As we wrap up production on the GDP project, we’re spotlighting an inspiring cooperative initiative in rural Alberta – an illustration of what communities can achieve when they’re united around a common economic vision.
The Battle River Railway, as it’s now known, runs about 80 kilometres or so between Alliance and Camrose, and was once part of an extensive network of local lines that criss-crossed the Prairies – a system that sustained hundreds of small farming towns.
But the western rail network has been shrinking steadily since 1977 when the federal Hall Commission – in a decision that many now view as wrong-headed – recommended abandoning large chunks of the network. Since then thousands of kilometres of track have been scrapped. In one 5-year period alone, between 1996 and 2001, over 2,300 kilometres of branch lines were abandoned. And as the railways disappeared, so did thousands of community grain elevators – the “Prairie cathedrals” that used to punctuate the Prairie landscape at regular intervals, each marking the existence of a community.
“The destruction of the elevator infrastructure signals the demise of a once vibrant rural society,” says Darin Barney, who occupies the Canada Research Chair in Technology & Citizenship at McGill University. Named as one of the “Leaders of Tomorrow” in 2004 by the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering, Barney studies how technological changes in grain handling have affected Prairie communities. “As the old elevators got demolished, the communities that used to surround them started disappearing – the post offices, general stores, taverns, restaurants.”
Barney describes how grain production and handling have become consolidated into a system of ‘High Throughput Grain Terminals’ – huge industrial silos, often ten times the size of the old grain elevators, owned by a few big companies like Cargill, Pioneer, and Viterra. “The losers are small farmers right across the Prairies,” says Barney. “What’s efficient for the big operators translates as extra costs for small farmers. They now have to move their grain over longer distances. Whereas before they would bring it to the local country elevator – now they have to travel 100 km or more. All that costs, and the result is that many small farmers have had to sell out. They just can’t afford to operate within this climate. “
“That’s why the Battle River Railway is so important,” says Matt Palmer, the Calgary-based filmmaker who directed Full Steam Ahead. “It makes so much sense – not just from the economic perspective, but on the environmental front too. And it’s significant that it’s a co-operative venture – one that took off with very little government support. We’ve come to think of Prairie farmers as independent businessmen, but there was a time – not so long ago – when farmers worked closely together, helping each other out. The Battle River Railway reconnects to that collective spirit.”
So could the BBR serve as model? “For sure,” says Palmer. “With CN wanting to scrap more and more branch lines, other rural communities are looking to the Battle River Railway as an example to follow.”
In a curious and strangely touching turn of events, Matt Palmer’s father – the noted photographer Harry Palmer – visited the towns along the Battle River Railway back in the 1980s. Here is a photograph that Harry took in the town of Heisler in 1988. Matt visited the same location in the course of his work on the GDP project: you can see an image of Heisler in Full Steam Ahead – although the grain elevator has since disappeared.
Philip Lewis, writer-researcher