Michael Jacques with, from left, mom Debbie, sister Kaila, dad Marcel, and MP Dean Allison. HELEN TRAN

Sold-out crowd celebrates at Old Town Hall

Michael Jacques, author of “Can’t Read, Can’t Write, Here’s My Book,” was honoured as 2019’s Citizen of the Year during the Fonthill and District Kinsmen’s Citizen of the Year Dinner last Tuesday at Old Pelham Town Hall. The Citizen of the Year award is granted in recognition of service to the community.

At starting time, the hall was already set for the grand affair, and there was a personal touch to each table— every few place settings was punctuated with a little sign featuring a quote from readers who had reviewed Michael’s book.

Members of the Jacques family were effusive in their praise of Michael.

“He has very supportive parents and a very supportive family,” said his aunt Yvonne Rickert.

Michael and his father, Marcel Jacques, mingled easily amongst the arriving guests, smiling and shaking hands and accepting congratulations, gifts, and well wishes.

A month prior, when Michael’s selection as Citizen of the Year was announced, he was relaxing in his parents’ home dressed in a soft plaid shirt and jeans. The oasis of quiet was broken by the phone ringing, which Marcel would hurry to answer. Michael said that his book started from humble beginnings.

“It just started as a daily journal… it was just my story.”

MP Dean Allison congratulations Michael Jacques. HELEN TRAN

He recorded the first draft of the book alone in his room, using his computer’s talk-to-text function.

These days, the book is sold on stands in every Sobeys in Ontario. Michael and Marcel went on a tour of the east coast sponsored by Sobeys, with new bookstands appearing in Sobeys located in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Jacques family receives phone calls almost constantly, with requests for Michael to speak at events and schools, congratulations from family and friends, and queries from agencies and publishers interested in marketing his book. A sequel is in the works, with family and friends contributing chapters that they’ve written about Michael’s effect on their lives and perspectives.

HELEN TRAN

In the last 12 months, Michael has conducted some 120 presentations. He was also appointed to the Minister’s Advisory Council on Special Education (MACSE) by the Ontario Education Minister. On the international level, Michael was also recognized with a feature on the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust website (QCT), which “uses its network, platform and resources …to support young leaders in realizing their dreams and hopes for the future,” and to “bring about positive change for now and the generations that follow.”

Despite Michael’s many achievements at the age of 28, he smiled when asked about his next goal and said that he feels like any “normal” 28-year-old who wants to make friends, have a drink, and get his driving license.

“We’re all normal, in our own way,” he said. “Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid to fail. Anything is possible.”

Weeks later at the dinner, Michael shook hands and greeted guests with confidence as if he had done so for years. He expressed both nervousness and excitement about making his acceptance speech.

Michael’s sister Kaila Jacques, who was instrumental in the editing, publication and formatting of his book, said she was proud of her brother.

“I feel like he was always destined for great things. Thanks to him I learned so much about empathy and compassion and that’s why I feel like he’s making so connections with so many people in town.”

Eight previous Citizens of the Year join Michael Jacques for photos. HELEN TRAN

Those connections were on display Tuesday evening, with the hall filled to capacity. There were many reasons to celebrate that night: Michael is the youngest Citizen of the Year, the Kinsmen are celebrating their 100th anniversary, and it was the largest Citizen of the Year dinner they had ever organized.

“I’m sorry some of you had to park in Vineland. If we had a shoehorn, we couldn’t fit anyone else into this hall,” joked Kin Life Member Brian Iggulden in his welcoming remarks.

After the singing of O Canada and the saying of grace, all present tucked into their steaming hot dinner, with musical accompaniment by Lindsey Mills.

MP Dean Allison brought greetings from federal Canada. He spoke of Pelham’s community closeness, thanked everyone coming together to honour Michael and his achievements, and presented Michael with a scroll.

“You are walking amongst giants,” he said, referring to previously chosen Citizens of the Year. “You are loved, by the family and friends you have here. It is never too young to make a difference, never too young to lead, and never too young to inspire.”

MPP Sam Oosterhoff also made a speech from his place at the head table.

“I am absolutely blown away by [Michael’s] ability to touch so many people,” he said. He also presented Michael with a scroll, joking that it was every politician’s duty.

Mayor Marv Junkin was out of the country and unable to attend, so Councillor Mike Ciolfi spoke on his and the Town’s behalf.

“Michael encompasses the determination, dedication, friendliness, and good-natured spirit that this town is known for,” said Ciolfi. “We are all incredibly proud to call you one of ours. We are all proud of you and what you do for this community.”

Linda Wright, director of Community Living Ontario, also made a presentation.

“I have been asked by Community Living Ontario to bring our wishes to Michael on this very special night. We are your biggest champions and we all think you are an absolute rock star. You have brought so much awareness to our work and we couldn’t be more grateful about that.”

“We don’t have any scrolls,” she quipped.

Pride was the theme of the night, with another short speech by Kailee Jacques.

“Every single person in this room has been inspired or motivated or changed because of my brother,” she said. When she became emotional, Michael was quick to place an encouraging hand on her arm.

Even though many family members, friends and Kin Life Members insisted repeatedly that the night was “all about Michael,” the man in question took the time during his own speech to thank the Kinsmen, the people who nominated him, his friends and coworkers, and his family.

He thanked his mother for being his “cheerleader,” and accepted his sister’s hug when it was his own turn to become emotional during his speech. He also announced that it was his father’s birthday, and led the hall in a round of Happy Birthday.

“I never had a strong voice before,” said Michael, “and I want to say thank you to everyone who helped me out, to find the confidence.”

He also emphasized that he wished to encourage others to be confident, to find their own voice, and to be heard.

The Citizen of the Year award plaque was then presented to Michael by Brandon Young, president of the Fonthill Kinsmen. Brandon cited Michael as an inspiration in his own life growing up with autism.

After the speeches concluded, there were many photo ops. Michael stood with those past Citizen of the Year recipients present, including Gail Hilyer, David Swan, Gary and Rosemary Chambers, John Wink, and Ron Kore.

Michael’s principals from elementary school, Ralph DeFazio, Dean Stunt, and Terry Grand, were in attendance, as well as coworkers from Sobeys, whom Michael described as “like family.” Michael insisted that he take a photo with his grandmother, to compare with a shot of them together that appears in his book.

Camera flashes lit up smiles as the dishes were cleared and guests began to leave. As the hall emptied, Kinsman Kevin Twomey emphasized that both Michael and Brandon had achieved much despite the obstacles that life had placed in their paths.

“Look at Michael, and look at Brandon,” said Kevin. “All you need is enthusiasm and the desire and ability to lead. Nothing should stand in anyone’s way to do anything.”

Like those around him, Michael regarded the future with optimism.

“Whatever happens next, it’s gonna be great. I’m excited,” he said.

 

Acceptance speech by Michael Jacques

Thanks everyone for coming. I would like to thank the Kinsmen club for announcing me Citizen of the Year. It means a lot to me for the recognition. I’d also like to thank the people in the community who nominated me. It means a lot to me as well that you think I deserve this honour.

I’d like to thank my family. You always believe in me and support me. My dad, also known as my executive assistant, banker and personal chauffeur. My mom is my biggest cheerleader, and sometimes she can embarrass me. My sister and her husband are also a big part of my life too. They do all the design work for my book, my social media and website. It takes a team behind you to get things done. But also it takes a community behind you, because so many people buy and support my book, people who know me and people who don’t know me. This means a lot and I feel happy that people want to know me.

I also wanted to thank my second family, Sobeys, and my boss Ron, for helping me out with lots of things. They were the first people to sell my book in stores, and now I think everyone has a book in the Niagara region. The Sobeys family is a big part of this community and I’m happy to be there when I’m not on tour.

Lastly, I didn’t always have a strong voice. I found it through organizations like Community Living and Special Olympics. So I have to thank them. They gave me confidence and accepted me for myself. Then I started volunteering to share my perspective and stand up for people who are different. Then I was able to write a book and now that is what I use to share my story and present to communities all around Ontario and Canada. This is how I connect to so many people. It’s important for me to give back because I want to change how people see those with a disability. I want to make our world more accepting and inclusive. That it doesn’t matter if you have a disability you can do anything and the sky is the limit.