By Richard White, February 9, 2014
It is ironic that in December I picked up Stuart McLean’s 1991 book “Welcome Home: Travels in small town Canada” in a Maple Creek SK thrift store and the first story is in fact about his stay in Maple Creek. It was also ironic as 2013 turned out to be “Year of Small Town Travel” in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Montana, Idaho and Washington for Brenda and I.
For us, visiting a small towns is mostly just pulling off the highway and taking an hour or so to flaneur the streets, take some pictures, maybe grab a bite or a coffee and chat a bit with one or two locals.
McLean, much more strategic, carefully researched his small towns – Maple Creek (Saskatchewan), Dresden (Ontario), St. Jean de Matha (Quebec), Sackville (New Brunswick), Foxwarren (Manitoba), Naksup (British Columbia and Ferryland, (Newfoundland). He chose carefully to ensure that collectively, the towns would reflect that diversity that is Canada’s sense of place.
He also went and lived for a couple of weeks in each town, so he could meet the residents and truly understand the psyche of the people and place. This all happened in early ‘90s over 20 years ago.
What I loved about the book was the great insights - his and others - that he quotes into understanding the ongoing evolution of our cities and towns, as well as better sense of our collective history as Canadians and North Americans. There are also amazing character sketches for those interested in people.
I thought I would share some of these insights with you accompanied by an image from one of the small towns we visited that related to the McLean’s observations.
From the introduction:
“If there is one aspect of towns and villages that we find remarkable, it is their persistence, their refusal to die out, their staying power.” G.D Hodge and M.A. Qadeer, 1983
“Eventually, I decided that we all live in small towns. Mine happens to be in the heart of a big city.” S. McLean
Maple Creek, Saskatchewan
“Asians didn’t get the right to vote in Canada until the late 1940s.”
“When she was twelve, Pansy rode (horseback) five and half miles across the fields every day to a one-room schoolhouse…there were lots of deer, antelope and coyotes.” (And we complain about kids taking long bus rides to get to school today)
“Dresden is where Aylmer manufactures all of the ketchup they produce in Canada.”
“Canada is not merely a neighbor to Negroes. Deep in our history of struggle for freedom Canada was the North Star. The Negro slave, denied education, de-humanized, imprisoned on cruel plantations, knew that far to the north a land existed where a fugitive slave, if he survived the horrors of the journey could find freedom.” Martin Luther King Jr., Massey Lectures, 1967
Did you know that Josiah Henson a slave who escaped to Canada and settled in Dresden was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influential novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
“The bell at the firehall used to ring at noon and at nine in the evening to signal curfew for all those under the age of fourteen. The bell at the old McVean factory rang at starting time and quitting time and, like all the other bells in town, at the noon break. You don’t hear town bells the way you used to. It is too bad. A bell lends a certain orderliness to a town – anoints the noon meal with righteousness, resolves the end of the work day with dignity, infuses dusk with a sense of purpose.”
“There’s also a certain continuity that you don’t get anywhere else. Everyone in school knows everyone else. Most of the parents come from here. The continuum is passed along.”
You can see winter in the architecture wherever you look – the old houses small because they were easier to heat; the brightly painted roofs, pitched steeper here than anywhere in the country, because if you let snow accumulate all winter your roof would collapse before spring.”
Sackville, New Brunswick
“This is a town that understands tradition…Mrs. Helen C. Beale wouldn’t think of going downtown to mail at letter without putting on a dress, white gloves and a hat.” “the driving factor behind the new clock tower is that public’s displeasure with not having a clock in the downtown core.”
“Like all small towns, Sackville’s greatest export is her people.”
“In western Canada, prosperity is calculated in units of verticality. Oil rigs, grain elevators and silos measure the land.”
“first grain elevator in Canada was built in Gretna, Manitoba, in 1881.”
“you hate to see your home town go. But there is nothing you can do to stop it going. You can’t survive on a small farm anymore.”
“Donna Hodgson is the postmistress, and she is the sixth person (three men, three women) to hold the job since the post office opened on August 1, 1889.”
The Foxwarren arena illuminates Foxwarren the way the Roman Catholic Church used to illuminate Quebec. Hockey in Foxwarren is a faith, a theology and a creed. In Foxwarren you don’t go tot eh game as much as you give yourself to The Game. You don’t enjoy hockey. You believe in it… if you live in Foxwarren you can’t escape the arena’s gravity.”
“Like many old men, Andy has become the embodiment of a better era – living proof that the stories everyone has heard actually happened. With his old age he blesses everyone else with youth.”
“At the turn of the century and for thirty years after that, the tracks on these prairies were haunted by the most romantic train in Canadian history – the silk train. Silk that arrived in Vancouver by boat had to be shipped to the Lakehead quickly… they were given priority over all other trains on the tracks. Once a train carrying Prince Albert (later George VI) was shunted onto a siding to wait while a silk train burned past.”
“Left alone in a museum, it doesn’t take much to make a grown man twelve. Wondering vaguely what I will say if someone walks in, I climb into the saddle and lean on the saddle-horn as I read the typed note pinned to the wall. The horse that Tom Thee Persons rode to fame was known as Cylcone.” Who knew this piece of Calgary’s Stampede history is housed in the Nakusp Museum?
“Maybe when death is all around you, maybe when everyone’s children are dying, maybe when the winter blows cold and the nights are dark and your ten-year-old daughter gives a little cough and your heart seizes and you look at your husband with frightened eyes and then the priest comes and then she dies, maybe you find a way to make sense of things. But how, after five have gone, could you have a sixth? And how, when your last boy dies, could you plant a crop, go to church, milk a cow, eat a meal, smile, laugh and carry on?”
“Essentially Albert Lawlor drives the Popemobile up and down highway 10 every day.” Yes the same popemobile Pope John Paul II used when he toured North America in September 1984.
“It was a big change. The more people got TV’s, the less you saw of them. Before the TV, everyone depended on everyone else…you visited. You helped each other.”
“If you really want to understand a place, you can’t do it from an automobile.”
In “Welcome Home” over and over again you read stories about why people love their small towns - the common denominators being everybody knows everybody, nobody locks their doors, shopkeepers work on credit and lamenting the loss of jobs.
Full of everyday stories of everyday people, it is a fun read of what life used to be like whether you lived during that time or not. I loved McLean’s comment when he was reflecting on the changes in the way hockey is played today vs 50 years ago, “somehow the game seemed purer when I was young.” I expect that applies to everything in the game of life.
We would like to thank the following for their assistance with our small town flaneuring in 2013:
- Red Lion Canyon Springs, Twin Falls
- Tourism Idaho
- Best Western Plus University Inn, Moscow, Idaho
- Moscow Chamber of Commerce, Moscow, Idaho
- Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau
- Pam Scott, VP Communications, Red Lion Hotels
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