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Sarnia native wins prestigious writing prize

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Tara Jeffrey

Matt Huether’s hometown wasn’t far from his mind when he wrote the Season Three final episode of Degrassi: The Next Class.

“There’s been some trouble with mental health and suicide in Sarnia these past few years, and it’s definitely something we were following in the writers’ room and talking about,” said the 38-year-old writer and executive producer on the iconic Canadian television series, now airing on Netflix and the Family Channel.

“I think that if the episode can help anyone, (and) let them know they can reach out, that they’re not alone — then that’s great.”

The episode, “ImSleep” follows a number of storylines and the events leading up to the suicide attempt of a female character named Maya.

“It’s something we’ve done on Degrassi previously, but from the point of view of the other characters,” Huether said. “What we tried to do here was tell it from the point of view of the character going through it, which is challenging, because she’s not talking to other people; it’s really a solo journey.

“We just tried to be as true to that as we could.”

The episode, originally aired in January 2017, earned Huether a nomination for the prestigious Humanitas Prize — honouring film and television writers whose work inspires compassion, hope, and understanding in the human family.

Last month, the Northern Collegiate graduate attended the 43rd annual gala at the Beverly Hilton. In a room filled with some of the most prominent writers and producers in Hollywood, he was named winner in the Children’s Live Action category.

“It was definitely pretty special to be there; it was a lot of brilliant people giving some inspiring speeches,” said Huether, who credits his Writers Craft class at Northern for giving him the opportunity to even consider writing as a career. “Such an incredible honour.”

The winners of the Humanitas Prize — which included writers from TV’s The Big Bang Theory and The Good Doctor, as well as the feature films Lady Bird and The Post — received $10,000 for the charity of their choice.

Huether chose The Remix Project — a Toronto-based arts organization for marginalized youth.

And in his speech, he dedicated the award to the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, where 17 lives were claimed in a school shooting on Valentine’s Day.

“I’ve written about teenagers for a decade, and I know they can be extraordinary in many ways,” said Huether, who has been working on Degrassi for 12 seasons.

“But those Parkland students are really something else. In the immediate aftermath, they were ready to be activists, and they’re still doing a great job — taking on politicians and making change, which is amazing.

“I think we need more of that… we need to listen to teenagers.”

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