I once team-taught with an anthropologist from New Zealand who told me that if a community got bigger than 200, people lost track of each other. Face to face contact declined and third-party rumour increased, he suggested. I was telling him how quickly I seemed to be forgotten when I moved from a rural area to a large Ontario city to teach. He responded that “it’s far more than being out of sight, out of mind…it’s more like you’re already dead and gone.”
This old friend is now dead and gone and I think of him regularly and fondly, so I’m not sure that what he said was the whole story; he was a bit of a loner-wanderer with a streak of cynicism. But I am still predisposed to living in a small community where face-to-face relationships are more likely.
Since retiring we’ve lived in a resort village of less than 200 year-round residents with the majority of ratepayers seasonal cottagers. I got to know my immediate neighbours, but over 25 years they’ve moved away; some have died or are in long-term care. As new people moved in, often commuting to work, it became harder to overlap. I’ve continued to get to know others, but without a village site or centre, a lot of the “getting-to-know-you conversations” occur across the river in the nearby Town.
Volunteering with the village introduced me to village issues; but it still doesn’t feel like we live in a village community, even with the small numbers. With more involvement with village “politics” I gain some insight into the historical and economic layers that are shaping this village’s future. I wish my old friend-colleague was still alive; all this would intrigue him.
TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION
In June the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) drew 15,000 people to Saskatoon as part of the nation-wide process of going beyond the harms and legacy of the residential schools. Several TRC events were held in our valley and for the first time in my experience here, there were gatherings where about half the people were First Nations and Métis and half were of settler background.
Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are increasingly used; in South Africa the victims of apartheid shared their stories of racial oppression and the process of reconciliation carried on. But “truth and reconciliation” can take many other forms and probably could have wider applications. The more I learn about our village the more I think we could use a small dose of it.
The notion of “seven generations” often comes up during TRC events. This doesn’t just apply to indigenous people; settlers, too, stand on the shoulders of their ancestors and need wise foresight about how our actions will impact generations to come. I wouldn’t be here if my father’s grandparents hadn’t homesteaded near Long Lake. However the mindset of some people of immigrant descent is to not look back. Many of our ancestors were fleeing oppressive circumstances, as are immigrants today.
There can be a downside to this; it can lead to not having much respect for the history and heritage of the place where we live. In our consumer-oriented society it’s easy to see the new as better than the old. We are relentlessly encouraged by advertising to keep up with style and there’s a lot of planned obsolescence to keep money passing hands.
However, studies of Canadian values show that we are more likely than our neighbours to the south to value comfort over accumulation. For many of us, “enough is enough” and after that we’d rather work at improving our community. Also, studies of happiness confirm that while the impoverished need more income security to achieve happiness and wellbeing, after reaching a certain income level there is no more happiness to be gained.
While reaching out to meet more people in our village I am discovering intriguing things about this place’s history and heritage. People who grew up in the area are filled with stories and information. For example, I finally saw the home built by Sham Regan, who originally owned the property where we live. I now know where the original farmer’s market was. I am getting to know about the specific history of each subdivision. This is very enriching. I also get to talk to the newest of the newcomers who are becoming curious about local history and heritage.
However, even in a small village differences can be pronounced. We share the same lake with another resort village and a First Nations community. Yet we can easily slip into our busy lives and our solitudes and perhaps forget how the wellbeing of all of us depends on the health of the lake.
With no public place to picnic, to boat and swim or just gather, we are less likely to get to know others within our village, which spreads along the lake in a thin strip. Sometimes when I’m asked where I live I’m inclined to give the name of the coulee where I live (Crows Nest), a subdivision of the village, rather than the village itself. Others also identify themselves this way too.
Local government should help build community, but jurisdictional matters can complicate this. A provincial highway runs right along our village. A thousand feet back from the lake is a rural municipality with separate governance. Across the lake is another resort village with an RM behind it. There we see more big cuts in the hills for new buildings. These cuts and the inevitable erosion will ultimately impact lake-side residents who have no say in decision-making. Sometimes village residents themselves cut into the hills, which can create erosion and run-off for the residents below. Facing and embracing our environmental interdependence will bring more of a sense of community.
Like other villages we are undergoing evolution. The village name (Fort San) came from the Sanatorium, which has been declared a heritage site by the local council. Yet because the existing property owners neglect the upkeep of the lands and buildings, it’s become an eyesore to residents, and a few now say it perhaps should be torn down. This reflects a view that you can simply bulldoze history and heritage to make way for “the new”. Yet without knowing and respecting our history and heritage we are less likely to care about our impacts on future generations. If a community disregards its heritage then what kind of community will it become?
A small village can have its share of differences. Some see the village only as a place to speculate, which is always divisive. Permanent and seasonal residents can have different priorities. Lake-side and hill-side residents can experience village life differently. Old-timers and newcomers can have different perceptions. Sometimes these differences escalate and create more distance between people.
With these different interests and agendas, even in a relatively small village people may not feel like they are in a community. This is always a work-in-progress. I wonder whether my village can rise above the often minor differences and come together to positively shape its future. I imagine people who live in other small Saskatchewan communities are asking similar questions. Will divisions “rule” or can a consensus build from more respectful face-to-face communication? Can residents of all subdivisions build on the overall heritage of the community? Can a village-scale democracy nurture politics in which residents want to participate? Can there be a process of truth-seeking and reconciliation at the village level?