Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Wanless still waiting for first big thing

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WANLESS -- If you've blinked, you've missed it -- but you're hardly alone.

Countless motorists zoom past the Wanless junction each year, few knowing the tiny community as anything more than the giant blue "CAFE" sign visible from the highway.

"It's a very secret town," admits longtime resident Alice Perry. "It's like living in cave, but that's fine with me."

If Wanless, situated 45 kilometres north of The Pas, is a cave, then its walls are not rock but the lush wilderness out of which it was carved.

Spread across gravel roads, it's a town of parts: part bedroom community of The Pas, part retirement village, part place you were raised and can't bring yourself to leave.

But no matter which part you come from, you belong to a family.

That is evident in its self-sufficiency. Whereas other communities wait for the genies of grants and governments to confer their wishes, Wanless is DIY country.

Lee Theriault, a retirement-age contractor and Halifax transplant, recalls how when the town needed a community hall back in the 1970s, it went out fundraising.

"The day we turned the key in the door, the hall was paid for," says Theriault, adding the same went for the church and the fire hall.

Theriault concedes Wanless is not perfect. It has its unsavoury characters, too, but differences ultimately become inconsequential.

As he puts it: "Even though it's a bit of a scrambled egg, it works. At the end of the day you still have an egg."

Wanless is like that because, well, it's had to be. Always small, the place was founded in 1929 with just a few scattered settlers relying on each other. Many came in search of something that was elusive during the Great Depression -- hope.

Early residents caught fish on Rocky Lake and trapped such animals as moose, deer and wild chickens. They picked berries and grew gardens. They sold what they could and ate what they couldn't.

A railway being built to the new mining site in Flin Flon, 95 kilometres to the north, fostered further growth. Work also became available in logging, a staple of the region to this day.

Perry's parents came to Wanless from Cormorant, a reserve to the east, not for the jobs, but to spare their children the residential school experience.

Now 68, she instead went to school in Wanless and in adulthood studied hairdressing at a community college in The Pas.

Perry once left for an entire decade but still found herself returning. A grandmotherly figure, she is something of a community matriarch, offering free haircuts to young residents whose mops would otherwise become overgrown.

It's people like her who have helped Wanless survive when a million communities just like it have faded into memory.

The latest census figures put Wanless's population at 194, and it has lost most of its heyday amenities such as the school, airstrip and post office. Even the café sign is dated since Dan's Restaurant closed last year.

Outside of tourism and a few small businesses, there isn't much by way of an economy. The last big boon, a nearby copper-nickel mine, shut down 20 years ago.

Yet the straight-talking Theriault still sees a bright future. He envisions a mining-fuelled resurgence in the north that will see newcomers hang their hats in Wanless.

"I would put my life on it. Guaranteed," he says. "This is the kind of place where people can have that (outdoor) experience, really have it, the fishing and the hunting, the whole nine yards."

Perry, too, hopes for more jobs for young people "so that their hearts won't be broken and they won't have to leave."

But either way, she has faith in the survival of Wanless even as older generations pass on.

"I see it in the children. They don't want to leave," Perry says.

You can also see it in Theriault, whose kids have been calling on him to move back east on a part- or full-time basis.

"I could go back there full-time," he says matter-of-factly, "but they'll probably be sending me back to be buried here."

Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 27, 2013 A9

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