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A small Sask. town sits amid uncertainty as coal, its main industry, is set to be phased out by 2030

Jessie Hicks grew up in Coronach, a tiny Saskatchewan coal town where time, at least in recent decades, has pretty much stood still.

For the past 10 years, Hicks has worked at the Poplar River Mine just like his father, a 32-year mining veteran, and younger brother, who started five years ago. The ties and connections are deep in Coronach, the patterns strong: Hicks’ kids have the run of the town, just like he did when he was a boy.

Coronach, named after the horse that won the 1926 Epsom Downs Derby, is a sweet place to live, says Hicks. Which makes the thought it might not survive the economic upheaval about to come a heartbreak for those who love it. In 2021, Hicks and the town sit amid uncertainty, with its main industry set to be phased out by 2030: coal.

Like other Canadian coal cities and towns, Coronach is being forced to pivot after the federal government in 2016 announced plans to move away from coal by 2030. The mine and power plant it supplies are set to close, barring any plans to repurpose the sites for clean energy.

While many towns and cities across Canada are choosing ways to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change, Coronach was never given an option. It — and neighbouring towns like Rockglen and Bengough, which also rely on the mine for employment — will have played a crucial role in making Saskatchewan a cleaner, more sustainable province.

Overall, Saskatchewan is aiming to bring down emission levels by 16 per cent from 2018 levels. In particular, the province highlights efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture, drive down energy consumption in government-owned buildings and shift to renewable energy sources.

There are huge challenges, however — 30 per cent of the province’s electricity still relies on coal. SaskPower, which operates Coronach’s mine and its coal-powered plant, is aiming to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent or more from 2005 levels by 2030. According to 2014 provincial Environment Ministry data, Coronach’s Poplar River Power Station is the second worst polluter in the province, behind Boundary Dam in Estevan.

Poplar River Power Plant near Coronach, Sask. Photo by BriYYZ / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

SaskPower’s laudatory goals are cold comfort to those whose jobs are set to vanish. Many feel they are being asked to do more than their fair share with too little compensation.

“I see no action taken by any government at all,” Hicks says ruefully.

When the coal mine closes, 300 jobs will be lost, along with $400 million in GDP. Estimates anticipate the population within 100 kilometres of Coronach will drop by 67 per cent, according to a town economic transition document.

The town of Coronach, Sask., is set to lose its main industry — coal — by 2030. But locals are not about to give up on their home. “The thing is, we’re not defined by coal,” one resident says. “Coal is part of our story, but it’s not the story.”

Hicks struggles to find the words to describe how he feels about the looming shutdown. His greatest fear is that Coronach ultimately won’t be able to weather the hit; plenty of other small towns in Saskatchewan have vanished in the past. Wikipedia has a dedicated page that lists ghost towns in the province; over 130 once-were communities make the list.

“It will definitely be pretty much just a ghost town, farmer town,” Hicks says.

Although there was some mining in Coronach in the early 1900s, the big change happened in the mid-1970s. An influx of workers arrived to the 300-person town (once reliant on agriculture) to work at the newly built coal mine, soon growing it to 1,000 residents. Since 1981, the mine has fed coal to the power plant.

Besides farming, Coronach is a single-industry town, Hicks says. When the layoffs hit, “I don’t think 300 guys can work for a few farmers,” he notes.

A small Sask. town sits amid uncertainty as coal, its main industry, is set to be phased out by 2030
Kyron Manske, councillor for the rural municipality of Hart Butte and vice-chair of the South Saskatchewan Ready partnership, is working to find post-coal solutions. Photo courtesy of Kyron Manske

Kyron Manske, a councillor for the rural municipality of Hart Butte, which includes Coronach, is aware of the concerns and has been laser-focused on trying to ensure there are post-coal employment solutions.

On the eve of a storm one day this spring, he’s out in his field, scattering seeds for his grazing cattle. The rain is welcome, he says, after a dry spell.

He lives on the property he grew up on, land he purchased from his parents, a stone’s throw from the U.S. border.

A small Sask. town sits amid uncertainty as coal, its main industry, is set to be phased out by 2030
Kyron Manske, who went to school for Agriculture Business, hopes farming can have a comeback in Coronach. Photo courtesy of Kyron Manske

He understands the distress of residents who are afraid to lose their jobs. However, Manske who is also vice-chair of the South Saskatchewan Ready (SSR) partnership, a group working on economic solutions, has his brave face on. He insists there is hope for the town’s survival. Five generations in, he says he has no plans to leave the town.

The SSR group, a combination of nine rural municipalities and communities, is trying to find investors to help fund projects in four solution areas: agriculture, tourism, renewable energy and alternative uses for coal. They’ve completed feasibility studies for projects in each area with the help of $2 million in funding from the Saskatchewan government.

If history is an indicator, Coronach is fighting an uphill battle. Saskatchewan has been losing population since the 1930s, says Gerald Friesen, professor emeritus in the University of Manitoba’s history department. In 2017, Statistics Canada reported 80 per cent of the province’s small towns had lost residents in the previous five years.

In the 1920s, most people in small rural towns like Coronach worked in agriculture and more than 5,000 grain elevators, affectionately known as “prairie cathedrals,” dotted the Prairies. Now, around 300 are left standing. Friesen says the numbers are telling.

“Agriculture changes. Equipment gets bigger, farms get gigantic and highways get sufficiently good that cars and trucks can cover huge distances easily. So the need for a rural service centre simply disappears,” he says.

Every grain elevator had workers, whose children went to schools. Those schools, along with other services, were consolidated when the elevators disappeared.

Friesen says the disappearance of coal mines and power plants will continue the momentum of the present move away from rural areas.

“I don’t think towns will disappear. Some are gonna survive, but many fewer,” he says.

Manske is trying to ensure Coronach is among those that make it.

One of the partnership goals, Manske says, is changing the perception of people in Saskatchewan about the reality of coal and its impact. He says inevitably, there are people in the community who don’t think it’s fair to shut down the industry, but overall, people have accepted what’s happening and value their clean environment.

“Where I’m sitting right now, I can see probably three miles into the U.S. I can see probably close to 10 miles from my house. Everything I’m looking at right now is green, it’s growing. There’s blue skies. It’s beautiful, right? Maybe somebody in the city doesn’t see that,” he says.

Sharon Adam, a councillor in Coronach, an SSR committee member and an employee of the power plant since the early 1980s, says a similar unease occurred when coal first moved into the area. People worried about big industry changing their way of life, just like they now worry about its absence doing the same.

A small Sask. town sits amid uncertainty as coal, its main industry, is set to be phased out by 2030
Sharon Adam working at the power plant in 1996. Still an employee, she’s working on solutions once coal is phased out in her community. Photo courtesy of Sharon Adam

The future, she says, is exciting and scary. “But I absolutely do feel optimistic.”

Coronach is almost as tight-knit as a family, and that community spirit will help the town survive, Adam and Manske said. When things need to be done in town, workers drive machinery from the mine to help out. You can’t go into town without seeing someone you know.

“I always make the joke that I have to stop waving to people when I go to the city because everybody waves here… you meet a vehicle on the highway here, you wave to each other,” says Manske.

When it was first announced that coal would be phased out, along with the initial fear was some measure of disbelief, Manske recalls. At first, Coronach hoped to win an exemption or find a technological solution like carbon capture to store emissions.

Since those were both axed, the SSR has focused on agriculture, tourism, renewable energy and alternative uses for coal.

Agriculture is an option that especially speaks to Manske. Many people already farm part time while working at the coal mine. And Saskatchewan is the world’s largest exporter of peas, lentils, durum wheat, canola, mustard seed, flaxseed and oats. Although grown in Coronach, the products are processed outside of the province or even out of the country. He wonders if a processing facility in the area could create jobs and localize the economy.

As far as tourism goes, the town is seemingly in the middle of everything. It’s the door to the Big Muddy Badlands — the beginning of the Outlaw Trail, which spans all the way to Mexico. There is the potential to attract more tourists, Manske says.

Regardless of which solutions are proposed, there is concern that people working in coal will be left behind. That’s why a just transition to clean energy is so important, says Hayley Carlson, president of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society.

A small Sask. town sits amid uncertainty as coal, its main industry, is set to be phased out by 2030
Hayley Carlson, president of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, interviewed Coronach residents in 2018 about the phase out of coal. Photo courtesy of Hayley Carlson

In 2018, she spent time in Coronach interviewing residents for a report, “Bridging the Gap: Building bridges between urban environmental groups and coal-producing communities in Saskatchewan.” Although there’s been some movement since then, Carlson says she heard the community was frustrated with a lack of government support.

Carlson and her team did initial interviews and returned to Coronach to present some of their ideas and thoughts about coal, climate change and clean energy transition. They met and broke into groups and recorded residents’ ideas and concerns.

“There was a woman who said to me, ‘You know, I totally get that you cannot support coal, so let’s talk about what you can support and let’s talk about what we can work on together,’ which really spoke to me (about) what this whole project was supposed to be about.’”

There isn’t a clear direction for just transitions in Canada, explains Carlson, who thinks helping communities in Saskatchewan would require SaskPower and the provincial and federal governments to work together.

The 2018 budget included $35 million over five years to “support skills development and economic diversification activities, to help workers and communities in the west and in the Atlantic region adapt to Canada’s transition to a low-carbon economy.” In 2019, it was announced that $150 million would go towards the Canada Coal Transition Initiative-Infrastructure Fund, which tackles infrastructure changes and other diversification efforts for areas transitioning away from coal. The same year, the federally organized Task Force for a Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities issued a report urging the federal government to act “immediately” to increase support in three areas: foundational supports, workers and communities.

Budget 2021 only mentioned just transitions once, but the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says there are a few initiatives that fit the profile: a $470-million apprenticeship service fund and a $55-million community workforce development program, which is specifically for transition plans in Canadian communities.

Carlson points to an Alberta Federation of Labour report from 2019 that profiled small communities in Canada that have successfully gone through just transitions and what places like Coronach could learn from them.

“This isn’t an impossible, uncharted territory; people have gone through this. And I think that, from those case studies, we can really see different partnership opportunities, different approaches that work that we could apply here,” says Carlson.

“I’m hoping at the federal level, if a just transition act is introduced and there’s increasingly more attention on this issue, we will start to see more of those pilot projects pop up.”

The future is uncertain for people in Coronach. The only thing they know for sure is that with the departure of coal, their town will be forever changed. With a cleaner Saskatchewan on the horizon, people like Manske hope Coronach isn’t lost in the transition.

“That’s a shock to the system — to wake up one morning and turn on the news and hear, you know what, in 10 years from now, your job is not going to exist,” he says. “But the thing is, we’re not defined by coal. Coal is part of our story, but it’s not the story.”

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