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There is no telling what people can do when they put their heads together, hammer out a plan and call on the pioneer spirit of their ancestors to give them hope no matter how impossible the odds. In Ogema, a flyspeck of a town in southern Saskatchewan whose name means "big chief" in Cree, residents faced an almost insurmountable problem. Simply put, their town – not unlike many small communities in rural Canada – was in danger of disappearing from the landscape.
In spite of its dwindling economy and an exodus of jobs, something else was at work in Ogema: good old-fashioned community spirit. "Volunteerism is part of the culture of Saskatchewan," says Wayne Myren, who was born in Ogema, owns the local Napa Auto Parts store and also happens to be the town's mayor. "All our parents were immigrants. To survive, they had to work well with others."
To say the tiny prairie town's officials and citizens have been successful in working together is an understatement in the extreme. In 2008 – competing shoulder to shoulder with cities the size of Johannesburg – Ogema won a silver medal in the United Nation's International Awards for Liveable Communities. Carol Peterson, who sells insurance, headstones and GICs, as well as running a car wash and serving on 10 community committees, says, "Once you've had one success, the next one is that much easier to get." And lately Ogema is having its share, attracting industry, growing its population and making the most of its greatest asset – its people.
Ogema's bleak past
The outlook wasn't always so rosy. Back in the late 1980s, Ogema's future looked bleak. The provincial power company, the grain elevators and the railroad were all in the process of moving out or closing down, and Ogema's population had dropped from 510 to less than 300.
The families who stayed put – many of them fourth- or fifth-generation grain farmers – had a tough choice to make. They could join the migration north to Regina, east to Weyburn or west to Assiniboia, and say goodbye to the place that had nurtured their forefathers. Or they could take a deep breath, call a meeting and figure out how to save their community. Fortunately, many chose the second option, dug in and got the town back on its feet.
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How Ogema succeeded where other towns failed
Looking back, Ogema's first crucial success was realizing how much trouble it was in while there was still time to fix it, says Myren. And even he isn't sure how that happened. "We are blessed here," he adds. "Everybody says, 'Oh, you must have a great leader.' No, we have a group of great leaders – and they are our strong-minded people."
By 1989, Ogema had a newly minted Economic Development Committee, a group of some 20 citizens that included Myren and Peterson, who joined later on. One of the group's first ideas was to send a proposal to the provincial government, asking to be included in Fair Share Saskatchewan. That initiative was meant to decentralize government agencies and send them into communities like Ogema to help generate jobs and services.
But the proposal went nowhere. Without government help, the committee tried another tack. It decided to go out and get its first large employer. The company, Big Sky Farms (from the central Saskatchewan city of Humboldt) raises hogs. Hogs eat grain, of which Ogema has plenty. Expanding the company to Ogema would mean new construction, steady jobs and a ready market for the grain grown by local farmers. It was the beginning of the rebirth of Ogema.
"We started the process more than 10 years ago with Big Sky to investigate what we could do to help stabilize our workforce," says Myren. "Immigration was the key factor." Over several years, Ogema officials, together with Big Sky Farms, met with delegations from Germany, Denmark, the Philippines and Mexico. They were looking for new citizens, people who wanted a fresh start in a new country, and would come to work in the community and stay there with their families. The town's commitment was, "you bring them here and we’ll look after them," says Myren.
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Welcoming newcomers to Ogema
Over the past two years, at least 50 people from the Philippines have moved to Ogema and found jobs with Big Sky, as well as housing and a warm welcome. Redelina and Denis Leal, who came in June 2008, were among the first. Redelina, 35, works in the town’s day-care centre and is pursuing her Canadian teaching certificate. The Leals, including Denis, 35, and the couple’s two children, Reden, 12, and Harvey, 7, had to adjust – especially to the cold weather – but the town’s citizens made it easier for them. "People in Ogema have helped us out and given us things like winter clothes," Redelina says. "We are so happy that people are so friendly and kindhearted." In turn, Redelina and the town's other new residents extend the community spirit shown to them by painting walls at the town's pioneer village or cleaning up the rink after hockey games.
For the first year after the new residents came from the Philippines, community volunteers (including a teacher, a bank employee and a high school senior) met with the new arrivals every two weeks to discuss their concerns and offer support. "People knew that if they wanted to give them clothes or household items, we would take them to the meeting," Peterson says.
Volunteers also helped their new neighbours obtain social insurance numbers, find a provincial insurance company, enrol in driver's education classes, apply for the Child Tax Credit and so much more. "Pretty well everybody says they love it here and they're staying," Peterson reports. She adds, "the last family that came from the Philippines had six children," clearly pleased by the number of kids.
These acts of neighbourly kindness remind Peterson of two more of Ogema's successes – the community's school and its secondhand store. When a new grocery store opened on Main Street last year, volunteers turned the old one into a used goods store, an idea inspired by collecting clothing and furniture for the Filipino families. In its first four months, the store made $8,000 and it has become a local gathering place.
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Helping Ogema's youth with education
Just two years ago, Ogema's kindergarten to Grade 12 school, built in 1961, was facing a certain end. Total enrolment had plummeted from 250 students in the 1970s to just 58. What bothered the representatives from the school district wasn't the numbers, though. It was the great amount of wasted space. Ogema officials and residents figured that one out, too. "We took a big area and made it into a day care," Peterson says. "And we added a play school because there are so many young children here now."
Twenty-one new Filipino children swelled the school's ranks last September. The 25 spots in the day care – which is run by Peterson’s daughter Dianne Cleverley, who returned to Ogema in 2008 with her husband and two young children – bring the total to 115 kids.
Local veterinarian Andrew Acton is past chairperson of the school community council and is proud of its efforts, especially since he and his wife, Yvonne, have two young children, Kelsey, 8, and Corin, 4, who directly benefit from its services. "Ogema is an awesome place to live," he says. "It's a great place to raise kids." On top of his school activities, Andrew is on the board of the hockey rink with Yvonne. "The rink is very important to us since it's the community focus for winter activities," says Andrew. "In the summer, we help out by putting in shifts during Fair Day and other community events."
Saving the railway in Ogema
As well as saving the school, Ogema's citizens banded together with nearby communities to accomplish a herculean task: when the Canadian Pacific Railway wanted to sell 114 kilometres of railroad connecting Ogema to the west, Ogema residents, along with those from nearby communities, bought it. "CP removed track to the east altogether," Myren says, "so we can't ship there. But the west line hooks up in Assiniboia and goes on to Moose Jaw."
Five or six farmers borrowed money, laid their own cash on the table and did a share offering to come up with the $1.2 million purchase price. The result is the Red Coat Road and Rail, a vital link for local grain growers and the first community-owned short rail line in Saskatchewan. The next step was to negotiate the purchase of seven grain elevators. Ogema now has the largest grain-handling facility on the line. "Still, we can’t sit on our laurels," Myren says. "We have to keep growing."
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Ogema's sense of community
Speaking as if channelling the spirit of the original settlers is actually possible in Ogema, Andrew likes to point out a telling local landmark, the town's heritage fire wall. It was built in 1915, after a devastating fire destroyed the wooden buildings on the east side of Main Street.
"The community applied for a provincial bond to build the wall, and it was refused because authorities said the wall wouldn’t last five years," says Andrew. But in typical Ogema fashion, the community went ahead and built it anyway. Constructed for $1,300 with red brick, Ogema’s unofficial monument to volunteerism is 40 centimetres thick, 21 metres long, nine metres high and another two deep into the ground. And just like this town and its people, it is still standing strong today.
As this story went to print Wayne Myren, the mayor of Ogema, told Canadian Living Magazine: "World issues have adversely affected the hog industry in our province and we are doing everything in our power to support Big Sky Farms in these tough times. At this point, there have been no layoffs in Ogema. It's business as usual. Even though we have concerns that this could negatively impact our development plans, we don't feel that it is insurmountable."
If you go...
Located in southern Saskatchewan, Ogema is about a 75-minute drive from Regina. here are a few attractions worth the trip.
• Ogema's pioneer museum has 29 restored heritage buildings. the town holds its annual Pioneer Days celebration in July.
• The Ogema fair, now in its 95th year, is also held in July.
• The British American station, built in 1925, is the only heritage gas station in western Canada and possibly the only one in Canada. "It's the original 'corner gas,'" says Ogema's mayor, Wayne Myren.
• The sports hall of fame pays tribute to Ogema residents such as Arlene Johnson Noga, who played third base on the All-American girls Professional Baseball League from 1945 to 1948.
• To replace the original Canadian Pacific railway station, the community purchased a sister station from Simpson, Sask., in 2002, moved it to Ogema and restored it. It serves as a centre that displays pictures and artifacts and tells stories of how the rail line affected all the rural communities in the area.
• The Ogema Tour Train Project: tracking time in the new millennium is the town transportation committee’s current initiative to operate a steam or diesel locomotive on their rail line so that tourists can ride the rails through the local history and into the southern badlands. the project will have its official opening in 2012.
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