What's killing rural Canada
Crime, opioid abuse, boarded-up businesses and fleeing populations are destroying the country's heartland. Can small-town life be saved?
Kathy Jones is pretty confident there are 100 people living in Jansen, Sask., today. Maybe it’s 101.
Either way, it’s definitely not the 96 people pegged in figures from the 2016 census. She counts aloud the folks who’ve come and gone in recent years: one woman moved away, but then two previously empty houses sold to new arrivals and another couple had a baby. That brought Jansen to an even hundred, a threshold that would bring a bigger share of revenue for community services—if it can keep its numbers up until the next census, that is. Meanwhile, Jones hopes nothing catastrophic happens to the town’s infrastructure that will require a substantial investment. “If our water system were to go today,” she says, “there’d be no help for us.”
Demographics aren’t on their side. Jansen has lost nearly a quarter of its population since 2011. There are as many people here over the age of 90 as there are under the age of 10—five. The majority are older than 60, and most have watched as service after service has left town. The closure of the school and grain elevators hurt badly enough, but “what really happened to Jansen,” says Kathy’s husband, Linus Jones, “was the closure of the local store.” It was the place locals would go for a jug of milk and stay for an hour to hear the town gossip. It was where everyone gathered to pool money for wedding gifts or baby showers. But when the owners gave notice a few years ago about their impending retirement, nobody—inside town or out—was willing to take over.
As with any small town, there was no shortage of folks willing to lend a cup of sugar or a ride to the nearest town with a supermarket. But the exodus went on: some left to be closer to work, others for access to health care services; still others moved to be closer to kids and grandkids living in cities. It has unfolded so gradually that it’s hard to know whether the town has passed the point of recovery. What seemed to be a potential lifeline came a few years ago when BHP Billiton announced it would invest billions developing what the company claimed would be the world’s largest potash mine. Right there, just outside Jansen. Locals naturally thought there would be an injection of young blood moving to the village for work.
Instead, once the mine is up and running, the town in line to benefit most appears to be Humboldt, Sask., located 70 km away, Linus says. “They have a Canadian Tire and a Boston Pizza. BHP will bus the workers in.” After all, who wants to move to a town without a store?
If you’ve visited one rural town, the saying goes, you’ve visited one rural town—no two are the same in their virtues or flaws. But visit a few in Canada these days—communities of, say, 10,000 or less, ones that lie far from our thriving urban centres—and it becomes clear the struggles are piling up.
Canada’s growing opioid crisis is hitting rural regions hard—harder, arguably, than cities with emergency services and health care supports for the addicted. Rural property crime has farmers on edge, leading some to vent against a growing population of Indigenous young people, who in turn say systemic racism is depriving them of work opportunities.
Meanwhile, young people are leaving town for better employment opportunities and better pay. Wages in remote rural areas are about 30 per cent lower than in urban centres, according to a 2015 report from Strengthening Rural Canada, a government-supported initiative to study human capital in smaller communities. Unemployment rates tend to increase the farther communities are from cities.
The grinding down of services and investment has gone on largely unremarked, but a symbolic blow landed in July when Greyhound announced it was abandoning routes across Western Canada, severing what many rural residents considered de facto public transit linking them to the rest of the country. The cancellation of milk-running Greyhounds—archaic as they might have been—seemed an emphatic event that cut small-town Canada loose from a country hurtling toward an urban, cosmopolitan future. Those with decent internet service (by no means universal in rural Canada) can read online about the two-decade urban property boom, growth from immigration, government investment in technology “superclusters” and multi-billion-dollar mass transit megaprojects. But they might as well be reading about another planet. Theirs is a world of crumbling infrastructure, greying populations and shrinkage. One projection, which used 2011 as its baseline, estimated the rural population of Newfoundland and Labrador would decline by 19.3 per cent by 2025, while Ontario’s would go down 17.2 per cent, B.C.’s by 12.2 per cent and Saskatchewan’s by four per cent.
“You have lower levels of education in rural Canada, and therefore lower levels of human capital,” says Bakhtiar Moazzami, a professor of economics at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. “Therefore, their employability is problematic. They are not equipped to get good jobs, even when they move to urban areas. For the people staying in rural areas, the tax base declines, employment declines, cost of health care goes up. All costs go up. Then municipalities can’t afford to fund basic services. They have to increase the tax on fewer and fewer people in rural areas.”
Adds Bill Reimer, a professor emeritus at Concordia University and one of the country’s leading experts on rural issues: “There’s a tendency in media to say it’s a crisis situation. In my mind, this is a slow burn.”
It’s 10 a.m. on a summer weekday in Kamsack, Sask., and foot traffic is starting to multiply on Third Avenue. They’re not here to peruse the local shops, but to wait for the drugstore to open: a sign in the window apologizes, saying the doors will be unlocked 30 minutes later than usual today. They’ll have to wait a little longer for their methadone.
There’s a nickname locals have for Kamsack: “Slamsack.” Slamming is slang for injecting drugs. Locals say opioid use hit crisis levels in the region starting around 2012, soon after members of the nearby Cote First Nation settled a land claim with the federal government. “We got a payout, and each got $20,000,” says Ian Musqua, a 32-year-old with “Blazin Native” tattooed on his cheek, who’s waiting patiently to pick up methadone for his addiction.
One year after locals got their lump sums, an Aboriginal Peoples Television Network investigation found an area doctor was allegedly overprescribing opioids until locals were hooked, at which point he shifted them into the doctor’s own methadone clinic. Earlier this year, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan charged the doctor with unprofessional conduct.
“I see a lot of people hooked, some of them 13 or 14 years old,” says Tyrell Cote of the Cote First Nation. “I struggle with it, too. I’ve been coming here for a long time.”
The opioid crisis soon led to an HIV outbreak in the region. For comparison’s sake, a 2016 Saskatchewan health report found the provincial HIV rate at about 14 cases per 100,000 people; on the First Nations reserves near Kamsack, that figure was 117 cases per 100,000 people—and growing.
Kamsack isn’t a one-off story of rural drug abuse, nor is the opioid scourge restricted to First Nations. In Alberta, regions with the highest rates of emergency department visits related to opioids or other drug misuse, per capita, are found in the rural north and south—not Calgary or Edmonton—according to data from Alberta Health. No region is harder done by in the province than the southern Alberta town of Cardston, near the Kainai First Nation, where the hospitalization rate from opioid or other substance misuse is a provincial-worst 1,449 per 100,000 people—and led to a recent state of emergency.
In B.C., harm-reduction researcher Ehsan Jozaghi recently noted that the scale of overdoses occurring in rural areas is often overlooked because most publicized overdose deaths happen in big cities such as Vancouver. In a letter published last year in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, Jozaghi pointed out that outlying health services areas like Fraser East, Fraser North and Central and Northern Vancouver Island have had fatal overdose cases that “closely match in frequency with their urban counterparts.” Like all services, harm-reduction and emergency health care in those places are harder to come by than in cities.
Back in Kamsack, Adrian Severight says he’s off needle drugs but is trying to find help for other addictions. “Everyone I chill with is negative,” he says. “It’s everyone’s choice to use, but most times I do it when I feel shitty.” He says he feels that way because he sees poverty everywhere in his community—and local businesses aren’t quick to offer Indigenous people jobs.
“They have help-wanted signs and I have professional experience, but that didn’t help,” says Tracy Cote, a middle-aged local from the Keeseekoose First Nation. She says she lost two sisters to drugs but stayed clean herself. Still, it took years to land a job at the local Prairie Grain Bakery; she credits her boyfriend, who works there, for helping. Wanda Cote, who manages the New Beginnings Outreach Centre, is blunter in her assessment of Kamsack: “This town is very racist,” she says. “The First Nations people come to town, but the townspeople don’t really like us being in Kamsack.”
“Rural Canada is not homogeneous. It doesn’t look the same,” says Sarah Breen, president of the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation, a charitable institution that advances the interests of rural residents. “To understand that would be an amazing starting point.”
In the area surrounding her current hometown of Nelson, B.C., rural means mountain communities. In much of Saskatchewan, it means areas supported by agriculture. In Newfoundland, it might refer to fishing villages. And so on. The common thread between them, says Breen, is that “there is a general sense in rural places of being forgotten about, or not being considered, when it comes to policy decisions.”
In Baldur, Man., local Garry Hiscock says the politicians in Winnipeg have “perimeter-itis,” which he describes as a leader’s blindness to what happens outside the capital and its suburbs. To him, it explains why the roads to Baldur are in such poor shape; why the town has had no doctor since the last one retired a few years ago; why when a local woman had a seizure in the town’s grocery store last month, it took 45 minutes for an ambulance to arrive, because there is no longer an emergency medical service in town.
The latter is a scenario inhabitants of Grandview, Man., pop. 1,482, are desperate to head off. During a town gathering last year, a chorus of boos rained down on the region’s Progressive Conservative MLA Brad Michaleski as he defended the government’s plan to overhaul the provincial ambulance system, which would result in the closure of Grandview’s EMS station. The move “really riled people up,” says Jim Rae, one of three physicians in town. “The hydro office is now gone. The Mountie detachment’s gone. CIBC pulled out. It was thing after thing after thing, and the line in the sand was health care.”
In a community with an aging population, the worry is relatively straightforward: someone could have a heart attack and die because an ambulance now parked further away takes too long to arrive to save them. “What pisses me off more than anything is we have a [current] model that works,” says Jacobi Elliott, another town doctor. “Once you lose something in a small town, you never get it back.”
The constant worry of who might leave or what might be taken next can be oppressive. And while some towns band together to make their voices heard, others are still playing catch-up to get what urban-dwelling Canadians consider basic services. “There are rural communities that are still on dial-up,” says Breen, who travels to villages and towns across the country. “I’ve had days where the quality of internet is so bad that I can’t hold a Skype call. What that means is you’re effectively cutting off rural places from the opportunities that come with global connectivity. That’s not fair.”
The promise of e-health, for example, and big-city doctors being able to give diagnoses via computer, doesn’t pan out for towns that lack reliable high-speed internet. And the Greyhound cuts carry health care implications few city dwellers understand, says Maureen Kehler, program manager of literacy outreach for the Strengthening Rural Canada initiative: “I heard [the company] say, ‘We apologize for the inconvenience.’ It’s not an inconvenience. It’s a lifeline for people in rural Canada. That’s how people get to their doctor appointments or visit their mother in the hospital.”
Time was, residents could’ve raised the kind of ruckus in the local press that galvanized neighbours and grabbed the attention of elected leaders. But the voice of the small-town media is growing quieter, squeezed as advertisers disappear or migrate to the web. Canada-wide, about 250 local news outlets—many of them newspapers—have shuttered their operations across nearly 200 communities since 2008, according to Ryerson University’s crowd-sourced Local News Map. Only 75 have popped up to take their place.
“We recorded our community’s history,” laments Naomi Larsen, editor of the Chetwynd Echo in B.C. from 2005 until it shut down in 2015. “You can talk to people now and they’ll know what’s happening provincially and nationally, but they don’t know what is going on in their own backyard. That’s really sad.”
“It’s not the Wild West, but a lot of people refer to it as that,” says Nick Cornea, a grain farmer living in Moose Jaw, Sask. Cornea started the Facebook group Farmers Against Rural Crime, which quickly grew to 17,500 members sharing stories of their trucks, quads or work equipment—and livelihoods—being stolen. “I was getting frustrated about what’s going on, and people calling us racist, redneck farmers. My dad doesn’t even like guns, though I hunt and fish. The reason I started [the group] is because I was watching a Facebook video of a rancher out in southern Alberta who had cameras and watched on his phone as his shop got ransacked in six minutes.”
Few disparities set less-populous parts of the country apart from cities more than the crime gap. Last year, the rate of police-reported offences in rural Canada was 30 per cent higher than in urban areas, according to Statistics Canada data. And while rural police forces nationwide serve 17 per cent of Canada’s total population, they handle 24 per cent of the country’s police-reported crime. The discrepancy is worst in the Prairies: Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan’s rural crime rates are, respectively, 42 per cent, 38 per cent and 36 per cent higher than those of their province’s urban counterparts.
In Perdue, Sask., local stores have petitions filled with signatures imploring politicians to take a stand against rural crime. It wasn’t always like this, says Perdue farmer Curtis Lammers. “When we moved here [in 2002], you could park a truck in town, leave the keys in it, windows open, and if it started to rain, somebody would walk by and close the windows for you,” he says. “Now, you got to watch everything. They’ll take it. We’ve had farmers lose trucks while they’re out in the field.”
The closest police detachment is in the neighbouring town of Biggar, and residents say response times were so slow—in part due to the RCMP being short-staffed—that many victims of property crime simply don’t bother calling 911. Then Biggar hit the national news with the shooting death of 22-year-old Colten Boushie from the Red Pheasant First Nation, which sparked a fractious national debate on property rights, self-defence and racism against Indigenous Canadians.
“Whether it’s our land or our machinery or family, we need the right to protect ourselves because we don’t have enough policing out here to do it,” Lammers says. “They made it a racial thing. It’s not racism. We don’t care who you are. If you steal from us, we’re going to get upset.”
As Lammers speaks, a group of young men—mostly Indigenous and non-violent offenders in nearby correctional facilities—are helping the town prepare the grounds for Perdue’s upcoming fair. “Back in the day, if you stole a horse, they hung you,” he continues. “A vehicle, no matter how many I have, is still my horse.” Lammers says the return of capital punishment would serve as a deterrent for more serious crimes—though he clarifies his earlier remarks to stress he’s not advocating the death penalty for property crime.
It’s a surprising degree of frustration considering that rural dwellers like Lammers have greater voting power, proportionally speaking, than many of their urban counterparts. The 53,836 voters of Carlton Trail-Eagle Creek, the riding where Perdue is located, send the same number of MPs to federal Parliament—one—as the 96,769 in Calgary Shepard. But they hardly feel empowered. Rural political candidates seem no better equipped with long-term economic solutions than their constituents; most regard depopulation and economic decline as inexorable forces. Instead of addressing the larger issues at hand, they win votes by playing off the differences in values and identity—like gun control or abortion rights. That’s as true of urban liberals (who make rural westerners, in particular, out to be bigots) as it is of conservatives (who stoke nativist sentiment outside the cities), rural people point out.
“From a sheer count, there are a number of rural MPs,” says Bill Ashton, director of the Rural Development Institute at Brandon University. “The question is in the machine of government whether rural policies are being considered.” In a June 2018 study for the Journal of Public Affairs Education, Ashton and a colleague examined 22 of the Canadian master’s of public policy and master’s of public administration programs and found a dearth of offerings on courses regarding rural issues. “We’re graduating policy analysts who have very little sense of rural at all,” Ashton says.
Meanwhile, the federal government shut down its Rural Secretariat in 2013, a bureaucratic body that reported to the minister of agriculture and was supposed to provide a “rural lens” to programs and services coming out of Ottawa. Without the development of rural-oriented policy, smaller communities suffer “simply because of the assumption that we’re going to provide services on the basis of population,” says Reimer, the Concordia professor. “What has really changed is the attention given to the dilemmas a rural community faces.”
Of course, some aspects of small-town life, the best aspects, have held. As Maclean’s travelled across rural Prairie towns by bus and by car in July, generosity and a surprising degree of optimism were constants. A case in point: Foxwarren, Man., located 150 km northwest of Brandon, a town of a hundred or so residents hailed by beloved broadcaster Stuart McLean as the “quintessential hockey town” in his 1992 book Welcome Home: Travels in Smalltown Canada.
“In those days on Saturday nights, you couldn’t get a place to park. There was everything you wanted: grocery store, theatre, gas, restaurants, schools,” says Moe Butler, who owns the local Kent Hotel, of the town he knew a quarter of a century ago. But advancements in farming technology came at a cost: big companies bought up land and used better machinery to do the same work with fewer people. The store went, then the gas pumps. The school and restaurant are gone, too. But there is a town museum, staffed this summer by 18-year-old Dawson Barteaux.
Barteaux and his little sister were always the youngest kids in town, he says—“the last age group to grow up in Foxwarren, you could say.”
But as a hockey-loving kid, he refuses to complain, always seeing the upside; even now, the local arena never locks its doors. “If you want to go skating at 4 a.m., you can,” Barteaux says. “You can always go for as long and as hard as you want.”
He may be one of the last youths in Foxwarren, but he’s also a 2018 draft pick with the NHL’s Dallas Stars. This town has lost much, but in the end it is still a hockey town.
As for the museum, how many people usually visit each day? Barteaux pauses: “Usually, none.”
In survey after survey, people in small communities report greater levels of happiness than those in big cities do (the latest to affirm the finding: a 2018 study from the Vancouver School of Economics). And despite the obvious challenges—with no obvious solutions—a surprising number of rural dwellers insisted to Maclean’s that better days lay ahead. They offered lengthy tours of everything from book stores to First Nations reserves, highlighting success stories and positive developments. (One wealthy farmer in Foam Lake, Sask., took an hour off to offer a ride in his private helicopter as a way to showcase his town.)
But when asked about their town’s struggles, most were unfailingly frank, and their desperation to hold off what even they regard as unstoppable change is palpable. For those still fighting the battle, Ashton suggests focusing on what he calls the three “mission-critical businesses” of every community. “One is food: you got to eat,” he says. “You’re travelling to work, so you need a gas station. And you need to repair stuff, so you need hardware. But often those businesses are facing retirement of the owners. And if nobody wants to buy the food store, you have to shift to other economic models, like a co-op.
“I don’t see many people having that conversation,” he adds. “They need to have them now, not in 10 years.”
For urban folk who may never understand the joys of a smaller town like Jansen, Sask.—pop. most certainly 100—Linus Jones cites the closeness of the community and their ability to adapt, even if they don’t have a store where they can buy food. “We’re from Jansen, and we can pretty much herd cats,” he says; besides, the farms in the region will always be around, and someone has to feed the nation.
His spouse concurs, saying she hopes Jansen will “be around for another hundred years.” Yet Kathy’s optimism is tempered by a realism born of loss, something known to her fellow rural dwellers throughout the country. If the town dies away, she says ruefully, “I hope they put up a nice monument saying this was a cool community.”