Gull Lake storekeepers become Canadian citizens

By Treena Mielke

Their friendly smiles and cheerful manner speak of a universal language easily recognizable in any country, but their British accent is a clear indicator that Canada has not always been their home.

But Robert and Jill Mitchell, owners of Parkland Beach General Store, decided several years ago that one day, Canada would become their home.

And on Feb. 18, several years after their arrival here, they achieved their goal.

They became Canadian citizens.

The couple admitted to being nervous about the writing the citizenship tests, although they both had diligently studied Canadian history, even checking out the book Canadian History for Dummies to be prepared for the 20-question quiz.

“It was quite daunting,” said Jill. “Some of the questions were quite taxing.”

However, their fears were alleviated when they learned they had passed and were invited to attend the swearing-in ceremony that afternoon.

The couple noted there were 127 new citizens representing 37 countries at the ceremony.

“It truly emphasizes the diversity in Canada. It is amazing, there are so many cultures,” said Jill.

The Mitchells came to Canada on a holiday in 2000 and were impressed with what they saw. They loved the space, the mountains and the strong economy and saw the potential for business opportunities that weren’t available in England.

But it was to be three years later before they finally made the decision to immigrate, and in May 2003, the couple and their 19-year-old son, Martin, left England, setting up residency outside of Cochrane in the community of Ghost Lake.

Their 21-year-old daughter Janine, remained in England where she was attending university.

The Mitchells had both worked in the non-profit sector in England; Robert as an executive director and Jill as a qualified youth worker.

After their arrival, Robert did some stints in a similar field, and the couple also opened their first business, T-Shirts Plus.

In 2006 Robert became the executive director of The Independent Living Resource Centre of Calgary, a charity that provides services and programs for people with disabilities.

The lifestyle was busy and rewarding, but commuting to Calgary for work was somewhat tedious, so the couple, once again, decided they were ready for a new challenge.

That challenge came about when they decided to purchase Parkland Beach General Store at the northwest end of Gull Lake. The purchase was made final on June 24, 2008.

Four days later the new owners were open for business.

Operating the store did, indeed, prove to be a challenge.

“I had never worked in a store before,” Jill said. “I had never worked a till, never scooped ice cream, never done any of it.”

But, she told herself that any skill can be transferable and she set about applying the same diligence and commitment she had given to her position as a youth worker in England to making the store a success.

“We talked to the community and the feedback we got was they wanted us to open on time and not close before we say we are going to,” she said.

The Mitchells strive to adhere to this policy and when the store is closed on a day when it is usually open, customers can be sure it is for a very good reason.

“We had to close on Friday to drive to Calgary to write our citizenship tests,” Jill said. “We felt bad because it was the start of the long weekend.”

As well as operating the store, the Mitchells continue to run their T-Shirts Plus business out of the premises.

Robert has returned to the not-for-profit sector this year and currently works for Volunteer Alberta on their knowledge Connector initiative.

The couple, who have gone through tragedy in the loss of Robert’s father, and his brother, both within a relatively short period of time, have been back to England since purchasing the store.

Robert returned when his father died, and Jill went back shortly after the birth of their second grandchild, Finley.

Living far away from family, (their son has since returned to England) and their daughter lives there with her husband Joe and two children, Daisy and Finley, is difficult, but the couple have no regrets about their move.

They work hard at their businesses, but still find time to enjoy their dogs, Rufus, Ruby and Reba, and follow hockey. They are big soccer fans and are proud to be part of the community in which they live.

“Walking out by the lake; it’s wonderful,” said Jill. “And I always said I wanted to just be able to get out of bed and fall into work. That certainly happens here.”