Cities 'will win the day every time': small Sask. towns fight to keep residents

It’s a long-standing problem many Saskatchewan communities face – declining populations and a loss of local services as people move closer to larger centres for jobs, to maybe be closer to family or to just be closer to other services.

Census data says 80 per cent of Saskatchewan's small communities lost residents in the last 5 years

Viscount, Sask., offered to dig free basements for those who wanted to build new homes in the village. As many as eight basements were dug through the program. (Chass Lagaden/CBC)

It's a long-standing problem many Saskatchewan communities face — declining populations and a loss of local services as people move closer to larger centres for jobs or to be closer to family or just for access to services.

Viscount, Sask., a village about 75 kilometres east of Saskatoon down Highway 16, is not immune.

"When I first started on council in '94 … there [were] people moving houses out of town, like a one-a-month type deal," Mayor Moe Kirzinger told CBC News on Thursday, adding that the community once had about 600 residents.

In 2016, the population of Viscount was 186, according to census data released this week, down from 252 in 2011 and 272 in 2001. Still, the village boasts a school, a number of businesses and a skating rink.

And Kirzinger disputes the census figures, arguing the small village has actually grown since 2011.

"We have the houses to prove it," said Kirzinger, who grew up on a farm near the village. "We have people who have moved in from the last year."

Free basements 

Kirzinger believes the village may have as many as 300 people. He is proposing the village do its own census and fight the official number.

The village took a unique approach in 2012 and offered to dig free basements for people wishing to build new houses in Viscount. The program was discontinued two years ago due to a shortage of lots.

In total, the village dug as many as eight basements, Kirzinger said, adding that except for one house still under construction, all of those homes now have families living in them.

Who is moving to villages like Viscount? Kirzinger said it's mostly young farmers and miners.

"We're just out of the way, it's nice and quiet," he said. "It's not a hectic life out here. We have a lot of the amenities, except when it comes to hospitals and clinics."

Offering incentives not new 

The idea of offering incentives for people to move to small towns and villages far away from cities isn't new. The rural Manitoba municipality of Pipestone has been offering $10 lots in a handful of villages for years in an effort to boost the population.

The municipality sold 25 lots in five years, officials said in early 2016.

However, those who study rural economies caution against others trying similar incentives.

"Fundamentally, people need to live near places where they can have a source of income and employment and where they can access a full range of goods and services, both public and private," said Rose Olfert, professor emerita at the University of Saskatchewan's school of public policy.

"The urban centres will win the day every time."

Data from the 2016 census said 80 per cent of Saskatchewan's towns lost residents. The village of Hyas, Sask., near the Manitoba border, lost about 40 per cent of its residents, dipping from 114 to just 70.

Canora, Sask. shed about 10 per cent of its residents, losing 195 between 2011 and 2016, with a current population of 2,024. Pelican Narrows, Sask. saw a 20 per cent population decline, and now has 630 residents.

And those are just a few examples.

Saskatoon's population, meanwhile, grew by more than 24,000 people, or more than 11 per cent, between 2011 and 2016. Regina's population grew by about 22,000 people, according to the latest census data.

Trend not new: expert 

Olfert said the trend of declining populations in smaller communities is not new and has been ongoing for decades. The most recent data was not surprising, she said, with people flocking to urban centres for jobs and access to services like health care and education.

She said people in towns that have seen population declines are right to be concerned, but shouldn't panic just yet.

"Even though this trend is long-standing and pervasive, it doesn't happen overnight," she said.

"They should be aware of the trends and be prepared, but they don't have to think that the sky is going to fall tomorrow."

Back in Viscount, even though a number of homes in the village have "for sale" signs on the lawn, Kirzinger isn't worried about the town's tax base eroding.

"It's been working good so far. We've got money in the bank," he said.

"We've managed to look after ourselves pretty well."