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DISAPPEARING SAS KATCHEWAN

As farmers abandon their land, they’re taking small-town life with them

MARY NEMETH July 15 2002
Cover

DISAPPEARING SAS KATCHEWAN

As farmers abandon their land, they’re taking small-town life with them

MARY NEMETH July 15 2002

DISAPPEARING SAS KATCHEWAN

Cover

MARY NEMETH

THERE HAS ALWAYS BEEN something inspiring about Saskatchewan’s wideopen vistas. The rural landscape was not just a setting, but a palpable presence in one of the best known and most beloved of Canadian books, W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind. The 1947 novel evoked both the beauty and the harshness of the prairies, as well as the undercurrents roil-

ing the seemingly calm surface of smalltown life. Its themes and images became part of Canada’s common iconography.

But the sort of world that Mitchell, who was born in Weyburn, described so well is fast disappearing. The most recent census figures show Saskatchewan’s population was 979,000 in 2001—a decline of 1.1 per cent since 1996. In the same period,

according to Statistics Canada, the areas surrounding Saskatoon and Regina grew, by 15 and 10 per cent respectively. But only a trickle left the city core for the outlying suburbs. Those who left, deserted rural Saskatchewan. In droves.

Not that the land is lying fallow. But thanks to a host of factors, the average size of the province’s farms has gotten larger,

As farmers abandon their land, they’re taking small-town life with them

while the numbers of those working in agriculture has shrunk. Now one farm family may toil where several once did. This in turn has had a ripple effect on the towns and villages that supported them.

In 1990, rural municipalities accounted for 20 per cent of Saskatchewan’s population; by decade’s end, they were 15 per cent. Their makeup is changing, too. In 1990, 11 per cent of those living in rural municipalities were over 65; today 16 per cent are seniors.

Numbers, of course, tell only part of the story. Mendham (pop. 40 and shrinking)

is typical of many rural towns and villages in the province grappling with changing demographics. By August, 2001, a church that had served the community in southwestern Saskatchewan for decades auctioned off all its artifacts. Freelance writer Mary Nemeth, former Calgary bureau chief at Maclean’s, has been following the village’s decline. Her report follows.

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IN 1999, Jeff Marshall performed what can only be described as an act of faith: he opened Jeff’s Farm Supply in tiny Mendham, Sask. It became one of just a handful of businesses operating in the village that once boasted a bowling alley, a pool hall, five service stations, a lumberyard, a car dealership, three churches and three grocery stores. Marshall’s place, which sells everything from bottled water to tractor filters, has also become a local gathering spot. The only other businesses still open in Mendham are a tavern and post office in what used to be the curling rink, an auto wrecker operating out of an old school, and a credit union. Two elevators still stand like sentinels on the village’s east side, although trucks haul most of the grain—the railway rarely sends cars anymore. Nevertheless, Marshall, 51, who previously worked for a farm equipment dealership in neighbouring Leader, had long insisted that small communities like Mendham can be saved—that opening a business in town can help give it a future. “I still feel that way,” he says. “But as the farm

economy keeps getting worse, I’m beginning to have a little crumbling in my faith.” It is indeed difficult to remain a true believer. Most mornings, farmers gather for coffee in Marshall’s shop under the glassy gazes of three deer trophies and an antelope mounted on the wall. At one typical coffee row, none of the men said they expected their children to go into agriculture. “I’ve got two boys and they’re both in the oil patch in Alberta,” offered Larry Bischoff, 56. And even though Marshall’s

farm supply business draws customers from a 50-km radius, he has recently taken on mechanic’s work to supplement his income. “I believe that people around here want to see the village survive,” he says. “And yet, what are you going to do? There’s no work for the young people.” Signs of the farm economy’s lost power to hold people close to the land are visible all around. Mendham’s population of 40 is less than one-fifth of its 1961 peak of 231. Houses now stand empty. Many of the little bungalows have been hauled away, many more were demolished—including nine in the past year alone.

The exodus eventually forced even St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church, which had served the community for 87 years, to close its doors and auction off everything inside—all the statues and the bells and the candle holders, even the bowls and potato mashers from the church hall downstairs. Anne Dietrich, who played the organ at

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the pretty white clapboard church—as had her father and grandfather before her— says there had been talk of closing St. Anthony’s for more than a decade. Faced with mounting maintenance bills, the shrinking congregation bowed to the inevitable in June, 2001. “It still hurts,” says Dietrich. “But it wasn’t fair for the priest to come out here for just a handful of people.”

Mendham, some 400 km west of Regina, is just one of the myriad villages and small towns in rural Saskatchewan suffering the pangs of population loss. For decades now, rising costs and shrinking profit margins have squeezed farmers out; those who remain have had to accumulate ever more land to make a living. Other factors, such as the federal government’s move in 1995 to abandon the Crow Rate subsidizing grain transportation—as well as rail and grain company efforts to consolidate their businesses— have exacerbated the situation. Although many areas recently received rain, dry growing conditions over the last decade have also taken their toll.

The decline in the numbers of those working the land has had a ripple effect, billowing across fields to buffet small towns and everything else farm families once supported, from local schools to medical facilities. In many places, those losses are really starting to hurt. “You can see the population decline and decline,” observes Bob Stirling, the head of the department of sociology and social studies at the University of Regina. “And then you get to the point where there aren’t any neighbours and you can’t keep the school going and then you realize, ‘Whoops, this is serious.’ ”

EVEN WITHIN RURAL Saskatchewan, of course, there are winners and losers. Some communities have flourished around mining or manufacturing enterprises. Some mid-size towns are hanging on by dint of pure grit or good fortune. In the southwest corner of the province, for example, Eastend (pop. 576) capitalized on the fortuitous discovery of some tyrannosaur bones (and later, some scientifically significant dinosaur poop) to attract a museum. The town of Leader, just 18 km northeast of Mendham, is going for the tourist buck, too, with a particular emphasis on eco-

tourism. It has just joined a campaign to draw birdwatchers to Saskatchewan. As well, the tourism committee commissioned a series of sculptures portraying wildlife unique to the area. The mule deer and burrowing owls were a hit, but there was some grumbling about the decision to feature kangaroo rats and a rattlesnake along the main street. Still, Leader Mayor Pam Busby has observed “some tourists out here taking pictures”—no mean achievement in a community where economic development is counted one new house, one clutch of tourists at a time.

The troubles in Mendham are close enough to serve as a warning to Leader. In its heyday in the 1960s, the town had some 1,200 residents. But even now, with a population of 914, it still seems big enough, and determined enough, to survive. As the largest town within a 60-km radius, it has benefited most from regional initiatives, such as the Great Sandhills Terminal that opened on its eastern outskirts in July, 1999. A small park called Millennium Gardens and several new houses have been built in town in recent years.

Local investors also showed how deter-

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mined they are to stay the course when they opened the River Ridge Golf Club in 1998. Just north of town where the land dips down toward the South Saskatchewan River, there are now nine verdant fairways snaking their way across the silver-yellow prairie grassland. The golfers raised money and sold shares to come up with more than $400,000, then borrowed a further $170,000 from the credit union. Lots of volunteer labour and borrowed equipment also helped to keep costs down. Club president Ray Hawkins says they still occasionally organize “work bees” to do things like aerate the greens. Part of the drive to build the course was the realization that residents who travelled as far as Swift Current or Medicine Hat, Alta., to golf on weekends might be enticed to spend their cash at home. And, says Hawkins, the course has already helped persuade several families who would have moved to Alberta or British Columbia to retire to remain in Leader. When he retires, Hawkins adds, “I, for one, will be staying.”

Still, it was the terminal that was clearly

the most significant economic coup for the area. In the mid-1990s, when grain companies were starting to build inland terminals, communities scrambled to be the site of the next big facility. As part of an agreement with the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, nearly 400 area residents and

farm and business leaders from the region raised over $2 million to ensure they’d be one of the lucky ones. As a result, the Sandhills terminal opened near the rail tracks about four kilometres east of

Leader. The huge grey concrete structure can load 56 grain cars at a time (compared to five to 10 at an old wooden elevator), making it, some locals hope, their insurance against the rail line closing down. Employing about a dozen people, the terminal provides local farmers a nearby place to haul their grain. Jim Charnetski, 46, who was chairman of the board when it opened, says Leader, too, has benefited: “It tends to bring more traffic to the communities around the terminal.”

Charnetski farms 1,450 hectares, mostly durum wheat and pulse crops like peas, northeast of the terminal. In his grandfather’s day, that same acreage supported eight families. Golf course and grain terminal aside, even Leader has suffered the consequences of such population loss. In July, 2001, the bright yellow-and-orange Pioneer grain elevator closed down. The wooden structure was built right in town and paid local taxes—unlike the Sandhills terminal whose taxes go to the Rural Municipality of Happyland. Tax hits are never welcome, even less so when there are new projects requiring funds. Following the May, 2000, tainted water scandal in Walkerton, Ont., in which seven people were killed and hundreds made ill, Saskatchewan took a look at its own water treatment facilities. It issued boil-water advisories to dozens of communities where the facilities did not meet requirements— even if the water was not contaminated— until their systems could be upgraded. In Leader, Busby says the town is considering selling debentures to raise its third of the estimated $850,000 needed to build a reservoir to bring its treatment facility up to standard. The federal and provincial governments will bear the other twothirds of the cost.

Busby never planned to get involved in local politics. She left Leader right after high school in 1972, and “I had no intentions of moving back.” But after she and her husband, Bill, had two boys, they left Calgary and moved home in 1979. “It’s so much easier raising your kids here than in the city,” Busby said. “It’s just a whole better way of life.” But everyone has to get involved to make the community work, she adds. Besides its water treatment troubles, the town has been trying to recruit a second full-time doctor and one of the schools will close in the 2003-2004 school

year. “I think we’re still struggling,” Busby concedes. But she is optimistic that ecotourism will boost the town’s economy. And the few centimetres of rain that fell in June will help area farmers, which will be good for the town, too. “We seem to be always holding our own,” she concludes. “It’s not as bad as some communities.”

IT'S NOT ALWAYS POSSIBLE to make communities work, no matter how hard people try. Residents of Mendham kicked up a fuss when first the high school and later the elementary school were slated for closure. They lost both battles and the schools were shuttered by 1987. “The town went backwards after that,” says church organist Dietrich. Teachers moved away. Students were shipped off to Leader or Burstall, 25 km southwest of Mendham. Eventually, many of their families moved, too. Then in April, 1997, the hotel, the village’s meeting place, burned down.

Not even gas fields in the outlying area have done much for Mendham. They’ve spawned four gas plants, but the accompanying jobs have largely benefited Burstall, the town closest to the fields. Randy Schneider, the manager of the MendhamBurstall Credit Union, says natural gas would have to be discovered even closer to Mendham to turn the village’s fortunes around. “Other than that, I don’t see Mendham growing,” he adds.

The St. Anthony’s auction marked yet another step in Mendham’s downward spiral. It drew nearly 100 people, including many former townsfolk who reminisced about dances and bonspiels and about how competitive Mendham’s baseball teams used to be. They talked about all the businesses that once operated in the village. Some, like Irene Stark, who with her husband, John, closed their hardware store in 1999 and moved to Medicine Hat, returned to buy snippets of their history. In fierce bidding, she paid $480 for the ornate bells her husband and then her son used to ring as altar boys. “It’s sad to see an era go,” she lamented. Dietrich paid just $70 for the old organ. “I think people noticed I was bidding and felt sorry for me,” she says. People felt sorry for Mendham, too. For now, villagers are clinging to their sunny patch of prairie. But if Mendham eventually dies, there won’t even be a place to hold the funeral. ÍIH