“Once you lose something in a small town, you never get it back.”
In rural areas across Canada, a way of life is vanishing. Populations are aging, businesses are closing for good, homes are empty, children are nowhere to be seen.
Canada’s identity is woven out of small-town life, from the ice rink to the farm to the local coffee shop, but dozens of towns across the country are hanging by threads. This fall, when buses stop running in Western Canada, it will only get worse.
Can we do anything to save these communities? If we can, should we? And if nothing is done, what will we lose?
Aaron Hutchins of Maclean’s joins “The Big Story” podcast, and takes us on a long ride across the prairies to find the friendliest people you’ll meet, who stay planted in their community even as it vanishes around them.
Hutchins hit the road to visit these towns and the people who won’t give them up.
“I literally just drove. I started off just outside Saskatoon. I was trying to make it to Winnipeg and I took a very long, weird route where I just stopped in almost ever second or third small town. I just went to a coffee shop or knocked on someone’s door and said, ‘Hey, what’s up.'”
He said two things are common in these towns:
“You see a lot of boarded-up shops, to the point that you know that someone is not going to move in there anytime soon. Ones that have been closed for awhile… they let it fall by the wayside. And as you walk through the residential areas, you notice a lot of for sale signs… And you don’t see a lot of ‘sold’ stickers on top of them.”
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Hutchins added things like grocery stores and banks are not as common as you would expect them to be. “You’re wondering where the focal point is for the community to go and hang out and do stuff.”
Another thing he found common in those towns was the people. “The people are incredibly generous with their time. They’re incredibly friendly, giving, and caring. I think, for the most part, people realize that their towns are facing major issues that can’t be solved with the simple flip of the pen at town council.”
He said people in those towns can do simple math to work out their community’s population.
“I was in a town called Jansen, where the population is 96 people. I spoke with someone from their local council. She swears it’s 101 now. She said, ‘Those two houses were sold’ and ‘that couple had a baby’ and ‘that lady moved to the city because she was getting old and needed to be closer to a hospital.'”
“But according to the census, it’s 96 people, which means a lot to them because if you’re at 100, you hit a certain threshold to get more provincial funding. If you’re under 100, it’s about 60 per cent the funding… So their funding has gone down drastically, just because they are four people short of this threshold.”
Hutchins said although those people hold out hope that the population will increase, demographics aren’t in their favour. “It’s a town of 96 people. There are as many people over the age of 90 as there are under the age of 15. There’s five. So, there’s not a lot of people who are going to be repopulating this town.”
That means the town will gradually get older, have fewer working people and thus, fewer services.
The community recently lost its central store. Aside from the fact that people living there now have to drive farther distances to pick up groceries, it was hard on their social lives.
“That was where they would chat, gossip, and talk about what’s happening… When they lost the store, they didn’t know where to go.”
Hutchins said people in the small towns never seemed depressed about their situations. “They seemed happy. They love their small-town life. They love that they could leave their doors unlocked, that they knew every single person in town. This is part of the identity of being in a small, rural town.”
“Are they sad that the store left? Absolutely. That the library hours are cut to four hours a week? Yeah.”
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He added there isn’t much to do in those communities. “When you’re lacking things to do, especially as you’re getting older, you need services. You need a doctor. You need a hospital. You need someone to help take care of you. You need social interaction. You still have social interaction in a small town, but without those services, you have to leave.”
“For young people, you want a movie theatre. You want restaurants, bars, pubs — something to do. And if you don’t have that, then you will move to Saskatoon or Regina. You move to a bigger city. And when these people get a bit older and they want to be closer to their family — who are farther away — they leave, too.”
He said crime rates are higher in rural Canada than it is in urban cities, adding the opioid crisis is also significantly worse, per capita. “In these small towns, there are no services for them.”
Services and populations erode so gradually, people don’t notice it until there are only a few dozen people left.
“One expert I spoke with said, ‘The media always likes to call this a crisis situation. This isn’t a crisis. This is a slow burn… And Greyhound leaving Western Canada was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s leaving.’ But they’ve been cutting back service slowly, methodically. When they leave, it sounds like a big thing.
“But it’s actually been happening for a long time, at the point that if you wanted to go to a doctor’s appointment from Wynyard to Saskatoon, the only bus was at 3:30 a.m. — it only came once a day.”
Hutchins cites another expert who said there are three types of businesses that are “mission critical” for a town to survive.
“One: You need food. You need a store. Two: People need gas. You need a gas station so you can fill up the car to get to work. Three: You need to fix stuff at your home, farm, whatever. You need a hardware store. He said a town needs those three things.”
“When I look back at towns like Jansen, Saskatchewan or Foxwarren, Manitoba, where they lose the store, you really notice that there really is no turning back.”
Hutchins said rural Canadians are not oblivious to the issues, but they are extremely resilient.