Sunday, April 3, 2011

Revitalising Rural Alberta

This week, I've found an incredible "guest blogger." Ken Eshpeter, of Daysland, Alberta, is one of the most inspiring men I know. Ken is the driving force behind the Battle River Railway, a growing cooperative success story.

Two years ago, he knew nothing about railways... and now he and his community own one... one that would have been torn up and sold for scrap had it not been for him and other farmers along CN's Alliance Subdivision between Camrose and Alliance. For a multi-billion dollar corporation, the Alliance Sub. was a nuisance. For Albertans like Ken, it is the way of the future... and a lesson in revitalising rural Alberta.


As a result of many factors, the population of the rural prairies has declined to such an extent over the past 50 years that we no longer possess (what I call) a large enough "critical mass" of people. This "critical mass" is the number of people required for an area to sustain viable goods and services provision. Everyone, including rural residents, wants access to recreational, educational, health, arts, retail, legal, accounting, religious... and I am sure many other services.

When the critical population mass of a region declines too much, two very unfortunate things happen: 1) the number of shoppers declines to the point that they do not create enough traffic for small business people to maintain sufficient revenues... and 2) the number of rate payers declines, making it very difficult for rural municipalities to maintain a range of services. The solution to this dilemma is to increase the critical population mass of rural area, but of course we know that is much harder done than said. In the meantime, the only way for rural residents to re-create and maintain infrastructure is to go back to that age old model that helped build the rural landscape in the first place: the co-operative.

I recently took part in a workshop in Viking, Alberta, entitled Re-learning Community. The workshop was organized by a friend who is intensely interested in understanding how the rural landscape allowed itself to get to the current lack of viability, and how residents might turn the situation around. He asked me to be a presenter and bring information about my experience forming a new generation co-operative. I was involved with a group of 150 farmers in the Camrose area who had just finished forming a co-op to purchase a $5 million shortline railway from CN which runs Camrose to Alliance, Alberta.

The history of co-operatives (and co-operation itself) on the prairies is a story which rekindles hope. Groceries and hardware, telephones, natural gas, electricity, grain marketing, banking, insurance; these have all been provided in large part by co-operatives. The issues and pressures facing our forefathers were much like the ones that rural residents face today. We must take actions like this in our own communities to ensure that we can continue to exist and thrive in the future. In my experience these types of efforts have a tremendously positive effect in small communities.

In 1999 the local movie theatre in my town, Daysland, AB, was for sale. The old couple running it wanted to retire. A group of us in the district did some research regarding the business of movie theatre operation and we found that a population of at least 10,000 people was required to run a commercially viable theatre business. Well... that left us about 8,000 people short, so we knew a different strategy was needed. We formed a society (people co-operating), convinced the town and the agricultural society to buy the building, and then proceeded to operate the facility.

We now have 12 volunteer projectionists. We still show movies every weekend. We present 8 concerts in a winter series. We have a reel alternative movie series. We have a 5-week summer program for young people... and we have a live, local theatre troupe. People in the district cannot imagine life around here without the theatre. The only paid position is a janitor. As you can see from these examples, rural communities have always and will continue to sustain themselves differently than urban centres. Rural survival is rooted in cooperation.

My daughter completed a Master’s thesis a year ago on building sustainable communities. She focused on “intentional communities”. I asked her to define them. She said they are locales where people have come together to share commonalities like a particular conservation ethic. Everyone in a block might have high energy use efficiency within their house construction as one example. I pondered that concept for some time and have come to the conclusion that the rural area is an intentional community. I will expand that concept in the future as well further my philosophy of the value of co-operatives for the preservation of the rural area.


  1. Interesting post.

    There is an endless amount of brain power and effervescence kicking around in Alberta and the best place to find it has always been on the land. Simple, without the creativity and resourcefulness one don’t survive long there. Sadly, many rural communities did not make it over the years and in most cases it had little to do a lack of creativity, or resourcefulness for that matter. I like farmers. To tell you the truth I am a little surprised at your suggestion though: For one thing I believe you are perfectly right. Cooperatives bring a lot more good than bad and can go a long way in infusing life in communities. However, I am surprised because cooperatives very much go against the strong individualistic currents prevailing in Alberta. Individualism is king in this province. I have a strong sense Mr. Mar is about to prove that very fact by running on a platform centered on individuality. First, he will the leadership race handily, and then will become the next Premier of our beautiful, sunny, albeit not lately, province.

    I myself, am ignorant when it comes to “Intentional Communities”. If I had to take a wild guess I would say the commonalities you speak of often are born out desperation and will to survive. At the least, they are crafted out of limited opportunities. Together we can stand, that’s a common theme. Yet many Albertans don’t see fit to support unions. Strange. There is a breaking point where people have no other choice but to organize, for whatever reason. As far as Albertan farming goes the sink or swim reality is already ever present, and has been for quite some time. Let’s just hope it won’t have to get much worse before it gets better. It’s always better when people don’t wait until they have a gun to the head. Let’s also hope you can convince Albertans in general to adhere to a brand of cooperative model. If they don’t, one of the options is more and more land owned by large consortiums, even multi-nationals in some cases and by then it’s too late. Well I suppose by then we can always nationalize the whole lot, but that would be a topic for the NDP would it not!

    Gaston Synnott

  2. What a great comment. Although I'm not the writer of the piece, I would suggest that the idea that Albertans have some monopoly on individualism is a myth. I took a great deal of cooperation to build a thriving Alberta... and while neighbours might have been quite a way away from one another, they did work together... share labour, build each other's barns... help when family was ill.

    One of my favourite stories comes from a friend whose grandfather (near Buck Lake) gave the logs he was planning for a second floor of his home to immigrants who moved to the area in the fall. It was through that self-sacrifice and building of community that saw Alberta thrive. Where this myth grew of our fierce independence kind of mystifies me.