Many rural communities in Saskatchewan are battling outmigration and aging business communities. But two small towns in Saskatchewan are bootstrapping innovative thinking to buck that trend.
Outmigration alongside aging infrastructure and business communities is challenging the vitality of many rural communities in Saskatchewan.
The pattern of people moving out of rural communities for urban centres is nothing new, of course. The rural population in the province has dipped from 84 per cent in 1901 to 34 per cent more recently.
Unfortunately, the additional challenge of what Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) calls the “succession tsunami,” a combination of an aging population and baby boomers retiring from their businesses, is also pressuring rural main streets throughout the prairies and across Canada. Saskatchewan is no exception to this statistical reality.
And yet, at least two towns in this province have found ways to work against the trend and in some cases grow. Both Nokomis and Shaunavon have discovered unique ways to use local assets to gain critical infrastructure and attract new people and businesses. But it hasn’t been easy and having no choice but to innovate has driven a lot of this ingenuity.
Nokomis, a small pocket of trees and early to mid-century homes sharing the prairies of south-central Saskatchewan with oil seed and grain farms as far as the eye can see, boasts one of the finest craft breweries in the province. The community also has the “combination of luck and fate” to sit at the intersection of three broadband networks, a vital bit of infrastructure in today’s world.
“Redbird and more importantly Flex Networks, was running a network trunk from Saskatoon to Regina right passed Nokomis,” says David Mark, mayor of Nokomis. “Now we have three levels of redundancy, which is almost ridiculous for a town of 400 and twenty or twenty-five people.”
Rural infrastructure is the backbone of the Saskatchewan economy. A complex network of roads, bridges, and rail move vast amounts of manufacturing, agriculture, mining, and oil and gas products from mostly rural and remote regions of the province to local and international markets.
That means rural municipalities are responsible for much of the infrastructure, such as 162,000 km of roads and 1318 bridges, keeping the economy running. Today, rural connectivity is part of that critical mix.
“Access to stable and reliable internet has become fundamentally important to our everyday lives, much like electricity and other utilities are, and rural municipalities know affordable and reliable broadband connectivity is essential in boosting their communities’ economic and social well-being,” says Ray Orb, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities. “It is imperative for rural residents to be able to use broadband to stay connected to the broader world, their friends and family, their own work, education, and healthcare. An R.M.’s proximity and access to services like broadband can impact its growth and sustainability, both from a business standpoint and a population one. Rural Saskatchewan is where the commodities driving our provincial and national economy are coming from. Ensuring these areas have the connectivity needed to thrive and grow is essential and should be a priority for all levels of government.”
Recognizing the future is connected, leaders in Nokomis were receptive to the proposal from Flex Networks. But making bringing fibre to the town feasible also meant going door to door to get the critical mass needed to bring connectivity to Nokomis. Thankfully, the outreach efforts worked.
“Now every commercial and residential property in Nokomis has access to up to 2.5 gigabits per second which has set us up to meet both current and future needs,” says Mark. “So it really does set us apart from a community that [isn’t] connected.”
Perhaps more important than the attractiveness of fast internet is the scalability of this infrastructure for the future.
“Nokomis will be able to participate in the next 30 to 40 years’ worth of digital activities,” says Mark. “We’ve got the capacity to move thousands of gigabits a second when the time comes and we’re talking about technology that we can’t even imagine yet.”
The point of scalability is growth, of course. And Nokomis is aiming at more than providing quality internet to its current residents and business community. The goal is to attract new people and be positioned to capitalize on future technology developments, such as virtual health care so residents can age in place.
“It just helps both the quality of life in town currently, and it adds another attractive attribute or asset that the community can offer those that are either looking to live or work in Nokomis,” says Mark.
Besides critical infrastructure, such as connectivity, rural towns that can afford an economic development professional have a better chance of seeing plans being implemented.
But not every town has the resources. Verona Thibault, chief engagement officer of the Saskatchewan Economic Development Alliance (SEDA) suggests Saskatchewan is playing a bit shorthanded when compared to its neighbours.
“We can’t compete with the salaries in Alberta and Manitoba so we don’t have the boots on the ground to implement [community plans] in many cases,” she says. She attributes this partially to a disparity in provincial funding earmarked for economic development.
Both Thibault and Mark noted that since 2020, Manitoba has been funding the Rural Manitoba Economic Development Corporation (RMED) and Alberta is currently investing very heavily in rural economic development. In 2012, Saskatchewan shifted from funding rural enterprise regions to revenue-sharing grants for municipalities.
Thankfully, for a community like Shaunavon, which has an entrepreneurial spirit and the resources to support an economic developer, finding ways to make things work comes fairly naturally. But misconceptions about rural living are not making attracting people any easier.
“One of the biggest problems for Shaunavon, and small towns in general, is misconceptions about what life would be like in a small town,” says Lauren Johnson, economic development officer for the bustling town of around 2,000.
Part of that misconception is that nothing is happening and there is nothing to do in small communities.
“And that’s a huge misconception because there’s so much going on here all the time, there’s always things to do,” says Johnson. “Small towns have a lot more to offer than you might think
Johnson says that since moving to Shaunavon from Calgary herself she goes out more because she knows everyone and it’s welcoming.
“You have this comfort level, feeling at home, a sense of belonging in a small community, which you don’t so much get in the city, which I think is awesome,” says Johnson.
Besides the misconceptions is the reality of both quality of life and affordability.
“People coming out of a city are used to needing to make $150,000 just to live in a house,” says Johnson. “Things are a little bit different here because you can afford to buy a house, which is a very nice thing compared to the rest of the country at this time.”
Using video and social media advertising, Johnson has seen success in showcasing Shaunavon’s prairie lifestyle, affordability, sense of community, and small-town charm.
“I think it’s really valuable to show people what the town is all about,” says Johnson. “Because as much as you can tell them, it is easier to show them. And we’ve seen it work. I have people say ‘I saw your ad and I moved here.’”
Besides digital marketing, the town is being proactive in how it approaches business retention and expansion.
“We have a property improvement program that’s very popular with our businesses, especially our downtown where it provides tax relief to businesses to do exteriors, upgrades, and renovations, says Johnson. “We’ve really seen that transform the storefronts of a lot of our downtown businesses.”
In September of this year, the town also launched Shaunavon Opportunity Fund, an investment co-operative funded by local investors that will provide loans to small businesses in the community for capital purchases and business expansion efforts. The unique investment vehicle is meant to fill a market gap while also creating an incentive for potential entrepreneurs to choose Shaunavon.
“Sometimes if you want to get things done, you have to do it yourself,” says Johnson.