The white bubbling cumulus clouds form a patchwork quilt on a blue sky that stretches to the limits of your vision; and here you can indeed see a long way. This is 2nd visit to the world of canola, wheat and soy, but it doesn’t make the sighting of the broad expanse of Prairie any less breath-taking in its gloriously flattened girth.
This blog is coming to you from my destination on this trip the town of Gilbert Plains Manitoba, a commonly styled village in Manitoba, surrounded and overwhelmed by the surrounding farmland.
To find this small Manitoba village, having just driven through Edmonton the GPS proclaimed: “Drive 512 kms and then turn left.” It must have been a similar feeling for Magellan or Columbus when told to sail west until you hit land.
In this somewhat lonely part of Canada the dust trails follow vehicles on gravel roads like vapour trails, trailing behind for at least half a mile, not allowing anyone to disguise their approach.
In the late 1800’s when a portion of rocky uncleared land was purchased for $10.00– for a parcel or a quarter “section” of 160 acres. The train brought the colonizers to Winnipeg and then left them to defend for themselves, to travel by horseback and wagon to find their small piece of the future. Ill-equipped and largely ignorant of what lay before them they had a limited ability to defend themselves against the oncoming unrelenting seasons of bitter cold and scorching heat. But, it was a better life than from where they came.
So they settled, encountering hardships that are incomprehensible in todays standards. Homesteads, usually consisting of a square basic white house and maybe a barn or outbuilding began to stoically dot the countryside every mile or so. The minimal socialization revolved around that distant culture from which they came. Their food, their dance, and some language survives to this day, but many of those simple homes have largely melted into the soil.
The human cost of settling this harsh land is marked by the old graves and white tombstones on a treed hillside, but it is the need for a 21st century lifestyle that is largely now killing the small communities. The young now in search for a better and easier lifestyle, less risk with more reward. Uber over John Deere. Young families sell, move away or rent out their land, the decaying homestead knocked down and buried deep in the soil.
The town site once the heart of the village is in effect now a ghost town. Faded white squared buildings shoved together on a bleak main street, one store indistinguishable from the next, and most empty, no longer able to compete.
Everyone seems old here. A few younger females can be seen in front of the local school, often pregnant and pushing a stroller, i-phones clutched securely in their hands and demanding constant attention.
An outing trip could be to the town of Dauphin, Brandon or maybe even Winnipeg for a doctors visit or to watch those Jets or Blue Bombers.
The core subjects of this story though are two individuals I will call E and S; not because of any concern for their privacy or safety, but because they would be embarrassed by anyone writing about them. S is the oldest at 74 and his younger brother E is 72. In hard grinding work they seem to have discovered the secret to health– still scrambling up the sides of a combine or a sprayer with the ease that comes with practised movement and a wiry strength that could never be captured in a Cross-fit class.
The other minor character in this story is the wind. It can not be ignored as part of every Prairie story. It assumes a personality of its own and is part of any narrative. It is both the needed friend and the dreaded enemy. They curse at it or grudgingly talk about a “good” wind. They harvest the fields in accordance with the wind, the wind always has the final word.
E and S started their education in that one room schoolhouse but finished up their education some fifty years later, now having achieved a couple of PHDs from the fields. E and S can discuss varieties of wheat, the type of insects, water tables and the commodity prices on any given day. They could give any botanist, biologist, or Bay and Bloor broker a run for their money. They are painfully humble, forever downplaying the immense knowledge they have gained by simply doing.
As this is being written, in the last couple of weeks, we have seen an election come and go. Have I mentioned that E and S really don’t have time for politicians. The campaign slogans always the same, the same promises, the same types running for office. Their votes rarely count even though they and their families have been founding members of this country. The election results only reaffirmed their beliefs. They pay a lot of taxes but are never consulted. The leaders of the major parties virtually ignore this bread basket for the country.
Almost all living and working here are conservative by nature if not by politics; never quick to judge, but once judged difficult to move away. A fair hours pay for a fair hours work is the parentheses around any economic discussion. This is still part of the country where you can discuss individual liberty or government control without being automatically labelled “red neck”. There is a very logical and fundamental belief in the treating of everyone equally. Your word is a summation of your very being and you will be judged and held accountable accordingly.
Anyone needing help would be helped. There are good people and not so good people. Simple.
In the local five table coffee shop E and S would be surrounded by like characters. Laughter and politics occupy the same air space, curses artfully mix with somber pronouncements on the weather or the latest tax coming down from the learned politicos in Winnipeg and Ottawa. Simple problems like the deteriorating coffee quality at Tim Hortons intermingle with issues arising out of the commodity prices coming out of the United States, or the prices of “inputs”. You will often hear “nobody wants to work” interspersed with stories of an older farmer now battling cancer.
At an appointed time, in unison, they rise from their wooden chairs, and head out the door, their backs slightly curved by hard work. They get into their dust covered Ford F-150’s to resume their often 12 hour day. No Tesla’s will be found here.
It was recently announced that China was blocking imports of canola. Once again they are going to be asked to pay for international shenanigans by political players. They are unable to even voice their concerns, but the shrugged shoulders tells it all. The frustration with the constant threats to their ability to make a living is ever present and expected.
The small family farm where E and S grew up is now unrecognizable from its early days. E and S learned the lessons of 20th century economics and have been constantly expanding their land base in an effort for survival. The old tractors have been replaced by combines of extraordinary value. Air filtered and conditioned cabs have now replaced the open air equipment, but that need to survive has not changed.
There is a dark side to life here. Alcoholism and drug abuse are in every family’s peripheral vision, everyone having been touched by this evil. A local Indigenous reservation is rumoured to supply the best cocaine. There are many stories of drunk individuals freezing to death in their cars after running out of gas in February.
But you are more likely to see a Conservation officer here than a police officer. Most theft and damages done to property go largely un-reported. Every farmer by a dictated necessity has a rifle in the closet nearest the front door. The potential for a case similar to Gerald Stanley’s is palpable and predictable. Don’t ever tell E and S that this is not their land. A hundred and twenty years of nursing a life out of once inhabitable land engenders pride and a very strong sense of ownership.
This agricultural and sparsely populated world is the front line in the ever coming closer clash between the Indigenous movement and the “colonizers”. The only evidence of Federal money here are found in the only two new buildings in nearby Dauphin, which consists of Metis health centre and a new Metis administration office.
Politically, the Metis often are at odds with the First Nations of Manitoba, symbolic of the complicated nature of the politics of the First Nations who are unbounded in their pursuit of Liberal and NDP supported largesse. Still the casinos and marihuana stores seem to be the only feasible go-to economic drivers of these still impoverished communities. This continual feeding of human vices is clearly incongruent to the societal problems. The solution is clearly not in reach or even in sight.
As the politics of Canada swirl around them, the Gilbert Plains will still be here and another harvest is only a few months away. E and S for their part, will likely be farming next year, after all, what else would they do; they intone with a smirk. The problems this year will be the problems of next year and if not them, who?
I do look forward to seeing them again.
They are the good ones.