Manitoba is a treasure trove waiting to be unwrapped
By Dorothy Dobbie
Traditionally, Manitobans have viewed the North as a vast, empty hinterland of muskeg, snow and damned poor sledding, topped off by an icy northern seashore teeming with polar bears roaming on rock and lichen. This view has been supported by a lack of access, real and perceived, and very little real promotion. If and when we do venture in that direction, we often go by air, which offers a vantage point that underlines the impression of uninhabitable wasteland, dotted with a couple of mines and some indigenous reserves.
Farming at The Pas
Travelling overland by car tells another story, a story of unclaimed wealth and possibility so exciting it makes the heart race.
The Pas, the Gateway to the North, holds many surprises. For southerners, recent threats of sawmill and paper-processing plant closures instill a picture of endless and somewhat unproductive small-wood forests. Driving along Highway 10 (smooth as glass for the most part) does little to dispel this notion. The road is lined on either side by thick forests of poplar and spruce, occasionally opening to reveal a brief glimpse of Lake Winnipegosis.
But behind that forested façade as you near The Pas in the Carrot River Valley is a sea of wealth, 100,000 acres of it, in the form of rich, black earth – 15 metres deep and in some places even deeper – deposited there over eons by the rivers that flow through the land. The Pasquia and the Carrot rivers both flow through the valley and into the mighty Saskatchewan very near the town.
The Carrot Valley is a flood plain, so there are years such as this one when it’s too wet to put in a crop, but for the most part the land is incredibly productive. Thanks to a flood-mitigation network of dykes and pumps that was first put in place by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Authority after the big flood of 1948, most years are flood-free.
The riches here were no secret to those who have farmed this land going as far back as 1754, when North West Company explorer Louis de la Corne planted a crop of barley and wheat. This was the first European grain grown in the West, predating the farms of the Selkirk settlers by some 64 years. The growing season of 110 days is about the same as that of Portage La Prairie, but the rich soil, the longer days in mid summer and the intensity of light, make crops even more productive. The land is stone free, fertile and easy to work.
Farming here is lucrative. Just ask Tony Markus, who now farms 16,000 acres (about 25 sections), growing red wheat, canola, barley – whatever is in demand – and raises close to 1,000 head of pure bred, black Angus cattle on the farm his father started on a quarter section back in 1956. His beef is eaten at 529 Wellington in Winnipeg and the CN Tower’s 360 Restaurant in Toronto.
People of The Pas
The area is also rich in people, being home to the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN), one of the most advanced and forward-thinking indigenous communities in the province. Currently, Jamie Wilson, a member of OCN, is the deputy minister of Growth Enterprise and Trade under minister Cliff Cullen.
The current chief, Christian Sinclair, is co-chair of the premier’s Look North Strategy along with another home-grown luminary, Chuck Davidson, the CEO of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce.
The OCN has been operating Otineka Mall since 1975. It is the only shopping mall in the district. The First Nation also owns and runs several other enterprises, including a hotel, a hockey team and three parks. It is the second largest employer in the region. The on-reserve population is about 2,850, many of whom work in the various enterprises on reserve or around town.
In spite of this, there is a shortage of labour to meet the demands of the agricultural industry, as many of today’s youth are looking for less physically demanding work. This opens up tremendous potential for immigration, not just to fill the farm labour needs, but to invest in the agricultural industry itself. Regional farmers are getting older and their well-educated offspring have moved on to other pursuits. There are farms for sale, although none as large as that of the Markus family.
One of the town’s assets is the University College of the North, which has campuses in several northern communities but is headquartered in The Pas. It offers instruction in arts, business, science, trades and technology as well as education and health. Its new president, Doug Lauvstad, is brimming with excitement over the possibilities. As the former head of the Northern Manitoba Sector Council, and a member of the apprenticeship and trades certification board, he is fully conversant with the labour needs of northern enterprise.
What about tourism?
Tourism is a magic word in Manitoba today and much ink has been laid down about the glories of Churchill, but that there are many reasons to visit the rest of the land north of the 53rd parallel.
Most southerners know about The Pas Trapper’s Festival, which has been going since 1916, and the World Champion Dog Sled Race, but these claims to fame can be misleading since they leave an impression of a northern frontier community. While celebrating the past is wonderful, it is more relevant to know about the astonishingly beautiful local scenery, the crystal clear waters of nearby Clearwater Lake and the lakefront properties that are available here for as low as $50,000 with tax incentives to sweeten the pot.
Do people know about the fascinating and beautiful, moss-covered caves on the shore of this lake? What an opportunity to bring in Asians who would love to explore this stunning land. Packages could be rounded out with side trips to magnificent Lake Winnipegosis, one of Manitoba’s largest lakes. People could be excited to look for the legendary Winnipogo, our own Manitoba lake monster.
Indeed, the farms themselves would be an attractive lure to Europeans, who would marvel at the vast acreages and the gigantic equipment needed to farm them.
The Pas is a secret treasure trove for Manitoba, but we must encourage people to take a second look and explore the potential. If we let the secret out and loosen our foreign investment rules, we could attract billions of dollars here, helping solve our deficit and debt, and offering a richer, more satisfying way of life for the folks who live there, 75 per cent of whom are indigenous.
What’s holding us back? Let’s open our doors and ask the world to drop by. This is an exciting place and it deserves to be discovered.