Why bigger can be better to attract new residents

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.

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Rose Olfert has heard the story, or versions of the story, many times.

Residents of small towns on the Prairies have told Olfert, a University of Saskatchewan professor emeritus and rural development expert, that the world will end if their town loses its school or its church or its community centre.

However, the world somehow carries on when the school does close and families move to a larger town to be close to the new school or the children are bused to bigger centre.

More often than not, the children and parents are happier.

” ‘The quality of teachers is much better. There are so many more friends and activities,’ ” Olfert said, recalling a conversation with a parent.

” ‘It’s unbelievably better. I could not see that, at all, before our school closed.’ ”

That doesn’t mean every family in every Saskatchewan town with 100 to 500 people would be happier in a community with 4,000 or more, but there is something beneficial about size.

“There are many advantages to having a place with 4,000 (people) and it’s hard to dispute that,” Olfert said.

“Then you can get a critical mass of businesses next to each other … and have enough employment opportunities.”

All towns and villages are different, but statistics suggest that larger rural centers are growing. In contrast, populations are shrinking or flat in towns with less than 500 people. In Saskatchewan, according to census data:

Battleford had 3,685 people in 2006 and 4,065 in 2011.

Moosomin had 2,262 in 2006 and 2,485 in 2011.

Climax had 182 in 2006 and 182 in 2011.

Fox Valley had 295 in 2006 and 260 in 2011.

If the trend continues and towns with fewer than 1,000 people do disappear over the next 30 years, the local history in those communities would be lost and lives will be altered.

However, would rural residents be better off in the long run if such towns disappear? Would the Prairies become more sustainable if the tiny communities faded away and larger towns with 4,000, 8,000 or 12,000 people became bigger, stronger and more vibrant?

Ray Bollman, former chief of Statistics Canada’s Rural Research Group, doesn’t have answers for those questions, but he admits that villages with 100 to 200 people are no longer essential.

“Those places would not be expected to grow … unless it’s a bedroom community and you could drive to a place with 10,000 or 20,000 (people),” he said.

“Their function is just a retirement place and there will be fewer people to retire to those places. So those (towns) will continue getting smaller…. Their function was really important 40 years ago … but their function has changed completely and we (should) not expect people to want to live there.”

There are optimists in small towns and villages, but it’s hard to imagine a prosperous future for such places, Olfert said.

“They keep thinking, ‘we can grow our community to be a really large community,’ ” Olfert said.

“(But) the evidence suggests the problem will solve itself … because the next generation isn’t going to live there…. They will gravitate towards the big centres.”

Can bigger towns attract newcomers?

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council reported in March that the country has a shortfall of 59,000 people for jobs in primary agriculture. The agricultural labour shortage could expand to 114,000 people by 2025.

Beekeepers, hog farmers, feedlot operators and grain farmers across the Prairies are struggling to find employees. As well, many agri-food businesses, particularly slaughter plants, cannot get people to work and live in rural areas.

Temporary foreign workers are now doing many of those jobs, but the federal government would prefer if those foreigners became permanent residents of Canada.

It’s been difficult over the last 30 years to convince immigrant families to live in rural Canada, but a newcomer to Canada might take a job around Dauphin, Man., for example, if the community was thriving.

Sean Markey, a Simon Fraser University associate professor who specializes in rural development, said people are more likely to move to a rural community if the town has a desirable package of amenities.

“Do you have dance programs for kids? Tell me about the local school…. My son loves playing soccer,” Markey said.

Bollman agreed that people and families are seeking a “package,” including jobs for both spouses. However, he’s not sure if a prairie town of 5,000 people can attract and retain newcomers to Canada.

“Lots of immigrants will (take) a job (in a rural area), but after awhile they will move to where their community is … whether (that’s) language, culture, music,” he said.

“Pick a place, Killarney or Kindersley… I don’t know if you could attract immigrants from different cultures.”

Olfert is also skeptical.

“I know Manitoba has some success stories, but it’s hard for me to imagine that immigrants are going to end up anywhere but Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto,” she said.

She said people in a town of 100, 200 or 500 might think they have a superior quality of life, but their behaviour suggests they want better services and more opportunities.

“(They) will go buy their groceries in Saskatoon or Regina, regardless of what they say. They will increasingly try to get their kids into better schools.”

Provincial governments might be pleased if towns with less than 1,000 people vanished because tiny health centres, seniors’ homes with 20 residents and schools with 30 students are inefficient.

However, no politician would say such a thing out loud.

“People might advocate for some kind of triage process,” Olfert said, in which certain towns are saved and others die.

“Politically, you’re going to lose elections if you try to do something like that.”

No one will say small communities should vanish for the benefit of larger towns on the Prairies, but such an outcome may be inevitable, Bollman said.

“Do governments want to proactively invest in the bigger towns and not invest in the smaller towns? I think that’s exactly what’s happening by default.”

Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

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