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A flatlander finds a last, old west

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SOUTH SIDE, B.C. -- You drive off a ferry at the south side of Francois Lake in the north-central part of this province and roll into one of the last western frontiers.

Most of the material things are the same as elsewhere. But the people are a bit different.

For one thing, they cherish their privacy. The settlement is new enough that people remember why their families came here: to get away from oppressive societies that never let them alone. "Stupid people asking a lot of stupid questions," an old-timer told me, my daughter, Jen, and my granddaughter, Gwynneth.

The first non-aboriginals came early in the 1900s, travelling by pack and saddle horse for a month over rough ground and in rough weather the 240 kilometres from Bella Coola on B.C.'s west coast. More came when the Grand Trunk Pacific, a transcontinental railway, passed nearby in 1914 on its way to Prince Rupert. Still more wandered in during the '30s and '40s. "We even got a bunch of hippies in the '60s," says Dave Critchlow, a longtime resident and retired stockman. One of them was my sister, Pat, who married Critchlow.

Many of the newcomers settled on the small farms and ranches that are dotted around the area's lakes and rolling, tree-clad hills. In the background are the Tweedsmuir Park mountains. South Siders are the people who live in the bush at the end of long gravel driveways. A few rusting cars and farm implements usually decorate the front of their properties.

Outsiders have called them rednecks, but that's not accurate. They usually get along even though they have vastly different backgrounds -- aboriginals, railway construction workers from the east, Mennonites, ranchers from America's northwest and, yes, hippies.

"We had two lesbians who ran a store," says Critchlow. "They did well. People thought they was from Lebanon."

They are also not candidates for the Tea Party. They want government services, such as hydro and health, and are willing to pay for them if they are effective and efficient.

Privacy, though, is where they differ at least from me. I've been poked and prodded so much by government that I no longer care. Not the South Siders.

I was sitting around with some of them at my sister Pat's birthday party when I brought up the long-gun registry. My nephew, Sean, a lawyer in nearby Smithers, quickly told me about a woman who left her husband. She phoned the Mounties and told them her husband was despondent. They checked the registry, found he had a long gun and went around to visit him. "They used the registry to invade the guy's privacy," said my nephew.

"Bull," I replied. "The guy might have been a danger to himself or others. Too often, the police are criticized for not being proactive with people with mental issues. They did the right thing."

My argument didn't fly, but the discussion was soon over. South Siders are kind to people who are not as intelligent as they are.

They also appreciate a dry wit -- Critchlow hauled a big, worn-out Korean War army truck to the front of his property near Cheslatta Lake. He and his friend, Wes, painted a big sign on it: "Cheslatta Militia. For Hire." Critchlow's disappointed no one has called him -- perhaps because the sign is painted on a manure spreader.

South Siders love Canada. Most days. For many of its 87 years, the folks at tiny Wistaria have gathered at their community hall on Canada Day to lunch at potluck, watch their children play games and, some years, play mixed softball.

"I love this country," Sigfus Gestur Gislason, 64, tells me at this year's celebration. "I have no cellphone and most days there are no cars behind me on the roads." That's good. The South Side only has two gas stations.

On the South Side, women are accepted as the equals of men -- because they always have been. Living with pioneer men is not easy. In a book on the area, Pat Turkki says one fellow arrived for his wedding right from the trail. His bride "married him, long hair, whiskers, slouch hat, dirty shirt and all." After the ceremony, the groom informed his bride he'd pick her up in the morning. He had to stay with his horses overnight to make sure they didn't stampede.

A highlight for me of any trip to the South Side is a chat with my friend, Wes, a tall, rumpled guy whose family has been in the district almost forever. He displays the resilience of South Siders. He can do a dozen different jobs -- and he has done most of them because, even on the South Side, life is changing.

Now, he builds logging roads and then, where the logging is finished, he destroys them "to keep the environmentalists happy."

To survive in the new South Side you need to know more than one dance step.


Tom Ford is editor of The Issues Network.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2011 A10

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