By Craig Funston
One of the most poignant sights I ever saw since coming to Alberta was something I saw on the walls of a community hall in Hairy Hill. I kid you not: There is really a place called Hairy Hill: it’s just west of Two Hills.
Hairy Hill is not sad for me because it has an intriguing name (even Harry Hill would be an improvement). Nor is it sad for me because there is no Tim Hortons [sic] there.
No, I was sad for the same reason that I get sad when I am passing through the Skiffs, Wrenthems, Etzikoms, and Nemiskams of our world, namely, for once-thriving communities that have become shells of their past. I understand that all of these places, to varying degrees, had farm and auto dealerships, schools, rinks, churches, and more than one restaurant.
What I saw in Hairy Hill, for your information, was collage after collage of grad pictures, probably from the ’50s and ’60s, if memory serves me correctly. The pictures of these young hopefuls are all that’s left of every one of the families they represented: Their empty houses, abandoned stores, decrepit public buildings, and overgrown lots are all that remain.
As an aside, because of the growing Mennonite population throughout this province—and the greater Two Hills district as an example– I am thankful to report that Two Hills, Hairy Hill, and Willingdon are being reclaimed, slowly but surely, as vital communities.
Call it Quesnelle Forks or Hairy Hill or Togo (in BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, respectively), I have always found it very unfortunate that once-thriving communities are now relics to a robust past. And it’s not just in Western Canada: Newfoundland and its outports are a sad story; northern Ontario and Quebec were tied in to primary resource industries, but when the need for certain raw materials withered, so did the towns that the work created.
I have always wondered if there could be a creative way to breathe life into these hamlets—even the villages, which are one ladder rung up on the scale of population designation.
As many of my fans, er, readers know, I am not in favour of big government; nor am I in favour of even little government sticking its corporate nose into business that’s not theirs. However, having any number of federal and provincial jurisdictions lending a hand to revive these near-ghost towns would be acceptable. I like BC and I have visited Saskatchewan, but my loyalty is primarily with Alberta, so let’s focus on our own Wild Rose province, one hamlet at a time.
I can think of many advantages of such a plan. Where do I start? Let me count the ways:
Quality of life and affordable housing would be two that immediately come to mind. Quality of life speaks to the safety of a small town living, of closed proximity to employment and shopping, of a more neighbourly and friendly context. (There are exceptions, of course: I am fully aware of the hellholes that certain towns and villages can be.)
Affordable housing means a quality house under $150,000. It’s hard to buy a decent half-duplex in any city for that. While that’s one direct reason, it represents other indirect factors—such as not slaving away with two incomes to make payments on a $500,000 house, with all the drawbacks of both parents working full-time produces. Only one parent working outside the home would be a positive impact on the family. It means that you own the house, the house does not “own” you.
Many young people often don’t see the value of small town living. They love the glitz, glamour, and glitter of the big city. A spouse, kids, and mortgage payments usually changes all that. To be sure, there aren’t the services and selection that a big city offers, but in the grand scheme of things, they don’t really matter. You can also drive to the city for your occasional (if necessary) rush. I have done it for years.
Bringing any level of government into the mix is actually dangerous; it would be better to come from the private sector. Some definite parameters would have to be in place if there was any government involvement, especially in the area of initiatives for retailers, manufacturers, banks, and infrastructure. Wooing people out of the conglomeration of the city cosmos would then be an easy sell.
Hairy Hill may never be restored to its original vibrancy. Those earnest grads, whose pictures I saw, have long gone—maybe in more ways than one—but there is a new generation that we need to encourage and entice to take back the hamlets of Alberta.
Maybe start with a Tim Hortons [sic]and build around that. That’s a combination of private enterprise and an established success story. Would that make it a “double-double”?