July 18, 2006
Green, yellow and lavender blue, with patches of brown are the dominant colours of Saskatchewan from the airplane window on this bright day. Rev. Joanne Beacon, parish priest of St. Andrews’s, in Humboldt, who kindly picks me up at the airport tells me later that the green patches are mostly wheat that have yet to turn golden yellow; the bright yellow in the fields are canola and the lavender blue aren’t rivers, but flax fields. The brown patches are farmlands that are either fallow or in the case of some areas, destroyed by snow and more recently, spring floods. I have learned a new word – slough. It is the small bodies of water that I see mostly around barren fields; they are fresh water from rain or melting snow that didn’t dry up but turned into stagnant swamps or ponds.
From above it doesn’t look like the farmers of the “bread basket of Canada,” as Saskatchewan is known, are struggling. But in early spring a news story noted that Saskatchewan’s ministry of agriculture had increased the farm stress hotlines for farmers in flood-stricken areas who face the grim possibility of losing the land that had been with their families for generations. Wasn’t it just years ago (the late 1990s up to early 2000) when drought and later, floods, ravaged many farms and forced many farm families into bankruptcies in the Prairies?
The areas greatly affected by the recent floods are Porcupine Plain, Bjorkdale, and parts of Humboldt and Tisdale in eastern Saskatchewan and they’re the ones I’m visiting with the help of local Anglicans and the diocesan bishop, Rodney Andrews. I have asked to visit farmers who also happen to be Anglicans to see how they are coping, how they keep their faith, and how they keep their church going amidst the constant challenges of living in the ever-changing landscape of the Prairies. I’m also curious how the Anglican church keeps rural ministry alive amid the demographic shifts and the financial challenges they bring.
Ms. Beacon and I stop for gas at a co-op. Co-operatives are, of course, part of the time-honoured tradition of Saskatchewan; the province has nearly 20 per cent of all co-operative associations in Canada. “It’s key to our survival. We have to help one another and that goes for churches here too,” says Ms. Beacon, a transplant from Toronto who has called Saskatchewan home since 2001.
Speaking of co-operation, Anglicans were instrumental in setting up the Good Neighbour Store, Humboldt’s version of the Salvation Army. All the local churches came on board and appointed two representatives each to help run the store when it opened on Main Street nine years ago. It has raised more than $500,000 for charity and has set up an indigent fund for those who need help – from money for bus tickets or gas to overnight accommodations for transients.
I read that Saskatchewan has more roads per capita than anywhere else in Canada. No kidding. Ms. Beacon averages 2,000 km of travel each month to fulfill her tasks as rural priest. “That translates into a lot of wear and tear on your car,” she says. “The diocese has done its best to offset some of that. We have a unique travel pooling system that helps relieve some of the cost of that from the parish and balances it a little bit. But it’s a continual challenge because the cost of fuel isn’t going down.” But travel and visit she must. “The church puts a lot of trust in a rural parish and priest. I have to be the church here,” said Ms. Beacon. Home visitations, especially among the elderly are a big part of her work. “There’s always someone urban who says, ‘oh, you should get an electric car.’ Come now. You sort of scratch your head and the gap widens between what the urban understanding is when you begin to comprehend the distances and the cold and the heat and how important it is that that little old lady or little old man out there in the little house on the big, big prairie needs to hear that Jesus loves him.”
Evelyn Scott is one of those who look forward to Ms. Beacon’s visits. Homebound and 102 years old, she is the oldest Anglican in the parish. A self-taught artist, she loves painting horses; most of her watercolours now adorn her assisted-living home.
Mrs. Scott came to Canada from England as a six-year-old orphan and was raised by foster parents, who she recalled, never cared much about her. But the one good thing they did for her, she says, was to take her to church. Her life improved when she met her husband, raised a family and operated a mixed farm. Widowed for many years, Mrs. Scott lost her son last spring and spends her days praying and watching television. Still feisty, Mrs. Scott is an avid fan of wrestling and was featured in a book on centenarians to commemorate Saskatchewan’s 100th anniversary last year.
There are many more like Mrs. Scott who are growing old alone and the church tries to be there for them. “We can’t just say, well, you know this church isn’t economically feasible; these are people whose very lives were poured into maintaining the church and when they get old and alone they say, ‘well, you don’t make money as you used to so you can’t have a priest to attend to you and you’re going to die and you have to find someone else to bury you,” says Ms. Beacon. “There’s something reprehensible about that to me, something morally defective about a church that ignores its mothers and fathers and grandparents.”
Ms. Beacon takes me to what she calls a special place – St. Peter’s Anglican church in Mancroft, approximately eight kilometres southwest of Humboldt. The green rolling hills, occasionally dotted by barns and houses now empty, is breathtaking in its otherworldliness. It’s like a scene from the movie, What Dreams May Come. There used to be a vibrant community here 100 years ago. St. Peter’s was built in 1907 to minister to homesteaders; H.P.G. Crosse, an English missionary student, conducted services at St. Peter’s and served as rector of St. Andrew’s, the first Anglican church built in Humboldt in 1905. Today, the people (save for a family or two, including a recent transplant from Belfast) are gone.
“You can hear God speak here,” says Ms. Beacon, gazing at the expanse that surrounds the tiny church, which is perched on a hillock. Behind St. Peter’s is a cemetery, where the descendants of the early settlers are buried.
On special occasions, Ms. Beacon holds services at St. Peter’s, which has been maintained as a “living reminder of the pioneer beginnings of Saskatchewan Anglicans.”
Ms. Beacon talks about an emotional visit to England, where she met some of the people who donated money to build the early churches in Humboldt. “I told them I was from Canada and I thanked them and they were surprised and happy to hear that I came from a church they helped built,” she said.
We visit Earthcare Connections, an ecumenical charity that provides “lifelong learning about caring for the earth, sustainable farming and healthy living to students, parents, farmers and the general public.” Founded by the Roman Catholics and eventually supported by the Ukrainian Catholic, Anglican, and United churches, it operates many programs aimed at conservation and sustainable agriculture. Among them is the Genesis Land Conservancy, which acquires arable land through bequests or donations and converts them into “acres of hope.” Land held in trust is leased to people “who are committed to the organization’s principles of sustainable agriculture practices and stewardship.” So far, the program has more than 3,000 acres of land held in trust and 20 farm families in the program.
“This is a new area to apply Gospel values,” says Duane Guina, Earthcare’s executive director. “If we don’t look after all of creation, we will ultimately harm the human species as well.” Earthcare is one of the few groups doing environmental work from a Christian perspective, said Mr. Guina. The charity recently moved its offices on the grounds of St. Peter’s Abbey, a Catholic monastery in Muenster, Sask., adjacent to a farm, which also serves as a model “for a different stewardship of the land.”
July 19, 2006
We are unable to land our aircraft in the town of Tisdale, Sask., as a flock of pigeons and crows refuses to budge from the tiny airstrip that they’ve appropriated as their own. Saskatoon bishop Rodney Andrews, a pilot for Air Canada in his former life, turns around to avoid a massacre and to play it safe. After circling the air we try again and this time the birds flew away upon our approach.
The bishop’s Piper Cherokee 180, a single engine plane with a 180 horsepower engine, flies about 210 km/h and has logged about 2,500 hours of flying time.
A cautious pilot (he always goes over a comprehensive checklist before each flight), Bishop Andrews says flying allows him to be alone with his thoughts and alone with God.
Lillian Fleck, an active parishioner of St. John-Hillside in Bjorkdale, Sask., picks us up and en route to visit farmers from Bjorkdale she gives us a quick our of some areas devastated by the spring floods. (Pls. see Keeping the faith in ‘next year’s country’ in the October issue of the Journal).
On our way to Porcupine Plain, which took the brunt of the floods (roads and bridges were washed out and some are yet to be repaired), we drop by Tisdale for lunch. Tisdale is, of course, the hometown of comedian Brent Butt from the hit TV series Corner Gas. If Porcupine Plain has Quilly Willy as its mascot, then Butt has emerged as Tisdale’s unofficial symbol. His photos (including one on a billboard) are found in many places, including coffee shops where presumably he got some of the inspiration for Corner Gas. A Corner Gas program info sheet has said that Butt’s “love of small-town life and flair for finding laughs in the mundane” can be traced to “many years spent loitering” in Tisdale’s coffee shops. We went to the town favourite, Double J’s, and true enough, along with local artwork for sale are photos of the famous son gracing the diner/coffee shop.
We are told that a local church once tried to get Butt for a fundraiser. It didn’t happen, however; he asked for a fee that was beyond the church’s means.
Supper is a barbeque at the home of Bjorkdale Anglicans Niall and Susan Campbell, who operate a sheep and cattle farm. The Campbells, active parishioners at St. John-Hillside, are becoming famous for hosting a draft horse weekend at their farm every June. “People just come, they feed them and they have fun,” said Bishop Andrews, who has participated in one of these weekends, which can involve some good old plowing competitions.
The Campbells have played host to an assortment of folk, including a Japanese exchange student who lived with them for a time, and a CBC reporter who wanted to experience and document a typical day in a farmer’s life.
July 20, 2006
We’re off to an early start to Kenaston, Sask., where Bishop Andrews is taking me to the certified organic farm of Anglicans Arnold and Sharon Taylor. The Taylor farm is located in Allan Hills, famed for its beautiful landscape dotted by willows, chokecherries and native poplar.
With 3,000 acres, the Taylors have one of the largest organic farms in the province. Arnold takes us aboard his truck for a tour of the farm, where he and his son, Doug, grow a variety of crops – oats, barley, spring wheat, Canadian Prairie Spring, spelt, kamut, rye – and raise a certified organic herd of more than 100 heads of cattle. (Doug and his family are working in Vancouver for the summer but will be back in time for harvest.)
Some land is planted with clover and lentils to enrich the soil (Arnold calls the clover a “magic crop” because it produces nitrogen.).
The Taylors made the switch to organic farming 15 years ago. “To me it’s a more natural way of growing things. Chemicals have an effect on the soil; conventional agriculture is like a treadmill because you’re always working for the chemical company, the machine company, the seed company,” he said. If he used chemical fertilizer, he calculates that would spend about $20 to $25 an acre. Farmers who use chemical fertilizer “spend thousands and thousands and they all go broke,” he says. He points to a farm that’s up for sale. “He just spent so much money on fertilizers but his crops are not better than mine. I might end up twice as much as he does,” he says.
Arnold, 64, is well-known in Saskatchewan as the president of the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate, which filed a class action suit against Monsanto and Bayer Crop Science for losses due to contamination of their organic fields and crops by the two giant transnational corporations’ genetically-engineered canola and to stop the production of genetically-engineered wheat (www.saskorganic.com/oapf/). As of this writing, the Directorate was awaiting the Saskatchewan Court of Appeals’ decision on its appeal on the order issued by the Court of Queen’s Bench dismissing the farmers’ application to certify their action as a class action under the Class Actions Act of Saskatchewan.
About seven miles from the Taylor farm is St. Columba Anglican church, which Arnold attended when he was growing up. He recalls that in the ’70s, when it was a big parish within the diocese of Qu’Appelle, “the minister did everything – the Bible readings, the baptisms; nobody would do anything.” Today the church, which is attended regularly by 20 families, is moving more and more towards lay leadership.
On our return trip to Saskatoon we stop at the Prairie Gas Station, which has offers a free loaf of bread for a full tank of gas. When I tell the station attendant that I’m headed back to Toronto and would like to buy a loaf of bread to take home, he tells me to just take one, on the house. I’m taken aback by the generosity, but then what did I expect? This was the Prairies, after all.