Alberta is a big place. Last week, I did the yearly trip to visit my wife’s relatives up north in a little town called Falher. It reminded me of our towns in the Crowsnest Pass but without mountains. We drove hour after hour through the richest province of Canada moving through the populated cities to the rural areas of the north. First, we saw fields with crops which would make most countries jealous. The huge fields are dotted with oil pumps. Later we entered a forested area full of standing trees and some towns where sawmills are the main feature, again seeing oil and gas activities. We began to see cleared farmland and more oil pumps About seven hours from Calgary. It is an area populated by French people who like the rest of us are proud to be Canadians. The Town of Falher just celebrated its 100 birthday.
The town looks familiar since it has a “main street” which is the business center and the streets and homes on both sides look just like ours. The same phenomenon there as here: a lot of stores for rent, a drugstore or two, a hardware store, barber, little local newspaper, town office, and a school. Of course, there is a senior’s Lodge called “Villa”, senior’s apartments and a second-hand store. Apple is a major shopping place and instead of a chain name supermarket, they have a Co-op. The nearest other towns are shutting down. There are no stores, gas stations or any of the services which used to make up a town left. Most grain elevators are gone and the train tracks are being dismantled.
As you go through the rural Alberta areas one aspect is most obvious. The little old farms which made up the communities are mostly gone. There are a few farms still existing but not many.
I sat by the fire with an old farmer who explained the situation. The rural people, farmers, and ranchers used to be the backbone of America and Canada. They could not afford to be as “efficient” as Big Ag, huge corporations who buy and operate farms. The farmers who used to feed America are no longer doing it. The land is producing commodities for export and the food is often imported.
During the last thirty or forty years, Big Ag lowered commodity prices at harvest times and forced little farmers to sell, often buying the farmers' homes and renting back to them. Later the kids left and a way of life was gone. The towns no longer had people and with the reduced tax-base services disappeared. Rural hospitals were gone, government services reduced, businesses closed, police moved away, parishes disappeared, dealerships closed and rural America went into death throes. The only towns that do well are close to cities serving as bedroom communities and look like small cities.
Now the profit from farms is going to big corporations somewhere else, no longer circulating in the communities. The old farmers are waiting to die watching their towns in which they invested their lives disappearing and not being replaced by something better. The old farmer wipes a tear, blows his nose and goes silent. He sold his land to a corporation based in the city and his farmhouse was moved off the land that his folks pioneered. His kids are in the city and his town may lose its local newspaper that existed for eighty years. He fed the nation, and the nation did not protect him as he always expected they would.
I try to console him by saying that the same process is happening in the city. Our small businesses are all but gone, and all the services we used to have are disappearing, I say. We no longer even have cashiers in some Walmarts, I tell him. So-called independent businesses are now a franchise.
I look at the ancient face scarred by wrinkles of hardship, weather, and hard work. The flickering light from the fire reflects not only in his old style glasses but in his somewhat cloudy yet sharp eyes. He is not the kind of person who would utter lies even under stress. He is all of our farmers and ranchers who used to be the backbone of the country and now are seeing the end of their era. The farmers he said, lost to the corporations. We should have never let it happen. He leans closer to me and asks, what is the world coming to?
The fire crackles and embers rise into the night sky. The old farmer keeps explaining. In nature, he says, those who are weaker combine forces and defend themselves in groups. Our quest for being the rugged individual that wins all changed it. Competition was good for us but we let it go overboard. We took away people’s abilities to combat takeovers by a few and used laws to break natural group resistance. We had laws protecting little guys from monopolies but they are mostly gone. Few are doing well, some are working for them and are all right, but many are being set back. We live longer more comfortable lives he said, but it’s a lonely life devoid of emotions. Families are broken and communities are gone.
He points a finger at me and continues: we should also think about the future. When they no longer need workers, soldiers, and farmers, what will they do with us? Will they allow us to have medicine, social programs, and care as we age?
I drive back from the north to the south noticing the deteriorating farms and shrinking towns. It is a rich province but who does it serve? What will happen when it will be empty of people? I realize that success is based on balance and balance is achieved by matching the people’s power with market forces. We need both. It's no longer capitalism versus labor, it’s a choice of how humanity will be shaped in the future.
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