How the cookie crumbles

I was at Grasslands National Park, and in Val Marie last week for research for a book I’ve been contracted to write. Technically, it was a work trip, but I love that part of Saskatchewan, and it was a bittersweet treat to return to it.

Bittersweet because every single time I come back to Saskatchewan, it hurts because I miss living there so, so much. But it was especially difficult to return to Val Marie because there is so much uncertainty in the future. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how losing the PFRA pasture and irrigation projects are going to affect the community.

I was there to research how the park has affected the community, the economic impact of the park, a look at how grazing is being managed inside and outside the park boundaries, and to gain a perspective on the whole issue from a cattle producer’s point of view. I stopped by the RM office to study a map of the area and the park, and I was stunned to see that the PFRA pasture land is an area much larger than Grasslands National Park. It wasn’t until that second that I fully understood the severity of what’s happening to Val Marie, and by extension, the entire Southwest.

Whether intentional or merely the inevitable result of a series of catastrophic policy decisions, the area is being depopulated. Piece by piece, all the pillars of sustainability are being removed. Sure, the federal government may be motivated by their economic ideology, but it’s the people who are going to suffer for it. Even the staunchest libertarians will admit that maybe it wasn’t the government’s place so many decades ago to create the framework and infrastructure for the PFRA projects, but now that’s it’s here, ripping it away from the people who have built generations of lives around it is next to criminal.

When the West was first explored, the Palliser Expedition found that the Palliser Triangle would be difficult to homestead, and would be largely too dry for crop farming. Nonetheless, the federal government pushed people west to settle and break the land, with devastating consequences. In part, this is why the PFRA was established – not to save the land from the people who brutalized it, but to save it from the government who raped it with flawed policy to begin with. Landowners voluntarily gave back deeded land to form some of that pasture, and co-operative communities created a new culture around those community pastures. Having access to grass at the PFRA determined how many head of cattle a rancher could run on his operation. It affected how much lease land he obtained, and how much grass he kept deeded.

Likewise, the irrigation projects meant cattle would have winter feed, and entire operations were built upon access to irrigated land. Those with irrigated land needed less land overall, which freed up land for operations that needed more.
At the time, it was important to the federal government that the rural areas succeed. It was important to keep the land occupied, and sovereign. It was important for food security, and to keep many out of the ranks of poverty. It was important, because it meant progress. When the PFRA was established, it was viewed as an investment not just into Maple Creek, or Consul or Val Marie, but in the prairies, in the rural way of life, for the benefit of the entire nation. It was important in the same way that building roads and bridges are important – it was infrastructure that was a basic necessity for growth, prosperity and progress. It was important because it was the right thing to do.

Now these communities are expected to take over these lands and these irrigation projects so that they are user managed, operated and funded. But there are fewer users than ever – economics have changed – and producers were told in the ‘80s to get big or get out – and the investment into the PFRA seems like a lot to benefit a few.

But that’s a very skewed view of the situation and frankly, a very Kindergarten one at that. Intellectually, it holds no water. The PFRA employs people, and those people have families that attend area schools, and purchase goods and services locally. The pasture land and irrigation has helped provide a stability that in turn makes the entire region stronger. The environmental goods and services the pastures provide are well-documented, and contribute greatly to Canada’s carbon storage capacity. All of these communities help keep our border secure and sovereign and act as a buffer between Canada and the U.S. – these are the communities in which our customs officers live. There is an enormous amount of ranching and farming in the area and these efforts by a handful of people help to sustain our shortline railways, our elevators, and our service communities like Swift Current, Medicine Hat, Shaunavon and Maple Creek. Everybody benefits from the PFRA projects, and to suddenly expect a handful of people to completely finance them is akin to asking the village of Piapot to take over all costs associated with the TransCanada Highway between Maple Creek and Tompkins. It’s utterly reprehensible, and this attack on rural Saskatchewan cannot be tolerated and make no mistake – dismantling the PFRA is precisely what this is – an attack.

The issue is especially barbed for the people who live near Grasslands Park. They are told the PFRA projects are an expensive endeavour which benefits only a few, but they live next door to a near-empty national park. I stayed at the newly-built Frenchman Valley Campground, which was opened in 2012 and came with a $1.5 million price tag. On Canada Day, I was the only one there. In the mid-afternoon heat, a white and green minivan pulled up, and out hopped three Parks Canada employees. Smiling, they came over to me, and wished me a happy Canada Day, handing me a little paper flag and a cookie before they drove away, leaving me alone in the empty campground.

Meanwhile, back in Val Marie, residents are frightened and anxious. Through haying, seeding and harvest, their committees find the time to meet in the evenings to try and figure out some way they can save their PFRAs, but the numbers aren’t adding up. They can’t simply afford to run them on their own, and time is running out. But Prime Minister Harper and Agriculture Gerry Ritz don’t care, because in their heads, taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook to subsidize programs which benefit so few. Obviously, they haven’t had the pleasure of staying at an empty 1.5 million dollar campground.

It’s unfathomable and unforgivable that the communities of the Southwest are going to be sacrificed on the altar of this administration’s warped version of Conservative ideology. But in Mr. Harper’s world, when so few live in such a large federal riding, that’s just how the cookie crumbles.