The Power of Alberta: a farmer-owned terminal and DIY utilities

In July, we hopped in the car and drove to Alberta to visit two co-operatives helping rural areas grow and thrive.

We first arrived in Westlock, Alberta, a town north of Edmonton built on agriculture, with the railway at its heart. Westlock Terminals – a well-known New Generation co-op built through the innovation, grit and vision of local farmers – is a prominent fixture of the community.

Westlock Terminals

Westlock Terminals in Westlock, Alberta.

Westlock Terminals is an independently operated grain terminal located on a CN Rail line. The profitable co-operative business is owned by hundreds of shareholders from the surrounding area.

Their website says the terminal is owned by “a blend of farmers and business people” who benefit from “regular returns to shareholders through the dividend yields of the Class “C” shares as well as the incentive yields of the Class “D” shares.” 

Westlock Terminals Chief Executive Officer, Clifford Bell.

The CEO, Clifford Bell, was kind enough to tell us all about the co-operative and the ways the business benefits local farmers. When we asked if there were any local farmers we could speak to, he took a quick look around.

But he didn’t need to look far.

Just outside Clifford’s office, Hank was waiting for his truck to be unloaded. Hank was happy to tell us about how much he appreciates having Westlock Terminals as an option for his grain. 

Hank farms in the area with his two sons, and is an investor in Westlock Terminals. While we’re chatting, he also mentions he used to sit on the board of his local retail co-op in Neerlandia and urges us to check it out too.

“Co-ops are good, I think they’re great,” he said. “…Co-ops take support, eh? You’ve got to support them and do business with them…I’m a very strong co-op supporter, and all my family is.”

The more we spoke to Hank, the more he wanted to tell us about the Neerlandia co-op: “It’s been a really, really good place to do business. It’s paid good dividends…we’d have spent that money anyway on crop inputs, [but] we wouldn’t have got to share in the profits [if we shopped elsewhere].”

Instrastructure and community

Later, we visited Ralph Legriger — Mayor of Westlock — who not only answered our questions about his community but gave us an amazing tour of some of his favourite parts of town.

Westlock Mayor, Ralph Legriger.

The Westlock Rotary Spirit Centre is an impressive facility for a small community, and contains a rink, fieldhouse, track, and gym. Inside is a mural that Ralph wanted to show us, made up of tiles painted by members of the community. This is a truly spirited community rooted in agriculture and working together.

Next, he introduced us to the Canadian Tractor Museum – which is hard to miss, given that it’s marked by an old tractor on a tall pedestal. (Talk about going the extra mile! As we stood chatting among the impressive collection of vintage farm machinery, a train began to rumble by.

Besides providing investors a positive return on their investment, Westlock Terminals helps ensure the viability of local infrastructure, rail being one example.

People complain about having to wait for the train, the mayor noted as we watched the traffic stop to make way for railcars to pass through town — but he said he asks them: “What’s on that train? Everything that makes the town run.”

Neerlandia Co-op

After hearing Hank speak so highly of Neerlandia co-op, we decided to take a quick side trip to check it out. We were not disappointed. Pulling into the parking lot, Sisan remarked: “Forget Neerlandia – this is Co-oplandia.”

The retail co-op is massive: it includes groceries, a home store, liquor store, restaurant, sporting goods, agriculture products, automotive parts and repair, and a cardlock. More impressive? Neerlandia is a town of only about 100 people.

General Manager Albert Mast graciously cut his coffee break short to tell us about the co-op where he started working as a clerk in 1976. He said the co-op started in 1922, and has grown considerably due to the loyalty and support of members that come from miles around.  

Battle River Power Co-op

The next day we headed south of Edmonton to a facility just outside of Camrose with an unassuming building that packs a lot of punch. Because of this place and the dedication of the people inside it, rural residents in the area have power in their homes and have for about 70 years.

Co-operatives First has been a follower and admirer of Battle River Power Co-operative for some time now. When brainstorming places in Alberta that would suit The Backroad Diaries, they were a natural choice to include on the tour.

The utility provider has been in business for about 7 decades and was founded (and continues to be run) by independent and entrepreneurial rural Albertans. Their mission is “to provide the best and most cost effective electric power service to [their] 8,500 member-owners.” And they do this with both class and grit.

Their social media is chock full of useful and timely information related to service and benefits, which include a really smart way of supporting local businesses and the regional economy. (Check it out for yourself: It’s awesome!) And they’re line team goes above and beyond to ensure everyone has power.

Rural hospitality

When we contacted Battle River Power’s Communications Manager, Betty, she, in a way that is truly unique to rural areas, also went above and beyond to make sure we felt welcome and were well taken care of. (Thanks, Betty!)

Betty arranged for us to speak to the Chair of the Board and the General Manager of the co-op, as well as a long-time lineman, and the vegetation manager (that ever-important person who ensures trees don’t interfere with power lines). She brought in some loyal members for us to talk to over lunch (which she also provided, bless her).

Bob and Margaret Prestage have been members of Battle River Power Co-op in Alberta since 1975

Not everything went according to plan though. Betty had arranged for us to get some footage of linemen doing some repairs out in the field, but apologized profusely when we had to cancel that part of the schedule due to bad weather. (Weather-wise, rural Alberta can be an unpredictable place.)

The area had experienced some pretty serious thunderstorms over the last few nights, and the linemen were out all night getting people’s power back up and running. (Because it’s more than a 9 to 5 gig – especially when its your friends, family and neighbours who are impacted.) The result of the long night was that the linemen wouldn’t be doing any scheduled jobs that day.

Sisan and Aasa with Glenn, Map Analyst for Battle River Power Co-op

Still, she arranged for us to have a tour of the area with Glenn, Map Analyst and long-time line-man, who drove us around to see some of the houses they provide service to. Glenn also offered up an amazing amount of detail about volts, power lines, and transformers. (You’re in good hands, folks. That guy really knows his stuff!)

The local advantage

Battle River Power Co-op General Manager, Colleen Musselman.

Colleen Musselman, Battle River Power’s GM, said being a co-op is about quality of service – especially when outages hit. Unlike other utility providers that no longer provide service between 11:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m., Batter River Power linemen go out immediately and work until everyone’s power is up and running.

In a city, Colleen said, linemen might turn on power for thousands of people with one repair: because the co-op serves rural areas exclusively, they may be working to make sure just one house gets its power back. This reality is what kept large corporate utility companies out the area back in the 40s when REAs were starting up in Alberta. Today, it’s what makes Battle River Power Co-op different from its competitors.

The rural advantage

When an ice storm took down 40 miles of power lines in 2007, linemen worked for five days straight, at times in water up to their waists. Some members were without power for five days or more, but could see how hard linemen were working to restore the line; they pitched in where they could, providing food to the workers, or helping plow access roads.

In that process, Colleen said, they learned “the benefit of what people can do together to really care about people and make a difference.”

A central part of a way of life

At Co-operatives First, we’ve sometimes been told co-ops and Alberta aren’t compatible. We (very politely) disagree. What Westlock Terminals and Battle River Power Co-op show is that the model is very much in line with the entrepreneurial and independent spirit of Albertans.

Like the folks at Westlock and Battle River Co-ops, many Albertans see the co-op model for what it is, which is what helps them use it so effectively. The business model is a great tool for DIY projects, and DIY is very much Albertan. In fact, the model is an excellent option for entrepreneurial and independent people looking to take matters into their own hands, rather than wait for suits out east or government to do it for them.

What a view! Aasa and Sisan taking in the view from the top of Westlock terminals.

Alberta’s REAs, like Battle River Power, can also create an ecosystem in which people get a service they need, good paying jobs are created, and the local economy benefits — especially with a “buy local” policy, such as Battle River Power’s Member Benefits program. Plus, successful co-operative businesses tend to re-invest heavily in the local community, in some cases providing scholarships, sponsoring sports teams or paying for playground equipment.

For many rural Albertans, co-ops are a central part of their way of life. We think co-ops and Albertans are a highly compatible pairing.

A special “thank you” to Cliff, Hank, Ralph, Colleen, Bob, Margaret, Glenn, Betty and everyone else we met along the way for the amazing Alberta hospitality!

Co-op Town: Nelson, BC

When we started thinking about communities we wanted to visit for The Backroad Diaries, one stood out as a can’t-miss: Nelson, British Columbia. This town of 10,000 is tucked in the Selkirk Mountains of BC’s West Kootenay region, and in addition to an abundance of natural beauty it hosts an abundance of co-operatives. We wanted to know why.

Upon arriving we checked into The Adventure Hotel: a bright yellow heritage building in the centre of town. We sat down to Google-map the co-ops we planned to visit during our stay, to get the lay of the land. We soon discovered we were well-situated.

The Adventure Hotel, Nelson

Sisan: “Where’s the bakery co-op?”

Aasa, google-mapping: “It’s…a six-minute walk from here”.

S: “The Community Health Co-op?”

A: “…six-minute walk”.

S: “City Hall? We’re going to talk to the mayor.”

A: “Six minutes.”

S: “Where’s the grocery co-op?”

A: “It’s across the street.”

S: “Kootenay Co-op Radio?”

A: “Around the corner.”

As a local remarked shortly after we arrived: “You can’t swing a co-op without hitting another co-op around here.”

As we chatted with people around the community, the reasons for the existence of all these co-ops were unveiled. Some people pointed out the groups who moved to the area during its history, including the pacifist Dukhobors in the early 20th century, and American draft dodgers during the Vietnam War. Others talked about how Nelson doesn’t have a dominant industry on which to base its economy. These factors, it seemed, added up to a community where people pulled together and created things for themselves.

Because Nelson is a place where people understand the co-op model and its value, more people use it when coming up with local solutions. Co-ops beget more co-ops.

We spent our days traipsing around laden with camera equipment and recording devices, attracting the attention of strangers on bicycles. We passed men in the park practicing yoga poses by putting their legs behind their heads, troubadours strumming guitars, and – on the evening before the Senate vote to pass marijuana legalization – two young men smoking a joint on a park bench over-looking the city.

“Tomorrow it will be legal!” called out a cheerful passer-by.

We quickly learned that marijuana production has a long history in the region, and makes up (some say) around 30 per cent of the economy.

Legalization brings some interesting and exciting opportunities, which — unsurprisingly — one group in the area is using the co-operative model to capture. (Todd Veri — above — is involved in the Kootenay Outdoor Producer Co-operative, which will grow outdoor cannabis).

Throughout our stay we also noticed a trend: that many of the people who make up Nelson were not born in the area, but came to visit at some point and just decided to stay. We could certainly see the allure: some stay for the scenery and the opportunities for outdoor activities, some for the artistic community or hippie-vibe, others enjoy the peaceful seclusion of being tucked into a tree-filled valley. Whatever the reason, they’ve chosen to be part of a community that is, perhaps above all else, co-operative.

To see more about the co-ops we visited, follow us on Facebook (@TheBackroadDiaries), Twitter (@TheBackRDiaries) and Instagram (@TheBackroadDiaries).

Stanley Mission

sisan-backroad-diaries-stanley-mission
Sisan taking in the Missinipi.

In June, we had the great pleasure of being hosted by members of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band on Treaty 10 territory for The Backroad Diaries project.

Early morning start.

While visiting the area, Sisan had the opportunity to catch walleye on the great Missinipi, visit the Nation’s impressive Amachewespemawin Co-operative store and eat at the famous Chester’s Chicken.

A quiet, welcoming and proud group of Woodland Cree manages this amazingly beautiful area. Without question, this is their land and we are very obviously out of our depths here. To illustrate, Sisan asks what tackle is and John, our guide, has his young nephew teach Sisan how to attach jig to lead.

John filleting the walleye for our shore lunch.

Thankfully we’re after walleye, so there’s a reduced risk of making the wall of fame in La Ronge hospital where newcomers end up after having a hook removed from one’s fleshier parts. More importantly perhaps, thanks to this young man’s skill and the uncanny awareness of John for spots with fish, Sisan manages to catch us lunch.

While we sit on the edge of the Missinipi, water, rocks, trees and the unsettled winds of an oncoming cold front mingle in an amazingly bright aroma. Next to us, the gentle murmuring of ‘níhithawak’ is punctuated by the distant almost ethereal call of a loon and, in the distance, the decidedly ancient grace of a pelican gliding impossibly close to the deep blue waters of Nistowiak Lake. This is a place as beautiful as it is dangerous and worthy of respect.

Nistowiak Falls

We wander up to Nistowiak Falls, the tallest falls in Saskatchewan. While resting just above Nistowiak, Sisan does his best to teach me how to skip stones. Before I get the camera on him, he manages to do pretty well. But check out what happens when the camera’s on him.

After re-hydrating at Jim’s Camp below the falls, we head out for a shore lunch. John knows the Missinipi the way you know your own hand. It’s a part of him and he recognizes every current, hidden rock and underwater pool where fish collect. He picks a spot where he offhandedly mentions we won’t be smashed against the rocks.

Parked on a rock island in the Missinipi.

We “park” on a large rock with a few pine trees and a fire pit to light a fire and enjoy walleye with fried potatoes. The rock juts out of the middle of this astonishingly large and humbling river, but is protected from the wind in a way that allows John to expertly dock the boat on the rock without puncturing the vessel’s tin bottom.

John’s nephew cuts potatoes for a shore lunch.

As we look for dry kindling, clouds build up above us and John weights the value of lunch against the building storm, and wisely decides to navigate the rapids back up the river – before we make lunch.

As we make our way back, bouncing over rough waters at an almost alarmingly high speed, Sisan and I witness the majestic sight of two storm systems join forces. The two systems form a deep, dark monster reaching far into the atmosphere with bright light tentacles reaching towards earth every few seconds.

Just after going up the rapids as we race from a storm building over the Missinipi.

Later, once we’ve slowed the spine jarring race away from this threat, John quietly suggests we would have been “sitting ducks” if we stayed, and so Sisan and I are more than happy to opt for Chester Chicken over the shore lunch.

Hiy hiy to John, Lena and everyone at Amachewespemawin for the hospitality and for keeping us above water. A special thank you to the budding young níhithawak community leader who showed Sisan how to create his own lead and attach a jig.

You can follow Sisan’s journey on Facebook (@TheBackroadDiaries), Twitter (@TheBackRDiaries) and Instagram (@TheBackroadDiaries). Or the blog right here at TheBackroadDiaries.ca

Meet Sisan!

This summer, we’re gathering camera and curiosity and hitting the highway to capture the unique story of 8 rural and Indigenous communities across western Canada. Each of these communities has a co-op at the centre of it, and we’ll be sharing the story of how these co-ops have played a role in the community and local economy.

To help us do this, we’ve hired Sisan Fregene, a budding young YouTube personality and all around great person. Sisan comes to us from Edmonton, thanks in part to the Canada Summer Jobs program, and is in the middle of studying to become a x-ray tech. (So, he’s practical too!)

Starting in July, you can follow Sisan’s journey on Facebook (@TheBackroadDiaries), Twitter (@TheBackRDiaries) and Instagram (@TheBackroadDiaries).