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 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! 

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.