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Stayin’ alive

There was a time 
when small towns
with 200, 500 or 700
people were an essential part of prairie life. 

An occasional series that explores the important “what if” questions facing modern Canadian agriculture

There was a time when small towns with 200, 500 or 700 people were an essential part of prairie life. They were places to buy groceries, get the truck fixed and  talk to neighbours over  a beer at the Legion. Many small towns are shrinking in population. What if all the towns with less than 1,000 people disappeared in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta? What would that mean for rural people and rural life? Would the Prairies be better off in the long run? In late August, reporter Robert Arnason visited Cypress River, Man., to find answers to these questions. See a related story here.

CYPRESS RIVER, Man. — There’s something unsettling about standing in the middle of a main street. Maybe it’s the sense of breaking a cardinal rule of childhood or the human instinct to avoid danger.

But on a Tuesday at 3 p.m. in Cypress River, Man., the uncomfortable feeling faded in a few minutes because there were no vehicles on Railway Avenue.

In fact, it was possible to stand on the road, near the town’s grocery store and credit union, for 12 minutes before a truck appeared from the west.

Cypress River may not have traffic, but the community has a surprising number of businesses for a place with 160 to 200 people.

The town, located on Highway 2 about 100 kilometres southeast of Brandon, has a building supply store, a motel with maybe 10 rooms and a restaurant, a post office, an electrical contractor, a motorcycle and ag supply shop and a Paterson grain elevator across the road.

It also has a hockey arena, curling rink, a memorial hall and a United Church big enough for 80 parishioners.

In late August, the lawns and gardens were well tended. It’s obvious at first glance that locals are proud of their town.

But to an outsider, it’s hard to understand why anyone would want to move to Cypress River. There is no school, no skateboard park, no bakery and no doctor, and it’s likely 100 km to the nearest Tim Hortons.

Treherne, 30 kilometres to the east, looks more appealing. It has a golf course, schools, a health centre, a pool and splash pad, a car dealership and a veterinarian.

A visitor might see few redeeming qualities, but Linda Truelove looks at it differently. Cypress River is her home and the thought of living elsewhere, even a town with more amenities, is disturbing.

“If our town disintegrated, I wouldn’t know what to do,” she said.

“The roots are here. This is where my grandparents’ homestead is,” she said.

“It (the town) is such a part of me I couldn’t be anywhere else.”

A number of locals who spoke to The Western Producer on and off the record cited the same reason for living in Cypress River: they like knowing everyone in town.

“Having that bond with people,” said Lauralee Wytinck, who has lived in Cypress River for 24 years.

“We all look out for each other.”

Georgette Hutlet, known in town as someone who gets things done, said it would be difficult to replicate that sense of connection if she lived in another community.

She loves bumping into friends and relatives at the Cypress River grocery store, even if it extends a 10-minute shop into 45 minutes.

“If I go to (Brandon) for a chiropractor appointment … or go to the mall, I leave there with a sense of loss because I haven’t had that personal connection (with someone familiar),” she said.

“Your identity is where you’re from…. This (community) is what holds us all together.”

Hutlet admitted there are a few people in Cypress River who she doesn’t know, which is worrisome. She would prefer to have a personal connection with every person in town.

But in the long run, is it possible over the next 30 years to sustain a place like Cypress River based on social connections and personal history? Don’t towns need things such as ballet classes, soccer teams, coffee shops, golf courses and art programs to attract and hang onto newcomers?

“That is the question. I’m not sure,” Wytinck said.

New people are moving into Cypress River. Houses don’t remain on the market for long because prices are relatively low, property taxes are a few hundred dollars a year and newcomers may not mind driving 40 km to a nursing or teaching job in a larger community.

A couple who moved to town three years ago said they enjoy the quiet, slow pace lifestyle in Cypress River.

However, Truelove worries the new people will never develop a deep, personal connection to Cypress River. It will simply be a place where they have a house.

When the current generation of 60-somethings becomes old, the volunteers who organize farmers markets and craft sales and support the United Church may dry up and the town might lose its community.

“Can we sustain it if 80 percent of the people who move in (don’t) participate in the activities of the town?” she said. “It should be sustainable if you have the people with the roots, but we’re losing these people with the roots.”

Hutlet is more confident about the future.

She thinks the town will survive if Cypress River can hang onto its businesses and continue to meet the needs of locals.

Meeting needs now is one thing, but community leaders have to respond to changing needs, Hutlet said.

As an example, Hutlet and others launched the Prairie Wind music festival in town in 2012. The summertime event has continued for five years and is now a local tradition. Older residents may have no use for a day of loud music, but it could be a meaningful attraction for newcomers.

“I would hate to think that anyone is living here and unhappy because they don’t have what they want (here).”

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