little town blues

Disclaimer: long post follows.

I came from a small town. Okay, so I wasn’t born in a small town. I was born in Montreal, arrondissement Côte-des-Neiges. My family didn’t live in a small town at the time, either. They lived in Longueuil, on the south shore. But the earliest thing I remember was living in a farmhouse just off the Georgian Bay, in southern Ontario. When my family moved to the Ottawa area, we set up camp in one of the most remote parts of the city, on the east end. There was a farm up the hill and another down the main road, and our street was a sleepy loop of a bedroom community that wasn’t even on the maps at the time. whenever friends did come down to my house (which wasn’t often) they would claim that I lived at the ends of the earth. To be honest, it was boring. I would sometimes walk down to the corner store out of boredom, to check the selection of comic books or get popsicles or a bag of potato chips. For a time, there was another corner store (!) a little further down that had an arcade-style Super Mario Bros. game – so I would sometimes walk down there, ask the guy at the garage to split a five-dollar bill into quarters, and then spend an hour jumping on mushrooms and turtles to my heart’s content. I tended to get depressed back then, too. When I was really bored (or depressed) I would go for a walk down to the crusty old dock to watch the ferries go back and forth between the Quebec and Ontario sides of the Ottawa river. I hadn’t made a lot of friends in the village (and un-made some of the ones I had made), so it was lonely and boring as all get-out. There was nothing to do. I hated it.

Now, though, I go back there and see that the village has picked up. Maybe it’s just that I’m less depressed and I see more things happening around me, but I think the place has really livened up too. There’s been a lot of development there in the past fifteen years, as the National Capital region amalagamated into the City of Ottawa, and people began to explore the benefits in moving out of the big crowded downtown and staking out a corner of land in the quaintness and relative quiet of the suburbs. Local sports teams are big out there – there are always huge soccer games, baseball games, hockey games and what have you. There’s a fancy expensive French restaurant (français de France) there now, and the ferry dock’s been upgraded and fixed up. They’ve developed a beach down the highway at Petrie Island, just a ten-minute drive out of town, and just a five-minute jaunt down the other way, the little town of Rockland is quickly growing into a big town – with a plethora of big-box stores moving in to the mostly francophone community, clogging traffic and drawing my parents weekly during their regular grocery run.

When I moved to Québec to help out the Baha’i community there, I saw small town life with new eyes. Mainly, it was thanks to the difference in culture between anglo and franco, but also because I was there in a spirit of service, and determined to find out what made these people tick and how best I could serve them. For example, Warwick, a little town outside Victoriaville, with its cheese festival, coffee roastery, and worldwide potato chip headquarters. Baie-du-Febvre with its geese. Saint-Ferdinand with its hills, and its lake.

While I was there, I worked with two wonderful organizations affiliated with the federal government through the Community Futures Network, known as the Réseau des SADC (Société d’aide au développement des collectivités) in Québec. One was in Bécancour and the other was in Victoriaville. Each one works with members of the local community who are looking to set up business or community projects that would, in some way, develop the economy of the village and get things moving. A lot of their help is financial, but while I was there I helped with some other things, too. The one in Victoriaville hired me to co-ordinate the PAC program – community internet access centres, where you can go to use high-speed Internet for a very low price. I also spent some time giving computer classes. Most of the interested parties were older folks with nothing else to do, and who wanted to learn a new skill. Groups of 50- to 60-year-olds would come to the classes and watch the strapping young man of 23 that I was show them how to double-click. I never got many teenagers – they already knew how to use computers… for playing online games, chatting, surfing the web, and whatever else they cared to do. Besides, the teenagers usually had computers at home.

Québec is a beautiful place, but it’s a troubled place too. I was at a going-away party for my friend Aref on Thursday night and I met one of his co-workers, who’s originally from Québec City. We got to talking about Québec (the province), and one of the things she mentioned was that the province has the highest suicide rate of all of Canada. I can verify this through having lived in Drummondville (which apparently is one of the cities with the highest teen suicide rate in all of Québec). Apart from being influenced by increased drug use, fewer job opportunities, boredom, and so on, we theorized that part of this debacle might also be a general lack of hope brought on by the collapse of Catholicism and the rejection of the Church in Québec. Said rejection was a reaction against the dehumanizing oppressiveness and tyranny of the Church in French Canada during the first half of the century, an oppressiveness that many baby-boomers alive today, including my own mother, went through. She’s told me enough horror stories about les soeurs (the nuns) and les curés (the priests) that I’d rather not hear any more. Anyway, if I understand correctly, that’s partly what the Quiet Revolution (révolution tranquille) was all about.

Anyway, all this is just leading to what I really wanted to mention. I was searching for quebec-related stuff today when I came across an article from the Montreal Gazette entitled It takes children to raise a village, the story of a little village in the Beauce called Saint-Magloire, and its struggle to keep its only elementary school open and prevent a slow descent from village to ghost town. Having worked at the SADC and met a lot of people from the little villages around the Centre-du-Québec, I relate to the story. “Demographic decline” has killed a lot of small towns throughout the landscape, as children grow up, move to the big city and never come back. Sometimes, as mentioned in the article, it’s about education, or lack thereof in those small villages. Sometimes it’s because there’s no work to be found in their field. Combine all these factors with the ubiquitous disintegration of family and community units due to emotional, spiritual and psychological dysfunction, and what reason does anyone have for staying in a place that offers them nothing to see, nothing to do, and no tangible source of economic or moral support?

There are material and spiritual reasons for leaving one’s place of origin (besides altruistic reasons such as pioneering): either you leave because the place isn’t providing you with the material support you want or need, or because it isn’t providing you with the spiritual support you want or need. Does that make sense? I hope so; let me know otherwise. It’s true that I haven’t gathered all the scientific evidence I need here, except the knowledge that rural exodus is a given fact, that people – especially young people – are leaving the country in troops to settle in the cities. I also must admit that I haven’t developed my arguments a whole lot. I rather suspect (i.e. this is a hypothesis) that moral and spiritual emptiness is an important factor.

If that’s so, then it would return us to the secularization of culture – the rejection of the Catholic Church I mentioned above. I’m not saying we should have stayed with the nuns and their rulers, or the priests and their extortion schemes[1]. Nor do I approve of sociopathic pretenders who terrorize families and towns in the name of the gods of their idle fancies. However, the outright rejection of religion because of the actions of said megalomaniacs, without considering the benefits of religion and its power to effect positive change in individuals and society as a whole, seems to me to be like throwing the kittens out with the kitty litter. Take a look at what Bahá’u’lláh says:

The weakening of the pillars of religion hath strengthened the hands of the ignorant and made them bold and arrogant. Verily I say, whatsoever hath lowered the lofty station of religion hath increased the waywardness of the wicked, and the result cannot be but anarchy. (Baha’u’llah, quoted in The World Order of Baha’u’llah by Shoghi Effendi, p.186)

Although the secularization of Québécois culture during the Quiet Revolution undoubtedly had its benefits, it may also have contributed to the weakening of a vital pillar of society – one that united and improved the lives of many of its inhabitants.

What do you think? Are there spiritual underpinnings to the phenomenon of rural exodus, or it is a purely material, economic phenomenon? Is it the schools that keep the town alive, or is it the town that keeps the school alive? Are youth leaving villages only because “there are no jobs” and “there’s nothing to do”, or because the villages themselves are like a spiritual and emotional void for them? I’m curious to hear your thoughts. I’ll probably continue to develop my arguments on this topic as time goes on, and it definitely helps to have other points of view. Perhaps other tesidents of the blogosphere will provide some of these…

[1]: (one of the stories my mom would often tell is how the curé would come by regularly and insist that families, whatever their income, pay their tithe to the Church – even if the choice was between tithing and feeding their children)

2 thoughts on “little town blues

  1. I’m sure it is often the material lack that drives people away from the villages on the outside…perhaps they don’t realize that there is a lack of spiritual sustenance as well, which is more subtle.

    I know well the lure of the big city. And of the small town. But a young person looking for things to do will not be able to settle in a small town, they want to be exposed to different, exciting things.

  2. yeah, I guess so – there is a natural energy in youth that craves new experiences… I guess that’s why there is so much encouragement for youth to go pioneering and travel-teaching, and to go on a year of service. it’s the perfect time for it. what kind of sucks, though, is that we see so many youth leave and never come back, even when it’s time for them to settle down and raise a family. I guess that’s what I was getting at. There is so much spiritual (and material) need in those small towns and one growing family can put so much life into a small town. That’s why that article was cool – the people of that little town managed to attract and keep families with young children to keep their community growing.

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