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A Fond Farewell: Squamish local relocates after 50 memorable years

Joanna Schwarz's relocation to Parksville marks a poignant transition.

From her seat at the window in her living room, Joanna Schwarz can see out over part of her lush garden, a labour of love over many years. 

Inside the house she has lived in for 47 years, boxes are packed, and others wait to be filled.

How to pack up decades of a life? After 50 years in Squamish, Schwarz is moving to Parksville. 

Whether you have been here for a few years or decades, you likely know Schwarz from one of her many roles in town — from Howe Sound Performing Arts Association, which she co-founded with other piano teachers, or from church, from her stunning photography, or as an involved parent when her son and daughter were young. Or through her late-husband Rainer Schwarz, who taught school in the district. The list goes on. 

The Squamish Chief sat down with Schwarz in her immaculate and now sparse, mid-pack living room for a wide-ranging chat about her life, this changing town and her future. 

What follows is a version of that conversation edited for length and clarity.

Where are you moving to in Parksville? 

It’s a new retirement community, called Berwick. 

It has lots of amenities. That’s what drew me to it. It is a nice way to meet people because it has 120 seat theatre, a grand piano in the lounge. It has a separate arts pavilion, exercise room; it has an English pub. It has three restaurants to choose from.

You grew up in Parksville and moved to Squamish in 1973. What drew you to Squamish? 

Rainer applied for a teaching position here and we just thought it was beautiful. I mean that view when you’re coming down the highway and you see the Stawamus Chief and Mount Garibaldi — so amazing.

Although, I was always looking for a beach and for water and there wasn’t any because, in those days, you had no access at all to the ocean, and there was no Porteau Cove Provincial Park. All you had were the lakes.

You met Rainer, who passed away in 2018, when you were 18, how did you meet?

Oh, that was kind of interesting. I had just returned from a Rotary exchange in Germany. And in the meantime, he had just come to Canada to explore. We kind of crossed paths across the Atlantic, I'm sure. And while he was teaching in Qualicum, he was tutoring an exchange student from Germany who was staying with my parents in Parksville. So, Rainer actually met my parents before I ever met him in person. I was writing articles for the paper about Germany and he read those. That's how we got to know each other.

Can you talk a bit more about what it was like in Squamish when you arrived?

It was, of course, much smaller, and there wasn’t one traffic light when we came in 1973. The McCartney brothers owned and ran the hardware store. Early on, I went into the shop for some things and then realized I left my wallet at home. And they said, “Oh, no problem, just make it an IOU for the next time.”

It was very friendly.

When you first moved here it wasn’t in this house, so where did you live then?

The first year we were in a teacherage at Stawamus [now St'a7mes School], up on the hill, that was right next to the school. 

And then we rented on Hospital Hill for a year. Then we moved here to Garibaldi Highlands when our son was born.

Was it easy to make friends?

Yes. We met a lot of people through my piano teaching and through Rainer being a teacher of elementary school. So yes, I met a lot of families.

After about two years here, I became a musician at the United Church and did that for the next 25 years. A group of us started the Folk Song Circle and that went on for many years. And that kind of morphed into the idea for Howe Sound Performing Arts. You just meet a lot of people through music. 

After so long here, what do you make of the changes to Squamish? 

I feel a little bit sad that it’s growing so fast, and that we maybe don’t have as much infrastructure as we might need for its population growth. So I don’t recognize it as easily as the home I used to know it as. But that’s not the reason I’m leaving. I just need more care for my health. And I think on the island there is such a large senior population that there’s just quite a few more facilities. And, of course, my family is there. I have sisters, a brother, a cousin and my grandchildren and daughter on the island. So, most of my home is now on the island. 

But my neighbourhood here is lovely. It hasn’t changed a whole lot. 

You have been involved in so much, with music and photography and so on. Can you reflect on some of your favourite memories? 

The Folk Song Circle had a lot of performances.

And we often went up to the Brackendale Art Gallery, which was special. And then 20 years along, when we started Howe Sound Performing Arts, it became just a real passion to fundraise for a grand piano with the Rotary club and other groups.

It just brought so many interesting and quite famous artists to our town. That it's now our 30th year — I'm really proud of what we accomplished. And it was just so fun to be in the thick of things, you know? Producing and meeting the artists. Often they would come to my house and practise on the grand piano before going to the theatre — and it was just very hands-on.

Definitely a highlight was when we became involved with Piano Six, which brings high-calibre music to smaller towns, like Squamish. 

We also used to have Star Search, which was connected to the PNE. 

I mean, we've got such good people in the organization like Brian Marchant, who does all the tech. You just know you can put on these good performances because you've got all these dedicated people.

Of course, family — my daughter and son and grandkids — are a highlight of my life. I was a grandmother at  50 and then I had the energy for it, too. They are going to be 22, 20, 16 and 10.

You have been open about having Parkinson's disease. According to Parkinson Canada, more than 100,000 Canadians live with Parkinson's and 30 more are diagnosed every day. Do you want to speak to it a bit?

They call it a disease of one, because everybody's symptoms and the way it manifests is a little different. Some people don't even have tremors. 

I think they're just on the cusp of discovering — is it from head injuries? Is it toxicity? Is the brain-gut connection? Maybe in five years, they'll have something to help my condition. You can always hope.

Anything else you want to say? 

For the past 50 years, I’ve been deeply rooted in Squamish — and Rainer was for 45 of those years before he passed away. It’s going to be hard to leave. Thank you, Squamish, for half a century of special memories.

About a local is a regular column about interesting Squamish residents. To be considered, email [email protected]

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