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
Michael Geroux’s experience since moving to Manitoulin has run the gamut from life threatening to life affirming. Although there’s a happy ending to the near tragic tale, his story is worthy of an opera or one of the many symphonic works he composes.
Michael pursued a variety of professions over his career, from personal assistant to teacher for hearing impaired children. His true passion, though, has always been music. Despite growing up in a large family, in an isolated area with no access to libraries let alone musical training, Michael had innately learned music, which he attributes to his strength in math.
At the age of 14, that raw talent began to be nurtured when he was taken under the wing of Charles Woodrow, a nationally renowned musician known for his work as artistic and musical director of the Mariposa Arts Theatre and as an organist and piano solo performer with the Royal Conservatory of Music. Woodrow introduced him to other Canadian musical stars, such as Marjorie Danes, and purchased Michael’s first wind instruments. He soon showed an exceptional ability and affinity for the trumpet in particular. “They taught me everything I needed to know about expression in music while I was 15 or 16 and still in high school,” explains Michael. He went on to study classical music at university but was told by his professors that he was “too creative.”
Michael has written an eclectic mix of more than 1,300 musical pieces in the intervening years and has mastered the technology necessary to compensate for missing symphony musicians and choirs to perform them. His music has been inspired, in part, by the positive memories of Manitoulin he carries with him. Making the Island his home was Michael’s long-held dream, from his initial trip to the area over 35 years ago after buying his first clunker car. He fell in love with the Island immediately and came back repeatedly over the years. “I told myself on my first trip here, ‘I swear I’m going to move here some day’,” he says. But there were a lot of miles and milestones between his first visit decades ago and today.
Michael was no stranger to living near water, having grown up at Port Severn, the western terminus of the Trent-Severn canal. After many years living in southern Ontario, Michael recognized life is short and that it was time to move beyond dreaming about Island life to living the dream, finding a special, quiet corner where he could better concentrate on composing music.
Michael was accompanied on that journey by his partner and best friend, Rex Leonard, a retiree who last worked for an international vaccine manufacturer in Toronto. The pair took a vacation trip to Manitoulin and started scouting for places to live. “It feels somehow like coming home, more than anywhere I’d ever been,” observes Michael. Rex adds, “Having heard such wonderful almost magical stories about the Island he had no difficulty convincing me in August 2013 to go with him on one of his annual Georgian Bay Circle tours, and my strong initial appreciation of the Island made moving here an easy and attractive choice.”
In August 2019, they began their longed-for residency at a waterfront home overlooking Manitowaning Bay where Michael creates music in an idyllic little studio set by a pond in his back yard. Rex shares the day-to-day activities inherent in maintaining a six-acre property. “Life was sweet and Michael was in a happy place during those early days, but we hadn’t foreseen the difficult times that were soon to overtake him,” notes Rex.
As the pandemic began making headlines in February 2020 Michael was focused on composing a new album when he received a potentially fatal diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma. In early April, he underwent eight-hour radical head and neck surgery in Sudbury. Fortunately, Michael had an exceptionally quick recovery from his surgery. Despite facing a long road ahead before returning to normal life, he was soon back to loving Island life.
Within short order, however, he unknowingly developed an even more dire condition, diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which nearly claimed his life. While the cancer specialists had done a superb job in responding to the disease, the need for Michael’s diabetic condition to be closely monitored following his surgery was somehow overlooked. Without the appropriate medications, his body started breaking down as glucose was unable to go into his cells, prompting the liver to turn fat into a fuel called ketones that cause the blood to become dangerously acidic.
In August 2020, Michael went into a severe diabetic coma, eventually requiring an emergency air ambulance trip from hospital in Little Current back to Sudbury and a long stay in the intensive care unit. Among the devastating consequences of DKA was tremendous weight loss and, even more distressing, his loss of memory and inability to work on his music. “I almost gave up on music. I couldn’t remember it and couldn’t feel it any longer.”
Now his designated care partner, Rex recognized signs of PTSD and did everything in his power to provide appropriate supports to help Michael get through it. Slowly, Michael recovered physically and spiritually, discovering that music really does heal both body and soul. Inspired by his deeply cherished life on the Island, he began writing a new album called The Traveller that in part documents his euphoric but delusional state during the coma when he believed he was a time traveller as he hovered between life and death.
While Michael has yet to fully recover from his ordeal, he is busily producing music at a rapid pace, with a half dozen albums on the go that he sells online (mgmusic.name/home) as well as musical scores for film productions. Life has definitely shifted from near fatal to sublime, as Michael counts his blessings to be alive, in his little piece of “heaven on earth” on Manitoulin.
Heather Marshall and her husband worked as journalists and communications consultants in the National Capital Region for more decades than they care to admit before making their Sandfield summer 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@