After the first official Saskatchewan NDP leadership debate in Regina, I decided to take a trip to some familiar country. I grew up on a farm outside Courval, about 45 miles southwest of Moose Jaw on HWY 363, and went to elementary school in the nearby town of Coderre.
As a kid, I played hockey (badly) and travelled around with my dad to auctions and elevators, so I remembered a lot of the towns in the area: Mossbank, Gravelbourg, Chaplin, Central Butte, Shamrock, Hodgeville. Most of these towns are a lot smaller than they were then. Some – like Bateman – aren’t even there anymore. I get out to the family farm once or twice a year – my brother Jim farms it now – but he and my parents live in Moose Jaw and we rarely have cause to go into Coderre or Courval anymore.
Early in the leadership campaign I got a call from Charlotte Rasmussen. Her daughters had gone to school with me in Coderre, and she’s a die-hard NDP supporter in country where people voted Liberal, historically, and Conservative in more recent elections. She was excited to see someone from the area running for leader, had supported me in 2009, and offered to do so again and to organize a community event at the old school.
I gratefully accepted Charlotte’s offer – for a few reasons. For one, as a party we need to reach out to the areas that aren’t our traditional strongholds. Otherwise our reach will continue to shrink, and worse yet, we’d be neglecting citizens whose concerns and ideas we should be addressing.
The other reason I chose to go was because, on a personal level, it was a hard thing to do. As a kid I was kind of an outcast: hyperactive and rambunctious, last picked for sports, always in trouble with the teachers, not a lot of friends. To go back there, even this many years later, was to face some of those bad memories. That seemed to me the sort of challenge to accept, especially considering the tough road ahead. If you can’t face the past, how can you expect to confront the future?
I took a different route than usual to get to the farm, as I’d been invited by Cathy Sproule, MLA for Saskatoon Nutana, to meet with some prospective supporters in LaFleche. Her parents, Merle and Aline, invited some neighbours and family members over for an afternoon of political discussion.
Right there in the heart of what is seen as Conservative country, we had a fascinating conversation on the direction of this province and the challenges in areas of rural Saskatchewan that aren’t benefitting from the boom. These included shrinking towns and expanding farms, the shift from owning to renting as people sell their land to investors outside the province, the pending sale of PFRA pasture land, and challenges in delivery of education and health care services to a dwindling population spread over a large geographical area.
We also got to talking co-ops. Merle and his brother Keith, and their father AF Sproule before them, had been key figures in the co-operative movement that established the Wheat Pool and the Co-op, among other pillars of Saskatchewan’s economy and legacy of cooperation. One of the more interesting stories in the discussion was that of a local farmer, a proponent of getting rid of the Canadian Wheat Board, who recently said to a group of friends, “maybe we should find some way to pool our grain so that when we go to market, we can demand a better price.”
The irony of starting over from scratch the battles for some producer control on prices was lost on no one, and it confirmed the tremendous step backwards that is the loss of the single desk. It also underscored for me the need to re-establish the Department of Co-operatives at the provincial level to help support the establishment co-operative approaches to this and other challenges facing rural Saskatchewan, including deteriorating housing stock (especially for seniors), business and farm succession, and the opportunities for power generation through renewable energy.
After that discussion I headed north through Gravelbourg and then east to Coderre, arriving just in time to watch the sun set, framed by the iconic elevator, St Joseph’s Church, and the old school. The last students graduated from the school in 1994, a year after I finished high school in Moose Jaw. When I left, there were 104 students from K-12. Now there are less than 30 people in the entire town, and depending where they live, kids on nearby farms are bussed to schools in Gravelbourg or Moose Jaw.
I met Charlotte at the old school, now used as a community centre, and while we were waiting for people to turn up, I had a look around. I poked my head into the classrooms and remembered my teachers: kindergarten with Mrs Alix, Grade 1 and 2 with Mrs Cossette, Sister Claudette for Grade 3 and 4, and Mrs Friesen (for whom I made life miserable and vice versa) for 5 and 6. I checked out the gym, remembered endless games of dodge ball and red rover, and how, in my memory, the stage at Christmas plays seemed to look out, not on a tiny small town gym, but on an enormous auditorium packed to the rafters. I visited the library, and remembered the librarian Mrs Wirges, who later told me I was known as 'Riot Meili', and thought of all the time I spent reading, the one true escape from what seemed at the time such a hard existence.
Charlotte had put posters up, and a flyer in every mailbox in town. Still it was bitter cold, and we were competing with Grey Cup semi-finals, so the classroom we'd booked was far from full. I remembered Father Lariviere saying at mass when we were kids, “if only half the cows come, don't give them all the hay,” so I gave a brief summary of A Healthy Society, a quick account of where I'd been since moving away, and outlined my reasons for running for NDP leader.
Those in attendance expressed interest in my approach, and we ended up touching on a lot of the same topics as in LaFleche, but before too long the discussion shifted. People started sharing memories of me and my brothers and our schoolmates, of some of our friends who had stayed nearby, of world travellers, and others who had already left this world. And in the midst of this, I realized a couple of things.
First, I noticed that they didn't remember me as a particularly good or bad kid, just a kid, and maybe as a kid who left, as so many others have, as the town population continues to dwindle. Maybe more interesting, though, was that the conversation soon became – just as it had in LaFleche – a tracing of connections, of who is married to whom, whose sister is a nurse in Regina, how many grandkids people have, whether the doctor in Gravelbourg will retire, and how strange it is to see moose where there never were any before.
It reminded me of being a kid at my grandparents table, listening to them talk about the same sort of things for hours, tracing the connections that formed their web of support, their community. Suddenly I no longer felt like a politician returning to his hometown, telling and tracing his own story, but just a small part of that web that sustains us all.