4 min

Prairie rebirth

After a few years in the big city, CC Trubiak barely recognizes his tiny Manitoba hometown

CC Trubiak started singing in Ottawa clubs in 2011. He now performs with Five Easy Pieces, a Flin Flon folk band. Credit: Darren Holmes

When CC Trubiak sat behind his assigned table at the Living Books event in Flin Flon, Manitoba, his mind raced about the questions he might get that night and whether or not he was ready to open up. As an “open book,” that was his job for the evening, to talk about his life as a gay man to anyone who cared to sit down and listen. But considering Trubiak had just moved from Ottawa to Flin Flon three weeks earlier, he had no idea what might come his way.

“I was floored at the response,” says Trubiak, a short, slight, scruffy 34-year-old with wide, welcoming eyes.

All night long, townspeople old and young flocked to his table, sat down across from him, and quizzed Trubiak about coming out. “In some ways it felt like I was getting the red-carpet treatment,” he says. “People kept saying, ‘We’re so happy to have you here. Flin Flon needs you.'”

Trubiak was shocked to hear such welcoming words, especially considering his painful history in the small prairie town, a day-long drive north of Winnipeg. He was born and raised in Flin Flon, and if anyone had ever said he would return as an adult, he would have called them crazy. “Familiar with the expression ‘When hell freezes over’?” he jokes. “For years that was my initial thought on ever returning to Flin Flon to live and work.”

When Trubiak was growing up, he says, his hometown revolved around three things – mining, hockey and fishing – and he could have cared less about any of them. He was small and unathletic, an obvious sissy, and that made him the target of taunts from other boys. Every day, he feared they would turn violent on him, so he stayed as invisible as he could. “I wanted to connect and be accepted,” he says, but when he realized he was gay, he felt he had to hide even more. During the summer between grades 7 and 8, he decided to kill himself rather than face another year at the only high school in town. “In my 12-year-old head, life was better in another realm,” he says. “I was taking my ticket out of there.”

When Trubiak woke up in the hospital he found out he had support, after all. His family recognized his suicide attempt as a cry for help. He returned to school in the fall, got permission to skip gym class and eventually started seeing the guidance counsellor. Every week, she let him use her phone to call a social worker at Winnipeg’s Rainbow Resource Centre. Trubiak also started sending letters to his mother’s gay brother, Sterling, who had escaped Flin Flon years earlier and settled in Ottawa. Sterling responded with envelopes full of gay-themed DVDs, books and magazines.

“That’s when the dreamer in me was born,” Trubiak says. He started writing songs and performing them alone in his bedroom. He didn’t dare sing in public, though. For the next few years, he endured high school knowing that as soon as it was over, he would get the hell out.

And so he did – first to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, then to Winnipeg, then finally to Ottawa, where he earned a bachelor’s in social work from Carleton University. Trubiak started singing in clubs and cafés and, in 2011, put out an indie-folk album called They Say I’m Different. One of the songs is called “Prairie Boy,” and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture: “Head hung down in shame, it’s plain and clear you ain’t welcome here.” Trubiak found a boyfriend in Ottawa, and they settled into an apartment together, but he couldn’t land a position in his field. Then one day his sister called from Flin Flon to say there was a job opening for a social worker. His mother got on the line and said, “You can have your old room back.”

Trubiak’s first response was resistance. “The thought made me physically sick,” he says. But after weeks of sleepless, sweaty nights, he started seeing a return to Flin Flon as an opportunity to gain work experience, go off the grid, and get to know his family better. Trubiak scored the job, promised to stay for a year, and assumed he would keep a low profile. That lasted for exactly a week, until someone from the new Flin Flon Arts Council asked him to perform at a music festival called Flonstock. There, one night on the prairie, Trubiak met a gay guy in his early 20s who shocked him with how out he was. “He was unabashedly, overtly gay,” Trubiak says. “The hair, the clothes, the short shorts, the total sense of style, owning who he is. I could never have been that brave.”

Since then, Trubiak has met other Flin Flon gays he could have never imagined meeting as a teenager – and he started singing with a folk band called Five Easy Pieces. Flin Flon has shrunk, he says, thanks to a declining economy, but he doesn’t see that as a bad thing. “Now it’s embracing an arts culture,” he says. “Even though it’s become smaller, it’s strangely more inclusive.”

Opening up at Living Books and performing at festivals and cafés isn’t the only way Trubiak has been a positive queer influence on his hometown. Working as a mental-health worker, he turns over his office every week to a young client so she can call the same Rainbow Resource Centre that helped him two decades ago. And just the other day, his old guidance counsellor invited him back to his high school to speak out against bullying.

“I have the feeling of being a valued member of the community,” he says. “Professionally, I have never been more invigorated. Creatively, I have never been more alive.” He still plans to leave again this fall, to return to his boyfriend and (hopefully) a social-work job in Ottawa. In the meantime, his music is being inspired more than ever by prairie sunsets he once looked at and thought he would never see again.