I grew up in a small rural village in Saskatchewan called St. Benedict, which in the 1950s and early 60s would have had a population of 200 or more. There are now about 80 people living there. Twenty years ago, in August 1993, our village held a homecoming event. People who once lived in the area came from far and near to attend and the Saturday evening barbeque was served to almost 1,200. St. Benedict and nearby community of Reynaud (where no one lives any more) also published a community history. They called it Treasured Memories and asked me to write a Foreword. This article is adapted from it.
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When as a child I was sent to bed at night, I would sometimes set out to count all of the people living in and around St. Benedict. Usually I fell asleep before I completed the census, but one thing was certain. I knew every last person in the town and surrounding countryside and all of them knew me. Now, many years later, as I walk along my street in a pleasant, but less familiar city, I look at the houses and ask myself who lives in them.
Life in a little village is not inherently better than life anywhere else. Still, there is much from life in my village which I have never been able to replace. The sights, sounds, smells, and above all the characters who populated my childhood continue to inhabit me almost 30 years after I left there as an adolescent. There is rarely a day when some random thought or recollection doesn’t present itself, sometimes in a subtle, almost unconscious way. For example, I lived ten miles from where I worked in Ottawa, and frequently I caught myself measuring that as the distance from St. Benedict Middle Lake to the neighbouring village of Middle Lake.
It is indeed remarkable, the way in which memory can collapse time and space so that at one moment we are adults at work, and the next we are children catching the smell of fresh bread as our mother pulls it from the oven and calls us to the table.
I will never know another place as completely as I knew this one. Nor will I belong anywhere as thoroughly as I did here in the green and rolling parklands dotted by small sloughs and the remaining willow bluffs and poplar trees.
A good story
We remain by and large a farming community, descended from peasant people in Europe; Germans, Ukrainians, French, Hungarians and others. Our most vibrant culture continues to be an oral one. Some of us can tell a pretty good story and we all like to hear one. All of this talk, this wonderful talk, is the long poem of our lives in this place, lives filled with ordinary events, but also with tragedy, humour and even some heroism. It is a story as noble and deserving as any other.
A group of good people got together to research and assemble this community history. They have captured a story which lives in our minds and hearts and in our talking, but it is a story which is now scattered as widely as we are, and which otherwise would gradually be lost.
This history book and the community celebrations planned for its launching are occurring at a time of profound economic crisis. Our community is under siege by forces over which we have little control and which often we don’t even understand. It was about 100 years ago that our ancestors became part of those great European migrations which displaced, and not always justly, the aboriginal people who roamed these parklands and the great plains to the South. It has been a mere 60 years since the railroad first arrived in St. Benedict and the first false-fronted buildings were thrown together to make a village.
This is a mere blink of the historical eye but we’ve been losing families and farms, services and businesses almost from the beginning. Our neighbouring village of Reynaud is now a ghost town. Will we, who inhabit the land which aboriginal people used for thousands of years, be forced to leave this place after only a few generations? I don’t know. I do know that much has been lost but that much which is worthwhile also remains.
Between the lines
To give this community history book its due, we’ll have to pay close attention to what we read in it. We’re a subtle bunch with a tendency to understatement and our sense of humour is wry. To survive the dirty thirties, the weather and all of the farm crises, our ancestors had to be stoics. We’ve inherited some of that. When life is a mess, and somebody asks, “How’s it goin?”, we’re the kind of people who reply “Not too bad.” (When things are going really well, we say exactly the same thing).
We have also an old-fashioned sense of propriety. We’ve lived in each other’s hip pockets in the way that people in small towns do, and there aren’t many secrets here. But much of what we know we’re not prepared to say, especially in print. To savour these stories then, we must read between the lines and listen for what is said in the silence between beats. It’s well worth the effort.