Right in the centre - The long wait


By Ken Waddell

The Neepawa Banner

Communities have been waiting for over 100 years for the government to come along and “save” them. Hundreds of communities have died playing the waiting game and many hundreds more are on life support. 

In this area, the first semi-serious attempt at permanent communities didn’t happen until 1800. Fort Whitemud was established somewhere near Neepawa in 1799 or 1800. I have never been able to establish the exact location. Journals of the day indicate it was within sight of Riding Mountain and west of Portage, known then as Fort la Reine.

In the 1870s, the fur traders were joined by farmers and businessmen. Westbourne was founded in 1873 and Gladstone shortly after that. Neepawa became official in 1883, as did many other towns. By 1900, the map was pretty much laid out with small towns and a few larger ones. The railway lines were established by then and some wagon roads were being maintained. 

Since then, the number of towns has been in decline with the 1930s taking a big toll. The 1950s also took a huge toll on town populations. Every person who can remember the 1940s or even the 1950s can tell about “their” hometown and how on Saturday night, everybody came to town. The stores were open until midnight, the streets were lined with cars, pick-up trucks and even a few teams of horses. Every little town has the same story.

Towns and villages of Manitoba were established indirectly by the government as it was the federal government that financed the railway and it was the railway that drove development.

In the 1950s, both the provincial and federal governments decided to cut back on spending in rural areas. Towns were forced to compete for government services and resources. Not every town got finances for a water system, not every town got to keep the agricultural (Ag) office, not every town got to keep their school. 

In the mid-1960s, the federal government fine tuned this competitive process with the competition for centennial grants to honour Canada’s 100th birthday in 1967. This was closely followed by provincial grants in 1970 to celebrate Manitoba’s centennial. Prior to the 1960s, there were really no such thing as government grants. Government funding came in the form of a military base, the RCMP office, the post office, the immigration office, the Ag office, the telephone office, the hydro office and the highways office. The proliferation of grants didn’t really come until the centennial years.

What has happened is that communities have been waiting for 100 plus years for the government to attach the bib and force feed the communities. First it was government money through railways, then it was government services money, then it was grants. Governments simply take a set amount of money and dole it out to the community that cries the loudest or puts on the best smile. 

Now, with less people in many towns and some towns not even in existence, the services provided by government, and even the grants provided by government seem to be more scarce.

We can continue this system until there are only five communities and the City of Brandon in western Manitoba, or we can change things. The government should give out money destined for communities on a per capita basis, per annum and in perpetuity. That system would be fair but it’s not likely to be adopted. I have been promoting it for a decade but there is no indication that a majority of municipal leaders or government officials are buying into that policy.

Given that governments aren’t about to change and that government funding is likely to decrease, there’s only one option left. Communities need to do more stuff for themselves.

As an example, the Yellowhead Centre in Neepawa is debt free, in good physical shape and has about $100,000 in reserves. That’s not near enough for a facility of that size but compared to other communities, it’s also in good financial shape. Built in 1971, partially out of the left overs from the salt well and the CPR rail station, the YHC has placed the Town of Neepawa in the enviable position of not having to invest $20 million in a new recreation facility. And, even better, the Town of Neepawa only puts $75,000 per year into the YHC. That’s cheap compared to a lot of communities. That is the way it should be. You can’t and shouldn’t wait for the government to continually put money into stuff that you want or need. 

There are many other examples around western Manitoba but the point is, if you wait for the government to put on the bib, put the food in your mouth and then wait for the government to wipe your face afterwards, you may be sitting in your high chair, unfed, for a long time.

It’s time for communities to grab the spoon and start digging.