“When I hear that train whistle it sounds like progress to me”: The Battle River Railway

The landscape of the Battle River region is a combination of trees, marsh and long stretches of rolling hills. A unique intersection of the south-eastern grasslands and the Rockies in central Alberta, the region has fostered a variety of industries — with energy, manufacturing, and agriculture at the top. 

With just 2% of the Alberta population the region is a picture of prairie resilience, having exceeded expectations for such a small population. We believe this excellence stems from a rugged attitude and strong work ethic. The Battle River Railway Co-operative is a perfect illustration of these traits.

The community that bought a railroad

When CN threatened to close the short line railway between Camrose and Alliance Alberta, farmers worried. They didn’t want to have to drive their grain further to get it to a rail car to ship it to market.

Luckily, CN had to put the line up for sale before closing it — and locals saw an opportunity. Ken Eshpeter, a local farmer, gathered producers together to discuss options. They decided to raise money by selling shares to attempt to save the railroad. $5 million later the group purchased the line and created a New Generation co-op called The Battle River Railway.

The purpose of the BRR is to run cars of locally produced crops to market using the rail line. Thanks to this co-op, locals created a spin-off organization that promotes tourism. Friends of the Battle River Railway takes people on train excursions up and down the line to see the local sights and learn some history.

We caught a ride on one of these themed excursions and were treated to not only an entertaining ride, but also a delicious supper in the town of Heisler! These excursions rely on volunteers (other than the conductor) and run monthly. You can learn more about the Friends of the Battle River Railway in my previous blog post

Golfing in Forestburg

Following our day of riding the rails, Tanner and I spent the day learning more about the business that makes the rails possible and what drove people to save it. The Battle River Railway head office is a short drive from where we were staying in Camrose in the small town of Forestburg – population of 875 or so. 

First stop was the golf course. To raise money, the co-op was hosting a golf tournament and we were scheduled to meet up with Bob Ponto, a BRR member and local farmer. We had wanted to meet a farmer member of the co-op to ask about the impact it has — it just so happened that the “BRR Farmers Golf Tournament” was going on when we arrived, which brought out people from around the community.

As we pulled in, it was immediately clear that BRR is an important part of Forestburg and the surrounding area. The place was hopping.

As we walked up to the clubhouse, which – with decidedly authentic rural efficiency —doubles as a curling rink. Bustling with farmers, a few of the volunteers we’d met on the excursion the day before, and BRR staff, the clubhouse was filling up as more and more people finished up their round of golf.

We then caught up with Bob, who spoke to how the railway makes for shorter trucking routes. By shortening how far he transports grain, he told us the BRR helps his business in several ways. He said this not only saves him time, but also a lot of money on things like fuel and repairs.

I got the impression that Bob believes in what the railway can do for the area, and the potential it has. He also likes seeing and hearing his investment in action.

“When I hear that train whistle it sounds like progress to me,” Bob remarked.

After wrapping up the interview we got a taste of truly heartwarming rural hospitality. The woman working behind the counterat the course had saved us each a piece of Skor cake from lunch. The cake was delicious and we left smiling — remarking about how much kindness we had run into during our travels.

Before meeting up with Matt Enright, General Manager of the BRR, we had some time to cruise around Forestburg. Among our stops were the LRT Cafe, the town’s highway-side diner. The coffee was great and it had all the trappings of a small-town diner — including some great smells coming out of the kitchen.

During our time in Forestburg we stopped by their town sign, which also has some informative plaques on the area’s history.
Having some fun near the Forestburg sign.
Forestburg is also home to the BRR’s station, where some of their excursions begin.

Behind the scenes of the BRR

Next we met up withMatt Enright,theGeneral Manager of the BRR, who gave us more insight into the business side of the rails. He talked not only about how the co-op gives locals a chance to invest locally — but also why preserving rural infrastructure is important:

Our last stop in Forestburg was a memorable one for me. We were driving back to Edmonton to prepare for hitting Sangudo the next day and were looking for a bite to eat. That’s when I stumbled upon the Social Butterfly. 

Part diner part thrift/antique store, the Social Butterfly was an interesting spot with a wide range of unique and unusual things for sale – but what grabbed me most was the corn chowder on the menu. I love corn chowder as it’s what my mom used to make me for my birthday each year. I perused the shelves — which had finds like golf balls sold in egg cartons to a variety of dated decorations — as we waited for our bowls of corn chowder to arrive. 

As we finished our bowls of soup there was only one thing left to do — hit the road. Next stop: Sangudo, AB!

Making new friends on the Battle River Railway

When Tanner and I hopped in the car to head to Alberta, we didn’t know we were also heading back in time. 

Our trip took us to Forestburg to check out The Battle River Railway co-operative, which is owned by farmers to move their grain to market. First, though, we got to check out the railway co-op’s very fun spin-off tourism business: Friends of the Battle River Railway. This organization uses the rails to take tourists on excursions to explore nearby towns, events and history. 

As we drove from Saskatchewan to Alberta, passing fields of wheat and canola, we played a game I loved as a kid: basically, being the one to spot the most horses. As we neared our destination, I got more excited about the train trip that was in store.

(We lost track of who won the horses game – but it was probably me).  

I had never been on a themed train ride, and I was looking forward to getting a new perspective on the countryside — especially from the open-air car I had heard about. The excursion we’d signed up for was the “Heisler Historic Run”, which promised a vintage hotel, some historic sights and “small town hospitality at its finest”.

As we approached the train, we were greeted by lovely BRR volunteers wearing full period attire. They welcomed us to the trip, served us drinks onboard and really set the atmosphere of the journey. We felt like we’d stepped back into the era where people relied on trains to cross the prairies. 

The volunteer crew for our excursion poses with Jack in front of the passenger car.

The crew was kind enough to allow us to explore all areas of the train. The conductor even let us into the cab. I felt like I was on a school trip to the Western Development Museum. Unlike the museum trains, getting to see one that was fully functional was a unique experience.

The view from the cab of the train.

As expected, the open-air car was a highlight for me. The only thing standing between you and the countryside is some chest high walls — allowing you to breathe in the fresh rural Alberta air.

And what a beautiful countryside it was. Having grown up in a small town I’m used to watching fields whiz by on the highway. At the slower pace of a train however, I found you take in a bit more. From early canola fields to watching a deer hop a fence there was a lot I would have missed otherwise. 

Once the train pulled into the town of Heisler we were treated to a tour that lead to St. Martin Roman Catholic Church. Muriel, one of the tour guides, told us that before the church was built around 1920, worshipers held services in the local restaurant. She said that when the church was built, people had to rent their space in the pews for their families to attend services – and where you sat in the church became a status symbol.

She then joked about how churches almost have to pay people to attend today. 

Muriel’s stories were a great illustration of small-town life in the past. She talked about the old convenience store, and the old ways of life — like how she used to deliver groceries to residents using a wagon during the warm months and a sled in the winter.

Whenever Muriel would mention someone’s name in one of her stories, she’d ask the group: “Is anyone a relative?” Every single time, someone raised their hand. 

I always enjoy these opportunities to listen and discover more about a place.

Next up was a delicious perogy and sausage supper in the Heisler Hotel. The food was amazing — even though my travel partner Tanner doesn’t like sour cream on his perogies. (A heresy of the highest order in my opinion!)

All jokes aside, the food was straight out of someone’s grandma’s kitchen. After supper we had some spare time, so we went to visit Heisler’s baseball glove statue.

Tanner and Jack in front of Heisler’s baseball glove statue.

Small towns and their affinity for making big statues of small things is a great way to find what they’re proud of. For Heisler, their pride rests in their baseball teams. They’ve adopted “A Community of Champions” as their slogan and back this claim up by hanging billboards covered in baseball championships — all facing the highway for a passerby to see.

Then it was time for us to leave Heisler and we took another scenic ride back to where we’d started. We spotted some wildlife along the way — a few more horses. 

After the trip we had the chance to speak with Ken Eshpeter, who played an important role in creating both the Battle River Railway as well as the “Friends.” Dressed in his conductor’s uniform, Ken told us about the most important part of the BRR’s formation: the purchasing of the railway.

Ken was both friendly and knowledgeable — two characteristics he makes great use of as a host for the excursions. Thank you, Ken for the great chats about prairie life, and thanks to everyone involved with the excursions for being so hospitable!


A couple co-operatives in Prince Albert, SK are taking healthcare above and beyond

For those of you who haven’t experienced Saskatchewan’s gateway to the north, I should start by saying Prince Albert is as beautiful as it is complex. The city is the last major centre in the province as you head north, and rests at the edge of a boreal forest. The city has numerous growing and developing First Nations in the area, a national park and one of its primary industries, forestry, has struggled after the loss of a major pulp mill a few years ago. The combination makes PA a place unlike anywhere else.

The result of this unique blend of history, economics and geography is a city full of grit, independence and determination. And, over time, that character has led to the creation of quite a few co-ops.

Earlier this month, Tanner and I traveled to Prince Albert to check out two of these co-operatives – both of which address different health care needs in the community. Health co-ops are not super common in Saskatchewan. So, we set out to find out why folks in PA felt they needed a few.

First, we wanted to get a sense of PA’s most pressing health concerns and found out that the mayor is a big advocate for local healthcare. What better person to ask?

When we visited him at City Hall, Mayor Greg Dionne told us about PA’s unique healthcare challenges. One is making sure that seniors and impoverished residents have access to services. The second is that the province only bases its funding on the population of PA – it doesn’t take into account the number of people from northern communities that also access its health services. This means the city’s healthcare providers are underfunded in comparison to the actual population they serve. 

Tanner and Jack sit with Greg Dionne.
Mayor Greg Dionne spoke to us about healthcare in Prince Albert.

Because of these issues, the Mayor said the two co-ops we had in our sights — the Prince Albert Co-operative Health Centre Community Clinic and the Mobile Crisis Unit Co-operative — are essential. He gave both glowing reviews, saying they help relieve the pressure on other essential services in the community. For the Mobile Crisis Unit Dionne appreciates how the unit supports their police force, and praised them for the nature of the work they do. 

“They deal with all kinds of crises,” Dionne said.  “So I give them the biggest praise because they are the frontline workers.”

In praising the clinic, the mayor notes how they are well placed to serve vulnerable populations, such as seniors.

“They fill a big gap,” Dionne said. “The highest density of seniors in our community surrounds that cooperative health centre. They do all kinds of things …. We would be a different place without them.” 

Prince Albert Co-operative Health Centre

Street view of the clinic.
The co-operative clinic is situated near the river in Prince Albert and sits between three senior homes.

At the PA Co-operative Health Centre, we met long-time member and volunteer Vickie Rose. Vickie is a force. At 84 years old, Vickie is not only an active volunteer – she also lives on her farm about 6 miles from the city, where she still plants a large garden every year. 

One of her volunteer activities includes the Co-operative Health Centre Volunteers’ Foundation, which fundraises for the centre and provides other helpful activities, such as visiting patients in the clinic and at home. The foundation has raised over $800,000 over the years, and this funds a wheelchair-accessible van, examination tables, and other equipment.

She also donates much of the produce from her garden to sell at a market fundraiser for the clinic. What isn’t sold in the market, she puts in the free pantry the clinic has out front of the building. This year, she did it all herself, despite having two broken wrists!

Jack sits with Vicki.
Vickie Rose talked about the impact of the clinic with us and she was very enthusiastic despite two broken wrists!

Vickie first came to the clinic in its early days to seek medical attention for one of her children. She said the co-op was her only option for healthcare in the city at the time, because of the contentious nature of healthcare back then.

The co-operative health clinic was opened as a direct response to the doctors’ strike in 1962. At the time, doctors were opposed to the idea of government-run healthcare. Mostly they felt it would interfere with their decision-making regarding patients and, in response, organized a strike to begin as Medicare was brought in.

Despite the strike, one doctor refused to stop offering healthcare services to the residents of PA. Dr. Orville K. Hjertaas founded the co-operative clinic to make sure people had access to healthcare – a decision that cost him his practice at the time. The new co-op clinic was vandalized, and his wife and kids were harassed by people who disagreed with his actions. Vickie described Dr. Hjertaas as a humanitarian who didn’t give up despite the backlash. 

I was both sad and shocked to hear about the adversity Dr. Hjertaas and his family faced. The clinic offered us a book that details its history, including a description of the time in Dr. Hjertaas’ own words. As Vickie described his achievements, I began to get a sense of how his legacy shaped the clinic. 

The centre takes a holistic approach to health care – they aim to take care of the whole person. This includes services like counselling, a pharmacy, a methadone clinic, physiotherapy, and as many medical procedures as possible. Vickie said having all these services under one roof means the clinic not only gives excellent and attentive care, it does it efficiently.  

She also said these qualities come from the vision of the late Dr. Hjertaas, who cared deeply about his patients. She recalled a time when he diagnosed her with severe anemia and gave her iron supplements for free because she couldn’t afford them.

I got the sense that Vickie is at the heart of this centre. She serves the clinic as a bright beacon of knowledge and history of its workings in addition to her volunteer work — which she describes in the clip below: 

Vickie talks about her volunteering with the clinic.

At the end of our interview, Vickie walked the halls chatting with friends and getting the scoop on all the latest at the clinic. She also treated us to a little tour and a bit more history, including showing us a bust of Dr. Hjertaas and the memorial trees planted out front for him and his wife Millie. 

A bust of Dr. Hjertaas stands next to two plaques.
The bust of Dr. O.K. Hjertaas, located in the Prince Albert Co-operative Health Centre Community Clinic.

Executive Director Renee Danylczuk was also kind enough to give us a tour of the clinic. As she led us through the building, I got the sense of just how much gets done within its halls. As we went through their physiotherapy, IV therapy, and other facilities, I realized the entire building is purpose-built with their philosophy of attentive care in mind. 

Even the way that doctors get paid at the centre helps promote this philosophy. Doctors are paid a salary – rather than being paid on a per-patient basis — meaning that there is no incentive to rush through appointments. I also noticed the quietness of the halls. The characteristic hustle and bustle of hospitals was missing. Talking to Renee, and seeing the facilities for myself, proves Vickie’s description of the care she receives is rooted in the thoughtful organization of the clinic itself.

Renee is incredibly proud of the clinic, and mentioned their model is being used as a guiding tool for the Health Region — meaning all of these ideas that initially brought backlash to the clinic’s first doctor have influenced the greater healthcare landscape in Saskatchewan.

Thank you to Vickie, Renee and everyone at the Centre for your hospitality and for showing us how amazing you all are!

Prince Albert Mobile Crisis Unit

Jack and Tanner stand with the crew outside of the Mobile Crisis Unit office.
Prince Albert’s Mobile Crisis Unit welcomed us into their office.

Another critical piece to Prince Albert’s healthcare is the Mobile Crisis Unit Co-operative. Operating largely outside of regular business hours, the unit bridges gaps in the treatment of mental health, sexual assault, and domestic abuse issues. 

They do this by providing a hotline and sending support workers out to respond to calls from people in crisis within the city. The unit also teaches the community about consent, sexual assault, and provides training to police and EMS for handling situations surrounding sexual assault. 

Executive Director Vicki Bird said when their support workers respond to a call, their goal is to meet with the person in crisis as early as possible in their environment. People often feel more comfortable on their home turf, rather than in a clinic setting. The crisis workers are non-threatening helpers. Rather than call attention to themselves and their positions, they use two unmarked vans to answer calls. They arrive in plain clothes, not uniforms. All of this helps their clients feel at ease.

What this co-op does is remarkable. Something that stuck out to me when talking to Vicki was the breadth of services they provide. From a wealth of trained professionals to a storage room full of essentials like diapers, formula, and dry foods, the unit is prepared to handle nearly anything thrown their way. 

Thank you to Vicki and her team for taking us in and showing us what it takes to be there for someone in need. 

Jack and Tanner sit beside the "Welcome to Prince Albert" sign.
Tanner and I say goodbye to the Beautiful Gateway City.

Prince Albert was a great way to kick off our travels in full and provided some excellent insight into how healthcare co-ops can fit into the greater landscape of services. See you on our next stop and be sure to keep up to date with our social media accounts!

Steep Hill Food Co-op: A grocery store that feels like home

In anticipation of the road ahead, we took the short drive from the office to Steep Hill Food Co-op on Broadway Ave. in Saskatoon. There we were greeted by Gerry and her daughter Andrée, two of the full-time employees at the whole food co-op. Gerry helped to open the co-op in 1978.

Gerry and Andée stand behind the counter at Steep Hill Food Co-op.

While Steep Hill may seem like many other stores trying to get their piece of the organic/whole food grocer pie, a lot sets them apart. Carrying your usual array of health and lifestyle foods, Steep Hill also goes out of its way to work with as many local producers as it can.

I began grocery shopping in my mind as Gerry showed me around the shop. When she pointed out their locally produced honey, I added it to my mental grocery list.

Eventually, mental grocery shopping became actual grocery shopping and I found myself – somehow automatically – building a basket of honey, organic mac and cheese that I remembered from my childhood, and some lactose-free alternatives that I hadn’t seen in other stores before.

As I shopped I discovered Steep Hill’s most standout quality — the breadth of the staff’s knowledge. As I placed the honey into my basket I knew that the person who made it been bringing his honey to the co-op since the seventh grade, and as soon as I had mentioned my lactose intolerance Gerry and Andrée were quick to point out the lactose free ice cream, various milk alternatives, and others.

It was this hospitality that really stood out to me. It truly felt as if this power duo wanted me to leave their store with everything I needed. At one point Gerry mentioned that she will let members make special orders of products they don’t normally carry. It was so interesting to be in a grocery store that wants its customers’ involvement and interaction perhaps just slightly more than they want your money.

Steep Hill’s commitment to members is also apparent in the way it prices its goods.  Itoffers three tiers of pricing: non-members pay the price on the shelf plus 25 per cent; non-working members pay shelf price plus 10 per cent. Working members — who volunteer at least two hours a month — pay the shelf price for their products.

Steep Hill isn’t just a great place for shoppers. As my tour reached the back half of the narrow shop, Gerry mentioned their sink and informed me that anyone can come in for a glass of water — a fact I tucked in the back of my mind for those long hot days on Broadway.I will definitely be returning to Steep Hill – in fact I’ve already been back since the first visit to show my mom their array of gluten-free products, and introduce her to the shop that showed me you can in fact have a favourite grocery store.

I explore some of the bulk goods that Steep Hill has to offer.

How the Bridge City Bicycle Co-op gets their community cycling

During our time exploring the co-ops of Saskatoon, Tanner and I visited the Bridge City Bicycle Co-op (BCBC). This co-op shares space with the Core Neighborhood Youth Co-op (CNYC) — another great Saskatoon organization that offers a wide variety of youth programming and education. This partnership began because of the success of CNYC’s original bicycle program, which grew to the point where they needed to bring on the BCBC to manage it.

I wheeled my bike over to BCBC in search of someone who could help me.

This partnership was a turning point for the BCBC, which had been operating as an enthusiasts’ club before becoming the community service co-op they are today. It allowed the members to spread their love of cycling to the wider community.

It was easy to tell how much the BCBC has embraced its role. Each of the volunteer mechanics looked happy to be there, and more than one told me that their favourite part of volunteering was helping kids learn how to maintain and repair their bikes.

It wasn’t just the mechanics who were enthusiastic. When we arrived just before opening, a lineup had already formed at the gate. People who needed new tires and other bike parts got in line alongside children and their parents. It was hard to tell who was the most anxious to get riding.

That was when I got a sense of how vital this co-operative is. Watching children not only receive a bicycle but also learn how to care for it was one of the most wholesome sights I’d ever seen. This feel-good notion only got better when I had the thought that, for many who use the BCBC, their bicycle isn’t just a source of fun but also a necessary means of transportation and ultimately central aspect of life.

We were greeted by the BCBC’s Stan Yu, one of the founding members of the co-op, who showed me around their space. It’s made up of an outdoor working area, a small portion of the indoor shop that also houses CNYC’s woodworking area, and an attic full of bicycles and parts.

Stan and I chat as he shows me the attic of the CNYC building.

As Stan helped me pump up my tires and give the bike a bit of an inspection, we chatted about the BCBC and the work that they do. While I learned how to adjust my brake lines I also began to learn about the amazing work this shop makes possible.

I learned that the children who I watched receive bikes would pay only the membership fee, and that the adults only pay a small charge.

BCBC is able to do this through donations, and a partnership with the City of Saskatoon that allows them to collect and fix up bikes from the landfill. This set up essentially means that, for bikes at least, all roads lead to the BCBC.

BCBC’s sign advertising their rates.

Not only does the BCBC break down financial barriers to cycling, but also social barriers. At all times the shop is a judgement-free place that encourages developing new skills and the shop also offers special Women & Queer Programming, illustrating their dedication to getting everyone they can on a bike. 

The New Faces of The Backroad Diaries

The new summer brings new backroads — and with it, the latest season of The Backroad Diaries. This year, the diaries will be led by Tanner Bayne and Jack Thompson, two recent University of Saskatchewan graduates and all around good-guys. Both passionate storytellers, they are eager to travel across western Canada to capture the ingenuity of the communities they visit and share the significance of the co-operatives they see along the way.

Meet the crew!

Jack

Hey! My name is Jack and I am excited to have this excellent opportunity to see parts of Western Canada I haven’t before and be able to tell their stories.

I grew up in the small town of Yellow Grass, Sk, and have been working in journalism since my senior year of highschool. I have recently completed an English degree from the University of Saskatchewan and my main duties for this project will be taking on the bulk of the writing, so check back on this blog to read more of my work!

What’s more, I get to travel with my good friend and previous coworker Tanner! As far as the Diaries go, you can expect a great curiosity from me as I try to find all the greatest gems of each community we visit.

Tanner

Hi there! Welcome to The Backroad Diaries — I’m glad that you’re joining Jack and me on our journey to vibrant communities across Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia!

I’m from the cosy bedroom community of Warman, Sk, which is just minutes from the bustling streets of the Bridge City. Like Jack, I’ve acquired an English degree from the University of Saskatchewan. In fact, Jack and I met through our shared love of storytelling while we worked at student-run university newspaper together for two years. Since then, we’ve become close friends, collaborators and — once again — coworkers. I guess you can say we are a package deal.

I’ll be in charge of the visual portion of the Backroad Diaries, making vlogs and videos to accompany Jack’s excellent written work. I’m looking forward to sharing stories with you!

You can follow our travels on  Facebook (@TheBackroadDiaries), Twitter (@TheBackRDiaries) and Instagram (@TheBackroadDiaries).