Going the Speed of Light in Hamiota, Manitoba

Hamiota, Manitoba looks like many other small, southern towns in Canada’s friendliest province. Under an hour’s drive away from Brandon, this seemingly typical prairie town is a bustling, agricultural borough. But there’s a lot more to this thriving farming community.

To truly see the difference of Hamiota requires you to dig a little deeper, as part of this town’s success story is actually buried underground. Underneath the town runs fiber optic cable that’s bringing some of the best internet available in Canada.

An Unlikely Pairing 

In today’s increasingly connected world, fast internet is critical to economic well-being. Having slow or no internet means being left behind and community leaders in Hamiota have no intention of coming up short. So, with the independence typical of prairie people, they figured out a way to bring fast internet to their region on their own.

Wanting better internet for their schools, Park West School Division reached out to the municipalities nearby to work together so that this new internet could be shared with residents. 

To formalize the partnership, a co-operative was created between 3 municipalities and the Park West School District. 

Today, the aptly named Park West Fibre Co-op provides much speedier wireless connections to rural homes and fibre to those in town who have signed up for service. 

The Impact of Internet

Tanner and I met up with Hamiota’s mayor Larry Oakden to talk about the impact faster internet has made. He said, it has allowed the town’s residents to have more stable connections over Skype and other communications tools. Another aspect he mentioned is that he hopes this innovation will help to put Hamiota on the map for more people.

Larry also talked about how everything needs a stable internet connection these days and that this realization drove the acceptance of fibre optic. Any town can recognize a need however, so I got Larry to explain to me what it is about Hamiota that made this come about: 

So, just how good is the internet in Hamiota? Well, with the fibre optic connection residents are capable of achieving 1 gbps (1000 mbps) download speeds. To put that into perspective, the internet I have in Saskatoon is 25 mbps and is the fastest connection I can get on the copper wires in my building. And my internet is not exactly slow — Hamiota’s is just WAY faster. Forty times faster, in fact. Moreover, it’s also 3 times faster than the very fastest fibre internet available in Saskatoon.

And if you compare these speeds to the satellite internet in many rural areas, which are high cost and slow speed, a typical rural home can expect a promise of 5 to 10 mbps from providers, but often a real experience speed of 1 to 2 mbps.

Not only is a connection like this great for personal use but with faster internet speeds it’s also easier to get a stable internet connection to a larger group. Jerry Crampain, a teacher at Hamiota Collegiate, explained. 

Not only do kids in this school district have amazing internet, Jerry also showed us his classroom’s 3D printer and explained how he teaches the students to repair laptops using old ones. 

These older laptops can keep up in the classroom because they use Chromium — an internet-based operating system that doesn’t need as much processing power due to its reliance on the internet. With their access to stable and fast internet, Hamiota Collegiate has no problems using this type of computing.

It’s little things like this that show off the subtle improvements and innovations having a faster connection can bring. For Hamiota it means school kids can be as connected to the world as their urban peers and grandparents have buffer-free Skype conversationswith their families. Like the qualities of Hamiota, faster internet brings successes that add up and make for a greater quality of life. Plus, it positions the community for growth and prosperity into the future, which is no small feat for a small, prairie community these days.

The Backroad Boys Rock the Fields of Minnedosa

For many, music festivals are the crowning jewel of summer. There’s not much better than getting a group of friends together to go camping and listen to your favourite music. For prairie residents this often means travelling a few hours though — but this isn’t necessary when your town throws its own festival. 

This is what has been happening in Minnedosa for the last couple of decades. Locals don’t have to travel far to attend Rockin’ the Fields of Minnedosa (RFM). This music festival run by a co-op lights up this town for one weekend each year. This festival pulls names like April Wine, Collective Soul, Tom Cochrane, and others these days but at its beginning this festival was a group of locals that wanted to enjoy some shows. 

Vaughan Boles, one of the directors for RFM, talked to us about the beginnings of the festival. He said that, before the co-operative, two separate companies tried to get a festival to take off in Minnedosa but were unsuccessful. Not wanting to miss out on the fun, Vaughan and a group of others decided they would make a go of it. 

As Vaughan explains, a co-operative model was their only option to make the festival work.

Not only has the festival kept up a good relationship with the community, but it’s gone on to benefit the community. Vaughan tells me that the festival space is used for community events like charity walks or the highschool’s safe-grad.

Monetarily, the festival has sponsored a scholarship for a student in Minnedosa looking to pursue music. The added traffic over the weekend also supports the local economy. Economic development officer Chantelle Parrot explains.

RFM is held in a hilly field on the edge of Minnedosa. The stage looks out at this steep hill (for the prairies at least) that serves as a natural amphitheatre. The festival takes advantage of this hill with permanent bleachers. Truly a prairie festival, the camping area is wide open, making it optimal for a mixed use of trailers and tents.

While we were there, Tanner and I saw and chatted with some very interesting people. Festival-goers are usually quite open to meeting new people and RFM is no different. To give an example, I thought I saw someone waving to me and I waved back only to find out they were waving at the person behind me (a classic blunder I know). 

This turned out to be a friendly, rather than awkward, encounter as they said “hello” to me. This person even called out to me “Welcome to friendly Manitoba!” — a play on the provinces license plate slogan.

The festival venue is right beside Lake Minnedosa and, while swimming is not allowed, Tanner and I did see someone cross the lake in a boat to get to the festival. We both agreed it seemed to be a great idea given the traffic festival entrances often experience. 

Minnedosa itself is a beautiful town. With plenty of trees amid the rolling hills as you drive in, it feels like a hidden gem. There’s plenty of amenities and I would recommend exploring the town! Be it for the rowdy time you can have at RFM or to experience a beautiful, slow-paced, prairie town checking out Minnedosa is definitely worthwhile! 

“The Farmland Belongs to the Community”: Glen Valley Organic Farm Co-op

Nestled along the Fraser River, about 10 minutes from Fort Langley, is Glen Valley Organic Farm Co-operative (GVOFC). This unique and beautiful patch of land has remained a small, organic farm for the past 20 years despite increasing pressures to develop or sell. 

The farm has survived because local people believed in its ability to provide organic food to the community and formed a co-operative. With it’s excellent flood-plain soil, the founders of the co-op felt it should not be forfeited to private development. 

The Co-operative Solution

Because the owners at the time couldn’t find buyers that intended to keep the farm organic, a co-operative was formed in 1998 and — with the money raised from memberships and a mortgage — this group of visionaries bought the farm. 20 years later, the mortgage on GVOFC’s land has been paid off and a couple of farming business have come and went, but it remains an organic farm.

Currently there are two farming businesses leasing land from the co-operative: Close to Home Organics and Earth Apple Organic Farm. Both are family-owned businesses and each family lives on the farm. They often share meals and co-operate in a number of ways, making this farm feel much like a community all its own. 

One of these farmers is Chris Bodnar. Along with his wife Paige and their children, Chris runs Close to Home Organics. During our conversation Chris showed us around the farm.

Buddy the dog lives on the farm and was almost as good a guide a Chris!

Successful Sustainability 

Once we started talking, I started to get a sense that they understand the value of this place and have made concrete steps to protect it. Parts of the farm remains forest, and the farm is certified salmon safe — a step they took due to the river being just a stone’s throw away. Leaving the forest was only possible because of the lack of pressure to make every square foot of land generate profit, Chris said.

The co-operative also put in place measures to halt the potential sell-off of the farm. For example, membership shares are set at a fixed value regardless of whether the assets of the farm appreciate. This measure reduces the incentive to sell at a profit, which helps secure the land for organic farming. 

The people involved here are very serious about organic farming. They live on the land, and many aspects of how the farm is operated, including right down to its very structure, is done in a way that ensures the farm will churn out organic produce for a long time to come. 

A Community Farm

This farm is important to more than the people living on it though. Peggy Vogler, the farms largest buyer of rhubarb and daughter of Allan Christian who founded Aphrodite’s Café and Pie Shop and spent time living on the farm, has kept her ties to the farm. Organic produce is important to her clientele, and so the farm remains a key supplier. 

Likewise, Michael Marrapese, who does all things communications and technology for the agricultural support organization Farm Folk City Folk, commended Glen Valley’s current farmers on the connections they’ve been able to form with the community.

We met Michael at the Langley Farmers Market, which is where you can find Close to Home Organics on Wednesdays. Being at the market was a great way to see the market side of the farm and get in touch with how the community outside of the farm interacts with its products, all of which looked stellar!

The farm has this undeniably welcoming quality to it. With everyone cheerfully going about their business, I felt as if I’d stepped into some sort of pastoral wonderland. Over here a coop full of chickens androws of beans, and over there potatoes, rhubarb, and many other veggies. Glen Valley’s got everything you’d expect — and great people too! 

Net Zero at Mile Zero: the Peace Energy Co-operative

Dawson Creek sits just off the Alberta border in northern British Columbia. It’s named for the creek that runs through town and is known for being Mile “0” of the famous Alaska highway. 

Dawson Creek has a population of roughly 13,000 and certainly has that small-city feel. While it has historically been an agricultural town there has been an influx of oil and gas in recent years. Another industry that’s gaining traction here is renewable energy. And of course, at the centre of this emerging sector is a co-operative. 

This line of windmills are visible from Dawson Creek.

The Peace Energy Co-operative (PEC) has been around since 2003 and has developed impressive wind and solar installations around the region. Its Dawson Creek office is a testament to its mandate — it’s located in a house with a rooftop full of solar panels. The panels provide enough power for the building to reach ‘net zero’, which means they offset the entirety of its energy consumption.

Our three excellent hosts in Dawson Creek are also founding members of the co-op and great guides to the region. 

PEC Executive Director Don Pettit is the voice of the organization, and keeps people in the region up-to-date not just with PEC, but with all renewable energy news through his press releases and great blog (hilariously named “Watt’s Happening”). When you talk to Don, his passion for and knowledge about renewable energy is apparent.

Our other guides, Joanne Dueck and her husband Greg, told us about their experience driving an electric car in a rural area. (Joanne is a director of PEC, and Greg is its solar designer, so they know a thing or two.) They said it can be easy to rely on electric when driving the short distance to and from town and, if a longer range is needed, they always have the gasoline engine to rely on.

We were thrilled when Greg generously offered to let us test drive their hybrid! Neither Tanner nor I had ever had the chance to get behind the wheel of an electric car. We were both surprised by the vehicle’s unexpected acceleration and, having grown up in diesel trucks, the silence of the engine. We had a blast!

We also learned of their passion for renewable energy. For the Duecks, getting involved with PEC was about leaving a legacy and cleaner world for their children. 

The pair also told us about the small town of Hudson’s Hope, west of Dawson Creek, which packs a big renewable energy punch. When its solar program was created, the town put out a press release with the headline “Hudson’s Hope Goes Solar, Big Time!”.

Joanne and Greg said the Hudson’s Hope solar project is PEC’s largest: 1,550 solar panels were installed on nine municipal buildings. I was amazed by the foresight of this small community – these panels are expected to save the municipality around $3 million over the next 30 years!

I was also glad to hear that the installation process employed several highschool students from Hudson’s Hope and that solar education and training opportunities were offered to the community. Education is a major aspect of the PEC, as they are often educating people about how a personal array can cut costs, or the impacts of their large projects.

Another big PEC project is the 34-turbine wind power installation on Bear Mountain. The windmills can be seen on the horizon from Dawson Creek, but we wanted a closer look.  Don, Greg and Joanne were happy to take us up.

Bear Mountain 

As we approached the site I realized why we had taken a pickup truck — the road was a bumpy grid that reminded me of some of the backroads I had taken during my youth in southern Saskatchewan. I should have expected as much — the place is called Bear Mountain after all. 

There was this beautiful moment when we got our first close look at one of the turbines through the truck’s sunroof. It’s a little hard to describe but they’re much taller than you think and nearly silent. The final effect is this lineup of quiet giants that blend mechanics with nature. 

Tanner and Don snap photos of the wind power installation.

While Tanner was getting footage of these quiet giants I chatted with Don about the process of installing them. The three-megawatt Enercon turbines were shipped in from abroad while the towers were constructed in Canada. The installation has a production capacity of 102 megawatts. Don tells me that this is enough power for several Dawson Creeks! 

Due to the massive nature of this project PEC had to bring on several partners, but much of the data collection and groundwork for this project was laid by this co-operative.

When we talked to Don, his love for the community really showed through. He spoke about having lived in a variety of cities in both the U.S. and Canada before coming to Dawson Creek. As a nature photographer Don fell for region’s rolling hills and beautiful foliage and decided to stay. 

After seeing Dawson Creek from Don’s perspective, it was hard to disagree about its beauty. And while the views are great, so are the people and the unique co-op they’ve created. 

Stopping in at the Station Arts Centre

When people look for ‘culture’ they often look to cities — but one small town in Saskatchewan is challenging that norm. Rosthern, Saskatchewanis a short drive from bothSaskatoon andPrince Albert,but drawspeople inwith its arts scenerather than the other way around. 

TheStation Arts Centre, a beautifully renovated old train station,has become a home for the arts in the heart of the prairies. From sold-out theatre productions toyouth programs, workshops, andlocal artist exhibits, this station is a great stop to get a look at rural Saskatchewan’s artistic side. It’s also (surprise!) a co-operative.

The Station

The centre got its start in the 80’s when a group of artsy locals decided to buy the building from CN Rail and renovate it. They raised funds through memberships, and preserved this historic building to have an ongoing cultural impact on the town. Today it remains a co-op, which allowscommunity members to get involved. 

Off to the side of the SAC is this gorgeously curated garden!

Director of Programming Nicole Thiessen was our guide around the centre.Her love of the arts and the centre itself is a family affair: Nicole’s mother Kathy was a founding member and served as its administrator for 25 years. Because of her dedication to the arts and the co-op it now contains the “Kathy Thiessen Art Gallery”, which brings in rotating exhibits of visual artists from across Saskatchewan.

You can tell Nicole is just as passionate about the arts, and the Station Arts Centre, as her mom. On our tour she gave us all sorts of facts about the building – like that its “mansard” roof is very rare in North America, and the station is one of only two in Saskatchewan.

Nicole showing me the Station Arts Centre’s gift shop, which is stocked full of Saskatchewan-made items!

The Loose Caboose 

Nicole also showed us thecaboose museum. Donated to CN Rail and restored by volunteers, the caboose has served as a dressing room for their theatre productions. Recently it’s become a self-guided museum, and the walls are covered with photos of Rosthern from years past.

The Station’s caboose rests on a short piece of track just off the back platform.

The Station’s Shows

The Station Arts Centre’s theatreis where the action happens.

Here’s Tanner enjoying the Station’s spacious (and comfy!) theatre seating.

This theatre has been home to many plays and concerts over the years. It hosts a yearly Stars for Saskatchewan Concert Series with musical artists from across the country. 

This year’s summer theatre productionBlow Windby Daniel MacDonaldwas playing the week we visited.The play deals with a family coming to grips with their mother’s dementiaandwas originally performed with music by Saskatoon’s Eileen Laverty.After the play’s sold-out run at theDancing Sky Theatre in Meacham,the Station Arts Centre reached out to bring it to their own theatre. Always keen to put their own spin on things, the Station Arts’ version of the play recast actors that could play their own instruments and addedmore songs, Nicole said.  

It’s not just plays that get improved upon when they come to the Station Arts Centre.The artgallery gives aspiring artists a chance to display their artwork in a busy location. Patrons of the centre’s Tea Room get to dine on delicious soups, salads, and sandwiches next to a rotating gallery of artworks both local and from further away.Nicole tells me they like to change it up.

The Tea Room has been owned and operated by the town’s mayor, Dennis Helmuth, alongside Joan Yoder and Bob Schellenberg for the past 20 years. Dennis is quite fond of the Station Arts Centre as a whole: 

The Station Arts Centre is a gem for the community and anyone who makes the trip toRosthern. Throughout my time there I sensed a care and attention to detail that rounds out an amazing experience.  I recommend it not only as a stop in your travels, but as a destination all its own. 

Investing in Community: The Sangudo Opportunity Development Co-op

Tucked into a bend in the Pembina River lies Sangudo, Alberta — an unassuming town of roughly 300 residents.  With a small population and Edmonton nearby, building economic strength — or even maintaining it — is tough. Not ones to sit idly by, people in this tightly knit community took matters into their own hands and are busy revitalizing the town.

Leading the charge is Carol and Dan Ohler, two long-time Sangudoites. Full of vitality, warmth and optimism, the Ohlers are a positive influence in this quiet, prairie town. We toured Sangudo with Dan, and it was not hard to see why these two community leaders have been so busy. The town is beautiful. Trees and shrubs line quiet streets, while the slow-moving Pembina runs alongside, and gentle hills add texture to the surrounding prairie environment. Small, local businesses line main street and a peaceful, steady pace carries the people working, living and playing there.

The Ohlers welcomed us into their home for coffee and some amazing rhubarb muffins Located on a beautiful acreage, a short drive from Sangudo, the place doubles as a couples retreat and the Ohlers host counselling sessions there as well. While there, we learned more about an innovative initiative the couple helped found: an investment co-op.

As founding members of Sangudo Opportunity Co-op, Carol and Dan told us more about this unique local investment opportunity they helped create. 

The SODC formed in 2009 to stimulate business and investment opportunities in the community. Local people wanted to invest their money in local businesses and the co-op was the way to do it, by accepting money from investors and distributing it to businesses that apply for it. A few years after it was created, the co-operative has helped build two businesses, and a home. 

Dan is a compassionate leader who cares a great deal about his town. He was kind enough to lead us on a tour of SODC’s accomplishments. As he led us around, he talked about the importance, not just of developing businesses in the community, but what those businesses bring along with them — a sense of pride and vibrancy, and a reason for people, young and old, to stay in Sangudo .

“We’re not just building businesses,” he said, “we’re building community.”

Our first stop was Sangudo Custom Meat Packers, the first business to get started with the help of the SODC. This meat processing shop’s owner was looking to retire and the community was interested in keeping it around. Two young guys were interested in running the business, but raising the capital to purchase the building was going to be a problem.

So in came SODC, which raised $250,000 in just 9 minutes from local cattle producers and other community members who recognized the value in having a butcher close by. During the tour I noticed they employ almost entirely young people — a deliberate step with revitalization in mind , and one that inspires trust and loyalty in young residents who want to build lives in Sangudo. The business is probably doing so well today in part because of that.

Of course, I had to try some of the local products for sale. I decided on some bacon & cheddar smokies and a package of beef jerky — the  jerky came in this large slab of teriyaki goodness and the smokies came packed full of cheese and bacon that turned out to be a great combo to eat on their own or in a bun. I took the smokies with me on a camping trip the next weekend and I recommend roasting them over a campfire. 

Before we checked out the second SODC-backed business we stopped by the new home the co-op invested in. Situated on a hill, the house is in a great location with a large yard and is very well finished. The investment in new housing is designed to spruce up the hamlet with new developments and inspire residents to take pride in their homes. It’s also a symbol of optimism for the community and putting a young family in the home will cement that sentiment.

The SODC-house is built on a hill with a spacious plot.

For lunch we went to one of two restaurants on Sangudo’s Main Street — the Cookhouse on Main. The restaurant was first taken over by a local entrepreneur after the SODC bought the Legion Hall. In recent years, Sangudo had seen a number of Main Street buildings close their doors, and  the SODC decided the hall would not share this fate. Leasing the building out (which later transitions to a mortgage — brilliant!), to a young entrepreneur helps keep doors open and business going in this gorgeous rural community.

The end result is a spacious restaurant that’s been put to good use as a meeting space for businesses, sports wind-ups, and of course the local coffee row. Jill Dewdney, who runs the Cookhouse, also told me this space has brought in new events to Sangudo , like concerts, fitness classes, and more. Events like this help attract new faces and outside investment.

The Cookhouse on Main serves many functions in the community, including being used as one of the only event spaces in Sangudo.

It’s easy to see that Dan is always thinking ahead and planning the next development for the town he so obviously loves. He explained his vision for Main Street and the role  he thinks the co-operative should play in achieving it:

While the SODC is helping these businesses by leasing and mortgaging properties, that’s not all they’re doing. They are, as Dan said, building community.

For Sangudo Custom Meat Packers this means an emphasis on hiring young people. The Cookhouse builds community by providing a meeting place. It all makes for a shining example of what small town life can be: a place where everyone has a chance to thrive and to connect with each other.

As we said our goodbyes Tanner and I reflected on our short but jam-packed time in the community. At the top of the list was the hospitality we encountered. The people in this town are amazing. (Great food is also a theme you might have picked up on!) A few of the interviews we did were a little last-minute and yet people welcomed us (and fed us) all the same. 

If I were to sum up the experience, I would say Sangudo is full of people that care deeply for one another and their beautiful town. Thank you to everyone we spoke to and a special thank you to the ever-energetic Ohlers for showing us the community you call home.

“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.