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Prairie towns die slowly in Canada

(Sunday, Oct. 26, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- DeNeen L. Brown, Washington Post 10/25/03:

LAURA, Saskatchewan -- The town of Laura used to have a grain elevator, a bank, an elementary school, a livery barn, streetlights and sidewalks. Now ghosts walk the streets and only a few people live in the houses that remain. There are no businesses left. The grain elevator is gone, burned to the ground by the company that built it.

Nettie Wiebe, an organic foods farmer and ethics professor, watched the cremation of the grain elevator. "They dug a huge hole. They brought in large cranes," Wiebe said. "Inside, the elevators were built of the finest timbers. But they pushed everything into a hole."

The elevator burned for more than a day. And on that final day, the town died.

"When that was closed and destroyed, it left no focal point for the community," Wiebe said of the town 60 miles southwest of Saskatoon. It was the last of the community institutions. "The school, the post office, the local library -- once those closed it's very hard to keep a village alive."

Towns throughout Canada's prairies are dying slow deaths. All along the highways of Saskatchewan, abandoned buildings lean against the prairie wind, which blows through the cracked windows of houses deserted by families who traded them for a few thousand dollars or for the cars in which they drove away.

The number of small farms in the province has dropped by more than 20,000 since 1986, the result of slashes in farm subsidies, the high interest rates of the 1980s, forfeitures, banks refusing loans to farmers and drought, according to government statistics. Rural residents have moved to Saskatoon and Regina, the province's main cities, forsaking their villages. In the rush to globalization and large-scale food production, many small farms have been gobbled up by big, intensive operations with hired management.

"What is happening in Canada is being replicated everywhere in the world," said Wiebe, who teaches at St. Andrew's College at the University of Saskatchewan. "Canada and the United States are on the cutting edge of highly industrialized food productions. There are intensive livestock operations. Around the world, they are touted by officials as progress, maximized production, chemicals and hybrid seeds.

"It is great for corporate sectors but devastating for small farmers. You lose schools, you lose cultural grounding. You lose service. All the wealth is being sucked out of rural communities, and young people are leaving."

Government statistics show that Saskatchewan is the only Canadian province that lost population in the past year. "All the others were growing, including Newfoundland," said Daniel Larrivee, a population analyst for Statistics Canada. In July, the population of Saskatchewan was 994,843, a drop from 1,134,000 the year before.

Living has always been hard here on the prairies. Winters are fierce. The wind is strong enough to knock a man down, and only the resilient who harbored hope got back up. The land was beautiful but unforgiving. The immigrant families who came here to populate the prairies cracked their hands working the land, and their blood was planted with their crops.

"We've had some bad years," said Neal Hardy, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, and a grain farmer whose ancestors came from Ireland and Sweden. "The majority of farmers are having financial problems right now. Our towns at one time in the world -- up to 30 years ago -- were five or six miles apart. Now they are 30 miles apart. Some are reduced to villages with just two people."

"Farmers are retiring or going someplace to find a job," Hardy said. "No farmers are getting rich. Bankruptcies don't seem to be the issue anymore. We have a lot of older farmers. If they are having trouble, they just sell out. They just fold up and go away."

And with them go the towns. Today there are 296 rural municipalities in Saskatchewan. "The rest are gone," Hardy said. "It is happening across the province. Nobody left." The population decline raises questions about cause and effect. Is it the people who leave first or the services?

In the 1990s, said Bob Stirling, professor of sociology at the University of Regina, bankruptcies increased. Then there was a spate of suicides among farmers. "It was not more than a blip in the vital stats," Stirling said. "But people here noticed. That is when they set up the farm stress lines. Like when a farmer has one hand on the shotgun and the other on the phone and they need to talk to somebody. Or more likely Mother calls in because Dad is beating her." When interest rates rose in the 1980s, there were a huge number of foreclosures. "It was a messy process that pitted neighbor against neighbor," Stirling said. "And, of course, everyone hated the bank in the end.

"When population goes down, services by the state and private companies have trouble justifying remaining there. They disappear. It becomes a vicious circle. Many communities have lost vital services. Once that happens, some people necessarily have to move."

South of Stirling's farm is a town called McMorran. Only one family lives there. Stirling stopped recently at the town of Adanac (Canada spelled backward), and realized everyone was gone.

As farms dwindle, some of the people who remain are driving long distances to commute to work. "A nurse will commute halfway across the bottom part of the province to go to work, about 200 miles," Stirling said. Some farmers have given up and gone to work in the oil fields of Alberta. "They stay there and go home every weekend," Stirling said. "It is a tough existence."

JoAnn Jaffee, an associate professor in the department of sociology and social studies at the University of Regina, has mapped the process by which some towns died and others survived. In some cases, towns pitted themselves against each other in a competition for services, Jaffee said.

"Which town gets the school? Which town gets the hospital? Which gets the grain elevator?" she said. "There is one town we are looking at that fought for these things and surrounding towns began to boycott this town. Many people refuse to send their kid to town for school. They would rather send them farther away. . . . There is a lot of displaced anger in the sports teams."

The resentment spills into other sectors of society. "There is not enough population for the towns to support a church," Jaffee said. "The churches started rotating services. People will boycott if the service is in this town. People just won't go. . . . People getting jobs in the grain elevator there are refusing to move into that town."

The desertion of the town represents the loss of rural life. "It makes it doubtful there can be a continuation of rural culture in a practical, everyday sort of way," she said.

There is a vacant lot in Laura where the grain elevator stood. The wind is blowing where there is now nothing to stop it. There is a church around the corner, its front steps fallen, the doors sealed. It has given up the ghost. Nearby is a house that sits on a gravel road, grass grown high around it, windows cracked, white paint peeling. The front door is still hanging on the hinges, slightly open as if waiting for its family to return.

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A14145-2003Oct24.html