Cultural diversity comes alive at small-town event

My wife was pleasantly surprised to hear all the Spanish being spoken around the “Frog Follies” festival in St. Pierre Jolys a few weeks ago.

There were also quite a few Africans.

And as you should expect, lots of French and Low German being spoken. The French comes from the original settlers, with German from Mennonites and Hutterites, who soon followed into the area. Latino and African immigrants have arrived in recent years to fill jobs in rural Manitoba, but for which many native-born Canadians don’t apply.

In other words, it was a typical situation of diversity for many Prairie small towns, but not one that many people outside those towns seem to realize is the reality.

People in farm country also often seem surprised by the various forms of cultural, ethnic, language and racial diversity that you can find out in rural areas. They are used to whatever their local situation is, because whatever anybody’s used to is “normal,” but the unique mix in other communities can be a surprise.

I get out to a lot more of farm country than most people, including most farmers, and I’ve lived all over Western Canada, visiting hundreds of communities over my 26 years of reporting.

But I still find pleasant surprises when I come across some populations of people I wasn’t expecting to come across, such as a crew of African welders I ran into a couple of years ago.

There’s a constant ebb and flow of immigrant populations settling in and moving through rural Manitoba, my home province, just like there is in Winnipeg and other big Canadian cities, although most towns tend to have one or two significant immigrant populations, rather than the smattering of everything you find in the cities.

Portage La Prairie has a burgeoning Filipino population, providing the local hog slaughter plant and other employers with much-needed workers, and the local Roman Catholic diocese with much-needed worshippers.

The southeastern Mennonite heartland is still mostly Mennonite, but its booming industrial growth has been pulling in thousands of workers from all over the world.

Southwestern Manitoba’s small oilpatch has drawn in a similar mix of the world’s workers, some of whom have settled there permanently even as the oil and gas boom subsides.

That’s no different from most of rural western Canadian history. Ever since settlement began, waves of immigrants have arrived to find better jobs or lives than what existed back in the old country. All of us who aren’t indigenous have families that came from somewhere else.

When I was a kid my father would take me to rural communities across Saskatchewan, and I remember finding how exotic it seemed to walk into the local diner and hear everybody speaking some language that was not English or French.

There was a lot of Ukrainian and French being spoken as first languages back in the early 1970s, plus other European languages I had to guess at, depending on the local population.

That seemed to fade through the 1980s, 1990s and into the early 2000s, as the western rural economy stalled and resident populations got older and older, more and more English-speaking and “Canadian,” with little new blood coming in.

But in many parts of the Prairies, it’s changed a lot since the beginning of the 2000s, with all sorts of new diversity of ethnicity, language and race arriving and integrating.

This seems to surprise urbanites when they visit rural places. It also often surprises many rural visitors who go out of their own regions.

It’s surprising, but it shouldn’t be. It’s the way it’s always been. Rural areas are the places where millions of Canadians have been Canadianized over more than a century, and it’s still the case.

But it’s still a surprise for many to find it out there, and for most of us it’s a pleasant surprise that reveals the vitality of rural areas.

My kids didn’t notice anything special in the playground in St. Pierre-Jolys, during the Frog Follies. They played with Latino kids, African kids, kids whose parents were speaking French and German, and I think even Russian.

That’s just Canada, and it’s normal.

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