Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Six months on the border

After working from July 1 to Christmas in Borderlands pastoral charge, I am taking my first vacation in Toronto. Below are some observations about my life and work on the border so far.

I love the sunshine. Almost every morning, the sun rises in a cloudless sky. And almost every night, the stars shine with incredible brightness in the pitch dark that descends on the empty land of southern Saskatchewan. I find it to be a strange and beautiful country; and it is a place that has a great deal more sunshine and a great deal less rain and humidity than Toronto.

On my flight back to Toronto last week, I read Wallace Stegner’s memoir/history, “Wolf Willow” (1963), and I doubt anyone has ever read it with more interest. The book was a gift from a member of the congregation in Rockglen, and I loved it.

Wallace Stegner, who was an American novelist, academic, and essayist, lived in the southern Saskatchewan town of Eastend from the ages of five to 11 during the first six years of that town's existence, from 1914 until 1920. His father farmed a homestead 75 km south of Eastend right on the border with Montana. So even though Eastend is on the west side of what is now Grasslands National Park, I learned a lot about my part of Saskatchewan, which is on the east side of the Park, from his account.

The border with the U.S. along the 49th parallel helps keep southern Saskatchewan and northern Montana depopulated. It is an artificial barrier that dampens down what would be a natural exchange of people and commerce between the two regions.

This past spring, the border crossing south of Big Beaver, which is just 30 km east of Coronach where I live, was closed. And now Canada and the U.S. are talking about closing more. Probably the crossing just 10 km south of Coronach will stay open (after all, 20-30 cars cross on average each day!), but I would not be surprised if the border south and west of Rockglen is one of those that are closed.

I am curious to live in Saskatchewan during these years of economic boom and population growth – fueled by potash, oil, natural gas and uranium – but in an area that is still declining in population. We do have the coal mine and electrical power plant in Coronach, which are the reasons that the towns I serve have not withered away like scores of other Saskatchewan ghost towns. But as the terrible roads improve, more and more workers in these two industries commute from the north instead of raising families down along the border.

The negatives associated with the border surprise me since I grew up along the U.S. border in Cornwall Ontario, right at the point where Ontario, Quebec and New York State all touch along the St. Lawrence River. Cornwall is like much of Canada – clinging to the south. But since northern Montana is just as devoid of people as southern Saskatchewan, the border offers no advantage over more northerly parts of Saskatchewan.

I have come to see southern Saskatchewan in three layers. The most northerly is the Trans-Canada, Hwy 1, which connects Medicine Hat with Swift Current, Moose Jaw, and Regina and then on to Winnipeg. This is where most of the people, traffic and services lie, and it is often terribly flat. The next level is 50 km south and is marked by Hwy 13, which connects Assinboia and Weyburn. It is much less populated, but the road is still good, the scenery is more varied, and there are often full services.

The bottom level is another 50 km south, and that is where I live along the U.S. border. Our east-west road is Hwy18, which is very lightly traveled and often quite dodgy. The scenery is usually breathtaking – badlands, rolling hills, and little lakes.

I was amazed that a coyote carcass lay in the middle of the road between Coronach and Rockglen from mid-August to mid-September disturbed only by carrion birds and the odd tire track until it finally became no more than a whiff of fur.

This road, like the others in my region, has no shoulders and is poorly engineered. This is OK during daylight. But in the dark of the long winter lights, the poor sight-lines mean you have to slow down in case there is a deer or fox on the road over the next little knoll. I find it remarkable -- and somewhat lonely -- to drive for 30 minutes without having to dim the high beams once and to see nothing but blackness in the rear-view mirror.

The three towns I serve -- Coronach with 800 people, Rockglen with 400 and Fife Lake with less than 50 – are slowly shrinking. Unlike the first wave of workers who staffed the coal mine and electrical plant in the late 1970s and who were drawn from the existing towns and farms or who moved south to live along the border, many of the newer employees commute from bigger centres like Assiniboia (2500 people, 30 minutes drive north of Rockglen and one hour from Coronach), Moose Jaw (35,000 people and 1.5 hours drive north) or Regina (200,000 people and two hours drive north and east).

As the terrible roads improve, vehicles become more comfortable, and climate change makes the winters less scary, more and more people decline to live where they work. And as people in the south drive north in greater numbers to shop and find services, the incentive to stay close to the border also declines.

It has been about five years since a doctor has lived in the region, and all of us are distressed that the closest doctor is now one hour’s drive away.

When Coronach was just 300 people in the 1940s, there were two doctors, a dentist, shops and services of all kinds, and seven full-time paid Christian ministers. But back then, the drive to Regina was an all-day slog. Today, I am the only clergy-person, there are no doctors or dentists, and there are very few shops.

I call the local “What Not” shop our Walmart. It accepts donations of used goods, and it is the only place in Coronach to buy clothes, household goods, books, and DVDs. It does a brisk business. However, I am almost as likely to see members of the congregation in Sobey’s in Moose Jaw as I am in the Coop Foodlands in Coronach.

As Stegner argues in his book, the late settlement of the arid grasslands of southern Saskatchewan was a marginal proposition. At first, there were just cattle ranches. Then a terrible winter in 1906-7 wiped out much of the herds. After that, homesteading and wheat were encouraged. But the lack of moisture means that wheat and other grain and legume crops often fail.

I detect a sadness in our area about the depopulation of the countryside. There used to be a farmhouse every quarter mile along the grid roads. But now farm houses are either abandoned or non-existent. Farms are enormous and hamlets like Fife Lake have more abandoned houses and stores than inhabited ones. The border region also has very little history because it is the last place in southern Canada to be settled by non-Natives.

Just north of the border are several French communities, which were settled by Metis people in the late 19th Century: Gravelbourg, Willow Bunch, Lisieux and others. But the area where I live was not homesteaded until 1910-15, and the towns were not created until the late 1920s. Soon after came the dust bowl of the Dirty Thirties, which stifled much of the promise of those early years. Then after World War II, the arrival of better highways and petro-farming meant more depopulation. So the area has beautiful vistas, but very few people and not much history.

Despite the lack of population and history, I am enjoying my experience in Borderlands. I appreciate the small but enthusiastic congregations. I greatly enjoyed the two community Christmas choirs in which I sang. And I am learning a lot as a new minister. It feels like a good place for me to grow during my first years after ordination.

While it is a stereotype to be settled as a United Church minister in Saskatchewan – for instance, my great-uncle Archie Peebles was the United Church minister in Eastend in the 1930s and my father did a summer-field placement in Beechy Saskatchewan, north and west of Moose Jaw, in 1946 -- I can see the advantages.

And so I look forward to returning to Borderlands in a few weeks. At the least, I am sure that there will be a lot of sunshine.

Happy New Year to all!

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