by Deron Johnston
It’s unusual to hear someone singing and playing a guitar at 3 pm on a Tuesday at Geronimo Coffee House in Old Town Kemptville. What’s not unusual is that the musician is there to express his passion for music. It’s a small but appreciative group that watches as the musician performs songs from Blue Rodeo to Smashing Pumpkins. I know this young man, and though I appreciate his passion for music, I’m there to talk to him about something else.
The musician is wearing a fedora, khaki cotton pants and a plaid short-sleeve shirt with multiple tattoos showing on his arms. Sounds like a typical person in their twenties, but like so many extraordinary things, you’ve got to peel back the layers to fully appreciate what’s inside. Leigh Bursey is not your average twenty-something musician. This one also happens to be a municipal councillor for the city of Brockville in the middle of his second term. How did someone this young get to be a councillor you ask? By literally knocking on every door in Brockville and wearing out four pairs of shoes in the process. So, in other words, he earned every vote that he got.
As for why he got involved in local politics, that’s a bit of a story. Inspired by the late Jack Layton, this young man of humble beginnings felt that there were too many people in Brockville who didn’t have a voice, or any input into the decisions that affected them. He thought this was fundamentally wrong and he wanted to change it. Since he began his political career, he’s become a powerful voice for homeless people, affordable housing, young people, the LGBTQ community and lower income people. These folks are important to him, because he’s either experienced that life firsthand, or those people have touched his life in some way.
He was born in Newfoundland and raised by a single mother. They moved around a bit for his mother to find work and because she wanted a better life for her son. They even spent a period of time living in a tent in a provincial park to hide from an abusive partner. They moved to Ontario and, eventually, his mother found a good job and they settled in Brockville. Though his mother’s job didn’t last, they decided to stay and try to put down some roots.
Leigh credits music for literally saving his life while growing up. He found a way to use music to express his feelings and emotions, both the dark and the light ones. Without music, he confesses, he’s not sure if he would still be alive. It became the trusted friend that he could share everything with and it never let him down or lied to him. It was the rock that he needed to weather his childhood storms. Though even now he still has his battles with depression, he has dedicated himself to helping others and draws great strength and motivation from that work.
When you talk to him, he’s articulate, polite and gracious. When he starts talking about the things that matter most to him (his mother, music and politics), you can feel his spirit and passion as they fill the room. You can also see that he truly believes every word that he says and has no interest in saying something that he doesn’t mean. He’s a bit of a political oddity in that sense.
His band, Project Mantra, has just released their first album and they’ve been playing venues around Eastern Ontario over the past month. They’ll even be playing and actually recording a video here in Kemptville at Geronimo Coffee House (146 Prescott St.) on Saturday, April 16 at 3 pm
Drop in for the great music, have the best coffee in town and meet this remarkable young man. He’s got a great story to tell, and I highly recommend that you take the time to listen.