POINTE DU BOIS -- Manitoba Hydro dropped the bombshell on Pointe du Bois just a few days into the new year.
Residents had seen the signs. Manitoba Hydro inherited this company town in 2002 as part of its purchase of Pointe du Bois and Slave Falls hydroelectric dams on the Winnipeg River. But Manitoba Hydro never wanted the town of Pointe du Bois, just the power stations. It put little into the upkeep of the town during the past decade.
Even so, when Manitoba Hydro made its recent announcement that it is closing the town, it was a bitter pill for people to swallow. Manitoba Hydro announced everyone must be out by Jan. 1, 2015. Some people have lived here over 40 years.
Then the town, carved out of Canadian Shield rock a century ago, will be razed and returned to nature. The Crown corporation may put a plaque somewhere, perhaps embedded in the Precambrian rock. Otherwise, this town will be erased from the map and landscape.
Rows of two-storey, mostly pre-Second World War homes greet visitors to Pointe du Bois. Most of the homes are vacant now and the streets are largely empty during the day. It's as if one of those fictitious bombs went off that kill people but leave the buildings and infrastructure standing.
The process of winding down the town started years ago, according to the 30 or so remaining residents. Manitoba Hydro wouldn't let anyone move into the houses when they became vacant. It was closing the town by attrition.
"They never repaired the homes," said Bill Sullivan, a Hydro employee for 22 years who rents a two-bedroom suite in the town's apartment block. "They let them get further and further into disrepair, and mold moved in, and they became contaminated."
Only about 10 Pointe du Bois building are now occupied, out of 44 still standing. There used to be many more but they have been demolished in stages -- six were torn down last year. There's also the apartment block with four two-bedroom units. Three units are occupied. When the fourth came open, Hydro refused to lease it.
There's no private ownership here. Everyone rents. The apartment suites go for under $300 a month, the homes for about $400. "To work here, you had to live in the town," explained Sullivan.
Pointe du Bois means "wooded point." Its hydroelectric power station was built in 1911 and is the oldest in Manitoba. The Pointe power station is small by today's standards, producing just 78 megawatts continuously, versus 1,340 megawatts at a Nelson River station like Limestone. Still, Manitoba Hydro sees good value in the Pointe station.
With no road access back in 1911, employees needed a place to live. Until the 1950s, the only connection to the outside world was by rail. So a company town was built.
For some employees, it was ideal. You got off work and went fishing or hunting. The town had from 300 to 400 residents at its peak. Cut off from the rest of the world, people pulled together. Pointe du Bois had hockey teams and an indoor curling rink. It had a medical clinic, a church, a school and community hall. Residents pooled their resources to haul in sand to make a little beach on the Winnipeg River, and to build an outdoor pool in 1967. (As part of Manitoba Hydro's purchase of the dams, it had to rebuild the aging pool, which it did a half dozen years ago.) It has a small grocery store.
Amazingly for a town in the Canadian Shield, all the homes in Pointe du Bois have basements. Did they blast through granite? No. Apparently, boxcars of fill were brought in, local people say. The Canadian Shield was levelled off into a little patch of suburbia.
The cheap rent softened the deprivations of living in a remote community. As well, for the first half century, Winnipeg Hydro provided residents with free electricity. But the only TV reception for many years was a snowy CBC channel. Then everyone got those huge 10-foot-diameter satellite dishes in their yards. The first road built in the 1950s was awful and tore up many tires and oil pans. The road was finally paved in 1973. After that, the Canadian Union of Public Employees won a decision whereby hydro employees at Pointe du Bois no longer had to live there, and many families started to gravitate to Lac du Bonnet.
"Personally, I think (the town's closure) is terrible," said Mickie Chapman, 27, who, along with her 20-month-old son, Cohen, is living with her parents in Pointe du Bois. Chapman was born and raised here and feels like her history is being erased.
"It's just ridiculous having to let the town go like this. It's only 30 people left here. Why can't they leave us alone?"
While residents have to be out by 2015, Hydro is offering an incentive to speed the process. If people leave this year, they can receive a payout of $12,000 so long as it's spent on a new residence or a vehicle for the extra commute. After tax, the incentive is about $8,500
Chapman's parents have lived here 30 years but have already purchased a home in Lac du Bonnet and will move out in June. "People have lived here their whole lives. Why wouldn't Manitoba Hydro give us an option (to stay)?" she asked.
Some residents were planning to retire here, and some already had. Some people have never held a mortgage, but now they will suddenly be required to get one and will have to budget for that. People living here before the 2002 purchase of Winnipeg Hydro were supposed to be able to live here as long as they wanted. "It was a slap in the face for all of us," said one resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Peter Duffield is more resigned to the closing. He has lived here for about 40 years. He continued to live in Pointe du Bois after his retirement.
"We're sad at the idea the place is going to be gone. Do you know old Pinawa, the old Pinawa dam, the first generating station in Manitoba? This place will look like that in a few years. Just the odd tree and a few cairns with markers on them," said Duffield
"I feel badly for my kids. This is where they grew up. It's one thing to move but to have the place where you grew up destroyed is kind of upsetting for them."
So why demolish Pointe du Bois? Why not give people the option of staying and owning the homes? Why not give others a chance to purchase vacated homes? It's in a lovely location, on a rise overlooking the Winnipeg River. There's a new outdoor pool. There are paved streets and street lights. There's a small store with liquor and beer sales and that serves hot lunches.
Yes, company towns get closed. But isn't there some kind of statute of limitations? Isn't there some sort of amnesty for a town that has existed for more than a century and become part of the lore, fabric and lexicon of Manitoba?
Manitoba Hydro spokesman Glenn Schneider said the decision came down to whether to spend its money on its core business or on being a landlord.
"Manitoba Hydro has an obligation to act in fiscally responsible manner," said Schneider. "You make decisions about the cost of doing these things and whether it's worth the input costs. There was a time we needed houses there when there was no road access and that changed when the road came."
Schneider maintained the housing stock is too deteriorated to bother saving. Many of the homes are from the 1920s and 1930s, he said. (There are also homes from the 1940s, residents say.) In addition to mold, a number have asbestos insulation in their ceilings. To fix the homes would be a significant cost, Schneider said. Hydro would also have to invest $1.6 million to redo the sewer system and treatment plant.
Schneider claimed the neglect of housing stock began with previous owner, Winnipeg Hydro. "We got them in this condition," he said.
There's some truth that the City of Winnipeg shares the blame. Winnipeg Hydro was a cash cow for the city and it never put enough money back into the town or the power plant.
But Manitoba Hydro's tenure certainly accelerated the deterioration of housing stock by keeping them vacant, residents say. Half of the 44 homes were occupied when Hydro took over in 2002. When people moved out, Hydro refused to let anyone move in. "People moved out of one house two years ago and it's already in disrepair," said Chapman.
The homes still occupied are structurally sound, people say. "Our house, I would say, is in very good shape. It's still a very nice house," Duffield maintained.
Perhaps the main reason for the demolition is that Hydro wants to repurpose the property. Schneider said demolishing the townsite will allow Hydro to erect a work camp on the site in the future when the day comes that the Pointe du Bois powerhouse has to be rebuilt. Others suspect the utility may want to erect another hydro tower where the village is now.
Hydro does not require government approval for the demolition, the province says. Although the site is within Whiteshell Provincial Park, the land is privately owned by Hydro. Since Hydro also owns the buildings, what it chooses to do with them is its business, a provincial spokesperson said.
"As with any other demolition, there are legislated mechanisms in place to deal with any environmental issues that arise," the official said. "We are confident that Manitoba Hydro will follow any regulations regarding proper clean up of the site and will act in a corporately responsible manner."
It's as if Manitoba Hydro doesn't answer to anyone, says Ingrid Bauer, who grew up in the area and now lives down the road in a cottage subdivision. She has started a petition to at least save the store and outdoor pool from demolition.
Yes, company towns close from time to time, argues Bauer. But it's extraordinary for a company to also throw everyone out. Many mines that gave birth to towns, like Lynn Lake and Sherridon, have closed but there are still warm bodies in those communities. People weren't evicted.
At a minimum, Hydro should have kept up maintenance of the homes, says Bauer. Then the hundreds of workers from Kiewit Corporation now here to build a new $400 million spillway for the Pointe du Bois dam would have some accommodations.
As it is, the Kiewit workers are spread out all over the region, renting any space available between here and Lac du Bonnet for $1,500 to $2,500 per month. The rents are so exorbitant that some people have rented out their primary residences and live elsewhere, to profit from the difference. Normal rent rates in the area range from $800 to $1,000.
"All these empty houses could have been used by these guys," said Bauer. "Hydro is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for these guys to rent, when it could have fixed up these places."
Then it could have sold the houses once the construction crew departed, said Bauer. People are willing to pay good money to buy cottages. Why not make these places available? Hydro sold off houses it once owned in Seven Sisters and Great Falls. And Hydro could have accommodated Pointe residents who want to stay in their homes.
"Manitoba Hydro says it's not in the business of housing. OK, fine. Why not let people live here instead of forcing them to leave? Why not make some kind of agreement so they can stay?"