Under the Cover: Learning how not to drown in Mason’s Jar

Bearing witness to near-daily drug withdrawals in his Northern Ontario community, John Jantunen began writing his latest novel Mason’s Jar (ECW Press), a western, sci-fi, horror cross-genre novel that centres on questions of social justice—housing, mental health, opioid crises. Below, John shares how his experiences in North Bay, Ontario became the foundation of his latest novel. 


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“To accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.” —James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

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When framing a new novel, I generally start by posing myself a question. With Mason’s Jar, my latest, I initially asked: How bad would the drug poisoning crisis have to become before our governments, media, and citizenry began treating it with the urgency it demands?

My own eyes had been opened to the exigencies of this public health emergency after I’d moved my family from Guelph to Capreol in 2017 to conduct research for what would become my fifth novel, Savage Gerry. To support my efforts, I’d taken a job as a Youth Centre Lead for the City Of Greater Sudbury and, during the health and safety training session mandatory for all city workers, I was confronted with an alarming statistic: over the past year, the city’s public health office had dispensed over 1.2 million needles to the city’s intravenous drug users, an increase of almost five hundred thousand needles from the previous year (a staggering thirty to seventy thousand of which, I was also informed, were being picked up off of streets, sidewalks, parks, and alleyways every month by city staff). Following the session, I asked the instructor to account for such a precipitous increase but he couldn’t provide much of an answer beyond a vague allusion to an expansion of the city’s harm reduction services.

A United Steelworkers rep I met while working at the Dowling Youth Centre was a little more forthcoming. This is the all-too-common story he told me: a worker is injured on the job and prescribed an opiate for the pain, often by a company doctor. When the worker’s prescription runs out and they’re still in chronic pain, they have little option but to procure their drugs from the street where they become easy prey for criminal elements eager to exploit their suffering for profit. To add insult to injury, if these workers are able to return to work they are often summarily fired if they fail a “random” drug test.

I later related this to one of the public health nurses who frequented the youth centres; she admitted it was a pretty accurate representation of her experience as well and, as the number of toxic drug overdoses skyrocketed across the north—and all across the country—I studiously read the local papers and listened to local CBC radio news without hearing anyone speak of the central roles industry and our health care system have played in this unfolding crisis. Nor, for that matter, did I hear any mention of how our current drug prohibition laws, in effect, funnel billions of dollars to organized crime syndicates such as The Hells Angels and The Cartels even as thousands of Canadians continue to pay for this willful negligence with their lives.

While living in Capreol we were mostly shielded from the harshest realities associated with the illicit drug trade but that all changed after I moved my family to North Bay in the summer of 2018, certain that this “Gateway To The North” would provide the perfect setting for Mason’s Jar—what was to become my seventh novel. With the price of rentals in Northern Ontario soaring to nearly the same astronomical heights as in the south, the only place we could find to rent within our budget was, in one neighbour’s words, a former “crack house.” It was, we’d shortly learn, two houses down from a triplex that was, in another neighbour’s words, a “one-stop shop” for crack, oxy/fentanyl, and meth. Witnessing a seemingly endless parade of addicts in withdrawal succumbing to an almost atavistic rage on the sidewalk outside our house became an almost daily occurrence (for a broader discussion of how this influenced the writing of Mason’s Jar, please see this article.

So, setting myself to the task of framing Mason’s Jar, I asked myself, How bad would the crisis have to become before…?, even though, truth be told, I already knew the answer. It would have to become plenty bad indeed. In fact, it already had, and then some.

Discovering the right epigraph is another means I’ve often used to focus my thoughts when contemplating a new project. While perusing a thrift store a few blocks from our house in North Bay, I happened upon a weathered copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. I’d quoted a passage from Baldwin’s Another Country in my previous novel, In For A Dime, and so it seemed a most fortuitous find, and even more so when I came to the passage—quoted above—I’d end up using to introduce Mason Jar. After all, far too many people within our governing bodies, and within our citizenry, stalwartly cling to an invented past in which criminalizing drug users—particularly if they’re poor—was made to seem like our only real option. With the death toll from drug poisonings mounting to catastrophic levels, it’s clear that this invented past is now cracking and crumbling under the pressures of life very much like clay in a season of drought, a reality that was further hammered home during the symposium hosted by Community Drug Strategy North Bay & Area I attended in 2019. There, a sergeant with the North Bay Police Service who’d lost a brother to an overdose tearfully confided that his brother’s death had forced him to rethink everything he’d been made to believe and conceded that no amount of policing was ever going to arrest this problem away.

Hearing this was an “Aha!” moment for me and, with the Baldwin epigraph serving as a sort of moral compass, I came to realize that Mason’s Jar could no longer simply be a means of answering my original question but would also have to address the question inherent, though unspoken, in the sergeant’s heartfelt admission: After we’ve accepted our pasts, no matter how despairing they might be, how might we then go about genuinely learning to use them?

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John Jantunen’s novel Cipher was shortlisted for a Kobo Emerging Writer Prize and his No Quarter for a Shamus and ReLit Award. After moving his family to Kingston in the summer of 2019 to conduct research into Canada’s correctional system for a forthcoming novel, he and his partner, Tanja, founded the literary journal www.canneryrowpress.com to provide a space for stories seldom told in this country. He has since taken a job at The Integrated Care Hub, the city’s safe injection site/homeless shelter, where he’s been greatly heartened to find himself amongst a community of people using the lessons they’ve learned from their pasts to provide a life-line for those still drowning in their own.

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