Jasper Treasures: Grace Kohn

·7 min read

A Jasperite for many years, Grace Kohn’s mission is to be a bridge “to allow people to see each other’s perspectives, to inspire people to connect to the courage within themselves.”

Kohn was born to Marlene Exner and Alfred Kohn in Toronto. She and her brother Andrew connected with the outdoors at a young age.

“We spent a lot of time in nature,” she said. “I grew up in High Park. As a kid, we’d come home from school, drop our books and run to the park.”

With the turtles, coyotes, blue herons and oak trees, Kohn “was imprinted with nature.”

She was eager to delve into theatre too.

“At six years old, I wrote my first play about trees,” Kohn said.

She ran her backyard theatre company with friends.

“We sold tickets for 10 cents, showed it to our parents.”

This is the beginning of what was to become an important part of Kohn’s life.

In her second year of studies in Hospitality and Tourism at Ryerson University, Kohn saw posters of the mountains in Jasper at the university. Canadian National Railways (CNR) staff were on a recruiting drive there offering jobs at Jasper Park Lodge (JPL), which CNR owned at the time.

“I thought, ‘Whoa, cool. This would be a good summer job,’” she said.

Kohn hopped on a VIA Rail train and headed west. She arrived in town when it was dark but the vista stunned her the next morning.

“It was enchanting, almost surreal,” she said. “I didn’t believe this could exist. It took a week to acknowledge it as real, not just a backdrop.”

Kohn returned to Toronto to continue her studies at Ryerson but had developed a love of the mountains by that point.

“Like so many people, I came back for visits a couple of times a year,” she said. “Once in the winter, once in the summer.”

In her final year at Ryerson, Kohn moved to Banff where she worked on her thesis for her BA during the winter Olympics. She made a living as a server.

After a visit from her friend Barb Wild, the pair decided they’d return to Ontario together. They drove the distance in March, listening to ‘Back in the High Life Again’ by Steve Winwood.

Kohn and Wild opened a gourmet food shop and catering company in Muskoka called Hamer Bay Gourmet.

One day, they got a visit from location managers with Columbia Pictures.

“They came to the cafe and offered us a job working on the set of ‘Welcome Home,’ starring Kris Kristopherson.”

When the cafe was closed after the summer, they catered on the set until the end of October. Kohn then decided to visit Jasper.

“On the drive here from Ontario, I started getting this crazy idea I needed to go back to school and study to be an actor,” she said.

Memories of her interest in theatre as a child and other nudges along the way helped motivate Kohn to pursue her dream.

“It was almost like this little carrot was dangling in front of me,” she said.

“I came here, spent ten days, turned around and drove back to Ontario, enrolled in a drama program at The New School of Drama, affiliated with the Village Playhouse Theatre in New York City.”

Kohn graduated from the two year course in 1990 and was taken in by the David Karnick Agency and started working in Toronto as an actor. In 1991 she married a fellow she met at JPL, Jeff Shea (now her “wusbund”). Their son Griffin was born in 1992 and daughter Julianne in 1996.

The family lived close to High Park, Kohn’s playground when she was a youngster.

“We used to go there all the time,” Kohn said.

She recalled one day when Shea returned from the park.

“He walked in the door, said, ‘I’m going to write a play about Edith Cavell. I’m going to write it, you’re going to do it. And we’re going to perform it in Jasper.’ It’s like all these puzzle pieces came together.”When Kohn worked at JPL, she used to sit at Lac Beauvert where she would write letters. Seeing Mount Edith Cavell in the distance, Kohn said, “One day I hope to learn more about her.”

The day of Shea’s epiphany, Kohn said she went into “fear mode” regarding the children, money and the house but they managed to pull it off.

“We did it. We flew out to scout a place where we could put on this play.”

The Jasper Museum agreed to be the venue. Kohn and her family moved to Jasper the following April. On May 1, under their company, Jasper Heritage Theatre, ‘Edith Cavell Returns’ started running six nights a week for five months.

“We lived at Cavell Apartments in a one-bedroom apartment,” Kohn said. “We gave the kids the bedroom. We slept on an air mattress. It was like camping indoors.”

The family moved back to Toronto in October. Shea, who had studied acting, wrote another play titled ‘The David Thompson Story.’ Kohn and Shea decided it was time to move to Jasper and were back in April of 1998, performing both plays on an alternating basis at the Jasper Inn. Admission to the play, which ran for two years, paid their bills.

A tour company, Tauck Tours, contacted JPL to tell them they wanted Kohn and Shea to perform the plays there. In the interim, Shea had written a musical, ‘Jasper in Song.’ For two seasons at JPL, the creative pair, with help from people with the box office and lighting and sound, performed all three plays.

Kohn remembers one evening when she was performing ‘Edith Cavell Returns,’ just before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“It was a powerful evening the night before the actual event occurred,” she said. “There was something in the air already. I started walking in figure eights during warm-ups.”

Kohn’s and Shea’s son Griffin saw coverage about it the next day and alerted her.

Cavell’s last words before she was executed came to Kohn’s mind. A World War I British nurse who saved the lives of soldiers in Brussels, Cavell was arrested and sent to prison. Her final words were: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

“She said, ‘It is not enough to love one’s own people. We must love all people and hate none,’” Kohn said. “She guides us today with that statement. It’s not enough to love ourselves and our immediate families. It’s everybody, even the people who are upsetting you now.”

After 9/11, Tauck Tours couldn’t renew their contract with Jasper Heritage Tours.

At the same time, Kohn said her five-year-old daughter Julianne was “like a tiger out of control.” After an assessment at the Glenrose Hospital, it was discovered she was “non-typical.”

A couple of years later she was reassessed and diagnosed with autism. Julianne had started Kindergarten and returned to school when she was seven after Kohn inspired then-principal of Jasper Elementary School, Steve Carlyle, to run a pilot project using the Son Rise program.

Kohn followed that with the Miracle in Motion program for four years with support from the school and the community at large.

“Julianne is (now) living in Calgary and is very happy, enjoying horseback riding, reading, riding a bike, singing and skiing,” Kohn said.

“And she loves people and most people feel that way when they’re with her.”

Kohn worked in Jasper for 15 years as a voice, piano and theatre teacher.

In 2009, Kohn and two colleagues wrote a musical to celebrate autism called ‘Children of Autumn.’

“It’s been shown twice, once in Edmonton and once Jasper,” she said.

Kohn’s book ‘Children of Autumn - Autism Here on Purpose,’ published in 2016, explores how autism can help heal our planet.

Kohn, with a group of people, is aiming to establish the Cherry Hill Eco Village. One of the CHEV’s intentions is to share information with parents of autistic children and people with autism. Currently, the project is in dialogue with the Dunster community and there are other possibilities for the eco village outside of Calgary.

A fundraiser for the project is scheduled for Friday, April 2. Go to www.childrenofautumn.com for more information.

Kohn called Jasper “an amazing place.”

“I love the mountain ranges, the waterways, the trees. The community has been amazing. I will forever be grateful to Jasper. The support from the town has been phenomenal.”

Joanne McQuarrie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Jasper Fitzhugh