Trouble on the Line
Harriet Clunie opens the back door of The Beechwood Gastropub and steps into the dimly lit space behind her restaurant. Cradling a cigarette, she lets out a deep exhale into the night air. “It’s been a tough day,” she says with a sigh.
It’s been three weeks since Clunie closed the popular neighbourhood eatery, and she is in the final stages of the selling and grieving process.
“I was feeling so shitty and so alone when I made the decision to close the restaurant. There was a lot of self-loathing,” Clunie confesses.
Ask her why she decided to close, and she’ll say it was everything and nothing. She chalks it up to minimum-wage hikes, soaring rents, a shortage of quality staff, and, above all, it was not turning a profit.
Despite the heartache, Clunie seems relieved that it’s all coming to end. She laughs and shakes her head. “If there are any lessons to be learned here, it’s that this was a very expensive business school,” she quips.
We head inside. Clunie surveys the space where her guests knew her for her bear hugs and warm hospitality. “I feel really fortunate,” says Clunie, who was swept up in an outpouring of emotional goodbyes and last suppers, with no shortage of industry folk offering jobs. “But right now, I just want to take some time.”
It’s been several weeks of organizing and sorting. She narrows her eyes and leans in close. “You know, when you are depressed, one of the hardest things to do is to make decisions.”
But her most difficult decisions are yet to come. She still has to go through the belongings of her mother, who died four years ago — an anniversary that now coincides with the final days of The Beechwood Gastropub.
“I thought it would be a good idea to close the restaurant on an already emotionally charged day,” she says, dryly.
Clunie lost her mother, Kathryn Missen, on September 1, 2014, when she suffered an asthma attack at her home in Casselman.
“She was anaphylactic,” Clunie says. “She had so many allergies — but she was really good at managing them,” noting that her mother almost always used herbs as her first line of defence. Clunie remembers her mother’s house brimming with herbs and homemade tinctures and “jars of stuff soaking in vodka.”
When those remedies failed that day in September, she called 911 — it was the first time she had called.
Sadly, it was that call that failed her. Her wheezing, moaning voice led to an unsuccessful attempt to communicate with the primary dispatcher. That dispatcher sent the call on to a Smiths Falls 911 dispatcher who, likewise, couldn’t communicate with Missen. The dispatcher called Bell, where it was erroneously deemed “trouble on the line,” after which the dispatcher downgraded the call’s priority — all of which was conveyed to an OPP officer who never responded to the call. Missen’s body was discovered two days later after concerned neighbours called 911.
“It never should have happened,” Clunie says. “The system failed my mother every step of the way.”
Clunie put her culinary career on hold to focus on all the obligations that a death can bring — including her grief. It would be a year until she was finally ready to emerge. After several offers, she settled on the position of chef at The Beechwood Gastropub, just as the hearings into her mom’s death regarding the officers involved got underway. (One pled guilty to misconduct, while another was found not guilty of allegedly covering up the first officer’s mistake.) “That was hard. It was a big distraction,” she says. Then there was the matter of her inheritance. “[Owning a restaurant] has been a long-standing goal of mine, and my mom and I had a plan on how I was going to get there — business school. She didn’t have a lot of money, but she was going to help me,” says Clunie.
With her mother’s inheritance and her growing fondness for The Beechwood Gastropub, Clunie found herself with the opportunity to invest in her future. “I felt that buying the restaurant was the right thing to do — it’s what my mother would have wanted,” she says.
But then things started to go wrong. “I felt nauseous,” Clunie says. “I thought, ‘Oh God, have I squandered all that money?’ ”
She shared her inner torment with her family, her aunts reminding her that their sister would have wanted nothing more than to see Clunie follow through with “the plan.”
“So we did it backwards,” Clunie says, chuckling, “My aunts and I like to call it my elite business school of one.”
With the restaurant nearly packed up, Clunie is preparing to take another sabbatical and, perhaps, find some peace. The Office of the Chief Coroner has begun an inquest into her mother’s death (which includes other cases where the 911 system failed) after the regional coroner’s office chose not to. Clunie and her aunts plan to devote their time to making sure no one else falls through the cracks.