and are now comfortably established in their new communities. Here are some of their stories.

by Heather Marshall

Ben Cruickshank and John Hill have had repeated successes in their careers and lives, but details about the modest men’s accomplishments tend to slip out casually in conversation when prompted to talk about their past. Despite their humility, two things stand out as sources of pride for the couple. One is their jobs as Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officers, based with the Little Current detachment. Ben as a sergeant and team leader and John as a constable. The other is the fact they’ve been happily married for almost a decade, early members of the OPP’s growing LBGTQ2+ community.

The odds that either would end up in policing were slim when they were young, given their upbringing, societal assumptions and traditional machismo in paramilitary organizations.

“I really didn’t realize how being gay is so central to my identity until 2014 at World Pride in Toronto and seeing Ben in the parade marching in uniform. In that act, he was demonstrating how much the OPP has evolved, underlining how we can “Serve with Pride”  and how much has changed for gay men in the force over the past 15 years.”

The pair’s lives took decidedly different paths before forging a future together. John was born into a conservative, evangelical family in Lions Head, the son of a father originally from Mindemoya and mother from Pennsylvania. Family life was filled with lots of travel and a passion for nature. John had his first taste of independence as an exchange student for a year in Australia at the age of 16. That was nurtured upon his return when he lived in Alberta and Montana, engaged in wilderness leadership training through a theology school in Alberta where he gained an Honours BA in Christian Studies.

John’s life took a detour from the religious to secular world when he completed a second Honours BA in Political Science at the University of Waterloo. That was followed by a Master’s degree in Urban Planning, after which he was quickly recruited as an urban planner with the Regional Municipality of Waterloo. His initial focus was on transportation, working on files including light rail transit and the behavioural changes required to shift public attitudes toward green public transportation. Subsequent assignments saw him involved in the remediation of contaminated land and economic development. 

Ben’s first career choice, nursing, was influenced by his stepfather. Unlike many young people who leave home in their teens, Ben’s stepfather and mom left him, when he was 17, and their home in Cornwall behind, moving to North Carolina where his step father found better nursing jobs. Ben, too, enrolled in nursing but concluded it was not the right fit and later dropped out.

That led him to join the Canadian Armed Forces as a Reserve Officer, moving up the ranks to the role of Major by the time he left. His years of service earned him the Canadian Forces Decoration as well as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal recognizing his time and dedication to Canadian youth. That period was followed by employment in Hamilton in brain injury rehabilitation before Ben became a life and critical illness underwriter with several insurance companies in the Kitchener-Waterloo region, a profession that saw him become an executive member of the Canadian Institute of Underwriters. During this busy time, he started an Honours BA in Policing that he is earning through part-time studies at Wilfred Laurier University.

This week’s newish to Manitoulin couple have also been featured in a Ontario Provincial Police Association podcast, to listen please visit https://www.oppa.ca/Media/Blog/PodcastEpisode56

As successful as his career was, Ben craved life beyond a cubicle, wanting to spend time outdoors and working face to face with people again. Convinced that policing fit the bill, he had his application to the OPP accepted in 2014 and attended the Ontario Police College. After additional training at the Provincial Police Academy, he began his career with the service. 

Ben and John met in 2008 and bought a century home in downtown Kitchener within walking distance of work and all the amenities needed for a fulfilling urban lifestyle. Life was rich and rewarding but, as John watched Ben’s career unfold, he realized he also yearned for opportunities to apply his skills outside an office and close to nature. He overcame the hurdles to recruitment to the OPP in his late 30s and successfully joined in 2019. Knowing of John’s commitment to the environment and love of gardening, a former planning colleague, Albert Hovingh, suggested he consider Manitoulin as a future destination since his brother, Marc, loved his work and life as an OPP officer in the area.

Ben and John had passed through the Island on vacation on their way to Lake Superior and knew it was beautiful but had little knowledge of the region beyond that. When a position for sergeant, a role Ben had been filling in an acting capacity in several postings, came up in Little Current in January 2021 he leapt at the chance to move to an area that offered advancement and checked off all the boxes he and John shared in their dream of living close to nature. Within a week, they bought a lakefront home on Lake Manitou near Newby’s Bay and soon settled into their new life on Manitoulin.

Both men recognized that moving to a conservative rural area could be challenging as a gay couple but say they’ve received a warm and welcoming reception by locals.

“My personal motto is ducere exemplo –lead by example – something I strive to do to break down systemic barriers and stereotyping. Being open and honest about my sexual orientation is important to me and I am grateful that I’ve been supported by my colleagues at work and area residents I’ve encountered,” says Ben. 

“Some members of my extended family have literally turned their back to me, so I certainly have known bigotry,” adds John. “But it took me 25 years to accept who I am, so I fully understand that accepting social change takes time. Change, including change within police, is really hard work. It takes lots of conversations and having allies to move the needle and increase equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

Ben and John are thrilled to put their extensive if eclectic experience from numerous occupations to work to serve and protect the public. They’re especially keen to build bridges and relationships with people traditionally marginalized by race, disability or gender orientation who may not trust police or do not feel protected by policing services. The duo relishes the chance to contribute to the community they’ve already come to love.

*Heather Marshall and her husband worked as journalists and consultants in the National Capital Region for more decades than they care to admit before making their Sandfield cottage their permanent home.  A lifelong learner, Heather loves discovering new things and people and relishes the opportunity to write about newcomers to the Manitoulin. If you would like to share your story or know of recent arrivals we should meet, send a message to hmarshall@videotron.ca