Going home to a town that’s hanging tough
Paul Bilodeau, Toronto Star. Toronto Star 12 July 1988: A14.
LAFLECHE, Sask. – The terrible prairie drought does not jump out at you.
That was my first observation while speeding through the 120 kilometres on Highway 2, heading southwest from Moose Jaw toward my home town’s 75th Jubilee anniversary.
To the untrained eye, the rolling hills are a verdant green patchwork stretching to the western horizon. The sun seems to shine brighter in the clear, clean air and the sky seems higher, like a big blue bowl.
But the wheat is only ankle-high where it is usually knee-deep. Fields of rapeseed have not progressed beyond a yellow smudge.
I roll into Lafleche before noon, trailing a cloud of gravel dust.
“The town looks not too shabby, eh?” My boyhood friend Ralph Kirkpatrick, who still lives in town, grins from under the peak of his baseball cap.
I nod in agreement. I am pleasantly surprised – Lafleche looks much better than I expected, even prosperous. It’s been 22 years since I left town.
Lafleche (pop. 562) more than doubled in size for three days on that sunny Canada Day weekend. Two thousand invitations were sent out and more than 1,100 people turned up.
Whole families returned to their birthplace for three days of baseball tournaments, a parade, barbecue, talent show and beer gardens. (Three of our family of eight turned up, plus two aunts.)
The town elders forgot about the drought and spruced up the place for the Jubilee. They splashed new paint on the storefronts and hung a welcoming banner down by the cenotaph. One disappointment: They had torn down the old pool hall on Main St. a few weeks before. Expatriates would have wanted it preserved as a shrine to our teenage development.
The locals seemed shellshocked as the hordes of friends and relatives descended from as far as Toronto and Tacoma, Wash., Houston, Tex., and Hull, Que. An O’Neill boy even came back from Sydney, Australia, complete with an acquired Aussie accent.
Booze and gossip flowed freely in a southern prairie town that has never known moderation.
But beneath the “remember when” and revelry, I sensed some unease in wheat country, and it wasn’t all due to the weather. Skipping the local talent show, I aimed for a closer examination.
When my family left town in 1966, the population was 749. One quarter of the population has departed since then. Barely three generations old – a brief blip in the march of time – would Lafleche soon be history?
The cards seemed to be stacked against it from the beginning.
Named for a Catholic missionary priest, Lafleche is located near the middle of that great triangle of arid prairie that explorer John Palliser predicted would never grow anything but sage and shortgrass.
But for the past 75 years – minus five to 10 of drought – the town has been in the heart of the richest grain growing lands in the world.
The nomadic Assiniboine Indians had barely vacated when my sodbuster American grandparents, Iowa farmers, responded to posters offering “free fertile land” in the new province.
They arrived to the promised land in 1910 with three young children (my mother was 5 years old) in a covered wagon pulled by horses.
Grandfather built a barn out of sod blocks and a two-room shack, which was home until the huge “bumper” crops of the World War I years made them wealthy enough to build a large house and barn.
A minority of French-speaking settlers were also lured to the district. My Quebec-born father arrived in 1922, and married my American-born mother in 1929. Our family of eight children was not among the largest in town.
In 1916, Saskatchewan’s French-Canadian cultural association had published a glossy brochure, aimed at luring Catholic settlers from Quebec, France and Belgium. The blurb described the Wood River district as “une paroisse d’avenir” (“parish with a future”) where “it freezes harder in January than in the province of Quebec.
“Then the great cold ceases and almost every day in winter, one enjoys pure dry air and radiant sun . . . it rains almost as much as in other places of western and eastern Canada.”
Almost. But for the past five years, rainfall has been 75 per cent of the 30-year annual average of 27.4 centimetres (11 inches).
There hasn’t been much snowfall for three winters now, diminishing groundwater so that the evergreens and caragana shrubs planted as windbreaks 50 years ago are dying. Most dugout farm reservoirs are dry.
Many farmers tested the ground moisture and decided not to sow this year. Although they will still be eligible to collect some stubble insurance, their annual income will be cut in half. Tough for those with big machinery payments.
It takes more land to support a family these days. George Dumelie, 83, told me he raised his family of 12 children on a half section (320 acres) of land. Today a farmer needs at least two sections (1,280 acres) just to break even.
For those who did seed, this June was the hottest on record, reaching as high as 41 degrees Celsius (107 Fahrenheit). Dust storms reminiscent of the Dirty Thirties rolled in from the west. One afternoon it was dark for 20 minutes from wind-driven topsoil.
In this part of the country, weather is always a crucial factor. But there have been crop failures before and the town bounced back.
Cheques from government “stabilization” programs and crop insurance have sheltered farmers from the worst years.
But there are fears worse than drought.
I encountered no one in Lafleche who favors free trade with the United States. That’s no surprise, considering the area has a history of electing Liberals, and a fondness for government subsidies to keep people on the land.
The feds are also in trouble for attempting to “privatize” the local post office (where my father was postmaster for 20 years).
Locals also worry that the CPR line from Souris, Man. to Lethbridge, Alta., built in 1913, could be abandoned, leaving the town without rail service for its grain crops.
Even the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, a farmer-owned co-operative and the largest grain-buyer in Canada, is closing some of its grain points. Only two of Lafleche’s five grain elevators are in use.
A breakdown of Lafleche’s population statistics is telling: there are only half the number of youngsters under 19 as there were in 1971. But the over-65 population has increased.
“That’s what scares me most ,” says Ed Belcourt, the town’s mayor and pharmacist, who operates a drugstore founded by his grandfather. “Centralization really kills us.”
People are shopping in the city, he says. Where once it was an all-day trip to Moose Jaw on a dirt road, you can now make the drive in just over an hour. There are no farm machinery dealers in Lafleche today; in 1966 there were four.
But there’s a feeling that somehow it will survive while other towns won’t.
Lafleche has a history of self-preserving community projects to get through hard times.
It’s the site of the first rural credit union in western Canada, founded in 1938.
And just a few miles north, the snakey Wood River was dammed in 1957 to create Thomson Lake, the first storage reservoir created under the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act.
These days, a two-metre (seven foot) ring of yellow algae fuzz surrounds the receding lake. The boat dock stands about three metres (10 feet) above the water. But there’s there’s still enough water to feed the town and maintain one of the finest golf courses on the prairies.
The 75th Jubilee celebration seemd to bring a break in the sizzling weather.
It rained three times in the days I was in town, the heaviest rainfall of the year so far. A downpour on the final night turned the fine rich clay to clinging muck.
As I swore under my breath, grateful locals stood out in the rain, cradling their beer.