Ottawa Citizen

Ottawa’s LGBTQ community loses camp co-founder and force of nature

Wagg helped create Camp Ten Oaks, a popular ‘beacon’ for local children


Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, as the saying goes, and Julia Wagg was one of the mightiest oaks of them all.

A strong-willed force of nature in Ottawa’s LGBTQ community, she discovered a purpose in life helping children and families navigate a time she herself struggled with as a lesbian teenager coming of age in small-town northern Ontario.

With Holly Wagg — her wife of nearly 12 years, who had dreamed of starting a summer camp for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer families — Julia co-founded Camp Ten Oaks in 2005. It welcomed 22 campers that year.

This summer, 100 are signed up and another 65 are on the waiting list.

You probably can’t wave a rainbow pride flag in Ottawa without touching someone who either knew Julia personally, was familiar with her work or was friends with someone who has benefitted from Camp Ten Oaks. It’s the single most important made-in- Ottawa contributi­on to LGBTQ children and families in Canada. Its work is that magical and transforma­tive.

That diverse camp community and a much wider circle of family, friends and colleagues were left reeling last week when Julia’s life tree fell to the ground after a 15-month struggle with leukemia. She was 36.

Julia herself had not been to summer camp as a child, which made her enthusiasm for its daily rhythms and rituals remarkable.

With her walkie-talkie buzzing constantly and a clipboard never far from reach, she still managed to bring a playfulnes­s to the job of camp director, even on days when it required her to fish a toothbrush from the depths of an outhouse or comfort a homesick camper, says Sonja Prakash, an early Ten Oaks board member and camp volunteer who became close friends with Julia.

Just as they would at any other summer camp, children at Ten Oaks make crafts, play outdoor games, go swimming and sing silly songs in a circle. But the program is also imbued with what Julia called “intentiona­l magic” — activities designed to foster resilience and promote social justice in an environmen­t where campers can be open about either their or their parent’s sexual orientatio­n and gender identity.

A program for older youth called Project Acorn was created in 2009 and a new intergener­ational camp for LGBTQ families will be launched this fall.

“If you actually put pins in the map or saw how far the glitter dust has spread, it’s evident this was a beacon, this was something very shiny and important that got built, and I don’t know anything in the queer community, which can eat its own, that has had quite as much staying power and legacy and yet still continues to go,” says Mark Schaan, a former president of the Ten Oaks board and co-founder (with Prakash) of Project Acorn.

Julia was a dynamic, natural leader, but she was also complex. She was fiercely committed to her values in a way that could be unflinchin­g. She messed up sometimes, but would own up to and learn from her mistakes.

“It’s not like she came into the world fully-formed,” Prakash says.

As the camp grew, so too did the Wagg family. Julia and Holly, then in their late-20s, adopted Robin, 11, and Brandin, nine, in 2007. Four years later, Holly gave birth to Addison. The sperm donor was a university friend who’s become part of the family.

Active and imaginativ­e as a child, Julia Teresa Alarie liked to fish and hunt with her father, Denis. She loved to write poems and enjoyed her dad’s improvised bedtime stories, a tradition she carried on with her own children. She spent part of her summers in Niagara Falls, washing dishes in her grandfathe­r’s Italian restaurant and acquiring a love of cooking.

She came out at 16. “A rough time for her,” says her mother, Tina.

Julia left Timmins for school in Toronto at 19, but dropped out before completing first year. Heartbroke­n after the demise of her first serious relationsh­ip, she went home and spent a year working for her dad’s heavy constructi­on company before moving to Ottawa to study sociology at Carleton.

After graduation, she landed a full-time job at Nav Canada, which owns and operates Canada’s civil air navigation service. “One of the best hires of my life,” recalls Misty Giroux.

Julia’s perspectiv­e, maturity, considerat­ion of others, interperso­nal skills and business instincts helped her climb the ranks quickly.

She landed a senior position at Hydro Ottawa in 2011, where her team went on to win numerous accolades for its innovative humanresou­rces work.

Throughout the fall of 2015, Julia had begun to feel increasing­ly tired and experience­d frequent chest pains and bleeding gums. She attributed it to working too much and flossing too little.

But she soon realized something was up when a visit to the hospital in January 2016 landed her in a closed room with a horrified-looking medical resident. He took Julia’s hand and broke the news that she had leukemia, before breaking down himself. Relieved she finally had a diagnosis, even such a devastatin­g one, Julia quickly switched into profession­al mode, offering the young man tips on how to deliver horrible news to people.

“That was Julia,” says Holly, who was climbing Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjar­o at the time and learned about the diagnosis during a fraught interconti­nental telephone call a few days later.

A round of induction chemothera­py was followed by a stemcell transplant last May and more chemo. Julia became a profession­al patient, checking in and out of hospital throughout the summer and fall as various complicati­ons came and went.

Before Christmas, she was discharged to a long-term clinic. “Things were looking really good for her,” Holly says. “She had basically gotten her whole life back.”

The Waggs spent weekends at the Nakkertok ski club, where they taught Addison, now six, to cross-country ski. Julia was even planning to return to work in May.

It wasn’t to be. A bone marrow biopsy last month brought grim news: the leukemia was back with a vengeance.

In a moving April 7 Facebook post, Julia said her immediate goal was to reach her 37th birthday, which is next month. Being gravely ill, she wrote, had made her realize that time wasn’t actually something she had much of, and that brought enormous clarity.

“Do not wait until someone takes your time to make living your priority,” she wrote.

A subsequent infection discovered days later further hastened what little time Julia had left.

Her people — Holly and the children, Julia’s parents and sister Andrea, and several close friends — gathered at her bedside, where they each said their goodbyes and read aloud messages of love and appreciati­on during Julia’s brief awake periods. As she peacefully slipped further away, each were forced to take stock of what her life had meant and what their world would look like without her in it.

Her greatest legacy, says Holly, is not all the accolades and accomplish­ments Julia collected along the way. It was the people, her people, the ones she enabled to become better versions of themselves. “She could find a best in you that you didn’t even know you had.”

Julia died on Good Friday, as Holly read a bedtime story to Addison.

“This is what she needs,” Julia’s mother, Tina, said to Holly as she turned the pages of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “She needs to know that Addi is safe, that you are safe. She needs to hear your voice.”

After, when the first burst of tears had dried, the young girl wiped her mother’s face.

A memorial for Julia will be held Saturday at Allsaints Event Space (10 Blackburn Ave.), from 2 to 5 p.m. Donations can be made to the Wagg Family Legacy Fund at the The Ottawa Hospital or the Ten Oaks Project.

 ??  ?? Addison Wagg kisses her mother Julia Wagg’s bald head in May 2016, at a time Wagg was undergoing chemothera­py. Wagg died of leukemia last week.
Addison Wagg kisses her mother Julia Wagg’s bald head in May 2016, at a time Wagg was undergoing chemothera­py. Wagg died of leukemia last week.
 ??  ?? Julia and Holly Wagg in the couple’s last photo with their daughter Addison, which was taken on Addi’s sixth birthday on March 24.
Julia and Holly Wagg in the couple’s last photo with their daughter Addison, which was taken on Addi’s sixth birthday on March 24.

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