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Kindness in a cold land

Wednesday January 31, 2007

Johnny Scott

Saskatchewan ? ? the land of the living skies? ? is Canada?s largest province, the heartland of the continent?s prairies that stretch as flat and featureless as a billiard table from horizon to horizon. Once, huge herds of buffaloes roamed here, a traditional food source for the Cree tribesman and, in the late 19th century, a lucrative income to professional buffalo hunters supplying the workforce who built the Trans Canadian railway.

An indication of the degree of slaughter is reflected in the original name of Saskatchewan?s capital city; until it was renamed Regina, the fledgling metropolis was known as Pile o? Bones due to its adjacent heaps of buffalo carcasses. Now the vast plains are the nation?s grain belt. In the summer they are a golden sea of corn, ripening in the sweltering heat. From October until the end of March, the massive landscape is covered in snow and temperatures can sink to -40C.

Despite the extremes of weather, Saskatchewan is increasingly becoming a destination for British farming families wishing to relocate. Among recent immigrants are the McGees, from Londonderry: Darren, Nancy and their two sons, Joseph and Eamon. Theirs is a familiar story: a sense of desperation created by falling farm prices, supermarket domination and government policies that marginalise British farmers. The 150-acre mixed farm that had been in the family for four generations was barely generating a living, and there was no future for the two boys. To survive as a farming family unit, they had to consider emigrating.

Great white north

Canada, and Saskatchewan in particular, seemed to offer the opportunities and acreage the McGees were looking for at an affordable price. The province has 45% of all farmland in Canada with a low-density population relative to its enormous geographic scale. The demands of lifestyle investors have made farmland in Northern Ireland some of the most expensive in Europe. Following two trips to view potential properties, the McGees purchased 2,500 hectares in the New World from the sale proceeds of their farm.

The move to Saskatchewan in May was fraught with emotions. Darren had to say goodbye to his beloved retrievers. Nancy was heartbroken at leaving her elderly parents. Joseph, at 20 years old, had just begun his first serious relationship and could only be persuaded to join the move by being promised a 6.8-litre Ford truck with a V10 engine. Eamon, 17, a taciturn youth prone to long silences, stopped speaking altogether.

Spring in Saskatchewan is a frantic time. As soon as the snows melt, farmers work flat out to get seed into the ground. Darren, Joseph and Eamonn started immediately, while Nancy began unpacking the mountains of cardboard boxes. On the family?s second day in Canada, jet-lagged and dizzy with exhaustion, Nancy received the news that her mother had died. Forty-eight hours after arriving, she was flying back to Belfast, alone.

?It was the most awful experience in my life,? Darren told me. ?There is only a short sowing period and with such a huge acreage, the boys and I simply could not leave ? if we had, the farm would have gone bust in the first year.? Working round the clock, there was no time to unpack. They found some blankets and slept on the floor, living off beef burgers bought in Southey.

News of their plight soon spread and they began to meet the neighbours.

Seeds of friendship

?I have never known such kindness,? Darren told me. ?Just when I thought we couldn?t carry on, complete strangers started turning up with tractors and seed barrows to help us get the crops in. At night, when we got home, someone had always been in and left a cooked meal. It saved us.?

Three weeks later, Nancy was back and they were able to make a start in their new home as a family.

I visited them in early November, when the harvest was over and the snow-covered landscape glinted in the sunlight. After a bumpy start, the McGees appear to be very happy and have no regrets about emigrating ? even Eamonn seems less moody and more communicative.

Darren is pleased with the price he received for his grain and has a pioneering confidence about the future. Unlike Britain, there are no subsidies in Canada and farm prices are dictated by consumer demand. This is one of the best aspects about the move, according to Darren ? freedom from the mire of bureaucracy and the knowledge that farmers in Canada are highly respected members of the community.

The farmhouse, a modern bungalow, is snug and warm and with the busy period over they are looking forward to socialising. Southey is a fairly typical prairie town with enormous grain silos, a bank, post office, cafe where the local farmer?s wives congregate for coffee on a Tuesday morning, and a seedy hotel. On Thursday nights, this is the venue for Saskatchewan?s equivalent of the Young Farmers Club and Joseph rumbles down in his monster vehicle, the V10 engine grumbling seductively, to meet the sons and daughters of his neighbours. Hoping, no doubt, that ?Wanna ride in my truck?? will soon replace the love he left behind.

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